Matt Light looks like the Wolf Man, and other observations on the Patriots this week...
The wish-fulfilment dream that is the New England Patriots' 2007 season continued Sunday with a 56-10 rout over favored division whipping boy Buffalo, which ties the New England franchise record for points scored in a single game.
It was also the most lopsided loss in Bills history. Brady connected for five touchdown passes in the game, something he set a record by doing the first time this season, and has since done twice more. (Also, I cannot resist pointing out that that's one fewer touchdown pass than Peyton Manning had interceptions last week.)
The game was actually a contest right up until about the second quarter, when the Patriots offense surveyed a seven-point lead over the Bills with 3:38 left in the first quarter and proceeded to score 21 points in the just over 17 minutes that remained in the half.
What can you even say to that? Earlier in the day I'd been watching the Redskins play the Cowboys in a battle of top NFC contenders, and was amazed to watch both the teams the Patriots had destroyed playing like completely different versions of themselves, at least compared to the ones I watched get clobbered by the Pats. It was a tight, competitive, even thrilling game. I simply could not believe that the teams I was watching play tough, smart football against each other were the same teams that had the smack laid down on them so hard by Belichick and Co. they must still dream about it.
A similar thing goes for Buffalo. We've been whaling on Buffalo since I can remember in the AFC East, but this was something else entirely. And, as Patriots players were quick to point out while doing "Humble Pie" duty pregame, they were coming off four wins in a row and looking very good as a team.
By the time the third quarter was drawing to an arduous close, however, it would be generous to say they weren't playing well. Many members of the Buffalo defense had begun to look, even with more than a quarter left to play, like they had no idea how they ended up on a football field suited up for the Bills, and they were hoping it was all a crazy dream.
Here's where I thought John Madden made the commentary of the season so far (and believe me, this surprises me every bit as much as that statement might have surprised you) as the Patriots went for a short little passing route on the now-controversial 4th and 1 play deep in Buffalo territory. Reviewing the play (and the shoddy work of the Buffalo defensive backs), it was not the Patriots Madden called out for the attempt but the Bills he called out for their failure, which by that point largely looked a failure of effort. "I mean," he stammered in that John Madden way he has, "You need to put some kind of pressure on Brady here--I mean, any at all."
Say what you want about that savage second quarter from the Patriots, but by the third quarter it was clear the Bills had packed it in. Look no further than the half-dozen missed tackles every time the fourth string running back Kyle Eckel took the ball up the middle, to say nothing of the Bills' disastrous showing on offense in the second half. I did reflect that if I was a fan of any other team I'd have been rooting for Buffalo, even if only it's the principle of the thing. In fact, in a way I was rooting for Buffalo--to show some life, to give the Patriots a challenge. But they didn't.
The "running up the score" backlash has begun to die down a bit, but only a bit, so I continue to feel the need to address the issue, especially after a score like that one. What it comes down to is this: Bill Belichick's been pushing his team to play a full 60 minutes of ruthless football every week. It is not his fault that Buffalo's coach either hasn't done so with his players or hasn't done so effectively.
Then there's the sub-debate over Brady's safety that's begun to bubble up in Boston, even among those who are more than happy to witness 56 Patriots points any given Sunday. Bill Belichick has been dealing with this debate all season, and now even Brady, typically as bland and squeaky-clean a public speaker as you'll find, laid in to WEEI's John Dennis this morning when Dennis, who has been beating the "running up the score drum" like it's in his job description this season, made the mistake of laying that question at Brady's feet, too.
We're still trying to make improvements and we're trying to play extremely well. We're not trying to win 42-28. We're trying to kill teams. We're trying to blow 'em out if we can. You want to build momentum for each week. You don't want it to be 42-7 or 35-7 and all of a sudden you look up and it's 35-21. We don't want to be a part of that. You don't want to go into the next week realizing that for the last 18 minutes of the last game your team didn't play well--or didn't play up to its capabilities. You gave other teams momentum for the next time they play you or another team a reason not to be intimidated.
[...] I've played with Randy Moss and Wes Welker and Dante Stallworth for 10 games in my career. Every snap that I get with those guys is valuable. We're still making improvements...we're trying to get better. I don't know why everybody can't figure that out.
That's the thing. Making improvements. Getting better. The constant, relentless pursuit of a higher form of self-definition. Do the Patriots 'need' to improve? If you want to limit them to the utmost the average historical NFL team has been able to achieve, I suppose their quest might seem foolish. But what about the concept of the perfect football game--a score on every offensive possession and a stop on every defensive possession? Is this something Bill Belichick seems like he'd shy away from for propriety's sake? Is this pursuit of higher--even heretofore unimagined--levels of performance not why he does this job? Is it not why his job exists?
It's amazing to me given how much was made, at least at first, of Brady's youth, that it hasn't just struck people that if he could pull off a huge upset in the Super Bowl in his first season as a starter, maybe with some more experience might come even further eye-popping exploits. That seems to be exactly what's happening--we've spent the last six or so years marveling at what might just have been Brady warming up.
Right now, Tom Brady can take a football and do with it over 60 yards what Josh Beckett can do with a baseball over 60 feet, 6 inches. His ability to thread the ball into exactly the right space defies full description, let alone comparison. He deserves credit for it, he deserves the records, and he deserves all the playing time necessary to get them.
The same goes for Belichick. The 2001 Super Bowl season was just his second year as head coach of the franchise. He has also had to learn a few things (coughDeionBranchcough) the hard way, and he deserves the opportunity to apply those things to his team.
It would be foolish to claim that the Patriots aren't a different team now than even last year. But rather than the results of a deal with the Devil, as some seem to want to believe, maybe what we're seeing now is that when you layer experience onto the basic football resources we've harbored in New England since the turn of the millenium, when you combine the raw talent in the locker room with dozens of weeks of that endless search for improvement, the results can be almost unfair.
P.S. Required reading for every Pats fan: this Cold, Hard Football Facts breakdown of Brady vs. Joe Montana.