By: Bob George/
November 24, 2002

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FOXBOROUGH -- There are two rules regarding disrespecting an opponent.

Rule number one: Don't do it under any circumstances.

Rule number two: If you do, make doggone sure you can completely get away with it.

We take you to the closing minutes of the first half. The Patriots were up, 21-0, and because what was happening up to that point was merely expected against a lousy Vikings team, the game was actually boring. Tom Brady had lead the Patriots to touchdowns on their first three drives, and none of the drives were spectacular at all. It was just playing pitch and catch against one of the worst pass defenses in the league.

The fourth drive ended in a punt. Two plays later, the Vikings coughed the ball up for the third time in the first half. Randy Moss caught an eight-yard toss over the middle, but Roman Phifer jarred the ball loose and Richard Seymour fell on the loose ball. The Patriots took over at the Vikings' 31, ready to put the game away in the first half.

Six plays later, it was fourth down and ten right from where the drive began. Adam Vinatieri had a 49-yard attempt right there. But with 1:14 in the first half, and too close to punt the ball, Bill Belichick decided to go for the first down.

The Vikings showed what professionals they were, and sacked Brady for an eight-yard loss. They took over and scored a touchdown in only five plays. Remember, there was only 1:09 left in the half after the Brady sack. Going for that first down spoke volumes for the Patriots. The response by the Vikings spoke volumes for both teams.

In the end, the Vikings were simply not talented enough to fully pay the Patriots back for the great diss job, and succumbed to the home team, 24-17. In what should have been a lopsided blowout win for the Patriots, the Patriots instead allowed the Vikings to hang around all game long, and but for some lousy throws by Daunte Culpepper and a missed field goal by the all-time field goal leader in NFL history, the Patriots would have had egg all over their faces, and the Super Bowl defense all but shattered.

Going back to the fourth down play, the Patriots had a fourth and ten at the Minnesota 31. By going for it, the Patriots were basically saying to the Viking team, "You stink (or an earthier word of your choice)! Even if we miss this, so what? The way you've played so far today, we can shut you out the rest of the way with our eyes closed!" Even up 21-0 at home, having Vinatieri try a field goal was the only correct thing to do, from a logical standpoint as well as a gamesmanship standpoint. And if the wind was a factor in the decision not to go for the field goal, then pooch kick it. Doing what the Patriots did violated the old parable, "Let sleeping dogs lie!"

One of the worst things you can do as a football team playing an inferior opponent is to torque them off to the point that they believe that they can come back and win the game. By going for it on that fourth down, the easy cupcake win for the Patriots that was developing was gone for good. The Patriots instead had to deal with a pesky opponent the rest of the way, and nobodies like Kelly Campbell and Moe Williams were making hay against a defense that should have been eating them for lunch.

The Patriots did a pretty good job against the known guns of the Vikings, Moss and Michael Bennett. Moss did have eight catches, but averaged only 11 yards per catch and had a long of only 19 yards. Bennett was held to only a 3.9 yards per carry average (his season average is above 5), and he wasn't the team's leading rusher. That honor belonged to Culpepper, who again exposed a Patriot defense that refused to provide containment for his scrambles (like in 2000, when Culpepper ran silly through a Patriot defense on that day).

But the Patriots allowed the Vikings to get back into a 21-0 game with a severe dropoff in intensity, and underestimating Campbell and Williams. It seemed like the Patriots were willing to merely sit on the 21-0 lead for the rest of the game, and all the sharpness that helped build the early lead was completely gone.

After the Brady sack late in the second quarter, Culpepper hit Campbell on a slant route for 16 yards, then Culpepper scrambled for 15 yards. Two plays later, a 12-yard completion to Campbell took the Vikings to the Patriot 6. Culpepper then found a wide-open D'Wayne Bates in the corner of the end zone, who had slipped away from Otis Smith. The Vikes went into the locker room down 21-7, and carried plenty of hope with them.

A lot of that hope was based on two stats which greatly favoured the Vikings. Despite three fumbles, the Patriots converted them into only seven points. And despite being down 21-7, the Vikings had a 197-169 edge in total yards on offense. The Vikes must have felt that if they could only hold on to the ball, coming back against the Patriots would be a piece of cake.

On the second possession of the second half, the Vikings marched 55 yards for another touchdown. Campbell caught passes of five and eleven yards, Bates caught a five-yard slant and Williams rushed twice for 18 yards total. On second and goal at the seven, Culpepper found Campbell alone in the end zone in about the same spot he found Bates. Moss ran a curl out route which drew Smith in from the end zone, and Campbell slipped in behind Smith and caught the touchdown. There was no safety help at all on the play.

The Patriots managed to recover and hold the Vikes to a field goal for the rest of the way. In the waning moments of the fourth quarter, the Patriots were able to apply consistent pressure on Culpepper and force him into several hurried throws. Culpepper was sacked three times, and was only 6 of 21 passing in the fourth quarter.

In defense of the Patriots, the first 28:51 of the game was total Patriot domination, and the Vikings gave everyone the impression that they had Moss as an inspirational leader ("Sometimes I don't always feel like giving 100% on every play!"). Brady struck for touchdowns on each of the first three drives, including scoring tosses of nine and one yards to Christian Fauria (his only two catches; all he does is catch touchdowns, folks), and a five-yard scoring toss to Troy Brown. All three drives looked as easy as pie, and it seemed to lull everyone into a feeling of "Yah, we got this one easy." It seems that Belichick and Charlie Weis were included in that "Yah" crowd.

The Patriots again portray themselves as a team that only plays well when it absolutely has to. If this is the beginning of another run-the-table deal this year, fine. With the most minimum of effort against a crummy team, the Patriots are 1-0 on this run. Bully. We win. Book your flights to San Diego, Patriot Nation. Done deal.

Next up is a Thanksgiving Day date with another crummy team on paper. Two years ago, the Patriots looked like total turkeys in Motown. If they play Thursday like they did today, we'll be talking about some big, fat Toms wearing navy blue and white and looking like Elvis. The Lions are prone to knocking off superior opponents on Thanksgiving, and this one looms as a difficult game for the Patriots if they muster a similar effort to Sunday's game.

The Patriots must, at all costs, never let up against any opponent. They must regain the killer instinct they had last year, and put opponents away when given the chance. And they need to do so without giving the impression of total disrespect. Going for it on that fourth down play might have been one of the most foolish coaching decisions in recent memory. On Sunday, it nearly turned an easy win into a loss.

On Thursday, the Lions will be meat, and the Patriots will be either stuffing or gravy unless the champs play real football and do what they ought to be doing.