Dan Shaughnessy

This year, race is amazing

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / December 8, 2008
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SEATTLE - Everything was easy last year. Blowout after blowout. The unstoppable march toward history and perfection. It was obvious the Patriots were great. The only real questions involved whether they were good sports. On the way to the Super Bowl they lost their way and became a little harder to admire and emulate.

Not anymore. The 2008 Patriots have struggled for everything they've gotten, and in many ways it's been more fun to watch than last season. You never know what's going to happen. Certainly yesterday's claw-from-behind, 24-21 victory at Qwest Field ranks with any of the pulsating one-for-all-and-all-for-one wins that were the franchise trademark in the glorious beginning of this century.

"It wasn't pretty," said defensive lineman Richard Seymour, who has seen it all. "Guys were going down left and right and we still fought."

That's it. Guys were going down left and right. And they still fought.

Wes Welker fought. Welker was blasted into next summer by the Ryan Clark Express when the Patriots were routed by Pittsburgh last week. But he was back on the field yesterday, making 12 catches for 134 yards, plus a 2-point conversation grab. Small in stature, regularly blasted over the middle, Welker is a candidate for a concussion study when his playing days are over, but that hasn't stopped him from being Matt Cassel's go-to guy on just about every third-down play this season.

Junior Seau fought. He'll be 40 in January. He's played 19 years in the NFL ("almost as long as I've been born," said Seymour). He was surfing in the Pacific Ocean at this time last week and Deion Branch made him look 139 years old when Seau first returned to the field (a photo of Seau chasing Branch could be entitled "The Old Man and the Seahawks"). But Seau sucked it up and stayed on the field.

Rosevelt Colvin fought. He was braiding his daughter's hair in Houston last week, keeping an eye on his UPS stores. He wound up prowling around Qwest Field for 28 snaps, 21 in the second half. Colvin even hit the quarterback once. Now we know what brown can do for you.

Sammy Morris fought. After the Patriots trailed for 57 minutes, Morris lined up on fourth and goal from the 1, took the handoff, followed Matt Light and Logan Mankins, and vaulted across the goal line with the football and New England's season in his sturdy hands.

Brandon Meriweather fought. Burned a couple of times earlier in the game, the mercurial Meriweather flashed through the Seattle defensive line and strip-sacked Seneca Wallace to put an exclamation point on the victory.

"It was a great example of 60 minutes," stated Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who almost looked ready to smile. "I thought our team really did a good job of hanging in there today. We didn't get off to a good start, but they hung in there, they kept fighting.

"It's a real credit to the players. We had a few guys who were banged up, but people stepped in and stepped up and now it's a three-game season. We showed a lot of toughness. A lot of guys probably ended up playing more than they thought they would."

He's right. This was one of those come-into-town-and-cut-your-heart-out wins that the Patriots patented in their early Super Bowl runs. Those were the days when the Patriots were the model for every high school football coach in the universe. They had selfless players who subjugated their egos for the good of the team. They had wideouts who played cornerback and linebackers who played tight end. The whole was bigger than the sum of the parts and they won games by being smarter and better prepared than opponents.

Remember the night Belichick had his center intentionally snap the ball through the end zone (it actually hit the uprights) in Denver? It worked. The Patriots won.

They were lucky, too. There was the time David Patten triggered a victory in Buffalo simply because his body remained in contact with the football on a play in which he was knocked unconscious. Oh, and then there was the Tuck Game. Lucky there, too. Because it was a fumble, you know.

But most of the time they made their own luck, and that's what they did yesterday. That's why they were able to steal a win and keep their playoff hopes alive - on a day in which they were outplayed for a good part of four quarters by a 2-11 team playing without its starting quarterback.

Beating a 2-11 team is not normally extraordinary, but this was an exception. Rosevelt Colvin and Junior Seau?

Yesterday was the 13th game of the season. Colvin did not join the Patriots until last Wednesday, Seau not until Friday. And yet they played. And contributed. Welker took a hit that would have killed many mortals last week. And yet he played. And contributed. The Patriot Way.

And you could tell that the dour coach was proud of his guys.

"I think we have a lot of really tough people in that locker room, both physically and mentally," said Coach Hoodie. "This time of year everybody is banged up and they played through it. Mentally, we've had our ups and downs . . . "

OK, so he's not Al Pacino in "Any Given Sunday." But you could tell Belichick was proud. Nothing is easy this year. It all started in the opener when You Know Who was taken out for the season. Here we are three months later and the Patriots are in a three-way tie for first place.

Steve Nelson and Andre Tippett are rumored to be en route to Northern California to see if they can help out next weekend against the Raiders. Like everything else that's happened to the Patriots this year, it should be interesting.

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