By: Bob George/
January 03, 2005

Buckley: Year after year, Gil Santos delivered
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 -- The Patriots have lost four games in 2003 and 2004 combined. What do all those losses have in common?

Four turnovers in each game.

Sunday at Gillette Stadium showed how really bad the 2004 San Francisco 49ers are. The Patriots had a punt return for a touchdown called back due to a penalty, had a 3-1 turnover deficit, trotted out their "D” game in the first half, and still came out 14 points ahead. Matter of fact, had linebacker John Engelberger decided to take the afternoon off, the Patriots would have likely led 21-0 in the second quarter. And if Earthwind Moreland had kept his grubby hands to himself on that punt return by Bethel Johnson, it would have been a "get on the bus game” for the ‘Niners instead of a feisty effort by an outmanned team who will likely lose its coach at season's end.

For only the third time in franchise history, the Patriots bested the 49ers, all wins coming in Foxborough. The Patriots were happy to walk off with a 21-7 win, happiest of whom was probably Corey Dillon. Dillon scored a touchdown, but most importantly, rushed for 116 yards and boosted his season total to a Patriot record 1,635 yards rushing. By exceeding 1,600 yards, Dillon pocketed a $375,000 bonus.

Among those who may not be happy is Bill Belichick, who had to endure a lousy effort from his team in the first half, but did put away the pitiful (2-14) 49ers in the second half. Give the 49ers credit for playing the Patriots tough in what likely was Dennis Erickson's swan song as head coach, but the Patriots had a cupcake opponent at home yet had to wait until the fourth quarter before Belichick felt comfortable in resting his regulars like many of the other division champs have done this weekend.

Things got ugly early on. After stopping the 49ers on their opening drive, Johnson took the ensuing punt at his 14 and raced 86 yards for an apparent touchdown and a chance to get the Patriots off to a flying start. But Moreland was guilty of shoving Shontae Spencer just as Johnson caught the ball, and the Patriots had to begin at their seven instead of celebrating an early 7-0 lead.

The next two Patriot drives ended in turnovers. Dillon took a left flat toss from Tom Brady at midfield and rumbled to the 49er 32. But Engelberger was able to pry the ball loose from Dillon, and Ronnie Heard pounced on the loose football. The Patriot defense held, but on the next drive Brady and Dillon gave the ball away again. On first and ten at the Patriot 47, Brady tried to force a left flat pass to Dillon and overthrew the ball. Dillon tipped the high pass, and it landed in the arms of Dwaine Carpenter. He returned it 31 yards to the Patriot 22.

And in what was perhaps the most ignominious element of still another Patriot win, Steve Bush took a four-yard pass from Ken Dorsey five plays later to put the 49ers up 7-0. It broke an NFL-record 20-game streak of the Patriots scoring first. To watch that streak come to an end at home at the hands of a 2-14 team is very embarrassing. It also sent a warning message to the Patriots: stop this turnover nonsense and start playing Patriot football, and do it now.

Patriot football would have to wait. Two offensive line penalties killed the next drive, but the Patriots would get the ball back thanks to a Todd Pederson missed field goal from 39 yards out. Dorsey and Kevan Barlow were gouging the Patriot defense, who seemed to be a bit peeved that the offense was playing so poorly, and therefore were still being asked to play when they might have been taking the afternoon off in this meaningless game.

The Patriots would then drive 71 yards, 43 of them rushes by Dillon, and 22 of them on a nice toss from Brady to David Givens to get the Patriots to the 49ers 2-yard line. Mike Vrabel would come in as a tight end, get called for a false start, then later catch a 2-yard scoring pass to pull the Patriots even. Even the normally sharp Vrabel was not immune to the shoddy play of the Patriots in the first half.

After the defense registered a three-and-out, Brady once again gave the ball back. Brady drove the Patriots 51 yards to the 49er 25, but on second and 16, Engelberger came in and hacked Brady on the arm while in the act of throwing at the 30. Engelberger flopped on the loose football and the 49ers had their third takeaway. Only 1:51 remained in the first half, and a six-yard sack of Dorsey by Willie McGinest and an offensive pass interference call on Cedrick Wilson would cause Erickson to run out the clock rather than try for a late score.

Things did get better in the second half for the home team. There would be no more turnovers, and by holding that total under four, the Patriots at least had history on their side. On their second drive, the Patriots drove 51 yards for a touchdown, punctuated by a stunning 29-yard run by Dillon which put him over 100 yards for the day and 1,600 for the season. Deion Branch would make it 14-7 Patriots with an 8-yard scoring toss in the left flat.

The first unit played all the way through the third quarter and into the fourth. Finally, on the first play of the fourth quarter, Rohan Davey ran out and spelled Brady for the day. Dillon had sat down after the 29-yard scamper, but with the Patriots 14 yards away from a touchdown as the final period began, Dillon covered those 14 yards in two carries to salt the game away at 21-7. From this point on, guys like Marquise Hill, Gene Mruczkowski and Cedric Cobbs were enough to bring the Patriots home with no further shame.

One other element which the Patriots might want to think about as the playoffs begin is the run defense. For only the third time all season long, the Patriots surrendered a 100-yard rushing game as Barlow finished with 103 yards rushing, helped greatly with a 33-yard run early in the fourth quarter. Some second stringers were in at this time, but Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson and Vince Wilfork were in on this play. It may not turn out to be significant, but Barlow is not someone who should have inflicted this on the Patriots. If Edgerrin James is on his way to Foxborough in two weeks, it bears some looking at on game film by the Patriot coaching staff.

The Wild Card round next week will find Indianapolis hosting Denver and the Jets heading to San Diego. It will turn out to be the second week in a row the Colts and Broncos meet, but the playoff tilt will be at the RCA Dome, and all the Colt regulars sat studiously on the sideline on Sunday watching a Bronco team that had to win do so at Invesco Field, 33-14. The Colts clobbered the Broncos in the playoffs last year at home, and with a week to study and rest everyone, the Colts will be a solid favorite to win and advance to Foxborough for the divisional round.

By then, the Patriots had better have the turnover problem solved, as well as the run defense. A healthy (or close to it) Ty Law also wouldn't hurt. If Belichick is truly in Peyton Manning's head, it had better show through in two weeks.

If the Patriot turnovers continue, all the smarts Belichick has simply won't matter.