OAKLAND, Calif. - The Patriots still can bounce back from a loss and the Raiders still aren’t quite able to get out of their own way.
Add those two things and you get yesterday’s result at O.co Coliseum: a 31-19 New England win, which let the Patriots avoid just their third losing streak since 2006 and showed that an improved Oakland squad will challenge a lot of teams but still has a bit of work to do.
As the Patriots left on their cross-country flight home, they could celebrate the victory, but there was at least one major concern: linebacker Jerod Mayo left the game in the second quarter and did not return. According to a league source, Mayo has a sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee; his return time could vary.
A cocaptain, Mayo is the Patriots’ on-field signal caller and their best linebacker. It will be a challenge without him; he entered the game as New England’s leading tackler with 25. Without Mayo, special teams ace Tracy White saw some time in sub packages.
Last week, Oakland linebacker Rolando McClain called the Patriots a “finesse team,’’ but yesterday they had to throw finesse out the window.
“I thought we stood up to a physical team,’’ coach Bill Belichick said of his club.
It was the 12th straight regular-season game in which the Patriots have scored 30 or more points (the NFL record is 14, set by the “Greatest Show on Turf’’ Rams), and it was the first time this season that Tom Brady threw for fewer than 300 yards, as he went 16 of 30 for 226 yards.
But Brady, coming off a four-interception game in a loss to Buffalo last week, got a boost from rookie Stevan Ridley, who ran for 97 yards on 10 carries, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis, who added 75 yards on 16 carries. The running game got quite a bit of attention this week, and the Patriots were able to step up the production in that area, particularly with Ridley, who has great speed.
New England gained 11 first downs by passing and 11 by rushing; it had just 14 first downs by rushing in its first three games.
“It felt good,’’ guard Brian Waters said of the improved ground game. “It’s definitely something we want to get better at. But at the end of the day, it’s about winning football games.’’
New England’s defense was on the field first, and it didn’t get help from Stephen Gostkowski, whose game-opening kickoff bounced out of bounds, allowing the Raiders to start at their 40. But while Oakland moved the ball, it stalled at the 10, unable to convert on third and 19. Sebastian Janikowski made the short field goal for the early 3-0 lead.
A fired-up Richard Seymour, facing his former team for the first time since the 2009 trade that sent him to Oakland, played a large part in the Patriots’ first scoring drive. On third and 9, with Brady begging for the snap because New England was about to be flagged for delay of game, the defensive tackle burst through the line and grabbed Brady by the waist, spinning him to the turf.
Seymour said he didn’t hear the delay of game whistle, stopping the play, and Brady said Seymour didn’t deserve the flag because he was trying to get the quarterback onto the grass gently. Told of Brady’s comment, Seymour chuckled and said Brady was calling for the flag during the game.
Though the Patriots were flagged, the 15-yard roughing the passer penalty on Seymour superseded that call and gave New England a fresh set of downs.
Four plays later, Seymour was flagged again, this time picking up a 15-yard facemask call. That call put the Patriots in Raiders territory. On the next play, New England got creative and went with a direct snap to Ridley, who picked up 15 yards, getting his team inside the red zone.
The Patriots’ first touchdown came courtesy of Wes Welker, who caught a second-down pass and brought it in from 15 yards out.
Oakland reclaimed the lead in the second quarter, its touchdown drive kick-started by a 41-yard run from Darren McFadden on the first play. That was the only real damage the dangerous McFadden did; a week ago, he had a 70-yard touchdown against the Jets, helping Oakland to a win.
On replay it appeared that Patriots defensive end Andre Carter was held by left tackle Jared Veldheer, and McFadden ran behind Veldheer. There was no flag, however.
Quarterback Jason Campbell tucked the ball and picked up 17 yards on the next play, and followed that up with a 23-yard pass to tight end Kevin Boss that gave the Raiders first and goal from the 7.
Michael Bush took the ball over the goal line on third down from 1 yard out.
That was the last time Oakland would lead.
Welker’s catch-and-run got things rolling on the ensuing drive, and a 21-yard Welker gain a few snaps later gave the Patriots first goal from the 1. Green-Ellis ran the ball in for the score.
Welker finished with nine catches for 158 yards and the touchdown; he already has 616 receiving yards this season, the best four-game start in league history. Former Patriot Terry Glenn was the previous record-holder, with 544 in 1999.
In what turned out to be a recurring theme, the Raiders hurt themselves on their next possession. They moved the ball into the red zone, and then Campbell threw to the Patriots’ Patrick Chung in the end zone on second and goal. Drive over.
“I saw myself throwing it away, and I was going to throw it away,’’ Campbell said. “It’s one of those where you get caught in between throwing it super hard and it just came out of my hand too light. I just can’t make those kinds of mistakes, and I don’t make those kinds of mistakes. When it came out of my hand, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot, I hope he drops it.’ Unfortunately he didn’t.’’
New England turned the turnover into a field goal just before the half and went into the locker room ahead, 17-10.
The Patriots got the ball to start the second half and increased their lead, with Brady leading the offense 81 yards in just seven plays. There were two big plays during the drive: a 32-yard reception by Welker, and the touchdown. Ridley sliced through the line of scrimmage, safety Tyvon Branch whiffed on a tackle, and the rookie scored from 33 yards out for his first NFL touchdown.
The Raiders again got deep into Patriots territory and again had to settle for a field goal, closing the score to 24-13 with just over three minutes to play in the third quarter. But with another 80-yard drive the Patriots increased their lead again early in the fourth quarter.
And Vince Wilfork sent the home crowd streaming for the exits when he got his second interception in three weeks, reading Campbell perfectly and pulling in the pass.
“I just never saw him,’’ Campbell said. “He’s a D lineman. They played coverage downfield, so I was going to drop the ball off to Darren [McFadden] and just never saw him.’’