Pats Proudly Exclaim: We’re Number Two

Bob George
January 7, 2002 at 11:58 pm ET

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – How in the world can you feel concerned after a 32-point win that clinches a division title and an eventual two seed for your team?

C’mon. The Patriots won. They won big. They won their first AFC East title since 1997. They even got a first round bye in the playoffs. They pulled off the ol’ “worst to first” dipsy-doodle. They had a cupcake opponent, and the cupcakes suffered six turnovers. Of the 700 fans who were there (they said 21,000 showed up, but that’s a bunch of malarkey), 500 of them were wearing red, white and blue and screaming for the visiting team. What in the world would you want to complain about?

Two more Patriot touchdowns that were nullified due to penalties.

Tom Brady threw two very foolish interceptions.

Antowain Smith scored on a one-yard touchdown run, but forgot to take the ball with him into the end zone.

Some running back who’s about as well known as the state fish of Hawaii torched the Patriots for 168 yards rushing and set a Panther club record for rushing yards in a single game.

The Patriots were only leading at the half, 10-3, and committed the cardinal sin of letting a 1-14 team hang around in this game way too long.

Other than that, it’s party time for New England. Bob Kraft treated Ericsson Stadium like Foxborough Stadium and shook hands with the “partisan” Patriot crowd as the game neared its end. The players let loose in a giddy celebration after the game, and fans who have followed this team all year long simply can’t believe that this team just won a division title and a first round bye, capping the most improbable playoff run in club history.

In the end, the Patriots did win big over a very bad Carolina team by a 38-6 count. It wasn’t at all artistic, but against the Panthers, it didn’t have to be. The Panthers lost their 15th straight game, an NFL record, and are poised to fire their head coach, George Seifert. The Patriots are off to the playoffs, and bought some more time to say goodbye to Foxborough Stadium.

And with the Jets knocking off Oakland, 24-22, the Patriots have got themselves another week off. The Patriots earned the two seed in the AFC, and need only to win two games to make it to Super Bowl XXXVI. The only way they play on the road is if they have to face Pittsburgh.

So, why bother with all that went “bad”? The good vibes still keep vibin’ around Foxborough and all of New England. This year, absolutely all the breaks are going the way of the Patriots. You have to wonder “What next?” when considering what more good breaks might come the Patriots’ way.

This game was a lot harder than the final score might indicate. The Patriots looked rusty at the outset, a fact that those who were rooting for the Patriots to not get the two seed might bring up during the ensuing two weeks. The offensive line did not explode into the worst rushing defense in the NFL, and Smith never really got untracked except for a 32-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.

During the second quarter, the Patriots looked like they were in a total fog. That Carolina running back we alluded to earlier, Richard Huntley, ran wild in and through the Patriot defense. In the second quarter alone, Huntley gained 97 yards. On one particular 25-yard gain, he burst into the line of scrimmage, disappeared, then burst out and ran off right tackle for a big gain. It resembled Smith’s run that set up the winning field goal at Buffalo a few weeks back.

The Patriots played poorly only in the second quarter, yet gave up only a 29-yard field goal by John Kasay. Other than that, the Patriots bullied this woebegone team, leaving no doubt as to who would win the game and seal their destiny.

The Patriots came at Chris Weinke early, causing him to throw picks on consecutive throws. The first pick was returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Ty Law. The second was returned for a touchdown by Otis Smith, but Matt Stevens was flagged for holding at the Panther 24. The 29-year-old rookie Panther quarterback was not a real factor at all, especially given that his entire receiving corps was second string.

After Smith’s first pick, the Patriots did drive to the one yard line. On fourth and goal at the one, Smith took a handoff and could have crawled through a huge hole off left tackle. But Lester Towns stripped Smith of the ball just before he crossed the goal line, and Mike Minter recovered. The last time that happened, it was the key play in the most recent Patriot loss to date.

A loss today was not in the offing, but Huntley went off on his rushing spree following Smith’s fumble. The Patriot defense was plenty good enough to keep the normally pathetic Panther offense out of the end zone all game long. Huntley’s first carry of the second quarter was a 19-yard run up the middle on the draw, but it was third and 24 and the Panthers punted on the next play.

One reason why today’s game wasn’t more imposing than it turned out might have been Bill Belichick’s unwillingness to open the playbook against a weak opponent, with playoff opponents eagerly awaiting game films to study. Brady suffered two interceptions, both at the hands of Deon Grant. Take away Smith’s touchdown run, and his average per carry is only 2.5. The Patriots used no gimmick plays today, and never seemed to go for the kill. They kept it very conservative, which against Carolina was plenty enough to win.

And when we say “plenty enough”, we aren’t kidding.

Take away Huntley’s rushing exploits, and Carolina would have looked worse than Cumberland College about 90 years ago when they lost to Georgia Tech, 222-0. If they had wanted to, the Patriots could have lambasted these poor saps. Had Carolina been a more able opponent, they would have expended more zeal in stopping Huntley. Despite all the yards Huntley had, the Patriots kept Carolina out the end zone.

Oh, and Otis Smith did eventually get another pick, and this one did indeed go to the house for 75 yards to close out the scoring. Troy Brown also broke another punt return all the way, taking a punt 68 yards for a score halfway through the third quarter. Of the five touchdowns scored by the Patriots today, only two of them were scored by the offense.

Complaining about how flat the Patriots looked in the second quarter or the scores wiped out by penalties is really picking nits. You the Patriot fan are sitting there right now, probably in total disbelief that your favorite team is 11-5 and has a first round playoff bye. The last time that happened, the Patriots went to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots won big. The Jets came through. The Patriots are two wins away from another Big Show. Perhaps only Steeler fans feel better than Patriot fans feel right now.

This win completes one of the more incredible Boston sports stories of the last half-century. Go back to how you felt after the Week 2 loss to the Jets at home, and wonder aloud if you could have ever predicted something like this without anyone within ear shot of you wanting to call up the happy home to come and take you away.

There is absolutely nothing to be concerned about, at least for now. The Patriots took care of business. So did the Jets. What had to happen happened for still another week. With all this great karma and stellar fortune going on all over the place, how can Joe Patriot Fan feel anything but fantastic right now? Think about how you all felt five years ago, and you’ll get the idea.

The Patriots are back in rarefied air city again. They have come full circle since the exodus of Duane Charles Parcells. The top three Patriot coaches, Belichick, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis, were all there in ’96. The Patriots are back up at the top of Patriot Mountain again.

The next step is to get the top of NFL Mountain. The next step comes at Foxborough Stadium, in two weeks.

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