EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Wes Welker said that before the Patriots opened their season he was getting calls from friends asking if they should pick him up in fantasy football.
"I was like, `No, you should pick up Randy [Moss],"’ said Welker. "He’s coming to play and he’s going to do a great job this year."
If yesterday is any indication, you can’t go wrong picking up any member of the Patriots offense for your fantasy team. Tom Brady and Co. played their own version of fantasy football yesterday, using big names and big plays to deliver a resounding 38-14 rout of the rival New York Jets in front of 77,900 at Giants Stadium.
Patriots fans had waited all offseason and through a prosaic preseason to see whether the final product would be as good on the field as it looked on paper. It was better.
Making his much-anticipated New England debut after sitting out the entire exhibition season with a left hamstring injury, Moss torched an overmatched Jets secondary, racking up nine catches for 183 yards - the third-highest total in team history - and a 51-yard touchdown.
Cornerback Ellis Hobbs set an NFL record with a 108-yard kickoff return to open the second half and extend the Patriots’ 14-7 halftime lead. The previous long for a kickoff return was 106 yards, which was accomplished three times, the last by Roy Green of the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1979.
The New England defense showed little effect from the loss of safety Rodney Harrison, who is suspended for the first four games of the season for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy, and defensive end Richard Seymour, who opened the season on the physically-unable-to-perform list, recording five sacks and forcing Jets quarterback Chad Pennington out of the game in the third quarter with a right lower leg injury. (Pennington returned on the next possession.)
The chess match between Patriots coach Bill Belichick and Jets coach Eric Mangini was moot as the Jets were on the physically-unable-to-match-up list with the Patriots offense. New England was forced to punt just one time and rolled up 431 yards.
"I think that we showed that there is balance on offense," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who finished 22 of 28 for 297 yards and three touchdowns. "If they defend deep, we throw it short, and if they try to defend short, we try to throw it deep. When they cover deep, we try to run, and if they’re overaggressive we try to screen them. I think it’s complementary football. I think that’s the key for this team as we move forward."
The Patriots’ offense didn’t need any help, but Hobbs provided it. The cavalier cornerback fielded the opening kickoff of the second half 8 yards in his end zone and raced into the NFL record books, equaling the longest play in NFL history. Chicago Bears Nathan Vasher in 2005 and Devin Hester last season both have 108-yard missed field goal returns.
"We’re here to make plays," said Hobbs, who gave the Patriots a 21-7 lead. "Any time the ball is coming out. I don’t care where the ball is, the ball is coming out. We’re here to make plays."
That’s exactly what Moss did all day long, but the receiver’s piece de resistance came on the next Patriots drive and put the game away. On second and 6 from the New England 49, Brady faked a handoff and then chucked it deep for Moss, who was triple-covered. As three Jets defenders, linebacker Jonathan Vilma, cornerback David Barrett, and safety Erik Coleman chased in vain, Moss cruised between the trio and hauled in a 51-yard TD, his first as a Patriot.
"That wasn’t exactly the way we drew it up, but maybe we should draw it up that way," said Brady.
The Jets touchdowns came on a pair of Pennington to Laveranues Coles hookups, the last of which, a 1-yarder, cut the New England lead to 28-14 with 2:19 left in the third quarter. But the Patriots then capped a 17-play, 10-minute-28-second drive with a Stephen Gostkowski 22-yard field goal, and Heath Evans added a 1-yard TD run with 1:58 left for the final tally.
The holder for Gostkowski’s field goal was punter Chris Hanson, who replaced Matt Cassel. The backup QB bobbled a snap on a field goal in the second quarter, eventually leading to Pennington’s first touchdown toss to Coles, a 7-yarder that tied the game, 7-7.
Hanson could have used the work. His lone punt of the game came in the first quarter and followed a dropped pass by Wes Welker (6 catches for 61 yards and an 11-yard TD reception) that would have been a first down.
The Patriots took the lead for good 1:07 before the half on a 5-yard touchdown catch by Benjamin Watson. Moss set up the score with back-to-back big plays, beating Justin Miller down the right sideline for a 28-yard gain and then picking a pass off the helmet of David Barrett for 22 yards and a Patriots first-and-goal at the 6.
"I’m just happy and really blessed to be in this position," said Moss. "I think I said way back when I came to the Patriots that I wanted to showcase my talent."
He wasn’t the only one yesterday.
"The players deserve a lot of credit," said Belichick. "It’s been a long week and a long preseason to get ready for this game. I thought they came down here and did a good job.
"It’s one game. It doesn’t really mean much. We have a long way to go. We haven’t clinched anything.
"We have San Diego next week, another one of the best teams in the league."