FOXBOROUGH - The concept of playing 60 minutes of football each week has eluded the Patriots. New England is 0-3 at the start of a season for the first time since 1993, and every week as the players keep saying to one another, “We must play 60, we must play 60,” precious time passes.
The Patriots’ 21-13 loss yesterday to the Minnesota Vikings was their third straight to an undefeated team. Their opponents - the Buccaneers, the Jets, and the Vikings - are 9-0. If there’s a silver lining, it is that New England has been in position to win at the end each time.
But the schedule is the schedule, fair or not, and they are playing it with too many flaws, looking too lost and unprepared.
“I haven’t lost any confidence in this football team,” said coach Bill Belichick. “I’m disappointed in our record and I’m disappointed in our ability as a team, totally as a team, from myself . . . all the way down, not to be able to win these close games.”
Three straight times quarterback Drew Bledsoe has had the chance to win or tie the game on a final drive. Three straight times he hasn’t been able to do it.
Since Oct. 31, the Patriots are 2-9.
“It’s been so long since we’ve won consistently,” said receiver Troy Brown.
“We have to crawl before we walk,” said safety Lawyer Milloy. “We have to win a football game before we can think about putting it all together.”
Not playing 60? If only they had played the first 30. Belichick’s defensive coaching brilliance is the highly publicized improvement of this team, but it allowed three touchdowns and trailed, 21-7, at the half.
In the second half, the defense pitched a shutout. After letting Daunte Culpepper, the 6-foot-4-inch, 266-pound quarterback, run for 51 yards in the first half, they held him to 8 in the second. After allowing him to complete 12 of 15 attempts for 132 yards and two touchdowns in the first half, they held him to 7-for-13 passing and 45 yards with one interception in the second half.
“It’s very frustrating,” said cornerback Ty Law, who played mostly against Cris Carter, who caught seven passes for 67 yards (Randy Moss was held to two catches for 20 yards). “We played well in the second half and made the adjustments, but this team has to learn a little character and learn how to close out games.”
On the last series, with 2:06 remaining, trailing by 8, Bledsoe moved the team from its 36 to the Vikings 17. After a 3-yard gain by Kevin Faulk (13 rushes, 80 yards), there were three incomplete passes. On the final play, Bledsoe was looking for Eric Bjornson, changed his mind, and was swallowed up for a 7-yard sack. And that was that.
Belichick made a bold call at the end of the third quarter for a team that had scored only one touchdown and had failed miserably in the red zone this season: He elected to go for the touchdown on fourth down from the Vikings 3 rather than go for the sure 3 points, which would have made it 21-10 with a quarter remaining. But as the fourth quarter began, Bledsoe dropped back and was sacked for a 12-yard loss by blitzing corner Robert Tate, ending the scoring drive. It was an unfortunate squander considering the Patriots’ defense finally had shown urgency when Milloy picked off a Culpepper pass. The quarterback was tripped up by Chris Slade and tried to throw it away, but Milloy tipped the ball, caught it, and ran it to the Viking 21.
“I’d be a hypocrite if I said I was one of the team captains and didn’t go out on the field and backed it up with making plays to help us win,” said Milloy.
Should Belichick have taken the sure 3?
“We thought we had a good play called there,” said Belichick. “We thought we’d be able to score.”
The defense held the Vikings on the next series and New England got the ball at the Vikings 43 following a 19-yard punt return by Faulk. Bledsoe went right to the air - a 15-yard pass to Chris Calloway, a 9-yard run by Faulk, and a 10-yard sideline pattern to Terry Glenn (eight catches, but for only 69 yards) - before Bledsoe found Glenn on an 8-yard touchdown pass with 11:11 remaining.
With the Patriots trailing, 21-13, Lee Johnson fumbled the extra point snap and Adam Vinatieri never got the kick off. Johnson had muffed the hold on a 44-yard field goal attempt in the first half, but Vinatieri got it off. However, the kick was short and wide left.
The Patriots were very sloppy at times. They committed nine penalties, including too many men on the field and an unsportsmanlike call on Tony George.
In the first quarter, the Vikings went on a 17-play, 73-yard drive that consumed 8:54, capped by a 4-yard Robert Smith run. The Patriots answered with a five-play, 61-yard drive lasting 1:51, capped by a 2-yard run by Faulk.
The Vikings made seven first downs on that opening drive with Culpepper breaking loose for scrambles of 13, 12, and 7 yards. The Patriots knew Culpepper would run, but they couldn’t stop him.
“I don’t know if we just didn’t think he was going to be that fast . . . I don’t know,” said Belichick.
The Vikings put up two unanswered touchdowns before the half ended.
They put together an 80-yard drive, with the huge play a 27-yard pass from Culpepper to Carter, with Milloy covering because Otis Smith was blitzing off the corner. Back-to-back holding and interference calls on Kato Serwanga and Law set the stage for a 1-yard pass from Culpepper to Johnny McWilliams, the Vikings’ third tight end.
On their next drive, the Patriots got a critical drop on a third and 5 at their 37 by the usually dependable Brown.
Then Johnson got off a horrible punt (26 yards), putting the Vikings in business at their 47.
They moved it to the Patriots 39, where Culpepper found Matthew Hatchette down the right sideline on what appeared to be good coverage by Serwanga. But at the moment the ball arrived, Serwanga went for the interception, slipped, and saw the ball get caught by Hatchette. He went in for the score to make it 21-7 with 5:18 remaining.
“I’ve never started 0-3 in my life,” said Milloy. “If we don’t turn it around soon . . . “