ATLANTA — San Diego. Thanksgiving weekend, 1996.
Mike Jones clobbers Charger quarterback Stan Humphries on a sack. Humphries gets up and looks like Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It ended Humphries’ career, and it is perhaps the most brutal hit doled out by a Patriot defender in the last ten years, and maybe ever. The glazed look on Humphries’ face is what defined that huge hit by Jones.
You perhaps had to be thinking a little about that when Chris Chandler left the game near the end of the third quarter. After taking a relentless pounding by blitzing Patriot defenders all afternoon long, Anthony Pleasant applied the coup-de-grace with a stinging hit and a sack of Chandler after Tedi Bruschi came through unabated and flushed Chandler from the poocket.
Chandler lay on the ground, got up and staggered off to the sidelines. The Atlanta fans showed their total lack of class by cheering Chandler’s injury, and cheering louder when Michael Vick came in to replace him. But when Chandler was escorted to the locker room, he looked a lot like Gumby. His top half was bent and his head slanted to the right.
Vick, the top draft pick from Virginia Tech, lit up the Patriots with two long gainers. Otherwise, the Patriots pretty much did to him what they did to Chandler. On fourth and five at the Patriot 16 midway through the final quarter, Lawyer Milloy flattened Vick on a safety blitz. And on Atlanta’s final play of the game, Vick threw a hurried incompletion just before being clobbered by Tebucky Jones (this time it was legal, the first time Jones nearly ripped off Vick’s facemask).
Such as how things went Sunday at the Gaw-gia Dome.
The Patriots showed their fans plenty of good stuff. In defeating Atlanta, 24-10, the Patriots did it with muscle, attitude and intimidation. The game also showed the Patriots being able to win a road game without really trotting out their “A” game.
Most of all, the game marked the best performance for Willie McGinest in maybe the last three years. Nearly invisible thanks to a series of injuries, the former first-round pick in 1994 led the team with two sacks (the team had nine sacks, one short of the club record) and also had a team-high five tackles (tied with Milloy). The defense as a team had a great day, but the play of McGinest seemed to fire everyone up, and it made Romeo Crennel’s in-game strategy a lot easier to carry out.
It could be bad news for NFL offenses if McGinest is really back in top form. With McGinest pressuring the quarterback like he did today, it allows the secondary to lay down a suffocating cover-two zone, and gives the opposing quarterback less time to find someone who slips into a seam. The Patriots still use a 3-4 alignment a bit, but if McGinest is really back, Bill Belichick and Crennel can go to the 4-3 (which is the main reason why Richard Seymour was drafted) and do what they’d really like to be doing on defense.
Again, it wasn’t all Willie. It just seemed that the great defensive play of the Patriots emanated from McGinest. The Patriots gleefully blitzed all game long, and Chandler could do nothing at all with it. His final passing stats were hideous — 8 for 20, 95 yards. He looked even more hideous as he was being assisted to the locker room.
Vick, who is as far away from a polished NFL quarterback as it gets, showed the Patriots some of the great stuff that made him the top draft pick this year. On his first drive, Vick fired a beebee to Brian Finneran (we’re checking on his geneology to see if he has relatives on Beacon Hill), who took the pass 50 yards to the Patriot 12. Vick opened up his second drive with a scramble up the middle for 35 yards. Vick later scrambled for 15 yards, and the under-talented TV crew was practically putting the Falcons into the win column.
Except that the Patriots adjusted in time. Vick spent the rest of the afternoon throwing incompletions and taking punishing hits. Vick completed only two of nine for 56 yards. Take away that long bomb to Finneran, and Vick was a total non-factor in this game.
Again, the defense adjusted well. They sealed off the pocket and held containment, then brought the blitzers in to either finish off Vick or to get him to hurry his throws. By containing Vick in the pocket, it took away any chance Vick had to rally his team.
The run defense was also good. Maurice Smith gained 84 yards, but 55 of them were on one play in the first quarter which helped set up the only Atlanta touchdown. The Patriots put the clamps quickly on Vick after his two long scrambles. The Falcons never really hurt the Patriots with the run at all.
Old friend Shawn Jefferson caught a 19-yard scoring toss from Chandler in the first quarter. It was his only grab of the day. Otis Smith also played his finest game in three years, and both he and Ty Law kept a tight rein on Jefferson, Terrance Mathis and Tony Martin all game long.
The defense allowed wiggle room for the offense, who played well enough but not scintillatingly well.
Tom Brady has shown everyone that he is fully recovered from the Denver Dipsy-Doodle last week. Brady returned to his craftsman-like self, hitting 21 of 31 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns. Eight different Patriots caught passes. No Falcons caught any.
Brady had a little bit of trouble getting untracked in the first quarter, with a few misfires. The Falcons did manage to sack Brady twice in the contest. But Brady ultimately did regain his surgical precision, and his timing pass to Kevin Faulk for a four-yard scoring pass in the second quarter was a thing of beauty.
The Patriots also overcame two lost fumbles, one each by Antowain Smith and Marc Edwards. Neither proved costly, but the Smith fumble negated a nice nine-play drive where the Patriots had driven from their own 33 to the Falcon 15.
Penalties also rang out during this contest. The Patriots’ only field goal today was a 48-yarder by Adam Vinatieri in the second. The drive was four plays, for minus-4 yards. On that drive, the Patriots were flagged for four penalties, two of them by Jermaine Wiggins on successive plays. Both teams committed seven penalties, with the Patriots holding a 60-55 edge in yards lost.
Smith gained 117 yards rushing on 23 carries (a 5.1 average). He thus became the first Patriot running back to gain more than 100 yards in a game since Terry Allen gained 126 yards against Buffalo on December 26, 1999. 38 of those yards came on the final drive as the Patriots were trying to run out the clock, and Atlanta would have been expected to be in maximum run-stop mode.
To watch the Patriots dish out the punishment they did today was both refreshing and invigorating. Usually it is the other way around, as the Patriots have not been a very physical defense since the Steve Sidwell days. Today, they laid out Atlanta and their quarterbacks, and this will take the team a long way this year if today is not an anomaly.
What makes this defensive effort even sweeter is that it was done without Bryan Cox. Sidelined with a broken leg for perhaps four weeks, the defense played like he was in there all along. The hits kept coming, and the entire Falcon offense looked like Jerome Pathon.
Actually, they didn’t. It was worse.
They looked like Chris Chandler.
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