FOXBOROUGH - ‘Tis the season for giving, and the Arizona Cardinals gave the Patriots exactly what they needed yesterday, a gift-wrapped win at wintry Gillette Stadium. But the Baltimore Ravens and the Miami Dolphins are still playing the role of Gridiron Grinches who are trying to steal the Patriots’ place in the postseason.
Luckily, the Patriots got a little more holiday cheer from an unlikely source, the New York Jets. While the Patriots razed Arizona, 47-7, yesterday in snowy Foxborough, the J-E-T-S suffered a huge L-O-S-S to the Seahawks, falling, 13-3, in snowy Seattle. That dropped the Jets to 9-6, a game behind the Patriots, who wrap up their regular season next Sunday at Buffalo.
New York’s loss gave the Patriots a snow-plow clear path to the playoffs. New England must beat the Bills next week to finish 11-5 and then hope that the Jets beat or tie the Dolphins, who won yesterday to also go to 10-5, or that Baltimore (10-5) loses or ties against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The former scenario would give the Patriots a sixth straight AFC East title, the latter would give them a wild-card berth and the sixth seed in the AFC.
“We don’t control any of that,” said linebacker Junior Seau. “The only thing we’re guaranteed is one more game now, and we know that we have seven days to be together and that’s going to be important for us. We’re not taking anything for granted. We’re going to finish off what’s guaranteed to us and that’s one more game.”
It didn’t take the Patriots long to finish off the Cardinals. While the Patriots were playing like a team feverishly fighting for a playoff spot, the Cardinals, who are already in the playoffs as the NFC West winner, played with the passion of a preseason game.
At the end of three quarters, the Patriots led, 44-0, and had outgained Arizona, 470 yards to 45. New England scored on nine of its first 10 drives, piling up points faster than the snow, which dissipated after the first half.
The Patriots took a 14-0 first-quarter lead on a pair of touchdown runs by LaMont Jordan, who entered the game with just one touchdown as a Patriot, and never looked back.
“Any time that weather is an issue you want to try to get out in front as quick as you can,” said Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. “We talked a lot about that during the week. I thought we played a complementary game. The defense got off the field, and we had good punt returns, good field position.
“I felt like we were in their end it had to be the whole first half. We didn’t really have to drive the ball a long way there until the end when we had the two-minute drive. Getting ahead was important in [those] kind of conditions because a 7-point lead is a 10-point lead or a 14-point lead seems like it’s 21 points at that point.”
The Patriots had a 28-point lead after Wes Welker (seven catches for 68 yards) scored from 11 yards out on a crossing route with 1:52 left in the half. He celebrated by making a snow angel in the end zone. The Cardinals would have needed divine intervention at that point to come back.
Then on the first play of the second half, Randy Moss took a wide receiver screen from Matt Cassel (20 of 36 for 345 yards and three touchdowns) and raced 76 yards untouched to the end zone to extend the Patriots’ advantage to 38-0. The play was Moss’s longest reception as a Patriot and the longest pass of Cassel’s career.
By then, New England was playing name the number in terms of final score, while Arizona just wanted to get out of the cold. The game-time temperature was 30 degrees with a wind-chill of 21 degrees.
“Yeah, you could tell, just body language,” said cornerback Ellis Hobbs. “They’re not used to it. Even if they were, they haven’t been up here in it. As easy as it looks to us, it’s still difficult out there. Your feet get to freezing. You’re thinking about everything but football, but [coach] Bill [Belichick] always tells us, `You’re not out there playing the weather. You’re playing the Arizona Cardinals.’ That’s what we went out there and did.”
The weather grounded the Arizona offense. After the first quarter, the Cardinals had no first downs and zero total yards. They didn’t pick up their initial first down until there was 11:07 left in the first half.
The Cardinals entered as the NFL’s second-best passing team, yet Kurt Warner (6 of 18 for 30 yards) and backup Matt Leinart combined to go just 12 of 32 for 168 yards, a TD, and an interception - Leinart was picked by Hobbs. Arizona, which entered with the league’s worst rushing attack, couldn’t get anything going on the ground either, as the Patriots stuffed them for 44 yards on 15 carries.
The Patriots are now 10-0 in Foxborough in games in which snow has fallen during the game and have won 11 straight games in December dating to 2006. Right now, 11 is the magic number. Since the NFL went to a sixth playoff spot per conference in 1990, no 11-5 team has missed the playoffs.
There was only one team yesterday at Gillette Stadium that looked like a playoff-caliber team and it wasn’t the Cardinals.
“I thought our players played with good toughness and pretty good execution in a game against a good football team,” said a behooded Belichick. “I’m sure that wasn’t their best day today, there is no doubt about that. I’ve been impressed with what Ken [Whisenhunt], his staff and that organization, have done, and I’m sure they’ll be heard from in the playoffs.”
The question is will the Patriots be heard from in the playoffs? The answer will have to wait until next Sunday.
“You’d like to know your destiny right now and see where you’re going to end up,” said left guard Logan Mankins. “Arizona, they know they’re in. We don’t know where we’re at yet. We’ve got to win one more game and hope for some stuff to happen. We’ll find out next Sunday.”