The New England Patriots let the backup quarterback of the 2-11 Seattle Seahawks run and pass all over them. Seneca Wallace eluded pressure, got big runs (three rushes, 47 yards) and had his best game as a pro (20 of 28, 212 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions). The Patriots only managed one sack of the career backup. But that sack turned out to be bigger than Santa’s.
Out of timeouts at New England’s 44-yard line, trailing by three, Wallace dropped back to pass but instead found himself smothered by blitzing safety Brandon Meriweather, who smacked the football out of his arms. Patriot Richard Seymour recovered, putting the visiting team on the winning end of a 24-21 contest they led for less than three minutes.
In this, only their second fourth-quarter comeback win of the season (the first was against the Rams), New England discovered some resiliency, scoring 11 points while shutting down the home team in the final fifteen minutes. During their winning touchdown drive, the Patriots got three third-down conversions, including a huge 13-yard Matt Cassel pass to Wes Welker on third and 10 during which Cassel got hammered by Seahawk Darryl Tapp. On the next play, Cassel tossed a bubble screen to Welker, who shot through a lane provided by the blocks of Jabar Gaffney and Matt Light, cut to the sideline and sped to the six. After a sack of Cassel, a six-yard draw from a slippery Kevin Faulk, and a Sammy Morris run for no gain, the Pats went for it on fourth down. Morris’ one-yard plunge over the left side of the line gave his team a one-point lead. Welker caught the two-point conversion after a fake-to-the-inside/cut-to-the-outside route that looked impossible to cover (but thanks for trying anyway, Seattle), giving the visitors a 24-21 advantage with under two minutes left.
On that final scoring possession, Cassel passed eight times in a row (it would have been more save for two sacks and a scramble), hitting on five (three to Welker, one each to Gaffney and Faulk). Welker earned hero status on the day, catching 12 passes for 134 yards, including four catches to convert third downs.
Before the visiting team’s heroics (or villainy, depending on your point of view), the Seahawks’ last TD had given them a 21-13 lead late in the third. The drive was fueled by a 63-yard Deion Branch catch-and-run that seemed to happen in slow motion, kind of like watching a wayward shopping cart roll downhill into your parked car. Wallace maneuvered his way to the right and fired a pass to Branch on the sideline. Branch juked Junior Seau (playing due to an injury to Tedy Bruschi), who took a surfing-type wipeout. The receiver then scampered across the field behind a series of Seattle blocks and cut up the left sideline to the nine. Though replays appeared to show him catching the ball out of bounds, the play was upheld. Branch added to his former fans’ misery by making a five-yard touchdown catch where he tipped the ball back to himself.
With all his success, announcers dubbed him “Former Patriot Deion Branch” for the rest of the day. Branch caught four passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns, his first scoring receptions of the season. I wanted to punch myself in the eye. And why on Earth couldn’t Ellis Hobbs get there in time to knock that pass away after Branch took long enough to tap it back to himself? Am I asking too much? Am I?
On the ensuing drive that bridged the third and fourth quarters, Cassel failed to connect with Randy Moss on first and second down but hit Gaffney on third for 28 yards to midfield. On the play, Cassel did a good job stepping up in the face of a blitz, while Gaffney did a good job getting open and reeling in the pass. So, hey, good job all around. Faced with another third down, Cassel managed to connect with Moss on a 33-yarder over Moss’ outside shoulder to Seattle’s 13. Stephen Gostkowski came on to cut the deficit to 21-16 with 12:19 left to play.
No one could have blamed New England fans for expecting the worst, as this game opened like the door to a well-trafficked outhouse. Seattle scored TDs on their first two possessions, running and gunning their way to a 14-3 lead early in the second quarter. On their first drive, the Seahawks held the ball for 13 plays over 6:35. The home team pounded the Pats with their ground game, as Maurice Morris and someone named Leonard Weaver gained 45 yards combined. Wallace found Branch in the near-left corner of the end zone for a 7-0 score in what looked to be the beginning of a long day.
After Gostkowski trimmed the lead with an impressive 50-yard field goal, Seattle scored their second TD. This drive only took three minutes off the clock, as Wallace got the final 46 yards in three plays: a 25-yard pass to rookie tight end John Carlson, an 11-yard scramble, and a 10-yard TD pass to Carlson, who had eight catches for 69 yards. Neither Jerod Mayo nor Meriweather could cover the tight end.
Remember when the Patriots had a tight end who caught passes? Those were the days.
Down 14-3 in the second quarter, New England responded with their first touchdown drive of the day (and we might add, not a bit too soon). After an impressive 55-yard kick return by Ellis Hobbs, the offense only had 43 yards to go. Cassel converted the lone third down with his legs, gaining three on third and two at the 22. LaMont Jordan (he’s back!) followed with an eight-yard slog through Seattle’s defense to the 11. New England benefited from a pass interference penalty where Marcus Trufant grabbed Moss. From the two, Cassel found Benjamin Watson (just to remind us that he’s here), closing the gap to 14-10 at the half.
Watson caught one pass for two yards. Just for perspective, I sat on my couch Sunday and caught only one fewer pass and gained only two fewer yards. The tight end also did little to endear himself by getting an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for using the ball as a celebratory prop. Now, if he’d done something imaginative, I could have lived with it. But stuffing the ball under his shirt? What is he, six?
You know, I’m complaining, and I really shouldn’t be. The Patriots had a come-from-behind win in a nasty environment. They lost Tedy Bruschi and Vince Wilfork to injury, adding to a list that at this point could make up an entire squad (I’m not exaggerating as much as I’d like). Seau’s going to be 40 next month. I’m turning 40 this week, and I wince at the thought of having to tackle anything tougher than a plate of nachos. Still, as nice as it is to have Old Home Week with Seau and Rosevelt Colvin back, it’s daunting to think of this defense going against Kurt Warner’s Cardinals in two games.
Save for two three-and-outs and one well-timed safety blitz, New England’s defense did little to stop the offense of what is now a 2-11 team missing its starting QB. Seattle converted 58 percent of its third downs. They rushed for 134 yards. A guy named Seneca completed over 70 percent of his passes.
Maybe I asked for this. Last week, I requested more one-on-one coverage and more rookies in the mix. Well, rookie linebackers Mayo and Gary Guyton started the game, as did rookie cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, with mixed results (Mayo had a dependable seven tackles, Wilhite had three, while Guyton had two and was pushed around by various blockers). While I’d like to see more of Wilhite over Deltha O’Neal at this point, seeing him in single coverage fails to give me a warm feeling (unless heartburn counts).
But what the heck: a win is a win, and this win put New England in a virtual tie for first place in the AFC East with the Jets (losers to San Francisco) and Dolphins. The Patriots, last year’s team to beat, have become a beat-up collection of underdogs, rookies and retirees. They are, to use a made-up word, rootable. A backup QB? Rookie starters? Undrafted and late-round players holding down the fort? And they’re still in playoff contention? Sign me up.
So here’s my advice to you, Patriots fans, and I’ll try to follow it myself: have some fun. Sure, this team will drive you nuts. Rookies miss tackles and blow assignments; receivers continue to drop passes. The line can’t seem to give their QB time, while the defense doesn’t rush or cover all that well. Cassel seems less like “Tom Brady II” and a little closer to “Sage Rosenfels, The Sequel.” Sometimes you just have to shake your head.
Next week, if Oakland’s JaMarcus Russell passes for 300 yards as the Raider defense holds New England to 14 points, fans can all hold their noses together at the fresh stench of another Pats mess. But if New England wins it – no matter how they win it – then they’ve got to smile.
No, it’s not easy being a Patriots fan this season, but look at it this way: at least you don’t have to root for Seattle.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.