Win not pretty, even gift wrapped
OAKLAND, Calif. - The good news is the Patriots have a 3-1 record a quarter of the way through the season. The bad news is that there is no reasonable or discernable evidence that they are a better team than last year or have fixed any of the fatal flaws that led to their playoff ouster by a certain vociferous coach and his cocksure team.
Oh by the way, those trash-talking, pig-piling Jets are making a return engagement to Foxborough next week. Unlike the Jets, the Patriots left the Black Hole with a victory, defeating the Oakland Raiders, 31-19, at O.co Coliseum, yesterday. The only thing more ridiculous than the name of the Raiders’ edifice was how they were more than happy to help the Patriots load this win into their luggage for the trip home. The Raiders showed a lack of comportment and inability to keep their emotions in check that would even make John Lackey blush - nine penalties for 85 yards.
“You can’t beat a good football team when you’re beating yourself as well,’’ said Raiders defensive end and ex-Patriot Richard Seymour, who was whistled for three penalties, one of which was declined.
At some point the Patriots are going to have to stop relying in part on the charity and ineptitude of their opposition. That task isn’t going to get any easier losing linebacker Jerod Mayo to a knee injury. Can you say indispensable? The Patriots are going to have to prove they can win when the other team puts its best foot forward instead of shooting itself in it.
The one team that executed against them when it mattered most, the Bills, was the one team that defeated them. Those mighty Bills, against whom the Patriots squandered a 21-point lead last week, lost to the Bengals yesterday.
Living up to their billing as the most penalized team in the league, the Raiders displayed a Commitment to Deviance, flagged for seven fouls for 70 yards in the first half alone. That doesn’t include a pair of penalties that were declined.
Oakland, which had more yards of offense than the Patriots (504 to 409), also threw a pair of crucial interceptions in New England territory, the last of which was a brilliant play by Vince Wilfork, who has channeled his inner Mike Haynes.
That overrode the first human performance from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes in the first half, and ended up 16 of 30 for 226 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. Nine of Brady’s completions went to Wes Welker, who had 158 yards and a score. Welker has guaranteed himself a trip to Revis Island next week.
The Patriots actually did their most effective damage on the ground, taking the words of Raiders running back Rolando McLain, who called the Patriots “a finesse team’’ and shoving them back down McLain’s throat along with the football.
Rookie Stevan Ridley led the way with 10 carries for 97 yards and a 33-yard touchdown, as the Patriots outran the league’s best ground game with 183 yards on 30 carries.
Although the Patriots defense mostly bottled up fabulous Raiders running back Darren McFadden, who got 41 of his 75 yards on one rush, there was the issue of allowing yet another 300-yard passer. Unremarkable Jason Campbell became the fourth quarterback in four weeks to top 300 yards (25 of 39 for 344) against the Patriots pass defense, which was missing corners Leigh Bodden and Ras-I Dowling.
“There are a lot of yards out there that I wish we didn’t let up,’’ said linebacker Rob Ninkovich. “I think that our defense is kind of similar to last year. It’s a work in progress, trying to get better every week, get off the field on third down, stop them in the red zone. That’s our main emphasis.’’
Hopefully, this defense is not similar to last year’s because that defense couldn’t stand up and be counted when it really counted.
There were more disturbing signs on defense again. They allowed Oakland to go 8 of 13 on third down and penetrate Patriots territory on seven of their 10 drives, including the first six, not counting a kickoff return after Stephen Gostkowski hit a field goal just before halftime. The Patriots surrendered the lead to the Raiders in the second quarter on an 88-yard drive.
After the Patriots went ahead, 14-10, the Raiders drove to the New England 6, but on second and goal Campbell was intercepted in the end zone by Patrick Chung on an egregious throw. Where’s Kenny Stabler when you need him?
“I made a bone-headed decision, throwing an interception that kind of changed the game,’’ said Campbell. The Patriots turned that into a 17-10 halftime lead.
It wouldn’t be a Patriots-Raiders clash if there wasn’t a curious and controversial call. It wasn’t quite on the level of the phantom roughing the passer call against Ray Hamilton in the 1976 playoffs or the Tuck Rule, but it was conspicuous and crucial.
Referee Tony Corrente, meet Ben Dreith and Walt Coleman. With the Patriots leading, 24-10, in the third, cornerback Kyle Arrington was whistled for pass interference on Raiders receiver Jacoby Ford. The chains were moved and the ball was spotted at the 2. Then suddenly Corrente said there was no penalty and that the players’ feet had merely become tangled, as if the 62,572 in attendance had seen an optical illusion.
The Raiders had to settle for a field goal and on the ensuing possession Brady connected with Deion Branch on a 4-yard touchdown toss to extend the New England lead to 31-13 with 13:38 left in the game. Brady’s two TD passes gave him 274, eclipsing the total of his boyhood idol and Bay Area icon, Joe Montana (273).
That was game, set, match, Patriots. Too many unforced errors for the Al Davis AC.
Still, coach Bill Belichick knows where his team stands at the quarter mark.
“We got a long way to go, hopefully we can improve,’’ said Belichick.
They’re going to have to.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.