FOXBOROUGH - Patriots coach Bill Belichick could have stood at the podium last night following a 34-17 win over the New Orleans Saints and said, “I told you so.” Instead, he wished his son, Brian, a happy birthday, and simply let quarterback Tom Brady’s performance speak for itself.
Belichick, who created a firestorm with veteran QB Drew Bledsoe by announcing last week that he was staying with Brady for yesterday’s game, received major reinforcement, as Brady threw for a career-high four touchdowns and emphatically ended the quarterback controversy.
The Patriots improved to 6-5 and stayed in the hunt for a playoff berth by outmuscling one of the most physical teams in the league at rainy, misty Foxboro Stadium. The Saints played as horribly as their staff coached, allowing the Patriots to convert 62 percent of their third-down plays, allowing 432 total net yards (191 on the ground), and letting Antowain Smith rush for 111 yards on 24 carries and score two touchdowns, one on a 41-yard screen pass from Brady.
“A lot of people were talking about how we were gonna respond after we lost to the Rams,” said New England safety Lawyer Milloy, who had 10 tackles, one interception, and two passes defensed. “Well, I like the way this team responded. I think we’re going to be a dangerous team in the latter part of the season.”
For Belichick, there never was a quarterback controversy; he believed Brady had performed well enough over the previous eight games to keep the job. Brady had a quarterback rating of 143.9 and threw for 258 yards, seven of the balls going to Troy Brown, who gained 91 yards. Brady also hit Brown, Marc Edwards, and Charles Johnson for scores. Bledsoe was booed by the crowd as he left the field for the tunnel, and one person held a sign that said, “Drew: Want Some Cheese with your Whine?”
“I thought they played their best football game as a team,” said Belichick. “I thought the offensive line did an admirable job against a good front. It was a good win defensively.”
Brady was having so much fun that late in the game he even threw a block on Saints safety Sammy Knight to spring Smith for a big gain.
He walked off the field at the half leading, 20-0, and was all smiles. He even got a smile out of Bledsoe on the sideline after he stuck a 24-yard pass to Johnson for the Patriots’ third score of the half with 10 seconds remaining. That capped a 78-yard drive, in which Smith busted for runs of 12 and 11 yards and Brady found a wide-open David Patten for 27 yards to the 24.
It was amazing how open Patriots receivers often were. “They played a lot of man-to-man on us and we were able to get some receivers open,” said Belichick.
The Saints blitzed at times, but most of the time the offensive line covered them. The line was much more physical than New Orleans.
“That was a tough defensive front four,” said center Damien Woody. “We knew coming in that we would have to be as physical as they were and even more to win the game.”
The Saints had a sorry game plan. With one of the most punishing runners in the game - Ricky Williams - they kept trying to throw the football. Even with linebacker Ted Johnson sidelined.
Williams had only 15 carries for 56 yards. The Patriots were on him all day, making shutting him down their top priority.
New Orleans offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy made some strange calls. In the first quarter, the Saints were driving, and had first and 10 at the Patriots 25. The next three plays were incomplete passes. No Williams?
The Patriots scored on their first possession as Brady got the ball to Brown for 18, and to Edwards for 16. The drive was completed with a perfectly executed screen, on which Brady rolled right and threw left to Smith. He got a nice block from Woody, and Matt Light tied up his man on the left side to spring Smith loose for 41 yards. It was the first receiving touchdown of his career.
“I just saw green grass and I just ran for daylight. My job was to find the end zone,” said Smith, who has three 100-yards-plus games in the last four.
New Orleans missed a field goal and had one blocked in the first half, the closest it came to scoring.
The Patriots kept plugging along. In the second quarter, Brady began a drive at the 7. He got out of the hole with three Smith runs that went for 19 yards. On a third and 2, Kevin Faulk took the snap from center and went 7 yards for the first down. The big play was a 42-yard interference penalty on corner Fred Thomas, who jostled with Patten down the left sideline. Patten got the call, and the ball was at the Saints 8.
On the next play, Brady spotted Brown deep in the end zone for 6 more points. The Patriots muffed the extra point when Lonie Paxton’s snap was handled too low by Ken Walter, who felt by the time he got the ball down, “I had to make a decision to run it out of there.”
The Saints scored 10 unanswered points in the third quarter, the first coming on a 31-yard field goal by John Carney with 6:59 left. After the Saints forced a three-and-out, the New Orleans offense marched 83 yards, much of it coming on a 56-yard catch-and-run by Willie Jackson, who stiff-armed corner Terrance Shaw and then continued downfield until Ty Law hauled him down at the Patriots 27. Three plays later, Williams barreled in from the 3, making it 20-10.
But the Saints’ defense couldn’t make a statement. Brady connected with Brown for 19 yards to the New England 39. Faulk took another direct snap and rambled 24 yards to the New Orleans 33. There was another interference call on a Saint, this one on Fred Weary, who wrestled with Patten down the right sideline. With the ball at the 7, Brady scrambled to the 2. From there he dropped back and waited for Edwards to crash through a pile of bodies and break into the clear. Brady lofted it to Edwards, who made a nice grab, making it 27-10 with 13:24 remaining.
The Saints responded, but at this point it felt like garbage time. Quarterback Aaron Brooks, taking advantage of a looser Patriot defense, drove his team down the field with medium-range passes. He threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to Jackson with 8:15 remaining, making it 27-17.
Smith closed it out with a 3-yard touchdown with 2:25 to play.
To Saints coach Jim Haslett, the key was the Patriots utilizing their running game, being able to hold the ball for 35:47 more than the 4-3 defense the Patriots used with Johnson and Bryan Cox out of the game.
“We’ve seen a 4-3 plenty of times,” said Haslett.
And now the Patriots will prepare, minus a controversy, for next week’s AFC East showdown with the Jets.