FOXBOROUGH — With the Patriots’ offense once again stuck in neutral, it was left to the defense to salvage Sunday’s 16-9 victory over Oakland in the season’s home opener at Gillette Stadium.
Backed to the shadow of the goal posts in the final minute while protecting the 7-point lead, the Patriots dodged one bullet, then picked the perfect time to force the only turnover of the game. It certainly wasn’t a work of art, but for the Patriots who play defense, Sunday was satisfying. Winning, however it comes, has a tendency to deliver that.
“Happy we got a win,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We know we’ve got things we need to work on, things we can do better, but in this league, you don’t know how the game is going to play out, you don’t know how you’re going to get the win. Every game is a do-whatever-it-takes win.”
Against the Raiders, that meant keeping them out of the end zone. The Patriots have done that now for almost 115 game minutes; Minnesota scored a touchdown on its first drive in Week 2, but that was it in a 30-7 New England victory. Now the Patriots have gone seven full quarters — and most of an eighth — without allowing a touchdown.
It looked like the Raiders finally had one, with Darren McFadden taking a handoff and charging over the goal line from 6 yards out as the clock went under one minute to play. But left guard Gabe Jackson was called for holding, bringing the ball back to the Patriots’ 12-yard line.
On the next play, rookie quarterback Derek Carr threw a pass intended for Denarius Moore, who was running a crossing pattern inside the 10-yard line. The pass went off Moore’s hands, then bounced off the hands of Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. The bang-bang ricochet flew toward 325-pound defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, who gathered the ball in for the third interception of his career.
“That was a great defensive play. I just happened to catch it,” Wilfork said. “We always preach running to the ball and doing little stuff like that can make a big difference, where you can always find the ball if it’s fumbled, or any type of turnover. And that’s what happened. I credit my whole team.”
Said Ryan: “Zone coverage, great call. They were running short, high-percentage routes, so I just had zone vision, tried to make a play on the receiver. It kind of bounced off his hands, and ricocheted off me before I even noticed it, and big Vince, one of our best players, [was] where he needed to be and was fortunate to make a play.”
It was Ryan who put the Raiders in first-and-goal territory when he was flagged for pass interference while jostling with Andre Holmes along the sideline. The call could have gone against Holmes, but Ryan was the one deemed in violation. The penalty went for 24 yards on third and 7 from the Patriots’ 30.
“I have a right to the ball also,” Ryan said. “The refs called what they called, so it’s pass interference.”
Ryan and Wilfork teamed up to seal the win two plays after the interference call, but only after the Patriots stopped the Raiders on two prior fourth-quarter possessions in a one-score game. After a field goal gave the Patriots a 13-9 lead, the defense twice stuffed Latavius Murray on runs up the middle when all Oakland needed was 1 yard. It forced a punt.
Another field goal put the Patriots ahead, 16-9, and the Raiders again couldn’t gain a first down on their next possession. Ryan broke up a second-down pass, and Carr was forced to lob a jump ball up on third down that fell incomplete. Another punt.
It’s clear that the Patriots are going through some growing pains on offense. Until they find their stride — assuming they do — it might fall on the defense to do more than its fair share.
“We definitely didn’t have our best game out there, so whenever you can go out there and get a win, and there’s a lot more that we can do, you’re happy with the victory,” said Rob Ninkovich. “There’s definitely room for improvement; we’ve got to do better in all three phases.