A runaway win in a one-horse race
FOXBOROUGH - This was a game that probably said more about the state of the NFL than it did about the New England Patriots or Denver Broncos.
The NFL in 2008 has no great teams and it has no hopeless teams (OK, maybe the Lions). You simply don't know who is going to show up from week to week. This is a good thing for a Patriot team learning to live without Tom Brady. You can hang out in the Big Middle and still hope to make the playoffs, maybe more.
Humbled in two of their previous three games, the Patriots last night annihilated the Denver Broncos, 41-7, on "Monday Night Football." The Broncos entered the game with a 4-2 record and more confidence than Bill O'Reilly, but played one of the worst games in franchise history. The Patriots at times looked like the History Boys of 2007.
It is the way of the world in NFL 2008. The late Pete Rozelle's dreams have come true. Any Given Sunday is an absolute truth. Any Given Monday, too. Remember the Giants and Browns last week?
Seriously. It's great to say nice things about the Patriots when they play well, and they beat Denver every way you can beat a football team. They dominated the line of scrimmage. They enjoyed their best rushing game (257 yards) in 15 years. Matt Cassel threw three touchdown passes, two to Randy Moss. New England's special teams were truly special. The Patriots literally knocked players out of the game. Bill Belichick was the king of schemes.
But the Broncos were so bad it was difficult to get a read on New England's strengths. Denver allowed 404 yards, turned the ball over five times, and committed 8 penalties for 87 yards. Ever-intense coach Mike Shanahan looked like he was ready for an orange jumpsuit and leg irons when he walked into the tunnel at the end.
It made you wonder . . . how could the Broncos be 4-2? For that matter, how could these Patriots have been smoked at home by the Dolphins or looked so pathetic just one week ago in San Diego?
Don't bother to ask. Just don't expect to know what's going to happen Sunday when the Rams come to town.
"That was a really great job by our football team," said Belichick. "I just can't say enough about the way those guys went about it all week. We played a good complementary game, kind of a complete game. It was just good team football. We just prepared well and played well. Our guys just played hard."
Still hungover from the Red Sox' crushing defeat in St. Petersburg late Sunday, groggy New Englanders made the trek down Route 1 early last night, hoping the Patriots might furnish some of the October magic that'll be missing when the World Series starts tomorrow night at Tropicana Field.
They were rewarded.
Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler injured his finger on the first play from scrimmage. Denver's Andre Hall fumbled on each of the Broncos' first two drives, and the Patriots converted the turnovers into a pair of field goals (31 and 40 yards) by Stephen Gostkowski. The Patriots led, 6-0, after one.
Led by Sammy Morris's 138 first-half yards, the Patriots bolted to a 20-0 lead at intermission (Morris injured his knee and did not play the second half). The Broncos committed four turnovers and six penalties in the first two quarters. They must have been wishing they were back home at Invesco Field, site of Champ Bailey's famous interception of Tom Brady in the 2005 season, and Barack Obama's convention acceptance speech this summer.
Cassel (18 for 24, 185 yards) was sacked six times, but he threw a touchdown pass to Moss at the end of the second quarter and another one midway through the third. He connected with Wes Welker for his final TD strike.
"It's a great victory, especially after last week," said Cassel. "We wanted to come home and make some kind of statement and I think we did tonight."
"Our mind-set was to come out and really set the tone," added Moss. "The main focus was to play a complementary game and I think we did that tonight.
"I think with the loss to San Diego we critiqued our own film and looked at the mistakes we made and knew we weren't that far from putting things together. It was a great game. When we put all things together, this team is very scary."
Traditionally, the Broncos are a problem for the Patriots. Shanahan, perhaps even more maniacal than the resident genius of Gillette, is 9-4 lifetime against New England, including 5-3 against the Belichick Patriots. But the Broncos were never in this game.
Not even close.
The Patriots improved to 16-21 on "Monday Night Football." You might recall that New England did not play host to a Monday night show for 14 years after "Altamont Night" at old Foxboro Stadium when 100 fans were arrested during a game against the Broncos (the ugly episode also prompted a switch to low-alcohol beer at the stadium). Monday nights didn't return to Foxborough until 1995.
It was 34-0 when Denver finally broke into the scoring column with 13:21 left. By that time, TV sets were clicked off and Patriots fans already were heading for the exits. There have been a lot of late nights for New England sports fans the last couple of weeks, and it was time to get home for some hard-earned sleep.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.