Hard to believe it's only week three after what the first-string Patriots showed us tonight**. In fact, we've been graced so far this year already with two games' worth of airtight, high-strung football.
The first quarter set the tone for the Pats in tonight's contest with onetime Super Bowl foe the Carolina Panthers. What got things going for the Pats was the drive early in the first quarter that took off with the conversion of a 4th and 1. After that, Tom Brady the surgeon went to work, dissecting the Panthers' defense on a textbook drive that was capped with a near-catch by Benjamin Watson at the back of the end zone. Watson bobbled the ball, and the Pats had to settle for three points, but the series had begun with New England backed up into its own end zone. The points were just gravy, especially considering the way the offense looked just last week (Jamie covered this very eloquently in his game preview post).
And Tom Brady--fresh from receiving frankincense and myrrh at the side of his newborn heir and looking bleary-eyed behind his facemask after a redeye trip back from Southern California--looked like a kid let loose on a playground. God knows what's been going on for him off the field of late, and he attacked this game, preseason or no, with palpable relish. In just over thirty minutes of football tonight, he improved his TD to INT ratio from 1:2 to 4:2. He would lead two more epic Patriots drives just like the first one, each of them as sparkling as the first.
Of course, as Brady himself would probably point out, it wasn't just him looking like a million bucks at the line of scrimmage. Tonight the offensive line also appeared to finally get itself back on track, plowing holes for the runningbacks big enough to drive a truck through and protecting both Brady and Matt Cassell in fine fashion (though Cassell did take one big shot in the third quarter).
Carolina seemed to take that opening drive personally, and pushed into Patriots territory on their next possession after the Pats' first scoring series, but John Kasay got stuffed by Vince Wilfork and Jarvis Green attempting a 49 yard field goal. Wilfork would stuff Kasay again in the second half; Dan Dierdorf commented that Wilfork and his linemates had "just been blowing the Carolina offense off the ball". It did look that way, especially on the second field goal stuff--the Carolina offensive line were scattered like a pile of dry leaves under the surge from the Pats.
This is not to say special teams were in midseason form yet--Gostkowski missed a field-goal bid in the second quarter, shortly before the Panthers made the score 10-7 to close out the first half and another one in the fourth quarter. Flags were falling like a ticker-tape parade during punts, too, for both teams.
In general, the Carolina offense, down two starting linemen already this season, looked dismal. However, there were a few exceptions to this, particularly in the third quarter when Jake Delhomme managed to get into a little bit of a groove with the deep ball. On Carolina's lone touchdown, at least three Patriots defenders in succession fell on their faces, and Adalius Thomas also fell flat on his face chasing a runningback. I also thought Randall Gay looked like he was struggling, and our secondary clearly has work to do overall.
One exception to this is Rodney Harrison, who has been playing like his pants are on fire for most of the preseason; he nearly took Steve Smith's head off with a huge hit in the first quarter. Another, honorable mention "Jacked Up" moment for the defense goes to Willie Andrews, #23 in your program, who knocked the everloving mother out of Delhomme in the third quarter, causing him to miss a wide-open Steve Smith in the end zone. Up front the Pats were generally strong, too, stuffing the run effectively against Delhomme & Co.
But back to our offense. Because thinking about our offense, after seeing this game, makes me grin like an idiot. I mean...I knew it was good...I just don't think I fully wrapped my mind around how good. Heath Evans and Sammy Miller went nuts on the ground tonight, and even Marcellus Rivers got in on the action with a walked-in TD in the second quarter. Watching Brady thread the needle over and over to Wes Welker was enough to make me giddy (even if Wes Welker looks disturbingly like Elijah Wood if you made him do a Barry-Bonds-sized helping of steroids). Factor in the "whistler" long balls to Stallworth down the sideline, as well as a masterful catch on a Brady dying quail in the third quarter by Stallworth, and we're now approaching slap-happy territory. Seeing Laurence Maroney*** cut through the vaunted Carolina defensive line like a hot knife through butter? Fuggedaboutit.
Add to that the fact that all of this was our offense...without Randy Moss--and I think I'm going to need someone to pinch me pretty soon.
* The name given for the sound of a blocked field goal, at least according to your CBS sportscasting crew tonight. Also an apt description of what the Patriots gave the Panthers tonight.
** Though it already feels like I've seen that godawful "Viva Viagra" commercial about 81 times. That commercial has got to go.
***Also, tonight we got to see what Maroney looks like both with and without eyebrows.