Possibly keeping the holidays in mind, Arizona gave New England a 47-7 runaway victory. The Patriots’ gift to the Cardinals? A chance to rest their starters in the fourth quarter.
Arizona had a few conditions working against them, especially a wintry day more fit for reindeer than runners. Considering the Cards had already clinched their playoff spot atop the NFC West, they couldn’t have been too psyched. Add their 10-a.m.-Mountain-Time start, and you’ve got a nice little recipe for a Patriots victory. Served cold, of course.
The Patriots had to win to keep pace in the tight AFC East. Three teams began the day at 9-5. After Miami prevailed at Kansas City, the Jets stumbled through the Seattle snow, putting the Dolphins atop the division at 10-5 (ahead of New England with the tie-breaker). Now Pats fans find themselves in the awkward position of rooting for Brett Favre next week when Miami travels north. Strange league, this NFL.
Fans can debate the exact point when New England took control of this one, but the team’s field-goal drive late in the first half summarized the entire game. With 1:24 until halftime and everyone’s football cleats sliding like hockey pucks, the Patriots could have been content to run out the clock and keep their 28-0 lead intact.
They could have. But they didn’t.
Quarterback Matt Cassel (lest we forget, a former Matt Leinart backup) hit Jabar Gaffney twice on deep outs of 14 and 16 yards. He then found Wes Welker along the right sideline, where the mercurial mite sped ahead for 20. Two plays later, Stephen Gostkowski came on to kick the first of his four field goals, the ball shaving the right upright to give the home team a 31-0 lead with two seconds remaining.
Cassel, who hit 20 of 36 passes for 345 yards and three touchdowns, has kept his team in contention. Sure, you can argue the recent competition has been bush league (and low-lying bushes at that), but if you consider where he was three months ago, his work this season has been remarkable. My wish for Cassel this coming year: make a ton of money going to a team where you’ll start.
Just remember to have lackluster games vs. your old teammates.
Aided by a snowplow running game and a QB who seemed undisturbed by conditions, the Patriots scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions. After Arizona’s opening three-and-out (all rushes, the third snuffed out by Mike Vrabel for a three-yard loss), New England took advantage of great field position. Welker (seven catches, 68 yards, one TD) had a 23-yard punt return to the Cardinal 33. Behind lineman Russ Hochstein at fullback, Sammy Morris (15 runs for 88 yards) ran four times for 26 yards. LaMont Jordan carried it twice for the final two yards and a 7-0 lead six minutes into the game. Jordan finished with two touchdowns on the day, with 20 rushes for 78 yards.
New England’s defense (and, okay, the elements) shut down Tim Hightower (10 rushes, 17 yards) and held Kurt Warner to 30 yards passing (six for 18). Arizona appeared to get a first down on their second possession, but an iffy illegal-hands-to-the-face call forced a third and long. Warner’s attempt fell incomplete, forcing the punt with seven minutes left in the first quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Morris gathered in a screen pass on the left side, eluded two tacklers, found his way to the right and followed Randy Moss along the sideline for 42 yards. From Arizona’s 14, Jordan carried three times and touched the end zone again, giving the home team a 14-0 lead at 3:46 of the first.After the Cardinals sandwiched the Patriots’ three-and-out with two of their own, Cassel needed only two passes to garner his first TD of the day. Out of the shotgun, he connected with Gaffney along the right seam, giving the receiver room to slash upfield for a total of 37 yards. Two plays later, Kevin Faulk scored on a 15-yard screen pass that seemed to develop at stalactitic speed. Escorted by Logan Mankins and Dan Koppen, Faulk high-stepped through a defender and scooted past a block by Gaffney for a 21-0 advantage with 12:04 left in the half.
Much like Juliet waking up to Romeo, Arizona’s signs of life came too late. The Cards got three first downs but failed to convert a fourth-down pass at New England’s 31. Plays of note on the following New England drive (really, it was turning into a highlight reel at this point) included a bruising Hochstein block that cleared Jordan for 11 yards up the middle; a clutch, leaping grab on third and 10 by Gaffney; and a 16-yard Cassel sprint on fourth and 10 to Arizona’s 14. On third and seven, Welker dragged across the field from left to right, snatched the ball at the six and accelerated into the end zone for a 28-0 lead with under two minutes left. No one even cared that Welker got a penalty for making a celebratory snow angel.
At least, no fans cared. The coach might be a different story.
The Cards gave the ball back in under 30 seconds, passing (and dropping) the ball three times in a row. Mike Wright rushed Warner on third down, forcing him to throw a screen to Edgerrin James before James was ready (it was probably just a drop, but we can be generous. It’s the holiday season). New England then took over for their field goal drive to finish up the half.
Patriots fans didn’t have to wait long for the biggest second-half highlight: on the first play from scrimmage, Moss took advantage of a freshly-plowed field (and a Mankins block) to find a clear path along the left sideline, flying past any and all Cardinals for a 76-yard TD. With their team leading 38-0, Gillette fans began polishing their snowman-building and/or scoreboard-watching skills.
Gostkowski’s third field goal late in the third quarter was his 33rd of the year, setting a record for a Patriots season. (The previous record holder? Tony Franklin, the barefoot kicker who always looked like he’d just rolled off his La-Z-Boy five minutes before the game. Not the first record-holding kicker to come to mind, but there you go.)
On defense, Junior Seau and Jerod Mayo led the Pats with seven tackles each (setting what must be a record for co-leading-tackler age difference). Mayo and Meriweather each forced a fumble, Meriweather’s coming on a carbon-copy blitz of the game-deciding play against Seattle two weeks ago. (Also blitzing on that play: rookie utilityman Matthew Slater playing safety. Thought you might want to know that.) During a day when the visitors searched for any sign of intensity, New England had all of it from the start.
That bodes well for the playoffs. Put them on your wish list, and have a Happy Holiday.
Chris Warner’s ‘Game Day Rear View’ appears after every game on Patriots Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.