FOXBORO — It was a 15-minute stretch of football that woke up the echoes of 2007, and allowed even the most hardened cynic to think that even after struggling at times through the first five weeks of the season, the Patriots offense might still be able to regain some of the football mojo it has lost the last year or so.
At the start of the second quarter, New England held a 10-0 lead over Tennessee. Despite a missed field goal attempt from Stephen Gostkowski and the loss of Sammy Morris to a knee injury, the Patriots appeared to be in control of the game. Nothing astounding — instead, it was a rather pedestrian 20 minutes of action thus far.
But then, the lightning struck. In the span of seven plays from scrimmage — a stretch of just over 3-1/2 minutes — New England took it to another level. Tom Brady hit Randy Moss on a perfectly executed 40-yard flea-flicker. After a Tennessee fumble on its next play from scrimmage, it took two plays to turn that into another touchdown when Brady hit Moss for a 28-yard score.
The Titans would it over again on the next drive, and four plays later, it was Brady to Kevin Faulk on a 38-yard screen to make it 31-0. And despite the fact that there were 36-plus minutes left to play in the game, it was effectively over. The Pats would add two more touchdowns before the end of the quarter, but the knockout punch had been delivered.
“A lot of things came together,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said of the offensive eruption that seemed to set NFL records with each series. “All the stars were in alignment.”
New England set NFL records for most touchdown passes in a quarter (Brady, 5 in the second quarter) and the largest halftime lead (45 points). In addition, the Patriots set numerous team records, including most points in a game (59), most points in a half (45 in the first half), most points in a quarter (35 in second quarter) and most total net yards in a game (619).
“You never go into a game thinking it’s going to be like this,” Belichick said.
As for Brady, he set team records for most passing yards in a half (345), most passing touchdowns in a half (5) and most passing touchdowns in a game (6). He ended the game 29-for-34 for 380 passing yards and six TD passes.
He confessed to not even being aware of what was going on with the numbers.
“I didn’t even — to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know. I mean, I really didn’t. I knew we were playing good — I knew that,” he said. “It was good. We did a great job. Play calls were great. It was really a fun day to be out there.”
The whole thing should be taken with a colossal grain of salt — the Titans are much worse than everyone expected, and appeared to simply give up in the second half. But the sight of the Patriots rolling up and down the field has to give the rest of the NFL pause, leaving foes to ponder the heretofore unponderable question: What if they have it back?
“Every week, we’re learning something more about ourselves and what we can do,” Brady said. “There's no doubt a game like this can give you a lot of confidence.”
Here are nine other things we learned Sunday night at a surprisingly snowy Gillette Stadium:
THE PATRIOTS OFFENSE IS CAPABLE OF CONNECTING ON PLAYS OF 40-PLUS YARDS
After five weeks, Wes Welker and the Patriots offense had heard enough. In the days leading up to Sunday’s rout of the Titans, Belichick and Brady had talked about a lack of big plays for New England’s offense. The Patriots had a few opportunities over the course of the first five weeks of the season, but they inevitably fell short. Open receivers were overthrown, passes were dropped or running backs were unable to make that last fake needed to break a big gain.
That all ended Sunday against the Titans, when the Patriots were able to connect on three plays of 40 yards or more.
“I think we were just sick of hearing [about it] and we wanted to just shut [Belichick and Brady] up,” Welker said with a smile after Sunday’s rout. “I think we were able to do that today, a little bit.
“It’s something that definitely needs to be a part of our offense,” added the receiver, who had 10 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns. “I think we’ve been so close on a bunch of them, that we’re just barely missing them. And today, we were able to hit on some of those, and it made the game a lot easier.”
Laurence Maroney got things started midway through the first quarter when he delivered a 45-yard run for his first touchdown of the season. The second came on a 48-yard pass from Brady to Welker late in the first that set up a 33-yard field goal by Gostkowski to make it 10-0.
But the third was the most impressive of the afternoon — a flea-flicker early in the second quarter where Brady found Moss (who had three touchdown catches and 129 receiving yards) on a 40-yard scoring strike to make it 17-0.
“You can always tell when Randy’s open because he puts on another gear. I just threw it out there, he was wide open and he made a great catch,” said Brady, who handed the ball off to running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis before getting the return toss. “It was a good play for us.”
The offensive fireworks were more than a little reminiscent of the razzle-dazzle offered by the offense two years ago.
“It’s important for the offense to hit those when they’re there,” Brady said when asked about the big plays that set the tone for Sunday’s win. “We hit a few more of those than in the past — last week, obviously, was a different story. We’ve got to make those plays when they’re there. They gave us a couple of opportunities today.
“Coach Belichick was on us pretty tough — we were the only team not to hit a 40-yard pass play or have a 20-yard run all season. Hopefully, we’ve kept him quiet for a week or two.”
BE PREPARED FOR THE PATRIOTS TO PLAY MORE 3-4 DEFENSE THIS SEASON
After going with the 4-3 almost exclusively since losing middle/inside linebacker Jerod Mayo in the season-opener, the Patriots played 3-4 almost exclusively on Sunday against the Titans.
New England had a defensive front of end Ty Warren, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and end Jarvis Green, with rookie Myron Pryor and veteran Mike Wright rotating in throughout the afternoon. At linebacker, Gary Guyton and Mayo were on the inside with Junior Seau.
While Belichick said the move to the 3-4 was more of “a game-plan thing,” the addition of Seau did give the Patriots a little more positional versatility on the inside (they now have four traditional inside linebackers), which allowed them to show more 3-4 than they have in the past. The inside guys were complimented by a variety of different players on the outside, including Pierre Woods, Derrick Burgess, Tully Banta-Cain and Rob Ninkovich.
For Guyton, it was an opportunity to play alongside two of his favorites.
“It was a little change, but we all took care of it and handled it professionally,” said Guyton, who finished with three tackles on the day. “We just played when we were called. It’s always fun to pay with Mayo and Seau, and I’m just enjoying the experience.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of how many snaps each linebacker played: Mayo (40 snaps), Burgess (39), Guyton (32), Banta-Cain (29), Seau (23) Ninkovich (14) and Woods (14).
SOMETIMES, THE NEWS OF WHO IS GOING TO BE INACTIVE FOR A GAME IS ALMOST AS EXCITING AS THE GAME ITSELF
The Patriots did not have linebacker Adalius Thomas, left tackle Matt Light and wide receiver Joey Galloway for the game — the three were part of the pregame inactives. Of the three, the biggest surprise was Thomas, who, according to Boston.com, had not been a healthy scratch since his rookie year of 2000. (WEEI.com learned later in the afternoon that Thomas was not at the stadium for the game.)
Statistically, Thomas had been underperforming through the course of the 2009 season — he entered yesterday’s game with just 12 tackles through the first five games of the season. He had been unable to get any sort of sustained pressure on opposing quarterbacks, with just two quarterback hits and one sack on the season. He reportedly has been suffering from elbow issues, but nothing severe enough to warrant inclusion on the injury report.
No one was interested in commenting about Thomas after the game, with Belichick only saying, “We just went with the players we thought would have the bigger role in the game,” when asked about the status of the linebacker. In a season that has had more than its share of interesting inactive lists (Will Galloway, now a healthy scratch for three straight weeks, ever play another down for the Patriots?), the situation involving the outside linebacker certainly bears watching.
FIVE TURNOVERS MAKE FOR A HAPPY DEFENSE
The Patriots were able to force five takeaways Sunday — two fumbles and three interceptions. When it came to takeaways, New England was plus-3 coming into the game, but it was the first game when the Patriots defense was able to come away with so many turnovers that gave the New England offense such tremendous field position.
In the second quarter, the Patriots were able to come away with three turnovers alone — two fumbles and one interception — and their worst start after the turnover came at their own 35-yard line. There would be another fumble and another interception later in the game, with one leaving New England to start a drive in Tennessee territory.
It was complementary football at its finest, and was another aspect of just how well things went for the Patriots on Sunday.
“The defense definitely stepped up and got a lot of turnovers today and helped put the offense in position and give the offense the ball a lot so they could do a lot of things,” cornerback Leigh Bodden said. “We played a big game today.”
ACROSS THE BOARD, SUNDAY MAY HAVE BEEN THE FINEST DAY OF THE SEASON FOR THE PATRIOTS ROOKIES
In the wake of the victory, there’s plenty of acknowledgment to be doled out to New England’s first-year players. Left tackle Sebastian Vollmer stepped in to replace an injured Light and did his part to seamlessly maintain the continuity of the offensive line, delivering a great block on Maroney’s touchdown run and helping holding the Tennessee pass rush in check for most of the afternoon.
“He did a great job and he’s worked really hard,” Brady said of Vollmer. “He’s a smart kid. He's tough. You see how big he is out there, so he’s got a lot of physical tools. His intelligence gets him in the right position, the right calls.”
In addition, defensive backs Darius Butler and Pat Chung both saw extensive playing time — with Butler drawing the start at left corner — and both came away with interceptions. Defensive lineman Myron Pryor recorded a forced fumble in the third quarter, jarring the ball from receiver Nate Washington. And backup quarterback Brian Hoyer got his first-ever playing time as a professional in the second half, engineering a 12-play scoring drive that ended when he plunged over from the 1 for his first touchdown. (He ended the day 9-of-11 for 52 yards.)
LAURENCE MARONEY CAN MAKE THE MOST OF AN OPPORTUNITY
The much-maligned running back, performing in relief for Morris (who appeared to go down with a knee injury on the first quarter), produced his best game in almost two years Sunday against the Titans, running for a team-high 123 yards and a touchdown in 31 overall offensive snaps. (The offensive output was his best since he ran for 156 yards in a win over Miami on Dec. 23, 2007.)
The numbers were good, but the way he ran was perhaps even more encouraging. On his 45-yard touchdown run — the first time he’s reached the end zone since Super Bowl XLII — Maroney was able to let the play develop nicely. He allowed Vollmer seal his man, and then hit the hole with a ferocity we have not seen around here since the end of the 2007 season, racing for the end zone and showing that breakaway speed. For much of the rest of the day, there was a lot of North/South running as opposed to East/West. The dancing was gone, replaced with strong, decisive action.
The Titans do one thing well on defense, and that’s stop the run (they entered Sunday’s game allowing an average of just 75 yards a game, fourth-best in the league), which makes Maroney’s performance all the more impressive.
“He got a little crease, and we all know once he gets out there he can run, and he did,” Belichick said of Maroney’s touchdown run. “He had a couple of nice runs and he runs hard. We had a little bit of space, and once he got some momentum, he’s a hard guy to bring down. We’ve all seen that before.”
Said Maroney: “Especially with the conditions, you have to be patient and let the blocks happen, because a lot of things are going to be a lot slower because people are running and trying to keep their footing,. I knew it wasn’t going to be a real fast, fast game. I knew it was going to be more patient and downhill, and hopefully you slip through some tackles.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of how many snaps each running back played: Green-Ellis (33 snaps), Maroney (31), Faulk (11), Morris (3).
JUNIOR SEAU SOUNDS LIKE A GUY WHO COULD BE HERE FOR MORE THAN SIX GAMES
Seau saw his first action of the season with just over six minutes left in the first half, and by our count, ended up with 23 snaps on the afternoon. He came away with two tackles and one fumble recovery, and was teamed alongside Guyton for much of the second half in New England’s 3-4 defensive scheme. (No linebacker saw more snaps in the second half than Seau.)
While he wasn’t a dominating presence, the sight of No. 55 out there making plays was enough to fire up the rest of the defense.
“Junior looked like Junior. He’s timeless,” Belichick said. “He came out to practice this week and he’s running around, making calls, chasing after the ball, flying around like a rookie. That’s just Junior. He’s got great passion for the game and a lot of energy when he steps out there. Whatever his role is, whatever the play … he’s a football player.”
Seau, who was surfing last Sunday, was going through what he called his own “training camp” Sunday against the Titans, and sounded an awful lot like someone who could give the Patriots more than the six games he initially said he could.
“You’re never going to be in football shape,” he said. “But what you can do is get to a point where you’re conditioned — number one — mentally and physically. Emotionally, you know it’s going to come. It’s going to come. Today was a good start.”
KERRY COLLINS AND CHRIS JOHNSON NOW HAVE SOMETHING IN COMMON WITH STEVE BARTKOWSKI, BUBBA BEAN AND THE REST OF THE 1976 ATLANTA FALCONS
This was a beatdown of epic proportions, the kind of shock-and-awe, record-setting onslaught that should have come with a PG-13 rating if you were a Tennessee fan. Nothing went right for the Titans on the afternoon, as Tennessee was dominated from start to finish in brutally efficient fashion.
The 59-point margin of victory matched the largest since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 — the Los Angeles Rams' 59-0 win over Bartkowski, Bean and the rest of the Falcons in Week 13 of the 1976 NFL season.
“I have been playing sports since I was 8, and never in any sport have I experienced anything like this,” said Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck.
Tennessee has now lost its last three games by a combined 101 points. The Titans are 0-6, and are coming off a record-setting loss that set new lows in NFL lore. They took their worst loss since they began play in 1960 as the Houston Oilers, eclipsing a 61-7 setback to Cincinnati in 1989. Safe to say, a year after starting the season 10-0, things have hit rock bottom for the Titans.
“I would have to say it is,” said Johnson, who finished with the most inconsequential 128-yard rushing game in NFL history. “Fifty-nine to nothing and 0-6. That’s what it is. There isn’t anything else you can say.”
“I’m disappointed and embarrassed,” Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said. “Fortunately for me, career-wise, I have never been through anything like this before and, unfortunately, it happened tonight. I can assure you one thing, it’s not going to happen again.”
THE PATRIOTS ARE GOING TO TRY TO CRAM A LOT INTO THE NEXT FEW DAYS
By the looks of the schedule, the players earned themselves a day off with the rout, but the schedule will be full on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday in advance of their departure for London on Thursday evening. It all leads up to a game with woeful Tampa Bay next Sunday at Wembley Stadium in just the third NFL regular-season game to be played in London.
“It should be a great experience for all of us. It’s probably the only time in all of our careers that we’ll do it,” Brady said. “It’s going to be a short week for us, and we’ve got to go over there and play well and hopefully take some of the confidence that we gained from today and go over there and try to play in a different country and try to play well.”