SAN FRANCISCO - No matter how famous the offensive coordinator, how innovative his game plan, or how dangerous his offense there is one little simple rule of football that will stop any attack - if you don’t have it, you can’t score.
Coming off the bye week, the Patriots didn’t need the defensive genius of Bill Belichick to slow down San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz’s imaginative offense because the Patriots offense turned out to be an ample defense.
The Patriots played keep away yesterday against the 49ers. They maintained possession of the ball and their composure after a shaky start that left them trailing, 14-7, to score a 30-21 victory over San Francisco in the first leg of the Patriots’ West Coast swing.
Behind quarterback Matt Cassel and an opportunistic defense that created three interceptions, the Patriots turned that 14-7 first-quarter deficit into a 27-14 fourth-quarter lead. In the process, they kept the creative attack of Martz idling on the sideline like a car stuck in traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Patriots outgained San Francisco 377 yards to 199 yards, ran 80 plays to just 48 for the 49ers, and dominated time of possession - 39 minutes, 52 seconds for New England and 20:08 for the 49ers. After three quarters, the Patriots had the ball for 32:14 to San Francisco’s 12:46.
"I don’t know what it was, but it seemed like we had the ball out there after the first quarter; it seemed like we had it all day," said Belichick. "We were on the field some of the first quarter, although they had a couple of big plays. But the time of possession was good for us, and defensively it’s always good when you don’t have to play."
"I could count my plays that I had out on the field," said defensive end Richard Seymour. "I was like, `I did that on that play. This is on that play.’ Usually, there are so many plays you don’t even know what happened, so that’s always a good thing when you can remember how many plays you’ve been out on the field."
The Patriots could manage such a clock coup because Cassel had his best game since replacing Brady, establishing career highs in completions (22), attempts (32), and passing yards (259). After San Francisco took a 7-0 lead on J.T. O’Sullivan’s 16-yard touchdown pass to Frank Gore, Cassel burned the 49ers on a backside corner blitz and reintroduced Randy Moss and the deep ball, both of which had gone missing, into the Patriots offense to tie the game, 7-7, on a 66-yard touchdown pass, Moss’s longest as a Patriot.
"I think that’s just what we’ve been waiting on," said Moss, who had five catches for 111 yards. "To really open the offense up a little bit more and get the ball downfield to make plays work. I just think that it’s a good thing it happened and we connected. Being able to connect on the deep ball, I think it was good from an offense standpoint because that’s something that we’ve been missing in our repertoire the past couple of weeks."
After having a combined six catches for 47 yards and no scores in the previous two games, Moss had 103 yards on four catches by halftime.
The Patriots led, 17-14, at the half thanks to a 12-play, 80-yard drive that ended when Kevin Faulk squeezed in for a 2-yard run with six seconds left. The Patriots appeared to have been stopped on third and 6 from the San Francisco 10 when Justin Smith sacked Cassel, but Smith was flagged for a personal foul facemask penalty to set up first and goal at the 6.
Faulk wasn’t done. After Rodney Harrison deflected and intercepted an O’Sullivan pass at the 49ers’ 24, the Patriots used a familiar play on fourth and 2 from the 2, direct snapping to Faulk, who squeezed in to give the Patriots a 24-14 lead with 5:25 left in the third quarter and make the earthquake-shaky start in which Cassel was intercepted by Takeo Spikes on his second throw of the game a distant memory.
"I think the whole team recovered from a shaky start, and I think it was about us just not getting into a funk and continuing to play football because there is a lot of football left in the season," said Faulk.
While the offense was clicking, the defense found its rhythm, forcing four punts and an interception until O’Sullivan (14 of 29 for 130 yards, 3 TDs, 3 interceptions) threw his third touchdown pass of the game, a 5-yarder to Isaac Bruce with 10:22 left in the fourth that cut New England’s lead to 27-21.
On the ensuing possession the Patriots chewed up the clock with a 10-play, 41-yard, 5:40 drive that ended with Gostkowski, who connected on all three of his field goal attempts yesterday and is now 10 for 10 on the season, drilling a 49-yarder that gave the Patriots a 9-point lead with 4:42 to go.
On the day the 49ers retired Steve Young’s jersey, the scrambling O’Sullivan tried to engineer a Young-like comeback, but when Harrison deflected one of his passes into the arms of Deltha O’Neal at the New England 38 with 2:45 left those hopes were dashed and the memory of the Patriots’ debacle against Miami faded into the California sunshine.
Yesterday was more than a win for the Patriots, it was an affirmation.
"I think it gets us back on track," said Hobbs. "I think all of us individually we hadn’t lost confidence in ourselves, but we took a good punch to the face when we played Miami.
"We weren’t hiding or trying to mask anything from that game, but we knew we were better than that, and we wanted to come out there and prove it, where everybody around the sports world, the football world, was counting us out, saying, "We can’t do it. We’re not the same team.’
"We just wanted to get out there and prove it off a bye week."