EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - After spending the offseason trying to solve the Patriots, two teams projected to be among the NFL’s best - the Steelers and Jets - still haven’t a clue on how to stop the defending Super Bowl champions.
Monday night’s 30-14 shellacking of Pittsburgh was followed by yesterday’s 44-7 romp over the New York Jets, as New England moved to 2-0 to begin its title defense.
Should the 1972 Dolphins be worried?
“Oh, long way to go before we start talking about that,” said receiver Troy Brown of Miami’s 14-0 season 30 years ago. “We’ve been able to take every game and focus completely on what’s in front of us. The game plans have been unbelievable. You have to give the coaches a lot of credit for preparing us for the games.”
The 78,726 at the Meadowlands headed to the exits en masse after Victor Green’s 90-yard interception return for a touchdown extended the Patriots lead to 27-0 late in the third quarter. There was no reason to stay, unless it was to boo Vinny Testaverde and the rest of the Jets.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said he was still “nervous” despite the big lead because “I’ve seen Vinny put up three or four touchdowns like it was nothing.” But not on this day. The Patriots were special.
Amazingly, the Jets rarely blitzed Tom Brady, and when they did, New England’s offensive line picked up every assignment.
If there was any remote chance the Patriots might be feeling the effects of a short week, it ended quickly, after New England shook off a scoreless first quarter and moved to a 10-0 halftime lead.
That cushion swelled to 17-0 early in the second half courtesy of a great play by safety Tebucky Jones, who stripped Testaverde on a blitz and scooped up the loose ball for a 24-yard touchdown that took the life out of the Jets.
New England’s offense featured fake reverses, direct snaps to running backs, and a punishing ground game. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis remained as unpredictable as ever. The Patriots had a 19-play drive that ended with Adam Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal just before halftime that took its toll on the Jets defense. And though Damien Woody acknowledged, “Our offensive line was exhausted. But if that exhausted us, imagine what it did to them?”
“I wouldn’t expect that again from the Jets,” said Brown. “We got it this time, but that’s a team that’s usually with us every step. Winning by that much . . . wow. We’ll take that but we have to keep in mind the next time we play them that it might not be that way again.”
The stats all told a lopsided story. The Patriots converted 63 percent of their third downs (10 for 16), while the Jets converted just 1 of 12. New England amassed 432 yards in offense to New York’s 200. The visitors picked up 24 first downs, and the hosts had just nine. Weis’s offense was 2 for 2 on fourth down.
Brady was again impressive and explosive. Except for a first-quarter interception that bounced off Deion Branch’s hands and into the hands of James Darling, Brady was strong, completing 25 of 35 passes for 269 yards and two touchdowns for a 100.8 rating.
Conversely, Testaverde was 15 of 23 for 150 yards and touchdown, but was sacked three times and had Patriots in his face all day. He also delivered the costly pick by former teammate Green.
The Patriots also rushed for 163 yards, led by Antowain Smith’s 66 yards on 15 carries. Smith tweaked his ankle in the third quarter, but did return. Kevin Faulk, who got the active roster spot this week over J.R. Redmond, ran for 48 yards on 10 carries.
The coaching staff again kept the opponents guessing. After relying heavily on the pass vs. Pittsburgh, the Patriots were more balanced yesterday, rushing 40 times.
“You’ve got to give credit to the players and the assistant coaches,” said Belichick. “We had some things go our way today. They do a good job and they work hard. The coaches work hard to come up with game plans and give the players a chance to be successful.”
The Patriots overcame Brown’s fumble at the goal line with 2:09 remaining in the first quarter. It was startling because Brown, who led the Patriots with nine catches, rarely coughs it up.
“I’m saying, `What did I just do?’ I had to shake that off, and luckily we shook it off as a team and we were able to forget about it and go from there,” said Brown.
With 11:54 left in the second quarter, the Patriots went on an 80-yard drive to their first score. On first and 10 from the Jets’ 43, Brady faked an end-around to Branch, then hit David Patten, who had beaten the coverage, for a 39-yard gain to the 4.
Two plays later, Brady deked the Jets again and tossed to tight end Cam Cleeland for the score.
The Patriots’ defense used different schemes and formations - including its Big Nickel unit of safeties Lawyer Milloy, Jones, and Green - to confuse the Jets all day. The Jets went three and out after the score, allowing the Patriots to start their franchise-record 19-play drive.
The Patriots converted six first downs, including a fourth-and-1 at the Jets’ 38 when fullback Marc Edwards blasted his way for 2 yards.
A key play setting up the drive was Belichick challenging a ball spot on a Lamont Jordan rush. After initially giving Jordan a first down at the 40-yard line, the spot was changed and the Jets were unable to pick up the first down.
“I thought after the play was over that he hadn’t gotten there,” said Belichick. “I saw the back reach the ball out to the 40 after the play was over, but the officials kind of spotted it at the 40 and gave them the first down. I wasn’t sure if it was the right thing to [challenge it] but then they saw what I saw and we stopped them on third down and made me look like I knew what I was doing.”
On the very next play, Bobby Hamilton and Mike Vrabel stuffed Jerald Sowell for no gain, forcing the Jets to punt.
Despite the Patriots dominance, the mandatory motivational message was handed down at halftime.
The players got together and reminded themselves of how they rebounded from a 13-0 deficit to the Jets in the Meadowlands last Dec. 2, and how the hosts were probably thinking of pulling off their own comeback.
“The coach didn’t bring that up at halftime, we brought that up to ourselves,” said Brown.
But if there was any fight left in the Jets it was deflated in a hurry. The Jets received the ball to start the half, and they probably wished they hadn’t.
On third and 2 from the Jets 35, Jones drilled Testaverde and rumbled home for the touchdown.
The Patriots added 3 more on a 12-play drive in the middle of the quarter, which was highlighted by Faulk’s 25-yard run and culminated in Vinatieri’s 31-yard field goal for a 20-0 lead.
The Jets would score a touchdown, and the Patriots would add a 49-yard touchdown pass from Brady to Branch, a 2-yard touchdown run by Faulk, and another Vinatieri field in the fourth quarter. But this game was over early. A stunned Jets crowd hung their heads and kept quiet as they emptied the Meadowlands on a long, rainy day on which the Patriots once again showed the world they are not one-year wonders.