Oh, New England Patriots. Will you ever cease to be so darned erratic? You’ve cruelly thrust us onto an emotional rollercoaster with your maddening, glaring inconsistencies. You’ve raised and dashed our hopes and ambitions for the postseason. You’ve made us love you and hate you, coddle you and chide you, proclaim our undying love for you and then abruptly turn a cold shoulder, terrified that you’ll let us down. And it’s only Week 7. After last night’s astounding 41-7 romp over the Denver Broncos, things are looking surprisingly optimistic—but can you be trusted?
It’s a pretty jarring sight to witness an uncertain Bill Belichick on the sidelines. Few head coaches, in any sport, have been able to maintain the stoic, stony-faced composure that Belichick has mastered over the course of his tenure in New England, helping him rise to power as the greatest emotionally-absent evil mastermind coach in the history of football. Which is why it’s been especially trying to watch the Patriots these last few weeks—for the first time in recent memory, Belichick is looking a little frazzled. As New England tries to compensate for the wildly inconsistent Matt Cassel, the bumbling anti-Brady they’ve abruptly thrust into what was once the most potent offense in the NFL, we’re watching Belichick desperately try to piece together a Brady-less Patriots squad, and hopefully maintain both the team’s integrity, and his own sanity.
So how do you win football games when your QB can’t be trusted? Why, you emphasize the run, of course. And that’s exactly what the Patriots did last night. With Laurence Maroney out for the season with a shoulder injury, New England called on veteran Sammy Morris to get it done, and he responded by, oh, having the best night of his career. Morris rushed for a stunning 138 yards in the first half alone before leaving the game with a knee injury. After his departure, New England kept plowing forward on the ground, finishing the evening with 257 rushing yards, their highest since December of 1985.
And the defense wasn’t bad, either. The Pats forced five turnovers—three fumbles, two interceptions—and sacked Jay Cutler three times, holding the Denver quarterback to a meager 64.3 passer rating (which was only marginally better than Cassel’s dismal 61.6 rating last week. Yeesh). Last night, the Patriots finally looked like a team that understands the nature of its situation, and realizes that it needs to play to its strengths in order to win games. Tom Brady’s departure sent the organization reeling, and they are only just starting to show signs that they may be able to get their season back on track.
And how, exactly, did Matt Cassel factor in to this impressive victory? Well, it just so happens that he had the best game of his career. Cassel threw three touchdowns, connecting with Wes Welker and twice with Randy Moss, finishing the night with a 136.3 passer rating. And, despite his foppish, ineffectual TD celebration moves, he looked pretty damn good. Or, at least, better than we’ve ever seen him. It seems that, when the offensive strategy turned heavily run-centric, it allowed Cassel the opportunity to relax a bit and perform without being under the intense scrutiny that has proved crippling to him in weeks past.
New Englad is certainly not out of the woods by any means—the severity of Morris’ injury is still unknown, and veteran safety Rodney Harrison didn’t look too promising as he was carted off the field last night following what appeared to be a pretty brutal hit to his right knee. Oh, and Cassel is still getting sacked. A lot. The Broncos took him down six times last night, raising his total to 25 sacks so far this season (compared to Tom Brady’s 21 for all of last season).
Still, all is not lost. By pulling off what appeared to be an effortless rout of a very solid Denver squad last night, the Patriots legitimately looked like a playoff team for the first time this season. And in a year that is shaping up to be one of the most lop-sided, erratic and unpredictable in recent memory, there’s no reason why this current iteration of the Patriots can’t have a shot at reclaiming Super Bowl glory. If only they didn’t make me so goddamn nervous.