No Standing Pat
With a pair of convincing wins, the Patriots seem intent on proving that their Super Bowl win was no fluke
Though it's not in their nature, the Patriots have every right to be feeling a bit smug these days. The team that many considered lucky to win the Super Bowl last season routed the Jets 44-7 on Sunday, six days after it had dismantled the Steelers, one of the preseason favorites in the AFC. Make no mistake: There's no better team in football right now than the Patriots.
New England has now won 11 consecutive games, a streak that goes back to last November and shouldn't end any time soon if its offense continues to perform as it did against the Jets. Along with all the gaudy numbers—432 total yards, 38 minutes of possession time, a 62.5% conversion rate on third downs and no sacks allowed—the Patriots showed a creativity that was nonexistent last season during their surprising playoff run, when they scored only three offensive touchdowns in three games. New England rolled out an assortment of three-, four-and five-receiver sets and all kinds of motion. A slick hand-off from quarterback Tom Brady to running back Kevin Faulk on a draw play resulted in a 25-yard gain, and a fake reverse helped set up a 39-yard completion from Brady to wideout David Patten. Apparently oblivious to the heavy rains that fell intermittently at the Meadowlands, Brady threw the ball all over the field, completing 25 of 35 passes for 269 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Nine Patriots had at least one reception.
The most surprising thing about New England's success is that the Jets say they knew what was coming. They had seen New England call 25 consecutive pass plays in the 30-14 win over Pittsburgh. But as New York strong safety Sam Games would say afterward, "They moved the ball like they were [operating] from a script all day."
These aren't the same old Patriots—in more ways than one. The tight end position, which accounted for 19 receptions in 2001, has been bolstered by the addition of free agents Cam Cleeland and Christian Fauria as well as Daniel Graham, a rookie first-round draft pick out of Colorado. That athletic trio already has 12 catches and two touchdowns. Free agent Donald Hayes, an imposing target at 6'4", and rookie speedster Deion Branch, a second-round choice from Louisville who had a 49-yard touchdown reception on Sunday, were added to the wideout corps. Now the offensive burden doesn't fall so heavily on the shoulders of Pro Bowl wideout Troy Brown, who set a franchise record last season with 101 catches. "It's a lot easier for the coaches because we can call a play and attack the soft spot of a defense instead of having to come up with ways to get the ball to Troy each week," coach Bill Belichick says.
Just as important have been the play-calling of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and Brady's decision-making. Weis is masterly at exploiting weaknesses; he likes to employ the shotgun and multiple-receiver formations, because Brady has excellent vision and a quick release.
As was the case last season, the Patriots are proud of their selfless attitude and competitive spirit. During the preseason Belichick admits he was concerned about a Super Bowl hangover, but that hasn't been a problem. For example, first-team receivers asked starting defensive backs to work against them during scout-team sessions Just to give the receivers better preparation. The receivers also want to challenge their defensive counterparts, because they believe New England's offense is now as dangerous as its defense. "This team can do whatever it takes to win," says Fauria, who joined the Patriots after seven seasons with the Seahawks. "If it means running the ball, we can do that. If it means throwing 50 times a game, we can do that With Charlie scheming and the talent we have, we'll be tough to stop. But no one guy is going to carry us. Our winning will be a collective effort, just like last year."
Revival in New Orleans
Big Plays in The Big Easy
Somewhere, Randy Mueller has to be at least cracking a smile. Before the Saints' general manager was abruptly fired by owner Tom Benson in May, he and coach Jim Haslett had overhauled the offense, hoping to give the unit more quick-strike capability. After the Saints' 35-20 thumping of the Packers on Sunday—the team's second straight win over an NFC playoff favorite, coming on the heels of its Week 1 upset of the Bucs—the moves seem to have paid off. New Orleans is 2-0 for just the fourth time in its history.
The trade of tailback Ricky Williams to the Dolphins last March for two draft picks was the team's biggest gamble, but new starter Deuce McAllister has been impressive, rushing for 232 yards and two touchdowns and providing what Williams did not: the speed and savvy of a big-play back. McAllister's 62-yard run-longer than any Williams had during his three years in the Big Easy—iced the win over the Packers. His superior receiving skills have also allowed the Saints to employ more three-and four-receiver sets, creating mismatches that have been particularly evident on third downs. New Orleans has converted 53.1% of those opportunities.