FOXBOROUGH - A midweek brawl might have been the emotional lift the Patriots needed in executing a 16-13 victory over the Bengals yesterday at Foxboro Stadium.
According to a source close to the situation, Patriots coach Bill Belichick paid practice squad offensive lineman Rob Gatrell $200 to go after Lawyer Milloy in practice Thursday.
Milloy was chosen because he’s considered the most emotional, toughest, and meanest player on the defense. Milloy responded just as Belichick hoped, going after Gatrell and creating a massive brawl that involved up to 30 players - offensive vs. defensive. Smaller fights ensued throughout practice.
“It was one of the best practices we’ve had this season,” said one Patriot. “It’s exactly what we needed. I think we played with a lot of emotion and fire, no question.”
When asked whether he had paid one of his practice squad players - who earn about $4,000 a week - to start a fight, Belichick said, “No. We had an intense week of practice. I thought the players really prepared hard and practiced hard because nobody was satisfied with the way we played against Cleveland, and we wanted to turn this thing around.”
Patriots spokesman Stacey James confirmed there was a fight, but he did not know anything about a payoff to Gatrell. Practice squad players do not dress for the game, usually watching from the stands. Gatrell was not available for comment.
The triumph certainly seemed to change the mood of the team. Some would argue that such a skimpy victory wasn’t worthy of such a reaction, but it certainly beat the alternative.
Of course, a loss would have put them in position for the second overall pick in April’s draft. Instead, they are 3-8 and the Bengals are in prime position to pick behind San Diego, although there are five weeks to go.
The Patriots even began to push and shove with the Bengals during introductions. But despite the fighting spirit, the game went down to the last three seconds, New England winning on Adam Vinatieri’s 22-yard field goal.
“It was nice to win again,” said cornerback Ty Law. “You can say it was against the Bengals, but we were 2-8 also. Just winning a game in this league when you’ve been as down as we have is huge.”
On hand to witness the win was NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who viewed the construction of CMGI Field next to Foxboro Stadium.
Even though quarterback Drew Bledsoe reinjured his already sore thumb in practice Friday, he played. And rather well at that, completing 22 of 36 pass attempts for 258 yards with one interception.
The Patriots utilized Georgia rookie Patrick Pass as the primary running back as Kevin Faulk stayed in the coaching staff’s doghouse and J.R. Redmond (sore ribs) was inactive. Pass had 39 yards on 12 carries, but he did break one for 11 yards and made a couple of tough inside runs.
The Patriots had only 39 total yards on the ground, but Bledsoe was having success throwing it outside to Terry Glenn (11 catches, 129 yards) and Troy Brown (eight catches, 110 yards).
On the last drive of the game, Brown made a huge catch in the slot that went for 23 yards on a third-and-14 to the Bengals 35.
“I think the difference today as opposed to other days was that we made the plays when we needed them,” said Brown. “I think we all went into the game feeling we needed to make a big play, and we made enough to win.”
The winning drive came about because of some last-minute efficiency, which had been lacking throughout the season. After poor play-calling by the Bengals forced them to punt near midfield, Brown called for a fair catch at the 15 and Bledsoe began clicking with Glenn and Brown.
The Bengals were playing off Glenn, Bledsoe calling it “respect for Terry’s speed” while others might call it poor strategy.
Glenn caught back-to-back passes of 15 and 16 yards in the soft zone, then came throws to Brown of 23 and 11 yards, and the Patriots were in business at the Bengals 24.
Three plays later the officials called Rodney Heath for interference on Glenn in the end zone. With the ball at the 1, the Patriots threw a fancy formation out there, with Milloy in the backfield, confusing the Bengals. Bledsoe took a knee twice, followed by Cincinnati time outs, setting the stage for the winning kick.
The teams showed how evenly matched they were by battling to a 10-10 tie at the half. The Patriots scored with 1:57 remaining in the first quarter after Milloy forced a fumble by Corey Dillon that was recovered at the Bengals 29. Bledsoe hit Brown on a slant for 15 yards to the 8 and fullback Tony Carter eventually bulled over from the 1, giving New England a 7-0 lead.
The Bengals then ended 29 quarters without a passing touchdown when Peter Warrick caught a 13-yard score from Scott Mitchell, beating Law on the play.
Warrick battled Law hard all day, catching passes of 11 and 17 yards on the 79-yard drive. The Bengals ran the ball effectively in the first half, gaining 73 yards. The Patriots tightened their run defense in the second half, using Chad Eaton exclusively at nose tackle.
The teams exchanged field goals before the half - Vinatieri’s 38-yarder set up by a 34-yard completion from Bledsoe to Glenn. But Cincinnati got a 28-yard field goal by Neil Rackers as time expired.
Rackers put the Bengals on top with a 45-yarder in the third quarter, and Vinatieri responded from 21 yards out just three seconds into the final quarter.
The game was not exactly capturing everyone’s attention, a pair of 2-8 teams going at it.
But in the end, the Patriots had the juice left to win it and the Bengals did not.