Brett Favre could not be stopped. In the beginning and end, and at various points in between, that was the problem. The New England Patriots had fought back from 18 points down in the first half to even the score at 31-all with a brilliant drive and a scoring strike from Matt Cassel to Randy Moss with one second left in the fourth quarter. But the Jets' quarterback devoured the Patriots' decimated defense like a piggish Thanksgiving guest, driving for a field goal in overtime that planted New York alone atop the AFC East for the first time in seven years and left a formerly raucous Gillette Stadium as silent as a tomb.
The tailgate party crowd that turned out for the Thursday night game in mid-November retreated, leaving empty cans and cold ashes, and a persistent drizzle ensured that even the faintest flicker of enthusiasm had been doused.
Members of the media flapped like vultures to slim pickings in the locker room afterward. Understandably, not everyone who showed for the postmortem wanted to chew the fat about one of the more indigestible losses in team history. “Not now, brother,” veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel said. The visage of Tedy Bruschi, the venerable face of the Patriots’ defense, was frozen in a frown.
“I don’t think we will find any positives out of this one,” he said.
Of those who, along with Bruschi, faced the phalanx of reporters, defensive end Richard Seymour offered no excuses. ‘‘We just didn’t stop them when we really needed to,’’ he said. ‘‘The offense did everything they could to try to keep us in the game, but defensively we just didn’t give our team a lot of opportunities to win.”
The Pats hope that their offense, bolstered largely by the emergence of Cassel, who passed for 400 yards and three touchdowns against the Jets, has solved problems posed by injuries. Now, in order for the struggling team to make a successful run down the regular-season stretch, a similarly crippled defense must somehow do the same.
“We’ll be all right,” said free safety James Sanders, whose team dropped to 6-4 and into a tie for second place in the division with the Dolphins, the Patriots’ next opponent. “We have a lot of good young players on this team who played well. We’ll go back to the drawing board and make corrections and keep fighting.”
Hold that line
Defense has always been particularly serious business in the Bill Belichick era. The Patriots have allowed the fewest points per game at home in the NFL since Gillette Stadium opened in 2002 and also have the best home record in that time. Their average of 17.17 points per game allowed since the start of the 2003 season, including playoffs, leads the league. And last year they ranked fourth in yards allowed per game (288.3) and were second in the NFL in sacks.
Having absorbed the loss of safety Rodney Harrison, the defense added versatile linebacker Adalius Thomas and defensive end Ty Warren to the list of casualties, and without them the Pats gave up 258 yards and two touchdown passes to Favre. Going into the game at Miami, they are averaging 21.9 points for, tied for 19th in the NFL, and 19.4 against, good for ninth.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees feels the pain of the injuries. “Well it certainly hurts,” he said. “It doesn’t help, but what are you going to say? There’s nothing we can do about it. Like we’ve always talked about, if somebody else goes down, it’s an opportunity for somebody else. We’ve had injuries in the past. Nobody wants to lose these guys, but unfortunately it’s a fact of football.”
Speaking of opportunities, not all the developments have been grim. The day after the Jets game, defensive end Jarvis Green, after declaring that there was absolutely nothing favorable to be found in the loss to the division rival, lightened up when someone asked about linebacker Jerod Mayo and the rookie’s electrifying effect on the defense. “Twenty tackles, man,” Green said, referring to his young teammate’s total in the New York game, which gave Mayo a team-leading 85 on the season and established him as the sixth-leading tackler in the league. “The guy’s a rookie, right? He’s a great player. That energy is contagious.”
Even Belichick brightened at the mention of Mayo. “Jerod’s been pretty active in all the games,” the coach said. “He’s instinctive, knows where the ball is, and he’s fast and a good tackler. He doesn’t miss very many.”
Mayo, whose stops included 16 solo tackles, stuffed airborne Jets running back Thomas Jones at the 1-yard line in the fourth quarter, just before New York went ahead 31-24.
“I think he’s coming along,” Pees said. “He’s still got a way to go and he knows that, but he’s progressed pretty much every game. The guy works real hard in the classroom as well as on the field, and that’s really what you ask of those guys.”
Belichick has seen some encouraging signs from the players who have had to step in. Referring to linebacker Pierre Woods, who recorded 10 tackles against the Jets, the coach said, “There were some positive things, there were some good things, and there is always a play or two that every player would like to have back, and I am sure Pierre feels that way too. But, just like the whole game, the positive things were outweighed by the final score and a couple critical plays in the game. There is certainly room for improvement all the way around — that goes for all of us.”
The Patriots’ defense has enjoyed a measure of success, having befuddled Trent Edwards in an unspectacular 20-10 win Nov. 9 that left the Buffalo quarterback rubbing his eyes. “For me, on a few plays here and there, it is confusing to know what their coverages are, what their fronts are,” Edwards said afterward. “They do a great job of disguising that.”
Now the Patriots must duplicate that success against the Dolphins, who handed them their most lopsided loss of the season, a 38-13 thrashing in the third week of the season, before the injuries to the defense piled up. A loss to Miami in the tight AFC East race would constitute a serious setback.
The Pats must tame the wildcat formation that threw them off last time, as running back Ronnie Brown took some snaps and the Dolphins ended the Patriots’ string of regular-season wins at 21, a league record. “When you look back at the film, I think they did a good job of coming in with a scheme that nobody had really seen or prepared for, and caught us a little bit,” Pees said.
The combination of a Jets loss to undefeated Tennessee and a Pats win over surging Miami would keep New England fans warm for another week at least.
It could also silence some trash talk. The day after the Dolphins survived in unimpressive fashion against the Raiders, linebacker and league sack leader Joey Porter was quoted in an Associated Press story as saying, “We don’t like them. They don’t like us.”
He was talking about the Patriots, of course. Now, if fighting words like those don’t inspire a drive to victory, what will?
Bill Porter is an OT contributing writer.