FOXBOROUGH - The coach perhaps has gotten the biggest piece of the credit pie for the Patriots’ success the last four seasons, but yesterday Bill Belichick gladly cut the largest piece for his players for enduring a season of injuries and the pressures associated with staying atop the mountain during a second consecutive 14-win season.
“For what they’ve been through this year, I think you have to give a lot of credit to the players for their diligence, their perseverance, and for battling all the way through,” Belichick said following a 21-7 win over the 49ers yesterday at Gillette Stadium. “It has been a long season and they played well enough today and we’re happy with that. It’s on to the playoffs.”
The players likely will be in for some basic work early in the week and then Belichick will give them some time off into early next week before preparation begins in earnest for the first playoff game, the weekend of Jan. 15-16 at Gillette.
“I don’t know who we play next,” Belichick said. “It doesn’t make any difference. Whoever it is will be pretty good and we know that. I’m glad we ended up on top and ended up with a 14-2 record. I thought the players deserved that for what they have done this year.”
There was a sense all week the players wanted to end on a high note, match last season’s 14-win total, and go undefeated at home in back-to-back seasons.
A captains’ meeting with Belichick late in the week bore that out; the captains spoke of needing some momentum heading into the playoffs.
Besides the win, the other major highlights were escaping the game with all of their major players healthy, and Corey Dillon eclipsing the 1,600-yard mark to earn a $375,000 incentive.
“This is good for us,” said left tackle Matt Light. “We haven’t been able to take the foot off the pedal all season. This week will be a well-deserved break for us.”
Most of the starters came out at some point late in the game, although they probably had to play longer than expected because it took them a while to get going. The Patriots trailed, 7-0, for the first time in the last 24 games.
It wasn’t until the start of the fourth quarter, with New England driving for its third score, that Rohan Davey relieved Tom Brady. Brady threw 30 passes, completing 22 for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
Dillon left after eclipsing the 1,600-yard mark when he went off right guard for 29 yards to the 14 with 10:19 left in the third quarter. With 116 yards, he went over the 100-yard mark for the ninth time this season, and helped the Patriots run for a 4.07-yards-per-carry average, the best since the 1985 team.
The Patriots ran it 524 times for 2,134 yards this season, throwing it 485 times for 3,750 gross yards.
Dillon returned at the start of the fourth quarter, coinciding with the appearance of Davey, and scored his 12th rushing touchdown.
“[Running backs coach] Ivan [Fears] told me to go back in,” Dillon said. “I don’t know what the big deal is. I don’t find it weird at all.”
Dillon escaped his 14-carry workload with no injuries. He seemed relatively happy after the game, as did all the Patriots, who finally can exhale for a week. Most of the players talked about having such a successful season despite missing top players from the lineup. Defensive end Richard Seymour and cornerback Ty Law were held out yesterday, and the hope is both will be ready in two weeks, although their status remains up in the air.
The Patriots amassed 174 yards rushing on 28 carries. New faces such as Cedric Cobbs and Rabih Abdullah carried the ball late in the game. Jarvis Green started at Seymour’s right defensive end spot. Don Davis started at free safety, with Eugene Wilson getting the day off. Randall Gay, who had missed last week’s game because of an arm injury, got some playing time. Bethel Johnson returned a punt for a touchdown but it was called back because of a penalty. Je’Rod Cherry, who was cut two weeks ago and then re-signed, downed two punts inside the 5.
Former starter Russ Hochstein saw some time on the offensive line. Tully Banta-Cain played outside linebacker and recovered a fumble.
The 49ers did have the early momentum, taking advantage of an interception by free safety Dwaine Carpenter at the San Francisco 47, which he returned 31 yards to the Patriots’ 22. It took quarterback Ken Dorsey five plays to get the worst team in football in the end zone, on a 4-yard catch by Steve Bush with 2:48 remaining in the first quarter.
The 49ers had a chance to go ahead, 10-0, and really take over, but Todd Peterson hit the right upright from 39 yards out on a field goal try in the second quarter.
“Any time you play a team like that, you have no room for mistakes,” 49ers receiver Curtis Conway said. “I think what hurt them early was that they had two turnovers. Then they realized we had come to play, so they turned it up a notch to get what they had to do to win.”
The Patriots took over on their 29 after the missed kick, and Brady and Dillon found their rhythms. Dillon carried three times for 36 yards, and Brady hit Christian Fauria for 11 and David Givens for 22. A false start by Mike Vrabel pushed the Patriots back to the 7, but Dillon got 6 yards back before Brady found Vrabel alone on the left side for 6 points. Adam Vinatieri’s conversion made it 7-7.
It was all Patriots in the second half. Dillon’s 29-yard burst started things. Brady completed a 6-yard pass to Fauria and then finished the drive with an 8-yarder to Deion Branch, making it 14-7.
The 49ers came back, but Maurice Hicks fumbled at the Patriot 34 late in the third quarter, and the Patriots turned that into their third and final score. Brady started the drive, then Davey took over. He handed off twice to Dillon, who took care of the final 14 yards of the drive, scoring from the 6.
While it was termed a meaningless game during the week, Brady said, “You can say it doesn’t mean everything, but it does mean something. It means something to us. We are 14-2, one of the three teams in history to have back-to-back 14-2 seasons.”