Beauty was in the eye of the win holder
FOXBOROUGH -- If a baseball game were this, um, visually unstimulating, there always would be another game to look forward to the very next day. Shouldn't a football team have a little responsibility to entertain its paying customers a little bit more than this?
"Some games are pretty," grunted Patriots lineman Damien Woody. "Some games are ugly, slug-it-out type games. Good teams know how to win, regardless."
The final score was Patriots 9, Browns 3, so you know we're talkin' slug-it-out, and we're definitely talkin' ugly.
But the only thing worse than winning, 9-3, would be losing, 9-3. In a game like this, the only thing that matters is making sure your score is in the left column when someone picks up the morning paper.
And then, of course, we had to listen to the I-told-ya-sos from the coach, who had built the 3-4 Browns into a combination of the '72 Dolphins and '85 Bears earlier in the week.
"That really was about the way we expected the game to go," said Bill Belichick. "Cleveland's been in a lot of close games."
For sure, this was the kind of game only a defensive coordinator could love. The Patriots did get inside the red zone four times, but were able to come away with just the three Adam Vinatieri field goals, the last of which, a 38-yarder with 2:05 remaining, were the vital insurance points that prevented a -- God forbid -- overtime. The Browns, whose only score came via a second-quarter 29-yarder by Phil Dawson, never really came close to scoring a touchdown.
Hidden inside this boring game were a few little moments of interest. There were a career-high seven receptions for a career-high 110 yards by second-year tight end Daniel Graham, a performance that included one memorable won't-go-down post-catch run out of the John Mackey and Early Raymond Chester playbooks (I must admit, by the second spin I was thinking fumble). There were three sacks and an assortment of destructive plays submitted by returning linebacker Mike Vrabel. There was even an appropriate application of the reviled Tuck Rule, this time in favor of the opposition.
That rare intrusion of excitement on this otherwise dreary afternoon of professional football took place in the first quarter when Cleveland starting (but not finishing) quarterback Tim Couch was hit while attempting to pass, the ball being recovered by Richard Seymour. Browns coach Butch Davis challenged the call, and, sure enough, referee Bernie Kukar flicked on his mike to declare that, upon further review, rather than a recovered fumble, it was an incomplete pass because, and this is a direct quote, "It was a `tuck,' by rule."
This elicited a few guffaws in the press box, and it also brought a flicker of a smile to Tom Brady, a very interested observer standing on the Patriots sideline.
"The ref came over and said, `That's the Tuck Rule,' " Brady said with a laugh. "I said, `We're familiar with that rule.' I always side with the quarterback on that one."
I'm not sure how much he'd have relished telling that little tale had he been placed in the position of explaining away a loss, as his Cleveland counterparts, Couch and Kelly Holcomb, were forced to do. Couch had to exit with a thumb injury after completing 7 of 11 passes for 40 yards and not really moving the team anywhere in particular. Holcomb finished 15 of 25 for 115 yards and one interception, a pick by Ty Law with 51 seconds to go that was the last meaningful play in the game. You kinda had the feeling that if the game had gone on for three more hours the Browns weren't getting anywhere near that end zone.
This would suggest the Patriots had played a really good defensive game, and Belichick wasn't going to discourage anyone from engaging in that thought process. "Overall, it was a real good game defensively," he said. "To hold someone to 3 points in this league takes more than one guy."
He was answering a query from someone wanting to hear about Vrabel, hence the "more than one guy" reference, which would otherwise seem to be obvious. The Patriots certainly had the full defensive package in this one. There was a constant pass rush and there was very little problem containing the Cleveland running game, which was hurt by the absence of former Boston College star William Green, who had to sit out with a shoulder injury.
When you get right down to it, the Browns only made one really big play, a successful conversion of a third-and-15 at their 29 with a little more than a minute left. The play was a 16-yard completion from Holcomb to Dennis Northcutt, and it kept Cleveland's faint victory hopes alive.
"We had called timeout just before that play," said Belichick. "We knew they had to be throwing it to the sticks, 15 to 17 yards out, but give them credit. Holcomb made a good throw and Northcutt made a nice catch."
That's as far as Cleveland would get. Holcomb threw one to Kevin Johnson at the New England 25, and Law outfought him for the interception after both men had their hands on the ball. "I was holding on for dear life," Law said. "The official came in and called the interception."
The Browns were out of timeouts, so it was kneel-down time for Brady. Ugly or not, this baby was in the books. The way the players saw it, this was supposed to be pro football, not "Entertainment Tonight."
"Anybody looking back on the season," reminded Woody, "isn't going to say, `Aw, they only beat Cleveland, 9-3.' They're going to say, `Hey, it was a win.' "
The man had just finished throwing his 320 pounds around against several Very Large People on the other team for the better part of three hours. I am very happy to give him the last word.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
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