AFC East: MNF7 Patriots

Patriots' swinging season continues

October, 21, 2008
 Jim Rogash/Getty Images
 Randy Moss caught a pair of touchdown passes Monday night.

 Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- For at least one game and one night, the New England Patriots rediscovered the joys of domination.

"We had a lot of things to hang our hats on tonight coming from all three units," Patriots receiver Randy Moss said. "We put it together. I think that when we put all three of those together this team is very, very scary. "

The inconsistent Patriots maintained their back-and-forth ways Monday night with a no-doubt 41-7 victory over the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium.

Who saw that coming? The Patriots were coming off a game in which the San Diego Chargers turned New England's secondary to cinders. The Broncos showed up with the NFL's third-ranked passing offense but might as well have scheduled an autumnal New England drive instead of a football game.

A loss would have dropped the Patriots two games behind the first-place Buffalo Bills, but they ended up winning their first home game since the season opener.

Bill Belichick, so robotic he packs WD-40 in his shaving kit, surprised his players in the two days before the game by telling them to have more fun.

"In the four years that I've been here, I've never heard Bill say 'Go out there, cut it loose and have some fun,' " cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "We were jumping around, slapping each other, this and that. That's a great feeling out there. That's a great look out there. We had fun tonight."

There was a lot for a Patriots fan to be excited about. But there was also plenty of cause for concern.

Three reasons the Patriots have figured it out

1. Revitalized running game: The Patriots have problems at running back, but they figured out a way to churn out rushing yardage anyway.

Before the game they ended Laurence Maroney's season by placing him on injured reserve with a bum shoulder. A calf injury has sidelined LaMont Jordan two straight games.

So, old pro Sammy Morris had the best game of his nine-year NFL career, and he didn't play a down in the second half. Morris rushed for 138 yards, the Patriots' highest first-half total since Robert Edwards amassed 166 in December 1998.

And when Morris went out of the game with a knee injury of indeterminate severity, the Patriots kept plowing onward. BenJarvus Green-Ellis (65 yards) and Kevin Faulk (50 yards) broke off several nice runs.

The Patriots finished with 257 rushing yards, their most since December 1985.

"We knew we could run on them," guard Logan Mankins said. "We assumed we could. We saw other teams do it, and we feel we can run the ball on most nights. The backs hit the holes hard. You give them a little crease, they're going to hit it."

2. Cassel, Moss connect: For only the second time in his last 31 games without Tom Brady as his quarterback, Moss had two touchdowns. The only other time it happened in that stretch was in the 2005 Oakland Raiders' season finale. Kerry Collins was the quarterback.

Matt Cassel had his first three-touchdown game. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 185 yards and no interceptions for a 136.3 passer rating.

"I'd like to think that I continue to grow each and every week," Cassel said. "The more you run this offense, the more comfortable you become. There's a lot of details that you have to be on top of if you want to be successful."

3. Defense makes big plays: The Patriots' secondary rebounded from a duck-and-cover performance to shut down Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler and two of the NFL's leading receivers, Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal.

The Patriots forced five turnovers -- three fumbles and two interceptions.

The Broncos came into the game having given up only two sacks. The Patriots recorded three sacks Monday night.

Cutler finished with a 64.3 passer rating, less than half of Cassel's.

Three reasons the Patriots haven't figured it out

1. Mounting injuries: New England already was down several players. Two talented running backs were out. So were starting right tackle Nick Kaczur and defensive lineman Jarvis Green.

Two potentially devastating losses occurred during the game. We don't know how serious the knee injuries to safety Rodney Harrison and Morris are.

Harrison was carted off the field after medical personnel immobilized his right knee at the end of the third quarter.

Said Belichick: "It doesn't look too good" for Harrison.

"He means a lot," Patriots safety James Sanders said. "He is a future Hall of Famer. He is one of the best to play the game. He has taught me a lot since I've been in New England. He means a lot to me as a football player and a friend.

"I don't know his status now. If he misses time, we will miss him."

2. Too many sacks: The Broncos sacked Cassel six times, drivi
ng up the season total to 25. The Patriots gave up only 21 sacks all last year.

"We still have some problems in pass protection," Mankins said. "We'll get that straightened out. Well, we better get it straightened out, or it's going to be a long year."

3. Tough schedule: The Patriots' upcoming opponents don't provide any easy marks. Next up are the resurgent St. Louis Rams at Gillette Stadium. The Rams, under new coach Jim Haslett, have won two in a row against perceived NFC East powers.

"We all saw what St. Louis did to Dallas this weekend," said starting right tackle Mark LeVoir. "They're back on track. They're a good team. We've got to get ready to go for them."

The Patriots are programmed not to talk about anything beyond the next game, but that won't stop us from listing their opponents. After the Rams, the schedule through November includes the Indianapolis Colts, Bills, New York Jets, Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Rapid Reaction: Patriots 41, Broncos 7

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- So what do we make of this?

More than ever this season, the New England Patriots looked like their 2007 version Monday night in Gillette Stadium.

Aside from the troubling trend of allowing too many sacks, the Patriots rebounded from an ugly loss to dominate the Denver Broncos, 41-7.

In alternating games, starting in Week 3, the Patriots have allowed 38 points, scored 30 points, allowed 30 points and scored 41 points.

Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel looked like a suitable proxy with his first three-touchdown game. Randy Moss scored two touchdowns. Wes Welker had the other.

Sammy Morris ran for 138 yards in the first half, and when he left the game with a knee injury BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Kevin Faulk ripped off some runs behind the Pro Bowlers on the left side of the offensive line.

The Patriots' defense made several big plays. They recorded sacks, made interceptions, forced fumbles -- you name it.

Patriots' Harrison carted off field

October, 20, 2008

Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots safety Rodney Harrison waved to the Gillette Stadium crowd amid a thunderous ovation while a cart drove him off the field in between the third and fourth quarters of Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos.

Medical personnel immobilized Harrison's right knee as they assisted him onto the cart after a long delay. There has been no announcement on the severity of the injury other than he will not return.

Patriots' Morris out; Broncos' Cutler returns

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running back Sammy Morris had a career game in just the first half. Now, he's out with a knee injury and his return is questionable for Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos in Gillette Stadium.

Morris ran for a personal-best 138 yards and a touchdown before halftime. That ties Morris for the 10th-highest first-half total since 2001, according to ESPN researcher Benjamin Lerner. The last rusher with at least 138 first-half yards was Denver's Selvin Young, who ran for 143 last December.

Before the game, the Patriots ended running back Laurence Maroney's season by placing him on injured reserve and deactivated LaMont Jordan, who's battling a calf problem.

For the Broncos, cornerback Champ Bailey and linebacker Boss Bailey will not return to the field, but quarterback Jay Cutler resumed control of the offense on the first series of the second half.

Champ Bailey is out with a groin injury, while Boss Bailey is out with a knee injury.

Halftime look at Denver's QB situation

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are some more notes on the Denver Broncos quarterback situation in Monday night's game against the New England Patriots in Gillette Stadium. The Patriots lead the Broncos, 20-0.

  • A press box announcement has been made that Jay Cutler has suffered a finger injury, and his return is questionable. He appeared to strike his hand on Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork's helmet while throwing a ball that was intercepted by Brandon Meriweather late in the second quarter.
  • Replacement quarterback Patrick Ramsey entered for the Broncos and, on his fourth snap, fumbled while dropping back to pass.
  • The Broncos carry only two quarterbacks. No third-stringer exists, and nobody seems to know who the disaster quarterback is.
  • Ramsey entered Monday with only seven games played over the past three-plus seasons. He has made only 74 throws in that span.

Broncos' Bailey sidelined with groin injury

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Denver Broncos are dropping.

In a development New England Patriots receiver Randy Moss must love, lockdown cornerback Champ Bailey has a strained groin, and his return is questionable. He appeared to be in agony, lying on his back on a trainers table on the Broncos sideline at the two-minute warning in the second quarter.

And before I could hit the button to publish this entry, Matt Cassel connected with Moss for a 13-yard touchdown over Dre Bly and a 20-0 Patriots lead with 44 seconds left in the first half.

Patriots' Morris trampling Broncos

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots running back Sammy Morris is well on his way to a career day.

With 7:34 left in the first half against the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium, he has 11 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown. Thanks to Morris, the Patriots are up 13-0.

The best game of Morris' career came as a Miami Dolphin in December 2006 against the Patriots. He ran a career-high 25 times for a career-high 123 yards.

Unless Morris gets thrown for some WWE-style losses, he will finish the game with more than 100 yards for the third time in four games. He came into this season with a single 100-yard game on his resume.

Morris, 31, has been getting a majority of the carries because of injuries to Laurence Maroney and LaMont Jordan.

In sixth game, Pats surpass sack total from '07

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots are not having any trouble on the ground against the Denver Broncos.

Not even three minutes into the second quarter, Sammy Morris has 66 yards, mostly running left behind Pro Bowlers Dan Koppen and Matt Light.

And quarterback Matt Cassel has been sacked three times for 17 yards.

Cassel has been sacked 22 times (and counting) this season. Tom Brady was sacked 21 times all last year.

Stokley, Scheffler, Jordan inactive

October, 20, 2008

Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Here are the inactives for Monday night's game at Gillette Stadium:

Denver Broncos

New England Patriots

Too soon to call Maroney a bust?

October, 20, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- I just got done taking a tour of The Hall at Patriot Place, and there I saw a replica John Hannah's Pro Football Hall of Fame bust.

  Paul Jasienski/Getty Images
 Patriots running back Laurence Maroney's 2008 season has been cut short by injury.

Andre Tippett's bust, the latest to be cast for Canton, will be displayed on the Gillette Stadium turf during a halftime ceremony at Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos.

Based on notes being dropped into the AFC East mailbag and questions in my latest chat, fans are ready to call Laurence Maroney the next significant Patriots bust -- not the flattering kind.

The Patriots have placed Maroney on injured reserve, ending his season after 28 carries, 93 yards, zero receptions and zero touchdowns.

Many seem eager to slap the bust label on Maroney. Personally, I'm not ready to do that. I'm usually one of the last ones to get on that train, especially when injuries are involved.

But Patriots fans have been annoyed with Maroney. He missed three games last year with a strained groin, but ran for 835 yards and six touchdowns. He hurt his shoulder Sept. 14 against the New York Jets and was scratched from the lineup twice in the next three games. In the one game Maroney did play, he ran with no conviction.

Maroney has started nine games since he was drafted 21st overall out of Minnesota in 2006. The Patriots made him the second running back off the board, taking him ahead of DeAngelo Williams, Joseph Addai, LenDale White and Maurice Jones-Drew.

I don't think Maroney can be called a bust yet, but what do you think?

Carter: Patriots 'blew it' on Cassel

October, 19, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick on Tuesday tersely reiterated his support of starting quarterback Matt Cassel.


Consider ESPN analyst Cris Carter puzzled.

On "Sunday NFL Countdown," Carter had this to say:

"I don't know why he'd get a vote of confidence because he hasn't done anything to warrant it.

"Whose fault is it? New England. They blew it. On a 53-man roster, the backup quarterback is a critical position. They didn't have someone confident if their leader, the great Tom Brady, got hurt.

"The record right now is two losses early in the season and zero touchdowns in the fourth quarter, and we judge our quarterbacks by what they do in the fourth quarter."

But two of Carter's cohorts disagreed with him.

Keyshawn Johnson: "I think he does deserve a vote of confidence because if this is your quarterback and all the things that are going on in the media are saying that it's his fault, you want to give this young man a vote of confidence. You want him to have the ability to go down the field and lead this team from an offensive standpoint."

Tom Jackson (to Carter): "Key is right. You're wrong, and let me tell you why. Brady never got hurt, so there was no reason to go out and get a guy. How good was the guy going to be? And Matt Cassel is not the reason they lost those two games. Matt Cassel hasn't [started] since high school. He's doing fine."

Carter: "When you put a high school quarterback on your team, it's your fault."

Patriots have secondary concerns against Broncos

October, 19, 2008
 Matthew Emmons/US Presswire
 New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs knows the Patriots secondary needs to step it up.

Posted by's Tim Graham

Chad Pennington grabbed the New England Patriots' secondary and ripped it apart at the seams.

Philip Rivers pumped javelins down the sidelines.

Both methods lacerated the Patriots plenty. The Miami Dolphins beat them by 25, the San Diego Chargers by 20.

"Everyone has to realize it's a wound everyone's going to try to keep opening up until we heal it," Patriots cornerback Ellis Hobbs said. "It's there."

The Patriots' defensive backfield has been overwhelmed as much through five games as it was all last season. New England has given up seven pass plays of 30 yards or longer. That equals the number it yielded in 2007.

Its sixth game won't provide any respite.

The Patriots on Monday night will host the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium.

New England's beleaguered secondary will be asked to contain a pass attack ranked first in the AFC and second in the league at 279.3 yards a game entering Week 7.

"I don't know what the questions are for us," Hobbs told reporters this week. "I just know there are questions out there.

"We need to go into this game thinking, 'I feel like my back's against the wall.' Our team's back is against the wall, and we have to come out swinging no matter what. It's early in the season. But this is how you get the momentum going."

After Miami came to Gillette Stadium in Week 3 and unleashed a dumbfounding game plan, New England's coaching staff -- a group that includes defensive architects Bill Belichick, coordinator Dean Pees and secondary coach Dom Capers -- had two weeks to strategize for Mike Martz's offense. The Patriots held the San Francisco 49ers to less than 200 total yards.

Last Sunday night, however, the Chargers bombed away.

Rivers, mostly picking on left cornerback Deltha O'Neal, completed passes of 48, 49, 59 and 22 yards. They weren't screen plays.

Hobbs also committed a 32-yard pass interference penalty to put the Chargers first-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Rivers found tight end Antonio Gates for a touchdown on the next play.

"I felt embarrassed," O'Neal said Wednesday. "I felt embattled. I felt like there were things I could have did that could have changed the outcome of the game. I'm my worst critic.

"I sat and thought about it the last couple of days, that whole flight home. I'm over it now."

Patriots fans should hope so.

Thunder-armed Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler has thrown for 1,694 yards and 12 touchdowns, numbers that rank third and fourth in the NFL.

When healthy, the Broncos have the most talented receiving corps. Brandon Marshall leads the NFL with 43 receptions despite being suspended for the season opener. Eddie Royal's 30 catches are tied for 11th even though he missed last week's game with an ankle injury. Royal is probable for Monday.

Cutler's other targets include Brandon Stokley (16 catches and two touchdowns the past three weeks) and tight end Tony Scheffler. Stokley suffered a concussion last week, while Scheffler is dealing with a groin injury. Both are questionable. Darrell Jackson, a three-time 1,000-yard receiver, is getting over a strained calf. He's listed as probable.

"They have a lot of different options and they really stress the defense in a lot of different ways," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "They can pack them in and bring in two or three tight ends. They can spread them out and go with four or five receivers, or flex out Scheffler, who is like another receiver.

"They can get as tight as you want to get, and they can get as spread out as you want to spread out, and they do a good job."

The Patriots rank 12th in pass defense, but their first two victories came against opponents who either couldn't or wouldn't throw.

They knocked Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Brodie Croyle out of the game in Week 1 and fended off Damon Huard. The New York Jets still were trying to figure out how to use Brett Favre, who passed for only 181 yards in Week 2.

A lot of factors have played into the Patriots' shaky pass defense.

The most obvious was Pro Bowl cornerback Asante Samuel's departure. The Patriots clearly knew this was a big deal because they signed free agents Fernando Bryant, Lewis Sanders and Jason Webster and drafted two corners in the first four rounds.

Belichick didn't like any of them more than O'Neal, whom the winless Cincinnati Bengals cut because they didn't think he was anything more than a nickelback.

Other developments have left New England's defensive backs fending for themselves more than in recent years. The vaunted defensive line isn't getting as much push as it used to, giving opposing quarterbacks that much more time to work and less time for New England's defensive backs less chance to recover -- or not be detected -- when beat early on a play.

The Patriots won't have an easy time putting pressure on Cutler or forcing him i
nto bad decisions. The Broncos have allowed a league-low two sacks. Only the Kansas City Chiefs and Bengals -- one victory between them -- have recorded fewer sacks than the Patriots, who have seven.

Inescapable is the Tom Brady factor. Even the defense is affected.

Last year, with the record-breaking Patriots offense providing sizable leads before the echoes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" faded out, they had the NFL's seventh-ranked pass defense.

Under replacement Matt Cassel's direction, the Patriots have gone three-and-out on 14 of their 56 drives, sending the defense right back onto the field 25 percent of the time. They went three-and-out on 26 of their 170 possessions last year, a 15 percent frequency.

The longer games remain close, the less defenses can guess what's coming. Last year's Patriots turned loose on the quarterback and defended the pass from the second quarter on. This year's defense can't afford to commit so fully and, therefore, is unable to dictate.

"They've been all over the map a little bit," Cutler said. "You're not sure what you're going to get with those guys. I think they thought they could play man, control Rivers and the receivers and stop [LaDainian Tomlinson]. But they got hit with some big plays.

"It's going to be interesting to see what they do with us."

Around the AFC East: Cassel under microscope

October, 16, 2008

Posted by's Tim Graham

New England Patriots

Buffalo Bills

Miami Dolphins

New York Jets

Video: Blogger's Blitz

October, 15, 2008
PM ET's Tim Graham discusses the latest in the AFC East and previews Week 7.

Osi wisely backs from Cassel-Brady comparison

October, 14, 2008
Posted by's Tim Graham

New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora is out for the season while recovering from a knee injury. On Tuesday he was a guest commentator on "ESPN First Take."

Umenyiora might have a future in broadcasting, and that's a good thing because he clearly shouldn't get into player evaluation.

He squared off against Skip Bayless in the show's "First and 10" debate segment. Moderator Dana Jacobson asked if the New England Patriots would reach the postseason. Jacobson gave Umenyiora the floor.

Umenyiora: I think so. I've seen Matt Cassel. We played him in a preseason game, and to be honest with you, I thought back then he was just as good as Tom Brady.

Jacobson: What?! Osi, seriously?

Umenyiora: When I saw him back then in the preseason game that's what I thought.

Bayless: As good as Tom Brady?

Umenyiora: That was my misconception.

There was much laughter.

Umenyiora: Obviously, it hasn't played out that way. But he's a good quarterback. I think the Patriots can at least win 10 games. I think they'll make it into the playoffs. They're going to win 10 games this year.

Umenyiora also predicted the Dallas Cowboys would not make the playoffs.

Actors Mark Wahlberg and Ludacris also sat down with Jacobson for an interview to promote the new action flick Max Payne. Wahlberg, who played Philadelphia Eagles folk hero Vince Papale in "Invincible," is a huge Boston sports fan and commented on the Patriots.

"They gotta make the playoffs in that division, although the Bills have been quite a surprise this year thus far," Wahlberg said. "I'm trying to stay optimistic. I mean, Brady was obviously a backup to [Drew] Bledsoe and a sixth-round draft pick, so you know ... I'm hoping Cassel will take this as a huge opportunity for himself and rise to the occasion.

"But I can't be greedy. We won three Super Bowls. The Celtics just won the [NBA] championship. The Red Sox won two [World Series] in four years."