By: Bob George/
October 17, 2004

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FOXBOROUGH -- You get yanked from the Miami game. Non-injury scratch. Coach won't say why. The team is depleted at wide receiver, yet you're still wrist-slapped.

Now what, hothead?

Simple. Make a miracle 48-yard catch to set up a game-clinching touchdown. All is forgiven. We move on.

This is a classic case of a championship team being a championship team because a different guy steps up at the most opportune time. In Red Sox terms, this is like Dave McCarty hitting a walkoff home run that wins a game. The Patriots had the Seattle Seahawks dead and buried, foolishly let them hang around way too long, and simply waited for bad boy Bethel Johnson to make his big play.

Billed as a possible Super Bowl preview, and arguably the toughest test the Patriots have had this season, the Patriots outlasted the Seahawks, 30-20 Sunday at Gillette Stadium in a battle that really wasn't, then really was. The Patriots scored on their first four possessions and led at halftime, 20-6. But the Patriots never put the Seahawks away until Johnson weaved his magic late in the game, and Corey Dillon delivered the knockout punch with his second touchdown on the afternoon.

Seattle was showing the aftereffects of their cataclysmic loss last week at home against St. Louis at the outset. The first two drives ended in Matt Hasselbeck interceptions, one by Willie McGinest after Richard Seymour deflected it in the air at the line of scrimmage, and the other by Ty Law on a diving catch at the left sideline in front of Darrell Jackson. The Patriots turned those picks into ten points, and scored ten more points on their next two possessions.

The main gist of the first half was the appearance that Seattle was simply not ready for the bright lights and was totally out of sync and overmatched. Hasselbeck's rating for the first half was a paltry 34.5. He was also victimized by a ton of drops by his receiving corps, especially Koren Robinson and Bobby Engram. Engram almost had a touchdown catch in the second quarter, but he trapped the ball at the goal line. Ty Warren sacked Hasselbeck on the first play of the game. The Seahawks had four first half penalties, the Patriots none.

Meanwhile, the Patriots used Dillon as an effective weapon to counter the loss of Deion Branch and Troy Brown. Dillon was listed as questionable on the injury report this week, but this looks like still another snooker by Bill Belichick with his deft handling and misinformation of injuries. Dillon had 51 yards on 10 carries and a touchdown in the first half alone, and did not at any time look like he was hurting. All game long, he was a battering ram, especially on runs into the middle and off right tackle. He finished with 105 yards, two touchdowns and more smiles on the sideline at game's end.

Leading 20-6, the Patriots began the third quarter as if they seemed intent on sitting on the lead and just managing a win rather than going for the kill. Following a quick three-and-out by the Patriots, the Seahawks took over at their own 17. Hasselbeck then began to heat up, as did Robinson. He hit him for gains of 25 and 19 yards, both with Tyrone Poole covering (he would late come out due to injury), then Hasselbeck found Engram for 12 yards along the right sideline. The drive stalled at the Patriot 10, and Josh Brown ended the third straight Seattle offensive drive with a field goal. His 28-yarder made it 20-9 Patriots.

The Patriots drove 29 yards on ten plays, then punted. Seattle got the ball at their ten, but punted after four plays, hurt by a questionable taunting call on Robinson after a 31-yard left sideline catch. Still leading, 20-9, the Patriots took over at their 38 and marched to the Seattle 48-yard line. On third and six, Tom Brady dropped back, had no one open, but had a huge expanse of real estate in front of him. He took off running, and had just found the first down marker when Michael Boulware clobbered him. His helmet went one way, the ball another. Rocky Bernard fell on the loose ball, and Brady was all right as he staggered off the field.

This did not immediately hurt the Patriots, as Seattle meekly went three and out. But when the Patriots got the ball back at their own 28, Brady moved the Patriots four yards in two plays and faced third and six. On third down, Brady dropped back, filed his nails, wiped his nose, cleared his throat, and still had another six seconds to throw. Throw he did, to the left sideline where David Givens was nearby. Boulware was closer by, and slipped in and made the pick. For a quarterback of Brady's stature to throw an interception after having all day to throw, it seemed like thunder clouds were on the horizon for the Patriots.

Sure enough, Hasselbeck made Brady pay. From the Patriot 45, Hasselbeck went 23 yards to Robinson, then Shaun Alexander ran 12 yards around left end. Two plays later, from the Patriot 9, Alexander ran off right tackle on a draw play, Rodney Harrison committed to a pass rush and had no chance. Alexander walked in for the touchdown and it was a scary 20-17 Patriot lead (after Hasselbeck found Jerramy Stevens for a 2-point conversion).

To his credit, Brady shook off the pick and led the Patriots on a 68-yard scoring drive ending in a 30-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri, making it 23-17. But Seattle came right back, Hasselbeck finding Robinson for ten yards despite a horrific pass rush, and Alexander for 23 yards on a flat pass which Roman Phifer had no prayer in defending. This drive stalled at the Patriot 13, but Brown booted one from 30 to make it 23-20.

The Patriots got to this point because they had softened up their secondary coverage and stopped applying intense pressure on Hasselbeck. This follows a common pattern where the Patriots more or less "manage” their way to a win, again doing only what is necessary for a win rather than going for the opponent's jugular. It seemed to the casual fan that the Patriots were merely sitting on the lead once it got to 20-3.

On their final offensive drive of the game, Brady decided that enough was enough. Beginning at his own 37, an incompletion was followed by a three-yard Dillon run. On third down, Charlie Weis called for a play which worked in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Brady rolled out left, stepped up, waited for a clear-out block from Daniel Graham, and unleashed a long bomb to Johnson. The wide-open Texas A&M speedster made a tumbling catch at the Seattle 10. 48 yards. Seattle coach Mike Holmgren had no choice but to challenge, but the play was upheld. This was exactly how Branch hauled in his 52-yard grab in the Super Bowl to set up Givens' touchdown late in the first half against Carolina.

From there, Dillon completed his magnificent day (105 yards total, 4.6 average)two plays later by plowing in for a touchdown on a nine-yard run up the gut. He spiked the ball in the end zone and beamed with delight on the sideline.

The Patriots had one more championship moment left in them. Seattle was at the Patriots two on the final play of the game. A pass interference call in the end zone on Eugene Wilson gave the Seahawks the ball at the one and an untimed down. Alexander tried a run up the gut, but the Patriots kept the final margin at 30-20 with a stuff with attitude. Not even a useless play at game's end was taken lightly.

This makes 17 in a row in the regular season, which finally gets the Patriots in the NFL record book. This ties the Bears of 1933-34 with the longest regular season string of wins. Number 18 next week will have to come at the expense of the 5-0 New York Jets. With the Yankees poised to finish off the Red Sox, now another New York rival comes to Massachusetts with evil intent.

So, champs, who will step up next?