By: With Steve Grogan & R.R. Marshall
January 04, 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

R.R. Marshall: Steve, the Patriots closed out the regular season with what can best be described as a lackluster 21-7 win over the hapless San Francisco 49ners. Although the victory let them finish the season with a 14-2 record, you have to admit the Patriots didn't resemble the club that fashioned that mark during the year?

Steve Grogan: No, they were a little sloppy early in the game. When you know the game doesn't affect the status of your season or your playoff position, and your opponent is one of the worst teams in the NFL you figure they are just going to lay down for you but it doesn't work that way. The 49ners came out and played hard and it took awhile for the Patriots to wake up. It looked like they were out there just going through the motions, but it finally hit them in the second quarter that San Francisco wasn't going to lay down for them and that they better get their act in gear.

San Francisco has a lot of proud players and they may not be the best team in the league but they are going to go out and play hard until the other team proves they can‘t stay in the game with them. I think that's what happened in this game. The Patriots finally got ahead on the scoreboard and then San Francisco kind of rolled over for them after that. In the end when the Patriots needed to get it done in the second half they were able to do it, and that's the sign of a good football team.

RRM: The Patriots' streak of scoring first in 23 straight games was finally snapped in this game when San Francisco scored a first quarter touchdown. Is that a bad or a good thing with the playoffs about to start?

SG: They were kind of going through the motions in the first half, and I think falling behind was a little bit of a wake up call and it was good for them to experience that. Now they know what they have to do to come from behind if they are in that situation. To be able to score first in 23 straight games is just unheard of and I think it will be awhile before we see that again.

RRM: I was shocked to see Tom Brady play a full three quarters in this game. How about you?

SG: I think if the Patriots had been a little more efficient offensively Tom Brady would have been out of the game a little earlier. I really thought with the two weeks off before the next game that he would get some playing time, but they were just so lackadaisical on offense that's the reason he stayed in the game, to try and get some kind of rhythm going.

RRM: That may be the case, but all I could think about on that play where Brady fumbled in the third quarter and dove back in the pile for the ball that if he had ended up breaking his hand there would have been a firestorm in the media that would have burned down this town?

SG: The media would have crucified Bill Belichick, there's no question. But at the same time you have to play football, and outside of just sitting Brady down at the start of the game pretty much like the Colts did with Peyton Manning (which I don't think is a good idea for anybody) you want to let your quarterback leave the field feeling good about how he is playing or how his offense is playing. I thought Brady played well (22 for 30 for 226 yards and two TDs), they just couldn't get anything established offensively over a sustained period of time until late in the game and that's when they yanked him.

RRM: The same issue can be raised regarding Corey Dillon, who has been nursing an injured leg but was allowed to stay in the game so he could reach his $375,000 bonus by surpassing the 1,600-yard barrier which he did with a 29-yard run in the third quarter. Wouldn't he have been better off taking the week off?

SG: He'll get the extra week's rest this week with the bye week. He didn't play the whole game; he rolled in and out of there as did a lot of the starters until the start of the fourth quarter and then they got all the starters out. I really don't think it was a gamble. I think the fact that Dillon and Brady were in the game was just a statement by Bill Belichick that every game is important to him and that they need to get ready for the playoffs.

RRM: One player we never talk about much, Tedy Bruschi, finished the season in style, making 15 tackles. I guess he didn't get the memo about this being a meaningless game?

SG: Tedy Bruschi has had a great year and really deserves to be in the Pro Bowl. This is a guy who just every week goes out and does his job as well as or better than anyone around. He just never seems to get the recognition he deserves and I hope that changes for him because he really deserves it.

RRM: The audition for Bethel Johnson being used at punt returner drew mixed reviews. He had a touchdown called back on a penalty on one return while he muffed another, which leaves the question if Kevin Faulk is not back for the first playoff game who will be returning punts for the Patriots in the postseason?

SG: I would think if they are still not comfortable with Bethel Johnson returning punts, and let's face it the jury is still out on him in that regard, then Troy Brown will go back and probably fair catch most of them. That way they're sure they'll get the ball and they can go from there. But ideally you would like to have somebody back there who can at least pick up a little bit of yardage.

RRM: That used to be a big weapon for this team. It was Troy Brown's touchdown on a punt return that keyed the Patriots big upset over the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game three years ago. But they just haven't gotten any kind of a big play on punt returns for awhile now?

SG: No, they haven't but they've lost only four games in the last two seasons so it hasn't hurt them much. The coaches have decided to go the safest way and just make sure they have someone that can field the punt and not fumble it away. I'm sure they'd like to have someone back there with game-breaking ability like Bethel Johnson, who returned the first punt of the game for a score but it was called back for a penalty that I thought could have gone without a flag. They'll probably err on the side of caution for the playoffs but it will be interesting to see what they do next season.

RRM: Although this game didn't mean anything it did make for two less than stellar efforts from the Patriots in their last three games. Do you think this demonstrates to any of their future playoff opponents that they are vulnerable?

SG: I don't think it shows that they are vulnerable. I think it just shows that they didn't play very well against a poor opponent. The Patriots did a few things in this game (like going to the no-huddle offense) that they haven't done in awhile or all season that gives whoever they are going to play in the playoffs something else to practice against and think about. They were definitely trying a few things in this game that they normally wouldn't have done.

RRM: How important a factor is it for the wildcard teams to jump right into the playoffs and keep playing as opposed to a team like the Patriots with a bye week who sit out a week and then have to turn it back on again?

SG: There's always been debate about that. If you're on a roll you want to keep on a roll and you don't want to take a week off. I think in the Patriots' case they need this week to heal up a little bit. They've had a lot of guys banged up this season that they are going to need back at full strength for the playoff run, so I think this will be a big benefit for them.

RRM: This week's round of playoffs in the AFC sees the Jets matched up against the Chargers and the Broncos against the Colts. Do you expect the favorites to prevail in those two games?

SG: I would think so. The Jets haven't been too impressive lately and I don't think Denver is in the same ballpark as the Colts even though they blew them out in Denver on Sunday. You can throw that one out the window because it didn't mean anything. I would expect both of the home teams to win this weekend.

RRM: If that's the case the Indianapolis Colts loom on the horizon as the Patriots' most likely opponent for their divisional playoff game in Foxboro in two weeks. Do you think Bill Belichick's uncanny mastery over Peyton Manning will hold true to form once again?

SG: Indianapolis with Peyton Manning is still a scary thought. I know everyone says that Belichick has Peyton Manning's number, but I don't think you want to take the chance of having his number too many times. He's had a wonderful year and he's such a smart quarterback. He has a lot of weapons around him and he can put some points up in a hurry. Their defense is a little suspect but they scare me more than anybody else.

RRM: Everyone just expects Ty Law to be able to walk out on the field and be his old self when he returns against the Colts. Isn't that a pretty tall order to ask even of an All-Pro?

SG: It's going to be difficult for him being out so long. I wouldn't expect him to just step on the field and play the whole game. I think they'll be rolling their corners in and out if he's healthy and the other guys are healthy to give Peyton Manning a different look from different people throughout the game.

RRM: Can they beat the Colts if Law isn't close to being anywhere near his old self?

SG: I think they can beat them but they are going to have to play flawless football. They're also going to have to score a lot of points, which can be done against the Colts, but if you had your choice they are still the one team I'd rather not play right now.

RRM: There isn't a fan out there that hasn't been looking ahead to a rematch with the Steelers for the AFC Championship. The Patriots didn't have Corey Dillon when they played the first time, and even though the game will be played at Heinz Field one would think they would have a much better chance against them this time around?

SG: I would think that would be the prevailing school of thought. Pittsburgh has a great defense and a great running game. But they still have a rookie quarterback, and if the Patriots have all of their players back and healthy I really think it will be a heck of a battle.

RRM: What are Grogan's Grades or the win over the 49ners in Week #16?

SG: I think a B is a fair grade for this game. It was a little above average grade because they won, but it wasn't an outstanding effort by any stretch of the imagination. The defense led by Tedy Bruschi played much more consistently than the offense so I'll go a notch higher with them and give them a B+. Now that this one is out of the way the players will get a week away from the game to clear their heads, and that's good. They definitely need the time to get some guys healed up a little bit and that will help them.

Grogan's Grades for Week #16

Offense: B
Defense: B+
Overall: B