By: Bob George/
November 20, 2005

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FOXBOROUGH -- This was more about who the Patriots were playing than any signs of improvement, if any.

Here is pretty much all you need to know about the real meaning of Sunday's 24-17 Patriot win over the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium.

Aaron Brooks: 343 yards passing.

Four Saint receivers had 70 or more receiving yards each.

Tom Brady sacked three times, one of them causing a lost fumble.

Once again, the Patriots were exposed as a team which cannot stop the pass. Now, you can add poor tackle play to the mix. Good thing the Patriots had such a weak opponent on the other side of the ball. Sometimes Bill Belichick incorrectly plays up the opposition to be better than what they really are, but in this case the Saints looked better than they are because the Patriots let them be that way.

The Patriots had a chance to put out the Saints early. Brady set the tone early with a stunning 98-yard drive which took 16 plays. Brady made it 14-0 early in the second quarter with a brief 48-yard drive, punctuated by a 29-yard left screen toss to Patrick Pass which set up a one-yard scoring toss to familiar target Mike Vrabel. At this point, the Saints were completely beaten, and ripe to mail in this game.

Why? Up to this point, New Orleans had driven 40 yards on their first drive, ended up at the Patriot 32 but punted, gave up that 98-yard drive, went three and out, allowed a touchdown catch by a linebacker, and went three and out again. On the road, amidst a lost season washed out in August thanks to Mother Nature, and completely unable to stop Ben Watson (4 catches, 66 yards up to that point), you could rightfully assume that Jim Haslett's troops might not want to put up much of a fight in this tough venue for a road team to win in.

With the Patriots perched at the New Orleans 24, facing second and ten about halfway through the second period, any thoughts of this being an easy Patriot win vanished in thin air. Will Smith, who would become better known later on for his lousy self-control (and ditto for Mike McKenzie), blew right by Nick Kaczur as if the rookie were a turnstile, blasted Brady and slapped the ball loose from his throwing hand. Colby Bockwoldt recovered the fumble.

The Saints did not convert this turnover. But the Patriots did nothing for the rest of the first half. The Patriots went three and out, and Brady was sacked by Charles Grant for a twelve-yard loss on the final play of the first half. In between, the Saints put together a scoring drive which brings to the fore the other problem the Patriots continue to endure.

Brooks led the Saints on an 83-yard scoring drive, punctuated by long pass plays. Brooks found Donte Stallworth for ten yards in front of Asante Samuel. Later, facing third down and 11, Az-Zahir Hakim slipped by Samuel in a zone seam on a curl route and scampered 32 yards to the Patriot 40. After a holding penalty and two incompletions and facing a third down and 20, Brooks found backup running back Aaron Stecker (who did well in place of the ineffective Antowain Smith) on a screen left for 23 yards, a play where Tedy Bruschi was the area defender but not nearly quick enough to catch up with him. On the next play, Stecker took a dump toss in the same area and took it 21 yards to the Patriot 7. Brooks found Stallworth in the end zone on the next play on a slant in from the right side.

You have the Saints in third and 11, and third and 20, and you don't get off the field. Hakim is someone the Patriots dealt with rather easily in Super Bowl XXXVI when he was with the Rams. The Patriots usually don't get that exposed so easily on a screen pass. These plays are further proof that the Patriots have major problems with pass defense, which sooner or later will get exposed in either the first or second round of the playoffs.

The Patriots shook off another sack of Brady by Smith in the third quarter, and put together a kooky 96-yard scoring drive later in the period. It was four plays, and 91 of those yards were covered on the final two plays. Pass took a toss and ran it around left end for 31 yards with Kaczur leading the way, and Brady then launched a bomb which Andre Davis hauled in for sixty yards and a score. As the game headed into the fourth quarter, John Carney missed a field goal and Adam Vinatieri made one.

By now it was 24-7 Patriots, and the Saints were losing their composure. On the field goal drive, McKenzie threw Deion Branch to the ground while out of bounds and walked away coldly despite getting flagged for the personal foul. Later in the drive, Will Smith jammed his knee into Christian Fauria while he lay on the ground after the play was over. Smith was called for three separate personal fouls on the same play; only one could be enforced. Game was over, school was out.

Not. Stecker took the kickoff and ran 46 yards to the Patriot 48. Nine plays later, Brooks found Stallworth from 11 yards out for a touchdown. Hank Poteat was the defender, in there only because Samuel had been shaken up earlier but came back to play later on. After stopping the Patriots on six and out, Brooks managed to lead the Saints on one more scoring drive, again bludgeoning the Patriots on a left flat pass to Stecker for 11 yards and a 20-yard toss to Zachary Hilton, a backup tight end who would enjoy a career day with six catches for 72 yards. Carney nailed a 46-yard field goal and the lead was down to seven points with 2:20 left in the game.

After stopping the Patriots three and out, the Saints had one last chance to tie the game. Starting at his own 22, Brooks found Joe Horn for 23 yards, Hilton for 9 and Stecker for 5. Brooks then scrambled for 19 yards, and the Saints were 23 yards away from the Patriot end zone and 15 seconds left. Two plays later, Eugene Wilson ended things with a leaping interception in the end zone on the game's final play.

This is still another in a long line of "it's a win, we'll take it” games. The Patriots, now into the easy portion of their schedule, can find it within themselves to eke by these teams with losing records, while Denver, Indianapolis and Carolina show the Patriots that this will likely be someone else's year.

Belichick, who unbeknownst to anyone at all except the Fox television crew, lost his beloved father Steve Saturday night, showed no signs of a heavy heart in steering the ship on Sunday. But when his grief over his father subsides, he will know another form of grief in what to do with his secondary and his pass coverage schemes.

He may have an easier time dealing with the loss of his dad.