FOXBOROUGH - They appeared to be very real; not illusions.
And tens of thousands of witnesses could verify that they were live; not doctored Memorex.
Yet, the Patriots’ recent displays of domination still somehow seemed bogus. Did they really play that well?
Many, possibly even a few Patriots, believed their recent improvement was the result of collusion hapless New York and Buffalo conspired to make the Patriots look good.
Well, yesterday, the Jets and the Bills - the patsies who proved to be such tasty morsels the past couple of weeks - were not at Gillette Stadium; Tampa Bay was in the house.
And for the first time this season, the Patriots beat a quality team with ease, stomping the Buccaneers, 28-0, before a charged sellout crowd that gladly celebrated the team’s third straight AFC East Division crown.
New England (9-5) officially qualified for the playoffs with the victory, and the two-time defending Super Bowl champion will play for seeding in the final two weeks of the season.
“It feels good, but we’ve got a long way to go,” said linebacker Willie McGinest, who contributed two sacks and a fumble recovery to the effort. “We’re not celebrating. You just see guys come in and just ask for the [division championship] hats and T-shirts.
“It’s nice that we accomplished that, but our goals are a lot bigger. It starts with the Jets next week. We have a long road to go. We’re just gonna keep working harder and see what happens.”
The division title, the ninth overall for the franchise, is the sixth for the Patriots in the 12 years Robert Kraft has owned the team.
The Patriots have won three straight games for the first time this season, and have done it impressively, winning by an aggregate score of 79-10. The first two wins came against teams that are playing out the string. The last came against Tampa (9-5), a team that entered yesterday’s contest tied for the lead in the NFC South.
“It’s not where we want to be at the end of the year, but we have an opportunity for a second season,” defensive end Richard Seymour said. “It’s good to go in with confidence. That’s what we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks building confidence. Now playing well against a good team builds confidence.
“I think it’s definitely important when you can do it against a team with a winning record. Not to take anything away from the Jets or Buffalo, but we’re doing it against a football team that has a winning record.”
They were doing it and doing it and doing it well, on both sides of the ball.
Tom Brady, playing on a sore left shin that limited him in practice during the week, was superb, completing 20 of 31 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns, including short tosses to running back Corey Dillon and tackle Tom Ashworth.
The once quicker-picker-upper defense that early in the season gave way like a wet paper towel, gave up just 138 yards, including just 30 on the ground (in 18 attempts).
Tampa’s rookie sensation of a running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams was more jalopy than Escalade, struggling to gain 23 yards on 14 carries while pounding into the Patriots’ revived front seven.
“That’s New England,” Williams said. “They came out and basically dominated in all phases of the game. They were physical, and the most physical team usually wins.”
The Patriots were particularly physical with Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who was rendered helpless without a running game to keep New England honest.
The Patriots sacked the young lefthander seven times (for minus-47 yards), and forced him to turn the ball over on a fumble that turned the game into a rout. Coach Jon Gruden’s play-calling didn’t help Simms much, either, as Tampa ran the ball seven times on its first eight first-down plays, with the longest gain just 3 yards. Meanwhile, Patriots defensive coordinator Eric Mangini unleashed his linebackers in a bevy of blitzes after Simms, who was starting for just the 10th time.
The Patriots drove 76 yards on the opening drive to take a 7-0 lead when Brady surprised Tampa by hitting Ashworth out of the backfield, where he lined up as the blocking fullback from the 1. It was the first touchdown allowed by the Bucs on the first possession of a game this season.
The game turned late in the first half when the Patriots scored 14 points in less than two minutes to take a 21-point lead into the intermission.
With a little better fortune, the Bucs could have gotten through the latter part of the second period unscathed. New England’s second touchdown came after a shaky roughing the punter call that allowed it to keep possession inside Buccaneer territory.
A huge 17-yard catch by Christian Fauria on third and 16 kept the drive alive, and Dillon did the honors, banging in from 3 yards out behind a block from Ashworth with 2:08 on the clock.
Simms completed a 22-yard strike to Ike Hilliard to get Tampa’s two-minute drive going, but on the next play, Mike Vrabel blasted Simms from behind, forcing a fumble McGinest scooped up and returned 19 yards. The Patriots lost 5 of those yards because of McGinest’s forward lateral to Artrell Hawkins, but it did not matter.
Three plays later, Brady found David Givens (six receptions for 137 yards) alone on the right side for the score and a three-touchdown edge.
“That was huge,” Simms said. “I mean being down, 14-0, at halftime is OK. You certainly don’t want to be in that position, but it’s OK. Being down, 21-0, at halftime against a defense like that, we knew we had an uphill climb.”
As for the second half, the choppy, divot-filled field at Gillette might as well have been on the side of Mount Greylock.
Tampa never advanced past the Patriots’ 33, and the most yards it gained on any one possession was 30, and that was on its first possession. The Bucs’ best scoring opportunity other than a Mark Jones 81-yard punt return for a score that was nullified by a holding penalty in the third quarter ended on downs with a drop by Joey Galloway.
“Of course, when you can put together some wins, it’s always good,” New England receiver Troy Brown said. “As a team, we’re playing better now. Let’s see how long we can keep it up.
“Our attitude has been, `It’s about us.’ We don’t really care about what everybody else is doing, [or] what their record is. We have to go out, play well, execute our plays, and play the best that we can play. And, hopefully, the results will be in our favor.”
Simms, who completed 21 of 34 passes for 155 yards, is a believer in how well the Patriots can play.
“They are the best team in the NFL until somebody proves otherwise,” Simms said. “I don’t care who has what record.
“They’ve won three of the last four [Super Bowls] and they have proven they can get it done when they have to. Always.”