NEW ORLEANS — With just over a minute to go in the first quarter on Monday night, the Patriots were feeling good about themselves.
They had a 7-3 lead, and thanks to a terrific 41-yard punt return by Wes Welker, they had the ball in New Orleans territory, the Saints' 46-yard line. The deafening roar that greeted them at the start of the game from the capacity crowd at the Superdome had been replaced mostly by quiet and semi-concerned murmurs. They were executing their game plan perfectly — they had run the ball with ease, controlled the clock and started to impose their will on New Orleans. To make matters even better, they had gone for it on fourth-and-short twice, and both times they came away successful.
Then, Mike McKenzie stepped in front of a Tom Brady pass for Randy Moss, and everything changed.
“A pivotal play in the game,” New Orleans coach Sean Payton said of the interception.
From that point on, New Orleans controlled the game. The Saints went on runs of 21-3 and 35-10 run on the way to a 38-17 win over the Patriots (game recap here) in front of 70,768, the second-largest crowd in Louisiana Superdome history.
It was breathtaking. New Orleans had complete control of every aspect of the game from the moment McKenzie made the pick. The Saints were able to score quickly — a 75-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Devery Henderson was part of a second quarter during which the Saints put up three touchdowns. They also could slow it down and control the tempo and pace of the game — a fourth-quarter series that ended with a Brees-to-Marques Colston 20-yard touchdown pass milked an impressive 5:18 off the clock.
“We were able to take some shots down the field,” said Brees, who ended up 18-of-23 for 371 yards with five touchdowns and a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
“You have to give New Orleans credit — they were obviously the better team tonight,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “It wasn’t a competitive game like we thought it would be or like we needed it to be.”
“They just put it to us,” wide receiver Randy Moss said. “As simple as that.”
One thing we know about the Patriots under Belichick is that they play some of their best football after Thanksgiving — entering Monday night, since 2001, the Patriots had won 80 percent of their late-season games. That’s why the sight of a Patriots team suffering such a withering loss after Thanksgiving is rare. Whatever problems New England has need to be fixed, and quickly, because the games get bigger from here on out.
“We got beat up in every phase,” said left tackle Matt Light, who saw his first action since October, “but we’ve got great veteran leaders who understand there's a problem and we need to fix it.”
“I look forward to a hell of a Wednesday, really, a hell of a week,” Moss said. “We can go back to the drawing board and see if we can put this thing back together again.”
Here are nine other things we learned Monday night in New Orleans:
RIGHT NOW, THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE ISN’T CHAMPIONSHIP-CALIBER
The New England defense joins a long list — one that includes the Giants, Jets and Eagles — of good defenses that have been humbled by the New Orleans offense. So, Monday night’s performance wasn’t a complete embarrassment in the truest sense of the word. But this game certainly showed a national television audience that the Patriots defense, as currently constituted, isn’t the sort of unit that can be counted on to provide any support.
There was a litany of problems. New Orleans gained an average of 9.6 yards per play. There was no pass rush — Adalius Thomas had the only quarterback hit on Brees, as well as the only sack. The Patriots gave up eight pass plays of 15 yards or more. There was little run defense — even though New England was in nickel coverage the most of the night, the Saints managed 4.3 yards per carry and 113 rushing yards.
And the secondary was only a rumor — the best play came when Leigh Bodden and Brandon Meriweather crashed into each other and accidentally broke up a pass for Henderson on the goal line. Time and again, New England defensive backs were scorched in coverage, had missed tackles or other blown assignments.
“Obviously, they came to play,” said safety Brandon McGowan of the Saints, “and we came to watch.”
Simply put, New England had absolutely no answer for the Saints. Brees moved the New Orleans offense up and down the field with ease for three-plus quarters — the Saints didn’t go three-and-out until the fourth quarter. And that was after Brees had thrown for five touchdowns to five different players. It was an astounding offensive attack that was more than reminiscent of what the Patriots were able to do in 2007.
“Hats off to them,” said defensive lineman Mike Wright. “They played their ass off, that’s for sure. They were on fire, and they knew where to hit us and did it a bunch of times. We couldn’t catch up with them.”
“If we continue to play like that, we will have this losing feeling a lot more,” said defensive lineman Vince Wilfork. “All we can do is regroup, watch film and prepare for Miami on a short week.”
THE LOW POINT OF THE SEASON FOR THE PATRIOTS DEFENSE CAME IN THE SECOND QUARTER
Brees and the Saints had just gotten the ball back, holding a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter and facing a first and 10 on its own 25-yard line. To this point, the Patriots had done a pretty good job keeping Brees and the Saints passing game in check — the New Orleans quarterback was a relatively pedestrian 4-for-6 for 56 yards and no touchdowns in the first quarter.
As the play started to unfold, it was clear that in an attempt to get some semblance of pressure on Brees, cornerback Jonathan Wilhite came screaming off the corner on a blitz. Only problem was, no one — including safety Brandon Meriweather, who appeared to have responsibility on the play — picked up wide receiver Devery Henderson. When Brees spotted him 20 yards downfield, it was as if he simply appeared on the Superdome floor in a puff of smoke. Voila! No New England defender was within 15 yards of the New Orleans receiver, who could have walked into the end zone he was so open. The pass play went for 75 yards, the Saints took a 17-7 lead, and the rout was on.
“We had several blown coverages defensively,” Belichick said. “They took advantage of enormous mistakes on our part that they turned into huge plays. You can’t make those kinds of mistakes against a good football team. We made too many of them.”
RED ZONE ISSUES REMAIN WITH THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE
The Patriots did a little better in the red zone on both offense and defense, but that’s damning them with faint praise. They entered Monday night’s game with a 47.7 touchdown conversion rate in the red zone, and they were 2-for-4 against the Saints, with both touchdowns coming as a result of Maroney (a four-yard run and a two-yard run).
They settled for one red-zone field goal, and were turned away at a key juncture. New England was trailing 31-17 late in the third, and had a fourth and 4 at the New Orleans 10. As bad as things had gotten to that point, it would have made it a one-score game at that point, and then, well, anything could happen. But McKenzie knocked away a pass meant for Moss, giving the ball back to the Saints.
The Patriots wouldn’t get any closer to the New Orleans end zone the rest of the night.
“It was no doubt that we needed some points at that point,” Belichick said of the decision to go for it in that situation. “I thought that we were running the game well at that point offensively. I thought that we needed more than a field goal, the way the game was going.”
THE PLAY OF SAM AIKEN AND LAURENCE MARONEY WAS THE ONLY POSITIVE TO TAKE OUT OF THIS ONE FOR THE PATRIOTS
The two probably had the best games for the Patriots — Aiken had a career day with seven catches for a team-high 90 yards, including an impressive 33-yard reception midway through the second that got New England into Saints’ territory and set up a 36-yard field goal from Stephen Gostkowski to cut New Orleans’ lead to 17-10.
Maroney had two touchdowns in the red zone, and finished with 64 rushing yards, all of which came in the first half. Maroney was particular impressive on a three-play sequence in the first quarter where New England went to him three consecutive times: first, on a 22-yard run, second, on a nine-yard pass play out of the backfield, and third, on a four-yard run. On the 80-yard drive, Maroney accounted for 50 of the yards.
In addition, it was the sixth straight game in which Maroney found the end zone, tying him for the second-longest scoring streak in New England history.
THE PATRIOTS ARE NO CLOSER TO HITTING THAT MAGICAL 60-MINUTE MARK THAN THEY WERE LAST WEEK
New England still cannot put together a consistent scoring effort across four quarters. On Monday against the Saints, they looked good for most of the first quarter, controlling the tempo and moving the ball up and down the field … at least, until Brady threw the first of his two interceptions and changed the tone of the ballgame. After that, the New England offense was punchless in the third and fourth quarters — they had just one second-half touchdown.
“They were better than we were in every phase of the game,” Belichick said when he was asked if the New Orleans defense had the New England offense out of sync. “I don’t know how to put it any other way. They were better coached. They played better on offense and defense. They were better in the kicking game. They covered better than we did. They were obviously the better team.”
The Patriots now have just 101 second-half points through 11 games.
CONSISTENCY AGAINST THE NFL’S ELITE IS A PROBLEM FOR NEW ENGLAND
The Patriots have looked very good against some good teams this season. But an overall inconsistency still plagues this team from week to week against some of the better opponents. That needs to be remedied quickly, especially with a post-Thanksgiving stretch of games that will go a long way in determining where New England will be playing in January.
“We’re just not playing as consistent as we would like against these good teams,” Brady said. “And that’s what we need to do.”
“I think we’ve shown we’re up for a second, we’re down for a second, we’re back up, we’re down. We’re just kind of wavy right now,” Moss said. ”I know toward the end of the season, November, December, is really when you want to play good football. I’ve got big, big dreams for this football team. I don’t think Bill (Belichick) is going to let us down.”
NO ONE ON THE NEW ENGLAND SIDELINE DID TOM BRADY ANY FAVORS MONDAY NIGHT
It was not Tom Brady’s finest game of the season, but he didn’t get much support from his teammates. The quarterback finished 21-for-36 for 237 yards and two interceptions — one on the game-changer to McKenzie in the first quarter and the second on a deep attempt for Welker midway through the fourth quarter that was picked off by Darren Sharper.
The New England offensive line was a patchwork quilt most of the evening. It was without an injured Sebastian Vollmer, as well as a banged-up Stephen Neal (who was in and out for portions of the game). In addition, Matt Light returned from missing five games with a knee injury. The mixing and matching may have played a part in the overall struggles — the Saints hit Brady seven times and sacked him once.
As a result, with the exception of a 33-yarder to Aiken and a 47-yarder to Moss, the New England passing game was woefully underwhelming. There was some little stuff underneath, here and there — Aiken had a career night, while Wes Welker had his ninth straight game with six or more receptions. But in the end, it added up to an early night for Brady, who was lifted just over midway through the fourth quarter for backup Brian Hoyer after throwing the interception to Sharper.
On Monday, Brady passed Drew Bledsoe (29,657) to become New England’s all-time passing leader. Brady entered the game needing 163 yards to pass Bledsoe, and reached the milestone on an 11-yard pass to Sam Aiken in the third quarter. Brady now has 29,732 passing yards. But also on Monday night, Brady’s consecutive string of 300-plus yard games stopped at five.
“You always like to be out there,” said Brady when he was asked about the early exit, the first time all year he was pulled when trailing. “You’d rather be on the other side of it. But it’s nice for the other guys to get a chance to play. They work hard. [It's good] to get some experience when the game is out of control for the other team.”
YOU SHOULDN’T TEST THE NEW ORLEANS SECONDARY
The Saints were signing guys off the street the last two weeks in an attempt to shore up a depleted secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter were on the inactive list before the game. Rookie Malcolm Jenkins was in the starting lineup. Ditto for ex-Pats nickel back Randall Gay. And everyone — including his agent — was shocked when Mike McKenzie was on the field at the start of the game for New Orleans.
You know, that Mike McKenzie. The one who hadn’t played since Week 10 of last year, and was signed off the street late last month.
But they made it all work. The Saints’ secondary kept Moss (three catches, 67 yards) and Welker in check all night. Sharper’s interception was no surprise (it was his eighth of the season, the NFL’s best), but McKenzie hadn’t had a pick since last September. The New Orleans defensive backs generally controlled the tempo. Their play was in stark contrast to the work of the New England defensive backs, who had looked good lately, but took a colossal step backward last night.
“It’s pretty amazing that those guys were not a part of our team two week ago,” Brees said when asked about Sharper and some of the other new defensive backs in uniform Monday night for New Orleans. “The fact that they got out there and played as much as they did and fit into the scheme was amazing.”
SUNDAY’S GAME AGAINST THE DOLPHINS NOW MEANS MORE AGAIN
Dealing in hypotheticals is a dangerous business, but a loss next week in Miami leaves New England with a 7-5 record, and would leave them with a one-game lead on the Dolphins. It wouldn’t be time to start worrying about the state of the division, but with a one-game lead, the Patriots’ margin for error would suddenly become awful slim.
“We just need to work harder at a few things and get back on track,” Wright said. “We have Miami next week, at Miami — it’s going to be a tough one. We need to refocus and forget about this one, because dwelling on this isn’t going to help us out.”
Compounding matters is the fact that the Patriots have yet to come away with a true road victory this season — they defeated the Bucs in London, which was truly nothing more than a glorified win on a neutral field. Just one of New England’s final five opponents owns a winning record (Jacksonville). But road losses to the Jets, Colts and the Broncos, as well as Monday night’s blowout loss to the Saints, have left them searching for answers when it comes to winning on the road.
“If we don’t play well, we're not going to be able to beat those good teams, especially on the road,” Brady said. “We have three road games left, none more important than the one we're playing this week on a short week. So there's only one way out of it, you got to get back to work and do better next time.”