Photo by Beth
Last night, as the clock ticked down to zero, history was made. The Patriots, having broken the all-time single-season team touchdown record, sent Tom Brady and Randy Moss along a little further on the path to breaking the single season touchdown passing and reception individual records, and became the first franchise ever to win 15 consecutive regular season games.
It was a thrill to be a part of it. It was a thrill to say I was there. The rain had largely held off and it was a balmy evening (especially by Gillette Stadium standards in December), and considering what the win meant historically, I was surprised at how few people were left in the stands at the end of the game.
It's true the Patriots had put the Dolphins away handily by halftime, but for one thing, in the second half the play of the Patriots dropped precipitously, and by the same token, the Dolphins appeared to have remembered suddenly how to play football again. Though there was still a 21-point gap between the two teams, at some points, especially in the third quarter, the outcome was more in doubt than the final score would lead you to imagine.
More importantly, this was the first time in NFL history this has ever happened. The last team to hold this record has held it for 25 years. Yet being there as that particular distinction was clinched apparently wasn't that important to most of the fans who'd been there at the beginning? I have to say I don't understand that. I also have to say that had it been Fenway Park, not a soul would've left their seat until the end, just so they could all pat themselves on the back and cheer for having been there. But not here. I wish I knew why.
I also wish I knew why the Patriots seemed to be a completely different team in the second half. In the first half, also riding high from having seen members of the Red Sox on the field during pregame introductions, I had decided by halftime that it was probably going to be my favorite Patriots game that I've seen in person. So far, this had been the pattern: we would all stand up and holler our fool heads off for the defense just to get off the field as quickly as possible so the offense could come back again.
And when the offense did come back...it was like a curtain call. A victory lap. An exhibition rather than a competition.
They were trying plays they had no business making. Twice in a row, Jabar Gaffney made catches that by rights should've been intercepted by the cornerback, and the second of these turned in to a touchdown. In a third-and-three situation near the Patriots' 40, Brady handed off the ball to Laurence Maroney, who cut around the left side instead of driving straight through the pile, and, sprung by a tremendous block from Heath Evans, he ran right past the box where all of Miami's defenders were stacked up, 59 yards all the way to the end zone. It was his longest run of the season.
It seemed like everything the Patriots' offense touched turned to gold. Moss and Brady had two touchdown pass / reception combos between them, and we were counting down on our fingers how many both of them needed to break the records by the second quarter. The second Brady / Moss TD came on a goal-line play-action fake so beautiful that it had my Dad ranting and raving with excitement about it for the rest of the night.
On the defensive side of the first half, we saw a jarring hit by Rodney Harrison on Dolphins' tight end David Martin, who otherwise would have caught a pass for a big gain. Rodney belted him right in the chest with a forearm, sending him reeling and knocking the ball loose instead. The stadium was possessed after it happened--the savagery of that mighty blow from Rodney lit up the crowd almost visibly.
Thus the pump was primed for further bloodthirsty defensive celebration after Heath Evans pancaked Ted Ginn Jr. on the kickoff return after the Pats took a 21-0 lead in the second quarter. Rodney's hit was probably harder, but Evans had more leverage with with to clothesline the onrushing Ginn, and the Evans hit looked even more spectacular, with bodies sprawling all over the place. Gillette was a zoo.
Then, when Tedy Bruschi batted down what would certainly have been the Dolphins' first touchdown pass of the game just before halftime...forget about it. It was a party. It was a celebration. It was one of the best times I've ever had at Gillette for 30 triumphant minutes.
And then, just as the party reached its zenith, there was a brief intermission, where, for once, all three contestants in one of those kick-a-field-goal-for-a-prize contests got the ball through the uprights. As it turns out, that was pretty much the last excitement for the home crowd for the night.
Like I said, I wish I knew why, exactly, the Patriots broke down--or, more accurately, stagnated--in the second half. I know that the play choices were different than I expected in many cases; many offensive drives stalled after attempts at long bombs to Moss from Brady that didn't work for one reason or another (usually because they were long-shot plays to begin with). It might have been that with a 21-point lead, the Patriots were taking more chances with tricky plays, the better to practice them while they had the leeway. Or that Brady was thinking too much about himself and Moss and their records when he made decisions about where to pass, but that would be out of character, for him and for the team.
It's also worth remembering that early this season, Brady hovered at around an 80 percent pass completion rate. Last night he was 18 of 33. Not dazzling the way he was in the first half of the season, but not as terrible as it looks in contrast to Brady's otherworldly first half. Some people I've heard from since the game have reasoned that Brady and Co. raised our expectations to such ludicrous levels in the early season that what is still above-average play is looking like a problem. Others are feeling very Chicken Little about it.
Me, I'm on the fence. I would rather have all the facts before making any pronouncements about what it means for the team long-term, and I don't. Clearly, Miami made some adjustments, but unless the real Miami Dolphins had been bound and gagged on their team bus until halftime and were liberated in time to replace their impostors for the third quarter, obviously something was going on on the Patriots' side as well.
And the issues weren't limited to the offense. The defense, too, which had made short work of the Dolphins in the first half, the better to get the Tom Brady Show back out on the gridiron, was backed up deep into its own territory on many occasions and surrendered points in the third quarter. By the fourth quarter, the defense showed flashes of regrouping, with several sacks on Cleo Lemon and no further points allowed, but the offense never really came back together. As for why it happened and what it means, I'm open to suggestions. I'm afraid I don't have an answer myself.
It was a strange way to end what had been an all-time record-breaking football game: in a mostly-empty stadium, with our third-string quarterback at the helm of the offense, and with a sour taste in my mouth from the last two quarters of lackluster performance from the Patriots on both sides of the ball.
In the end, when you balance the second half against the first half, things come out fair to middlin'. If both halves had been like the first, it would probably have been the best game I'd ever seen. If both halves had been like the second half, it might have been the worst. As it was, things just wound up evening out; it had its good moments and its bad moments like any other football game. Which may feel odd to a fan excited to see history, but it's also exactly the way Bill Belichick's Patriots operate.