The Patriots closed out the 2004 regular season with a 14-2 mark, matching last season's franchise best, with a 21-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers.
It was a slow start for New England but once it grabbed the lead at 14-7, it never looked back.
"I thought for what they have been through this year, I think you have to give a lot of credit to the players for their diligence, their perseverance, and for battling all the way through," Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said. "It has been a long season and they have been tough and they played tough. And I thought they played well again today so we are happy with that. It is on to the playoffs."
Corey Dillon ran for 116 yards and topped the season with over 1,600, adding to his franchise record. Jed Weaver had 4 catches for 62 yards and Tom Brady was 22 of 30 passing for 226 yards, a touchdown and one interception.
"Well, it was a good regular season," Brady said. "And 14-2, everyone was excited, especially coming into today. Although we kind of knew where we were seeded and stuff for the playoffs, it was still fun to go out there and win."
Ken Dorsey started at quarterback for the 49ers and was 18 of 29 for 189 yards and a touchdown. Kevan Barlow ran for 103 yards.
New England began the game with a series of mistakes and one could not blame the back-ups as every healthy starter was in the game through three quarters. The first came as Bethel Johnson was in the process of returning a 49er punt for an 86-yard punt for a touchdown. Earthwind Moreland was called for a block in the back and the play came back to the Patriots 7 where they had to start first and 10.
Then, on the subsequent drive that looked promising, Corey Dillon fumbled after picking up 18 yards on a short pass play. Ronnie Heard of the 49ers recovered at his own 29. The Patriots came out in a no-huddle and was driving prior to the turnover.
Fortunately for New England, the 49ers went backwards with three straight penalties and punted for the second straight time in two tries.
But New England wasn't finished mishandling the ball. This time, Brady slightly overthrew Dillon and Dwaine Carpenter came up with an easy interception that he returned 31 yards to the Patriots 22. A few plays later, tight end Steve Bush took a short pass and crashed into the end zone for the early 7-0 lead. It was the first time in 20 straight regular season games that an opponent of the Patriots scored first.
The first quarter ended with San Francisco in possession of the ball. This time the 49ers had it after a couple of penalties by the Patriots killed any hopes of mounting a drive and forced a punt.
A Willie McGinest facemask penalty aided the 49ers to the New England 49 after one play but their next drive was halted at the 21. Todd Peterson's field goal attempt from 39 yards out clanked off the right upright and the Patriots escaped still down by 7.
The Patriots finally got on track with an eight play drive that ended with a Brady to Mike Vrabel pass for a 1-yard score. Dillon did most of the work to get his team there with four runs totalling 41 yards with the longest a 19-yarder.
At the two-minute warning, New England was threatening to add to its lead but faced a second and 16 from the 49ers 25. Brady took a shotgun snap and looked to pass but had his arm hit by John Engelberger. The ball came loose before Brady's arm came forward making the play a fumble. Engelberger was also credited with the recovery.
That essentially ended the first half as the 49ers let the clock run out after a pass interference call on Cedrick Wilson left them with a second and 18 at their own 32.
"Well, any time you turn the ball over, we were probably fortunate for it to be 7-7 at that point," Belichick said. "Three turnovers and a punt return called back from a touchdown, that is a lot to overcome. But fortunately, we were able to hang in there and come back and get a couple scores in the second half. So, [when] you turn the ball over that many times, it is usually not good."
The two teams traded punts to start the second half, but Josh Miller's was downed on the 1-yard line of San Francisco. The New England defense didn't allow the 49ers beyond the 14 and after the punt, gave New England a short field to work with on their ensuing drive.
The Patriots took advantage by running Dillon twice for 37 yards. The second rush, for 29 yards, put Dillon over 100 yards for the game and 1,600 yards on the season.
Two plays later, Deion Branch scored on an 8-yard pass that he did most of the work on, outracing his defender and sticking the ball over the goal line for the score.
With Brady still in the game, New England had the ball first and 10 at the 49ers 14 as the third quarter ended. Brady had just successfully pulled off a quarterback sneak for 3 yards on fourth and 1. But as the fourth quarter opened, it was Rohan Davey under center. All he had to do was give the ball to Dillon twice, the first time for an 8-yard gain and the second for a 6-yard scoring plunge.
Aside from a last second bid that died on the the Patriots 15 with no time left, that was the game as San Francisco posed no threat from that point.
"I thought it was a good solid game," Belichick said. "I am glad we ended up on top and ended up with a 14-2 record. I thought the players deserved that for what they have done this year."