OAKLAND, Calif. - It's debatable whether the team the Patriots played yesterday qualifies as an NFL-caliber opponent, but regardless of the sad and embarrassing state of the Oakland Raiders, a win over them counts the same as one against any other NFL team.
That's good for the Patriots, who routed the franchise formerly known as the Raiders, 49-26, yesterday at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum.
The victory allowed the Patriots to sweep their West Coast road trip and remain in the playoff race. With two games to go, the Patriots (9-5) are still locked in a three-way tie atop the AFC East with the Jets and Dolphins, who play each other in the season's final week.
But New England, which has games left at home against Arizona and at Buffalo, will need some help to make a sixth straight postseason appearance. The Jets and Dolphins would win tiebreakers over the Patriots in the AFC East, and both Baltimore (9-5) and Indianapolis (10-4) hold tiebreaker advantages - conference record in the Ravens case and head-to-head for the Colts - in the wild-card chase.
"It's turned from a three-game season to a two-game season now," said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. "We got to understand that. We got to hold up our end. None of this matters if we don't win. Everybody held serve today, and we're taking it on to the next week."
Earlier yesterday, it looked like the Patriots might get some help from the Bills, but a late fumble by J.P. Losman allowed the Jets to escape with a 31-27 victory.
New England needed no such luck. The Patriots led, 21-0, with 3:43 left in the first quarter and 35-14 at the half. They scored on their first four drives and first five touches, as Hobbs returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown right after Oakland's Justin Miller had a 91-yard kickoff return for a score.
Playing just five days after he learned of the death of his father, Greg, Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel was 18 of 30 for 218 yards and a career-high four touchdowns with one interception that bounced off the hands of open tight end Benjamin Watson.
After the final snap, coach Bill Belichick sought out and hugged Cassel, who after he threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Faulk on the Patriots' opening possession pointed to the sky to salute his father. The grieving quarterback walked off the field with the game ball.
Cassel left the team after the game and will attend his father's funeral tomorrow in Mission Hills, Calif.
"I just can't say enough about Matt Cassel, having been through that myself a couple of years ago," said Belichick. "I know what that's like. I thought he did a great job in his preparation and his focus and he showed a lot of commitment to the team, and he carried us a long way today. It was a tough situation for him, and he really stood up to the challenge and played well in not the greatest conditions out there."
They say revenge is a dish best served cold and former Raiders Randy Moss and LaMont Jordan had theirs on a raw, rainy day. Moss's return to Oakland went about the way you would have thought it would, as he caught five passes for 67 yards and two touchdowns, the latter of which gave the Patriots a 42-14 lead with 11:36 left in the third quarter.
After both TDs, the prodigal pass catcher turned his back to the Black Hole, the section containing Oakland's most fervent and feisty fans, threw the ball in the air, and pointed to his name on the back of his jersey.
Jordan, who had 12 rushes for 97 yards and a 49-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run, was part of a Patriots running attack that had 277 yards rushing on 39 carries, the team's highest rushing total since it ground out 281 yards against the Bengals Dec. 22, 1985. Sammy Morris led the way with 14 rushes for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Jordan acknowledged it was sweet to romp over the Raiders.
"Yup, it was," he said. "To be able to come here and dominate the way we did it was a great feeling for me personally, but to see us as a team go out here and dominate the way we did, especially in the position that we're in, you always like to see that."
The Patriots learned their lesson last week against Seattle, when they let the woeful Seahawks hang around, so they took the Raiders out of the game from the get-go.
The Patriots outgained Oakland, 331-130, in the first 30 minutes. Cassel and Co. weren't forced to punt until midway through the third quarter.
"Oh yeah, you want to get up on them and maybe break their will a little bit," said left guard Logan Mankins. "They have a lot of good players that can make a lot of plays, so you don't want to have them feeling like they're in the game and have a chance to win. You want to put them away early and today we were able to get a big enough lead."
With the game in hand so early, Mankins wanted to know if the Patriots had made up any ground in the playoff race.
"Once we had control of the game I asked someone and they said [the Dolphins and Jets] had won," said Mankins. "I wish they would have lost. We took care of our business and it gives us a chance next week."