By: Bob George/
October 26, 2003

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Bill Belichick pays tribute to Patriots Hall of Fame broadcaster Gil Santos
Bill Belichick pays tribute to the late Gil Santos
Tight end Troy Niklas’ “crazy” story makes him a Patriot and a father, too
Patriots notebook: Season starts with Houston at Foxboro

FOXBOROUGH -- Go figure. Daniel Graham has a career day, Kevin Faulk nearly rushes for 100 yards, yet the Patriots barely win a field goal duel.

Sunday's game between the Patriots and the Cleveland Browns would be the definitive poster child for the "How To Not Finish A Scoring Drive" society. Both defenses seemed to have the right play at the right time, and as has been the case this season, the Patriots simply had more of those than their foe. Be it untimely quarterback sacks, smelt-out reverses, questionable offensive play calling or the one turnover which sealed the game, neither offense was able to come through with the knockout punch. The game ended up with Adam Vinatieri defeating Phil Dawson, 3-1.

This is definitely one of those games where the Patriots will take the win, and a 6-2 record at their season's halfway point. The Patriots have now gone undefeated in the month of October for the first time since 1978. This is a team which is being carried by the defense, much the same way the Patriots operated when last they visited the Super Bowl.

Despite the great days by Graham and Faulk, as well as a decent day for Tom Brady, the real stars of the game were guys like Mike Vrabel (three sacks), Rodney Harrison (ten tackles), Roman Phifer and Tedy Bruschi (eight tackles each), and Ty Law (great coverage despite playing hurt and a game-sealing interception in the final minute of play). Vrabel celebrated his clean bill of health with a display of what he does best, coming in from the ends with speed and fury, and often times unaccounted for by blockers.

Credit the Browns for playing a solid defensive game. Linebackers Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley combined for 32 tackles, and Daylon McCutcheon did a fair job in containing Troy Brown. But as good as the Browns played defensively, one has to wonder what has happened to the Patriot offense, especially in finishing drives for touchdowns.

Who do you point the finger at? Charlie Weis making some Grady Little-ish calls at the worst possible time? The offensive line losing its intensity as they near the goal line? Brady losing his composure as he nears the end zone? Or is it that the defenses simply step up and stop the Patriots, much like the way the Patriot defense stops the opponent in the red zone?

The Patriots got off to a fast start, but then set the tone for the entire afternoon one play later. On the first play from scrimmage, Brady found Bethel Johnson on a deep left sideline route for 45 yards, as the speedy Johnson had merely sprinted past Lewis Sanders and got open. But on the next play, Brady dropped back, was pressured by the pass rush, and floated the ball into the end zone to nobody. Quarterbacks overthrow the end zone all the time and grounding never gets called. But Bernie Kukar flagged him here, and the drive degenerated into a 27-yard field goal by Vinatieri.

On their second possession of the second quarter, the Patriots drove from their own 29 to the Cleveland 19 thanks largely to two catches by Graham for 45 yards. On second and eight, Brady tried to hit Brown on a quick crossing pattern, but Brown dropped a ball thrown behind him. Then on third down, Kennard Lang blew by Matt Light and dropped Brady for a six-yard loss. Vinatieri came in and nailed a 43-yard field goal, but Dan Koppen was flagged for a false start. A re-kick from 48 yards out sailed wide left.

In the third quarter, the Patriots drove from their 20 to the Browns' 16. Faulk ran up the gut for eight yards, setting up a second and two at the eight. The Patriots then lined up in a one-back set, with Faulk the lone setback. Faulk got the ball and headed straight up the middle. With no fullback to block for him, Taylor met Faulk unblocked and dropped him for a two-yard loss. Brady then overthrew a wide-open Johnson in the left flat, and the Patriots were forced to settle for a 28-yard field goal.

The Patriots' final scoring drive was more of a clock-killing drive than anything else. They managed to move the ball to the Browns' 20, and Vinatieri nailed a 38-yarder to force the Browns to have to score a touchdown on their final possession.

So, you have a strange, ticky-tack penalty, a sack and a bad play call which took away a potential 21 points. The Lang sack was the only play generated by the Browns' defense which directly helped prevent a touchdown. What Bill Belichick can glean from this is not really simple, though recurrences of shabby offensive play calling at key junctures of the game fall directly at the feet of Weis. A second quarter drive was killed when Weis called for a toss play to Faulk on third and one and was nailed for a loss by Daylon McCutcheon, the same toss play which failed miserably last week against Miami.

But once again, the Patriot defense made the slim lead stand up. Vrabel's three sacks set the tone for the entire afternoon. Two of them came in the first quarter, one for a 15-yard loss, and one which resulted in a Tim Couch fumble which was recovered by Richard Seymour, but was overturned on replay thanks to the very familiar tuck rule. Vrabel's third sack in the third quarter also caused a fumble (Kelly Holcomb had by then taken over at quarterback), but Jamel White fell on the ball for a six-yard loss.

An unsung bunch of heroes today were members of the kick coverage teams for the Patriots. Holding a team to only three points often times sees its roots in field position, and the Browns' average starting field position for the entire game was their own 19. Twice the Browns had Ken Walter punts downed inside the ten, and one of them was downed at the one by Johnson.

Graham, at times, looked like Ben Coates. He caught seven passes for 110 yards, easily his best day as a pro. He caught a 38-yard pass in the third quarter in triple coverage. He caught an 18-yard pass in the second quarter which should only have gone for 13, but he clawed and fought for an extra five yards with four or five tacklers on him. But Brady was never able to find him in the red zone, an area where it is usually Christian Fauria that shines and not Graham.

Faulk, meanwhile, rumbled for 96 yards and a 4.2 average. The rest of the Patriot rushers ran for a combined --2 yards total. One of them was an odd play in the fourth quarter where Brady lined up in the shotgun, Brown came in motion, then snuck up behind center and took the snap, and ran left tackle for three yards on third and two. On another play, the Patriots tried Johnson on an end around early in the third quarter, but Orpheus Roye miraculously stayed at home and nailed the speedy wideout for a 12-yard loss.

Complaining about this win is like a Florida Marlin fan lamenting over why their team only scored two measly runs on Saturday night. The win's the thing, and the Patriots have six of them after eight games. It was as ugly a win as ugly wins get, but the defense continues to establish itself as a dominant force in the league, and if it's good enough to win, nobody should complain.

Except for those who wish the Patriots would score 30 a game, you might say.