FOXBORO — The mask first appeared in the second half, and it was an indication of just what kind of day it would be at Gillette Stadium.
Randy Moss had just caught his third touchdown pass of the afternoon, doing his part in what would be a 35-7 win over the Jaguars at a sold-out Gillette Stadium. (For the complete game recap, click here.) The Jumbotron caught a fan in a Moss Mask — which had been sold on his site — who was mimicking Moss’ signature “separation” move, where he puts his hands back-to-back together at chest level and then snaps them apart.
Moss, who suddenly popped onto the screen moments after his doppelganger, saw his imitator on the big screen and laughed. He then pulled out his move, a response to the fan celebration. Egged on by his teammates, Moss went back and forth, time and again with the fan, as the scoreboard operator flipped back and forth between the two. It sparked a raucous response from the fans, who started chanting “Ran-dy, Ran-dy.”
Suddenly, the one-catch affair against the Panthers two weeks ago — and the booing from the home fans that went along with it — seemed very much a thing of the past.
“That was very entertaining,” Moss said after the game. “I had a lot of my teammates wanting me to mess with the guy. He put a little humor into it, and I enjoyed it.
“That’s the thing about having fun — when things go right, you get the fans, you get the players in the game. It was a stadium full of fun today. I think we all enjoyed it.”
Moss contributed more than just some sideline hijinks to the “stadium full of fun.” He had four catches for 45 yards, three of them for touchdowns. He executed a nice crossing pattern for a 2-yard touchdown reception on his first trip to the end zone with 2:48 left in the first quarter to give the Patriots a 7-0 lead. On his second touchdown reception, Moss read the coverage and found a soft spot in the defense to come away with a 6-yard reception to make it 28-0 with 45 seconds left in the second quarter. He finished with a flourish, hauling in a 17-yard grab from Tom Brady early in the fourth to make it 35-0 and spark the celebration.
“On the first touchdown, they had a guy in the middle and I was trying to get it to him early and the safety overran it and I threw it to him behind the other guy,” Brady said. “[On] the second one that I threw to him, he really wasn’t supposed to break in, but he did and it was wide open. And the third one, he really made a great play kind of ‘swimming’ the guy by to break to the flag.
“Not everybody in the league can do that. That’s something pretty special. Those are some great instincts he has.”
Afterward, Moss was philosophical about the rollercoaster ride he’s taken over the last three weeks.
“The good thing about it is, there’s going to be some good times and bad times in football,” Moss said. “To have the fans and stadium behind us, it felt good. Definitely, my last performance here wasn’t really too hot. So, for everybody to have fun, I think that was a good thing — everybody having fun.”
And as a result, for the second time in his three years in New England, Moss gets to call himself a division champion.
“The division’s back in New England,” he said. “Two out of my three years [here] we’ve helped win the division. Last year was very disappointing, but the good thing is we got the hat and T-shirt, so we’re able to move on to see what the rest of the season holds for us.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday at Gillette Stadium:
THERE’S JUST SOMETHING ABOUT THE JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS THAT BRINGS OUT THE BEST IN TOM BRADY
On Sunday, Brady was astoundingly efficient in all phases against the Jaguars. His longest pass of the afternoon was a 29-yarder to Wes Welker (he also had a 26-yard touchdown pass to Chris Baker), but he expertly worked underneath all afternoon, finishing 23-for-26 for 267 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, the first game he didn’t have a pick since a Nov. 22 win over the Jets. (The guys at Cold, Hard Football Facts determined Brady's performance on Sunday tied him for the ninth-most-accurate passing performance in NFL history.)
He ended up with a 149 passer rating (second-best on the season, trailing only the 152.8 he posted in the 59-0 win over Tennessee), a dominant performance for a quarterback who had struggled to break the 150-yard passing barrier the previous two weeks against the Bills and the Panthers.
“If we played like that today, I’d love to go against anybody, whether it’s the Jaguars or any of these other teams,” Brady said. “This happened to be the team we played against. Like I said, we just played good. We executed well. We had a great week of practice and I’m just proud of the way the guys came out and responded.”
In his last two games against the Jaguars, Brady is 49-for-54, a completion percentage of 91 percent. It’s a stat that can be traced back in large part to Jacksonville’s absolute inability to get to the quarterback — the Jags entered the game with just 14 sacks, the lowest mark in the league.
“We really didn’t do nearly enough to challenge him,” Jacksonville coach Jack Del Rio said of Brady. “They made it look pretty easy. We weren’t around the quarterback enough.”
OF COURSE, A LOT OF THAT IS DUE TO THE FACT THAT BRADY REMAINED UPRIGHT
Neither Brady nor backup quarterback Brian Hoyer was sacked on the afternoon, as the Patriots were able to keep a pitiful Jacksonville pass rush at bay. In fact, neither New England quarterback was even hit on the day, and no New England quarterback has been sacked since the fourth quarter of the Nov. 30 loss to New Orleans, a stretch of four consecutive games that includes 240 minutes, 43 seconds of action.
The Patriots offensive line has done a very good job of keeping its quarterbacks protected. Brady only has been sacked 15 times this season (Hoyer was brought down once), good for third-best in the league behind Indianapolis (10) and Tennessee (15). And barring a complete breakdown along the offensive line in the regular-season finale, Brady will finish with the fewest number of sacks for his career. (His previous low was 21 sacks in 2007.)
It’s a remarkable stat considering the fact that the offensive line has played with a lot of moving parts all season. Rookie Sebastian Vollmer has stepped in to play left tackle when Matt Light when down with an injury, and he saw a ton of snaps at right tackle on Sunday when Nick Kaczur was out with an injury. Right guard Stephen Neal stepped back into the lineup on Sunday after missing the last three games with an ankle injury, taking the place of Dan Connolly, who has spelled Neal and Dan Koppen on several occasions this year.
“That’s our fourth game in a row of no sacks. That’s pretty impressive for our offensive line — 15 sacks all season. That’s one a game,” Brady said. “I mean, that’s a remarkable job by those guys up front and Dante [Scarnecchia], the way he coaches those guys.”
Koppen said Sunday’s effort was “probably” the unit's most complete game of the season in all phases of the game.
“It’s one of those things where hopefully we can build on this and keep going,” Koppen said. “But from start to finish, everybody was in it. We enjoyed that.”
AS GOOD A CHRISTMAS WEEK AS YOU MIGHT HAVE HAD, THE PATRIOTS PROBABLY ONE-UPPED YOU
After the game, Bill Belichick — as well as several players — talked about how a great week of practice gave them the preparation needed in the win. Despite all the Christmas distractions, the Patriots were able to get lots of work in over the course of the week, and, as a result, were able to come away with the victory.
“We had a great week of practice, and I’m just proud of the way the guys came out and responded,” Brady said. “You know, you sit there at the beginning of the week knowing that it’s really a championship game for you and that they’re fighting for their playoff life and it’s going to come down to one team putting it together. We were the team that came out ahead today.”
Said Belichick: “We had a real good week of practice with the holidays and everything. But I thought they did a good job of being focused all the way through — Wednesday, Thursday, Friday [and they] just carried it right into today. I thought they played a real good football game today. The players stepped up. They made play after play. We just did a lot of things right out there. I’m really proud of them. I thought they earned what they got today.”
VOLTRON IS NOW FULLY RECONNECTED … BUT STILL HAD A MALFUNCTION ON SUNDAY
Earlier in the season, Laurence Maroney talked about how excited he would be when Voltron could be reconnected once again. On Sunday, the machine was in full working order for the first time in months, and despite the fact that Fred Taylor was good to go for the first time since October, the Patriots gave Maroney the start.
Maroney, who had run well over the previous five weeks — he averaged 73 yards a game in that span — played a key role in New England’s first drive, providing a steady presence on the ground as he picked up 22 yards on five carries over the first series, averaging 4.4 yards per carry and running well ... until the Patriots reached the shadow of Jacksonville’s goal line. On a first-and-goal from the Jags’ 1-yard line that same drive, the Patriots handed the ball to Maroney, who was hit by Jacksonville defensive lineman John Henderson. He put the ball on the ground, and the Jaguars recovered.
Maroney didn’t get the ball the rest of the afternoon — Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and Fred Taylor received the carries the rest of the way. And while the Patriots were able to come away with a season-high 197 rushing yards on the ground, they did most of it without Maroney, who ducked out on the media after the game.
“I think all our backs were productive today,” Belichick said. “They all had opportunities to carry the ball and play and they were all productive. Whichever ones were out there, it seemed like they all made positive plays.”
“We talked throughout the game,” said Taylor, who could be seen talking to No. 39 on the sidelines. “I just told him, ‘In all situations, try to pull something positive from it.’ God works in mysterious ways, we all know that. I just told him, ‘Whether good or bad, it happened for a reason. So just be patient, find a positive and keep your head up.’ ”
NO ONE WHO RUSHES FOR 35 YARDS IN A GAME WILL EVER BE HAPPIER THAN FRED TAYLOR WAS ON SUNDAY
Taylor didn’t get a chance until late in the game, but when he did, he was all about getting yards against his old team. New England had the ball for the last 18 plays from scrimmage, and Taylor touched it 12 times on the series, finishing with 11 carries for 35 yards.
“It was just like practicing again,” Taylor said of getting a chance to meet his old mates. “Like training camp practices where you would go all out and you would actually hit each other.”
Taylor, who stirred up a minor controversy on several levels because of what he said about the Jaguars this week, said there was as much trash-talking as you could get in a 35-7 game.
“A lot of laughs, small trash — friendly trash-talking,” said Taylor, who walked away with Maurice Jones-Drew’s jersey. “Those guys weren’t seriously talking trash, they were just trying to be out there and have fun. And it was kind of hard for them to get too fired up, considering they were down by 28 at that point.”
THE TONE OF A GAME CAN CHANGE EARLY
It was a good day for New England's defensive backs, who limited the Jacksonville passing game to 185 yards and were never better than in the first quarter on a key sequence that turned the game. First, on a third-and-1, safety Brandon Meriweather had an excellent open-field takedown of Jacksonville wide receiver Mike Thomas on an end-around attempt.
Then, on the next play — a fourth-and-1 — Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew tried to bounce it outside to pick up the first down but was brought down by safety James Sanders shy of the first-down marker, forcing the Jags to turn the ball over.
“I think that helped the momentum,” linebacker Adalius Thomas said of the sequence. “They’re one of the better teams in the league at third-and-short, fourth-and-short. They’ve been getting it so much, and for it to be the first time and you stop them, I think that was a crucial point in the game.”
The same defensive duo later combined on a first-quarter interception of Garrard, when the Jacksonville quarterback floated a pass for tight end Marcedes Lewis over the middle. Lewis went up to get the pass and got absolutely LIT UP by Sanders. Meriweather came away with pick and ran it all the way back to the Jacksonville 27-yard line, setting up New England’s second touchdown of the game.
“I just trusted my instincts — I think that was something I was lacking in the last couple of weeks,” said Meriweather, who finished with six tackles. “I had a meeting with Bill [Belichick] and Josh [Boyer] and some of my defensive coaches and they just told me to get back to basics, trust my instincts and stop trying to go out of my element and make plays, so I did that.”
“I had a couple of good reads on the quarterback,” said Sanders, who had five tackles and a pair of passes defensed. “I told Brandon [Meriweather] that if it had been a better pass, I would have picked it off instead of him, but hey … I’ll take the hit.”
THE PATRIOTS' RED ZONE OFFENSE HAS IMPROVED
The Patriots have struggled to finish off drives all season, but the last two weeks, they have managed to execute masterfully in the red area. On Sunday, they were 4-for-6 on touchdown chances once they got inside the Jacksonville 20-yard line.
Coming on the heels of a 2-for-3 effort the previous week against the Bills, it’s an encouraging sign for an offense that was ninth in the AFC (49 percent) at converting touchdown chances inside the opposition's 20-yard line entering Sunday’s game.
“Better execution — just better execution,” Belichick said of the changes in the red-zone offense. “It’s not that we’re doing anything that is that revolutionary or that new. We’re just doing a better job of it, and that’s usually the case. It starts on the practice field. I think we had — like I said — a good week of practice, and that usually translates into playing better.”
“There’s only so many things they can do in the red area,” Welker said. “You’ve just got to understand what they’re going to do and just go out there and try to make a great play from there and have great plays called. I think we did that this week, and we had a good game plan down there and we were able to execute.”
WITH FREE GEAR ON THE LINE, NO ONE PLAYS BETTER THAN THE PATRIOTS
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi called them "Hat and T-shirt Games," and few teams have been better at coming away with wins in those contests than New England.
“It’s good to walk off that field as AFC East champions,” said Belichick, who has been at the helm for all of New England’s AFC East championships since 2001. “Right now, it means our season goes on. We’ll figure out exactly what that means later. It’s good to be in the postseason.”
“Getting the hat and T-shirt and winning the division was huge,” said Wes Welker, who finished with 13 catches for 138 yards. “We’re happy to get out there and take care of business.”
While Hat and T-shirt Games are — pardon the pun — old hat for many of the veteran Patriots, there are some players who will be getting a taste of the postseason for the first time in a New England uniform.
“This is what I came here for,” said cornerback Leigh Bodden, who is coming off an 0-16 season with the Lions and will be making his first trip to the playoffs in his seventh season in the NFL.
On the flip side, Brady, right guard Stephen Neal, left tackle Matt Light and running back Kevin Faulk are now part of a group that has won seven division championships.
“It’s big,” Brady said. “It’s been a long journey for us. It started out at the beginning of January last year not making the playoffs, and then, how you’re going to prepare the team through the offseason program and the minicamps and the training camps, to have this opportunity to play for this — while last year, we were hoping for people to lose to have the opportunity to make the playoffs.
“There’s no greater opportunity for us as athletes, with two games remaining to kind of cinch up the division with a win. We put a lot into it over the course of these 12 months, and it really pays off when it goes the way that you hope it does. There’s a lot of people putting a lot of hard work in over the course of this time, a lot of guys coming and working to learn the system.
“It’s a great win for us.”
WITH THE DIVISION WRAPPED UP, NO ONE IS SURE WHAT THE PATRIOTS MIGHT DO IN THE REGULAR-SEASON FINALE AGAINST HOUSTON
Entering Sunday’s game, the Patriots were pretty banged up. They got defensive lineman Ty Warren back, as well as starting right guard Stephen Neal and running back Fred Taylor, all after extended absences. But they still were without nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who continues to be hobbled by a foot injury, as well as right tackle Nick Kaczur, slowed by shoulder woes. And Brady has been dogged by shoulder, finger and rib woes throughout the latter stages of the season.
“It’s the end of December — I don’t think anybody’s 100 percent at this time of year that’s played in 15 or however many regular-season games. We’re out there,” Belichick said. “These guys are fighting through it to be on the practice field, so we can get our timing and execution out there during the week and they’re fighting through it out there on Sundays. That’s what good players do, and we’re fortunate we have a lot of good players on this team.”
The oncoming debate — rest vs. rust — will be played out throughout New England this week as the regular-season finale looms against the Texans in Houston next Sunday. In the interest of staying sharp, do you run your starters out there for the duration, even though the game doesn’t appear to have much long-term impact on the AFC playoff picture? Or, do you sit the injured players, getting them an extra week of rest before the start of the postseason but running the risk of easing up on the gas pedal before the start of the playoffs?
After Sunday's game, Belichick wasn’t tipping his hand as to what he planned on doing.
“Honestly, we just came off the field beating Jacksonville and that’s all we’re really thinking about. We’ll worry about this week this week and next week next week,” he said. “Right now, we’re just happy to beat Jacksonville. We’re going to enjoy it for a little while and then we’ll get ready for Houston and whatever the postseason brings.”