FOXBOROUGH - This was more like it.
Those shootouts, like the one they survived with Tennessee last week, are OK once in a while, but that isn’t Patriots football. Too, you know, pretty.
Their brand of ball is gritty. Grimy. Not attractive. Just effective. When they aren’t a pleasure to watch, as the Giants learned yesterday on a muddy, rainy afternoon at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots can be a pain to play. New England won, 17-6. Had the score been 170-6, it still would have been anatomically impossible for Bill Belichick to wear a wider grin.
“Man, that was a great win for our football team,” the Patriots coach said.
The Patriots didn’t play great football. Offensively they didn’t even play good football. But they played Patriots football. And that was good enough.
The defense forced five turnovers, including four Kerry Collins interceptions (two by Rodney Harrison) and a Tiki Barber fumble (forced by Tyrone Poole) that Matt Chatham returned 38 yards for a touchdown on the Giants’ third play from scrimmage. The Giants had the ball for more than 10 more minutes, but the Patriots turned them away twice inside the 20-yard line and five other times inside New England’s 30.
The Patriots converted just one of 11 third downs. But that one was a big one - a 21-yard completion from Tom Brady to David Givens on third and 16 from the Patriots’ 9 that kept alive their only touchdown drive. They had another solid game on the ground, gaining 129 yards on 31 attempts (4.2-yard average).
So no, it won’t go down as one of the season’s more memorable games, but this one fits in the only place that will matter come winter: the win column.
“It was just a grind-it-out type game,” guard Damien Woody said. “We’re not the type of team that puts up 30 or 40 points every week. We’re the type of team that grinds it out. We play good, solid defense and complementary offense. A lot of our wins are going to look like this.”
Now be truthful. Five weeks ago, who among you had the Patriots, having been run over by Buffalo on opening day and with a double-digit injury report, going to Miami Sunday with four wins and coming off consecutive home victories against playoff teams from a year ago?
Congratulations to both of you.
“Right now we’re just willing ourselves,” Poole said.
The Patriots were killing themselves in the first half yesterday. They went three and out on five straight possessions and moved the ball 29 yards in 21 plays. Brady went 1 for 10. They managed one first down and committed six penalties. “That was not what we were looking for,” Brady said.
Still they led, 7-3, at the break thanks to three New York turnovers and two missed field goals by Brett Conway. They would have had more had they capitalized on Poole’s interception of a Collins pass that was deflected by Richard Seymour on the first play from scrimmage. Adam Vinatieri missed a 42-yard field goal. (His fourth miss in his last six attempts. Worried yet?)
“The defense was fantastic,” receiver Troy Brown said. “They kept us around until we had a chance to get something going.”
The Patriots finally got going because at halftime, out went the game plan. Offensive coordinator Charlie Weis discarded the game plan designed to exploit New York’s aggressiveness the way Miami had a week earlier in favor of the basics: counters and draws out of three-receiver sets against the Giants’ nickel package, and short, safe passes.
The Patriots put together two scoring drives in the third quarter, a nine-play, 63-yard journey that ended with Adam Vinatieri’s 28-yard field goal and a 10-play, 85-yard march to Cloud’s 1-yard touchdown run. Kevin Faulk stepped in for Cloud and rushed for 85 yards on 13 carries in the second half.
“We tried to block better and eliminate plays,” Belichick explained. “Charlie told the team, `We’re not going to run any new plays. Some of the runs we were going to run in this game we’re going to forget about it. We’re just going to run the stuff that we know and let’s stop screwing up.’ “
They picked the right time to step up. The Patriots found themselves in an uncomfortable position after Michael Strahan sacked Brady for a 10-yard loss to his 9 with 7 1/2 minutes to go in the third. But, out of a timeout, Givens ran a precise 14-yard comeback route along the left sideline against zone coverage, hauled in a dart from Brady, and turned upfield for an extra 7 yards and a key first down. “It was a big play,” said Givens. “I’m just happy they threw it my way. And I took advantage of my opportunity.”
Seven plays - including a 39-yard pass from Brady to David Patten - later, Cloud followed Dan Klecko into the end zone from the 1, making it a 17-3 game and the Giants’ offense one-dimensional. “To put some extra points on the board put us in a good situation defensively,” Belichick said.
Belichick’s bunch is in a position - a half-game behind Miami for first place in the AFC East and a game ahead of Buffalo - few could have imagined after a bumpy start. They’ve been steady in some areas, spectacular in none. In other words, they’ve played Patriots football.