GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Nose tackle Vince Wilfork wanted to challenge a few of his teammates last week, so he ordered a wrestling belt and brought it to Lambeau Field yesterday.
Wilfork placed the toy belt in his locker, then gathered the team's defensive linemen, asking them the question: Who's going to answer the bell when the brawl begins? He then declared that the lineman who played the best game would claim ownership of the belt.
Defensive end Ty Warren smiled yesterday as he tucked the belt into his bag after the Patriots' dominating 35-0 victory over the Packers. But while Warren was a most deserving recipient, the win was truly a 45-belt effort, with each player on the game-day roster doing his part.
The defense held the Packers to 120 net yards, the lowest output against the Patriots this season. Quarterback Tom Brady matched a career high with four touchdown passes, as the Patriots struck a solid balance between the run (122 yards) and pass (235 yards). And special teams coverage units, which had been a weakness in recent weeks, were sound throughout.
In posting their thorough victory over the overmatched Packers before 70,753 at historic Lambeau Field, the Patriots (7-3) snapped their first two-game losing streak since the end of the 2002 season. The win was their seventh straight on the road, matching a team record, and marked the franchise's first road shutout since Oct. 19, 1986, when the Patriots beat the Steelers, 34-0.
Defensive lineman Richard Seymour felt the Patriots got back to being themselves after two disappointing weeks.
"We came out and had fun. This is a game where you play with passion and you play with emotion, and we were able to do that," said Seymour, adding he felt the team's strong week of practice set a positive tone. "Guys were high-fiving, smiling, you were seeing teeth out there. It began to snowball."
The Packers (4-6) were buried under that avalanche, with quarterback Brett Favre knocked out of the game in the second quarter with a right elbow injury when he was sacked by Tully Banta-Cain and driven into the turf by linebacker Tedy Bruschi. Favre was 5 of 15 for 73 yards before giving way to Aaron Rodgers (4 of 12, 32 yards) for the remainder of the game.
The Packers finished 1 of 13 on third down, a stark reversal for a Patriots defense that had struggled to get off the field the last two weeks. The final time of possession was also telling -- Patriots 39:10, Packers 20:50. The numbers were more impressive considering that the Patriots were playing without three opening-day starters in their secondary, with cornerback Asante Samuel (knee) and safeties Rodney Harrison (shoulder) and Eugene Wilson (hamstring) out.
Offensively, the Patriots' balance helped set up a strong play-action passing game. Laurence Maroney finished with a team-high 82 rushing yards on 19 carries, and added four catches for 34 yards and a receiving score. Tight end Benjamin Watson posted a team-high five catches for 74 yards and a touchdown, while receiver Reche Caldwell caught a 54-yard scoring pass -- the team's longest play of the season. Running back Corey Dillon (31 yards, 12 carries) rushed for a touchdown, while tight end Daniel Graham hauled in the game's first score, a 2-yard pass on fourth down on the team's opening drive.
The Patriots brought the hurt early, with several players noting that special teamer Antwain Spann got things started with a crunching hit on the opening kickoff. It was the type of physical presence some Patriots felt they had been lacking in recent weeks, and after a quick Packers three-and-out, Brady marched the Patriots 63 yards on seven plays for an opening-drive touchdown.
"It's nice to score on the opening drive," said Brady, who had the benefit of strong pass protection throughout. "It really kind of deflates the crowd a bit."
But the crowd was back into it late in the first quarter when the Patriots lost a fumble on a bad exchange between Brady and Dillon. The Packers took over on the New England 30-yard line, gained only 4 yards, then came away with no points when Dave Rayner missed a 44-yard field goal.
"I think it gave us some momentum, gave us an edge, and we fed off that," said Seymour, who watched as the Patriots' offense responded with a 12-play, 66-yard scoring drive that ended with Dillon's scoring run. "When our offense puts points on the scoreboard like that, it's fun to be in a situation like that."
The lead ballooned to 21-0 on Caldwell's long touchdown catch with just more than two minutes before halftime. Watson's diving 8-yard score at the end of the third quarter made it 28-0, and Maroney capped things off by taking a short pass and leaving Packers linebacker Nick Barnett in his wake on a nifty 19-yard catch-and-run touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.
The result well in hand, Brady departed with 6:02 left, giving way to Matt Cassel, and then Vinny Testaverde. By that point, the only question was if the defense would record the shutout. The Packers were blanked at home for the second time this season, the first time that's ever happened to the proud franchise.
The regular-season game was only the second in Patriots history at Lambeau, and New England improved to 21-4 against NFC teams since the 2001 season, a stat worth keeping in mind with the Bears and Lions up next.
"That was a good win for our football team, I thought the players really stepped up and made plays in all three phases of the game," coach Bill Belichick said. "The most important thing for our football team is that we played a good football game for 60 minutes and that's what we obviously need to do more of. It's good to win, and it's on to [play] Chicago."
Mike Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.