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Patriots Enjoy Huge Margin Of Error

Bob George
Bob George on Twitter
Sep 19, 2004 at 3:00am ET

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Sometimes the Patriots play down to their level of competition, but still somehow manage to win.

The last half of that sentence defines the Patriots perfectly. They somehow manage to win, no matter what circumstances are presented to them. Despite a hail of key mistakes and potentially devastating injuries, the Patriots were still miles ahead of the Arizona Cardinals in any curve you can imagine, and had plenty to prevail in the end, 23-12.

Expecting hot and dry but instead getting overcast and humid weather in normally arid southern Arizona, the Patriots were never overcome by the weather at any time. The world champs played better in the fourth quarter than they did in the second and third, where they threw the Cardinals a big, fat bone. Under the stewardship of Bill Belichick, the Patriots continue to show everyone that the objective of football is to win versus win big. All you have to do is outscore your opponent, which might explain why you the Patriot fan might feel more concerned than happy over a win.

Great teams are supposed to beat up on patsies. The Patriots had the ability to blow out the Cardinals, and seemed poised to do so early in the second quarter. Josh McCown had absolutely no clue as to what to do with the blitzing Patriot offense, and Tom Brady had just thrown two touchdown tosses to Daniel Graham. Instead, two turnovers by the Patriots let the Cardinals somewhat back into the game, and the rest of the contest turned into a struggle between the two teams which the Cardinals had no chance to win.

When this game is analyzed and studied, few people will say anything negative about Corey Dillon. Finally getting to show off what game he's got, Dillon gashed the Cardinals for 158 yards on 32 carries. Dillon did cough up the ball in the second quarter on a toss left, which Bertrand Berry recovered and returned to the Patriot 11, but it could be argued that Brady made a bad pitch to Dillon which he simply could not handle (Brady was charged with the fumble, not Dillon). Other than this play, Dillon was everything the Patriots wanted him to be.

Brady had his moments, both positive and negative. On the next possession after Dillon's lost fumble, Brady tried to hit David Givens on a left sideline pattern. But Givens was well covered by former Colt David Macklin (and we're not kidding), and Brady hit Macklin right in stride for the interception. Brady had to hurry the throw under pressure to avoid a sack, but it is rare for Brady to throw at a receiver that well covered.

But these are the Cardinals, and these turnovers yielded only two wind-aided field goals from beyond 50 yards by former Bengal kicker Neil Rackers. After the Dillon (oops, Brady) fumble, the Cardinals had second and eight at the Patriot nine. Willie McGinest sacked McCown for nine yards, then Rodney Harrison leveled McCown 15 yards further back. The Cards went from the eight-yard line to a 51-yard field goal. After the Macklin pick, the Cards went three-and-out, leaving Rackers to have to hit from 52, which he did.

The Patriots began the second half with a terrific drive, moving from their own 20 to the Cardinal 2 in 11 plays. Dillon took a handoff on third down and scored, but the touchdown was taken off the board because Christian Fauria did not set for one second after going in motion to the far side. Brady was then sacked by Berry on the next play (Matt Light held on the play, but the penalty was declined), and a Dillon touchdown became a 29-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri.

A similar miscue happened in the fourth quarter. Facing third and five at his own 32, McCown rifled one over the middle which was intercepted by Eugene Wilson. But Roman Phifer was called for illegal contact away from the play, nullifying the pick. Only this time, Wilson made another pick on the very next play, as McCown overthrew rookie wideout Larry Fitzgerald deep downfield.

Despite all this, the most damaging miscue for the Patriots occurred at the end of the first half. With no need to do so, Charlie Weis had the Patriots try a Hail Mary from their own 48, up 14-6 with one second left in the half. Brady threw it deep, and linebacker James Darling intercepted it in the end zone and ran it 65 yards to the Patriot 42. It really mattered not as time expired and Darnell Dockett was flagged for an illegal block. But what hurt the Patriots was Stephen Neal accidentally clipping Deion Branch on the return, as the lineman stumbled and fell on Branch's ankles. Branch left the game with a knee injury, and was held out of the rest of the game despite his wanting to return. There was no reason to run this play, and the cost may have been too high for the Patriots.

But in the end, it was too much Patriots for the young and inexperienced Cardinals to handle. McCown was overwhelmed by blitz packages all game long, and was sacked five times. Whatever concerns there were over the run defense last week evaporated this week, as Emmitt Smith was held to only 31 yards on 13 carries. If not for the Patriot miscues, this game would have closely resembled the 27-3 blowout the last time the Patriots were here five years ago.

With Branch out of the game, Givens really stepped up and made key catches which the Cardinals had no answer for. In the third quarter he made two catches, one a leaping sideline grab for 26 yards on the opening drive, then later on a deep slant for 20 yards with Duane Starks unable to keep up with him. At the start of the fourth quarter, Givens began with two catches for 31 yards total. These last three grabs helped propel the Patriots to a 28-yard Vinatieri field goal which gave the Patriots a 20-12 lead.

All Fauria does is catch touchdowns? Not so fast. Graham had only two catches, but both were for scores. He made a leaping grab in the back of the end zone from two yards out, then on the next drive hauled in a deep right flat pass from 19 yards out. On the latter catch, the Patriots were facing third and goal at the 19, yet Graham managed to sneak into the flat wide open for the score.

The Patriots have now won 14 straight regular season games in a row, 17 straight counting postseason. It is games like this which graphically show why this continues to happen. In this year where every team will throw their very best at the champions, the Patriots continue to do exactly what it takes to win the game. The Patriots will perhaps never play a game which makes you the fan comfortable from start to finish. Since the only thing you need to do is win the game, Belichick will direct the Patriots accordingly every time.

Against an opponent which the Patriots knew nearly nothing about, this win is even more remarkable. We use the word "remarkable" because of all the mistakes the Patriots made along the way. Here is an inferior opponent on paper with a history going back to last year of ambushing better teams at home (hello, Minnesota Vikings), and the Patriots commit three turnovers and some costly penalties, yet still win the game with authority, that is why you call this win remarkable.

It could have happened. The Cardinal sin. But it didn't, because in the end an upset simply wasn't in the Cards.

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