FOXBOROUGH - You couldn’t blame the Patriots if they awoke this morning and wondered whether last night’s 41-7 demolition of the Denver Broncos really happened or whether it was a dream, because they couldn’t have dreamed it up any better.
The offense rushed for a season-high 257 yards. The defense forced five turnovers. Matt Cassel threw a career-high three touchdown passes. Randy Moss found the end zone twice, matching his total from the previous five games.
While the Broncos experienced a Monday night meltdown at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots, playing at home for the first time in almost a month, were in Belichickian Bliss. They could do no wrong.
Exhibit A: Cassel throws an apparent third-quarter interception at the goal line to Calvin Lowry on a tipped pass. Bill Belichick tosses the red challenge flag and the play is overturned. On the next play, Cassel throws his third touchdown pass of the night, a 6-yarder to Wes Welker, and the Patriots lead, 34-0, with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
By that point, Denver should have throw up the white flag - or come out with horseshoes on their helmets - because every bounce and break went the Patriots’ way, and in this trying season, it was about time. Don’t be mistaken, though. The Patriots earned this prime time victory with preparation, perseverance, and execution.
They silenced Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler and the second-rated passing attack in the NFL and orange-crushed Denver’s 26th-rated run defense on the ground. They exploited weaknesses, took advantage of openings, and never let the Broncos catch their breath.
The last rites were administered to Denver when Moss took a short pass from Cassel and raced 27 yards into the end zone with 7:32 left in the third to push the advantage to 27-0. The reality was that the Patriots had sapped the Broncos of any kind of pulse in the first half.
All that concern about the Patriots secondary matching up with Denver’s second-ranked passing attack melted away in the first half.
A week after getting embarrassed in San Diego, the Patriots’ defense responded by forcing four first-half turnovers (three fumbles and an interception) that led to 13 points. The Patriots defense had forced a total of six turnovers in its first five games.
Meanwhile, the offense rode the running of Sammy Morris, who had a career-high 138 yards and a touchdown on just 16 carries at the half on the same day the Patriots placed Laurence Maroney on injured reserve, ending his season, with a shoulder injury.
The only thing that stopped Morris was a knee injury that limited his performance to just the first half, as rookie BenJarvus Green-Ellis took over in the second half.
Morris had runs of 14, 20, 34, and 29 yards. The last rush, which came on fourth and 1 from the Denver 42, set up a 13-yard touchdown pass from Cassel to Moss that made it 20-0 with 44 seconds before the half. Moss was covered by Dre’ Bly on the play after Denver All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey was forced to leave the game with a groin injury.
The drive began when Brandon Meriweather intercepted an injured Cutler, who came up holding his index finger on the first play of the game, at the Patriots 16. But it almost ended in the wrong end zone with Cassel narrowly avoiding a safety on third and 18 from the 8. However, Denver linebacker Jamie Winborn was flagged for a 15-yard face-mask penalty, one of six Denver penalties in the first half, to keep the drive alive.
It was that kind of half for Denver, which did about everything it could to aid the Patriots with ill-timed turnovers and three foolish personal foul penalties.
The Patriots jumped to a 6-0 lead, turning a pair of first-quarter takeaways into Stephen Gostkowski field goals of 31 and 40 yards.
The Broncos kept it on the ground on the opening possession, running the ball eight times. However, on the eighth run, which came on third and 5 from the New England 32, Andre Hall was stripped by Lewis Sanders, and Le Kevin Smith recovered at the 30.
Eight plays later, the Patriots took a 3-0 lead on a 31-yard field goal by Gostkowski.
Hall fumbled again on the ensuing possession after Denver reached the Patriots 37. Ty Warren knocked the ball loose, and after Warren and cornerback Deltha O’Neal kicked it around, linebacker Jerod Mayo dived on it at the Denver 37. A personal foul penalty on Denver right tackle Ryan Harris gave the Patriots the ball at the 22 and Gostkowski connected again.
The Patriots were able to pound it on the ground to extend their lead to 13-0 with 7:34 left in the half. Morris bounded into the end zone on fourth and 1 from the 4. He had set up the score with a 34-yard gallop that brought the ball to the 13. The run, the longest of the season for the Patriots, gave Morris an even 100 yards even on just nine carries.
The Broncos even tried changing quarterbacks to change their karma, as Patrick Ramsey came on for the injured Cutler with 39 seconds left in the half. Ramsey was hit and sacked by Mike Wright and Gary Guyton picked the fumble out of the air. Cutler came back in the second half.
It was that kind of game for the Patriots. For one night, in a season defined by a bad break (the loss of quarterback Tom Brady), everything went their way.