After using 40 different starters in their first nine games, the Patriots enter their bye week ready to rest, recuperate and shift their focus to the final seven games of the 2003 season. In the first segment of the season, New England endured a season-opening loss, followed by a rash of injuries that saw 11 opening-day starters miss at least one game. But through it all, Head Coach Bill Belichick and his players have come up with some solid results, having won their last five games and seven of their last eight contests to enter the bye week with a 7-2 record and a claim on first place in the AFC East.
With seven games to go, the Patriots know that they must maintain the focus and determination that has taken them to the top of the division. Belichick's week-by-week philosophy emphasizes short-term goals, and for the Patriots that next step is to get healthy and gear up for the season's final stretch, beginning with the 6-2 Dallas Cowboys, who visit Foxborough a week from Sunday.
The Patriots are off to their best start to a season in 23 years, equaling the best nine-game start in franchise history with a 7-2 record through nine games. New England is 7-2 for the third time in team history, joining the 1980 and 1978 squads with seven wins in their first nine games. Like the 1978 team, the 2003 Patriots lost their first game, then rattled off seven wins in their next eight games. The Patriots are one of just three NFL teams to have recorded seven or more wins this season.
The Patriots have seven games left in the 2003 season, and since Bill Belichick took over as head coach in 2000, the Patriots have saved their best football for the end of the season. Since 2000, New England is a combined 13-8 (.619) in its last seven games of the campaign. Last year, the Patriots were 4-3 in their last seven games, following a 2001 season where they closed out with a 6-1 record.
THE ROAD AHEAD
The combined record of the Patriots' remaining opponents is 28-28 (.500), giving the Patriots the easiest remaining schedule in the AFC East. Buffalo's remaining foes are 40-25 (.615), while Miami's remaining opponents are 38-27 (.584), and the Jets' are 34-31 (.523). New England has dates on tap with Dallas (6-2), Houston (3-5), Indianapolis (7-1), Miami (5-3), Jacksonville (1-7), New York Jets (2-6) and Buffalo (4-4).
BY THE BYE
Since the inception of the bye week in 1990, the Patriots have a 5-9 record in games following the week off. The Patriots are 1-2 following the bye week under Bill Belichick, but teams Belichick has been associated with have an 8-6 overall record following the bye and are 6-3 in their last nine contests.
The Patriots are 9-3 (.750) at Gillette Stadium since their new home opened in 2002, including a 4-0 record this season. The Patriots have won seven of their last eight home games and are 15-5 (.750) at home since 2001. Foxborough has proven to be a very hospitable place for the Patriots since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994. Since that time, the Patriots hold a 67-33 (.670) record at home, including preseason, regular-season and postseason games.
The Patriots have shown a remarkable ability to hold leads late in games, having won their last 21 games when they have a lead heading into the fourth quarter. The 21-game streak is the longest in the NFL. New England has also won 15 straight games when it leads at halftime, and is 18-1 in its last 19 games in which it has led at the break.
The Patriots matched the best nine-game start in franchise history with a tight 30-26 come-from-behind victory over the Denver Broncos at Invesco Field at Mile High on Monday Night Football. In the back-and-forth battle between the two teams, the Patriots did not secure the victory until there were only 30 seconds left on the clock.
The clash between the two teams went up and down throughout the first half with Denver continually holding onto the lead. Denver opened the scoring with a touchdown, then New England responded with a 66-yard touchdown from quarterback Tom Brady to wide receiver Deion Branch. The Broncos took a 10-7 lead on a field goal, but Adam Vinatieri responded with a 40-yarder to tie the score. Denver got another touchdown before New England had to settle for a 46-yard Vinatieri field goal to enter the locker room down by four at the intermission.
The Patriots came into the second half with a sense of urgency, producing 255 total net yards to the Broncos' 81. New England took the lead for the first time all night with a 6-yard Brady-to-Graham completion, making the score 20-17. After another Bronco touchdown, the Patriots were down by four, but a 28-yard Vinatieri field goal narrowed Denver's lead to one. With 30 seconds left in the game and New England facing a 3-point deficit, Brady completed an 18-yard toss to wide receiver David Givens to give the Patriots a 30-26 victory and a 7-2 record.
Tom Brady's 66-yard touchdown completion to Deion Branch was his third completion of more than 50 yards this season. In addition to last week's long play, Brady had completed touchdown passes of 82 yards to Troy Brown in overtime at Miami (10/19/03) and 58 yards to Brown against Tennessee (10/05/03). Last season, Brady did not complete any passes for more than 50 yards, with his longest toss being a 49-yard touchdown completion to Branch against the New York Jets (09/15/02). Before this season, Brady had only completed one pass longer than 50 yards in his career, a 91-yard touchdown to David Patten at Indianapolis (10/21/01).
BRADY THROWS FOR 350
Tom Brady completed 20 of his 35 passes for 350 yards and three touchdowns. It was the first time Brady had thrown for 350 or more yards since he chalked up 353 yards at San Diego last season (09/29/02). It was Brady's fifth career 300-yard passing game, and his first of the season.
BRANCH'S HUNDRED-YARD DAY
Deion Branch broke the 100-yard receiving barrier for the second time in his career, with 107 receiving yards on three receptions. It was the third consecutive week the Patriots have had a 100-yard receiver, and Branch is the third different receiver to accomplish that feat. Troy Brown grabbed six passes for 131 yards at Miami (10/19/03), and Daniel Graham caught seven passes for 110 yards against Cleveland (10/26/03).
RETURN STREAK OVER
The Broncos' Deltha O'Neal returned a punt 57 yards for a touchdown with 3:13 left in the third quarter, becoming the first opponent to return a punt for a touchdown against the Patriots since Sept. 5, 1993. In that game, Buffalo's Russell Copeland returned a punt 47 yards for a touchdown. The Patriots had gone 167 consecutive games without allowing a punt return, a streak that was the longest in the NFL.
GIVENS SETS SUPERLATIVES
David Givens notched a career high 87 receiving yards and caught the longest pass of his career against Denver. In the second quarter, Givens snared a career-long 48-yard reception from Brady that brought the Patriots into Denver territory and set up a 40-yard field goal by Adam Vinatieri that tied the game at 10. Givens topped off his night with a game-winning, 18-yard touchdown catch that gave him 87 receiving yards for the game, besting his mark of 57 yards at Washington earlier this season.
CAREER LONG FOR BRANCH
Deion Branch wove through the Denver secondary to haul in a 66-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady and tie the game at seven with 6:04 left in the first quarter. The 66-yard touchdown was the longest of Branch's career, besting a 49-yard touchdown grab from Brady against the New York Jets (09/15/02).
EARLY RETURNS ARE GOOD
Rookie kickoff returner Bethel Johnson came up with a key 63-yard kickoff return with less than 30 seconds left in the first half, to put the Patriots in position to close the gap to 17-13 on a 46-yard field goal as halftime loomed. The 63-yard return was the third return of 50 or more yards by Johnson this season. Against Tennessee (10/05/03), Johnson had returns of 50 and 71 yards.
GRAHAM GRABS A TD
Daniel Graham grabbed his first touchdown of the season and the second of his career on a six-yard reception from Brady that put the Patriots ahead 20-17 in the third quarter. Graham's touchdown was part of a four-catch, 39-yard outing that came on the heels of a seven-catch, 110-yard breakout game against Cleveland on Oct. 26.
- Denver's first-quarter touchdown by Clinton Portis was the first touchdown the Patriots had allowed in the first quarter since the season-opener at Buffalo (09/07/03).
- Denver's first-quarter interception by Kenoy Kennedy ended Tom Brady's streak of 134 consecutive passes without an interception. Brady did not throw an interception in the month of October. The last time Brady had thrown an interception was early in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' game at Washington (09/28/03).
- The Patriots scored in the first quarter and in the third quarter for the eighth straight week.
- The Patriots allowed the Broncos to gain just six total yards from scrimmage in the third quarter.
- The New England secondary held the Broncos to just 163 passing yards.
- The Patriots improved to 24-2 under Bill Belichick when they score 21 or more points.
- New England raised its record to 68-11 when they score 21 or more points since Robert Kraft purchased the team in 1994.
- Rodney Harrison broke up a Danny Kanell pass intended for Rod Smith inside the Broncos' 10-yard line on third down early in the second quarter.
- Willie McGinest dropped Clinton Portis for a three-yard loss on a pitch play in the second quarter.
- Tedy Bruschi broke into the backfield and stopped Denver running back Quentin Griffin for a four-yard loss in the second quarter.
The Patriots have won their last seven overtime games (including the playoffs). The Patriots' seven-game overtime winning streak is the longest in the NFL. The Patriots have won one overtime game this season, defeating the Dolphins 19-13 in Miami on an 82-yard touchdown from Tom Brady to Troy Brown (10/19/03). New England has not lost in overtime since Buffalo won 16-13 at Foxboro Stadium on Nov. 5, 2000. Since that time, the Patriots have won seven straight, including five games in which they scored on their first possession of overtime.
CHANGING LEAVES AND CHANGING FORTUNES
New England is always a nice place to be in the month of October, and this year, the Patriots shared that sentiment. Although the leaves changed, the Patriots stayed on the winning track, winning all four of their games in the month. New England was undefeated in October for the first time since 1978 and for just the second time in team history. The Patriots will try to continue copying the success of the 1978 team, which followed its undefeated October by going 3-1 in November. Last month was the Patriots' first undefeated month since December, 2001, when New England won all four games en route to its Super Bowl XXXVI victory. Three of the Patriots' October wins came in front of the Gillette Stadium faithful, as New England won three home games in the same month for the first time since October of 1988. The Patriots' October success is a refreshing turnaround from the frightful experience last year, when New England was 0-3 in October.
The Patriots' 2003 draftees have been hailed as the best crop in the NFL, and in looking at the draft class from top to bottom, it's hard to disagree with that perception. New England's top six picks have all started at least one game, and each has made a noticeable contribution to the Patriots' success. Below is a player-by-player breakdown of the 2003 draft class, listed by round.
1 Ty Warren, DT — Started four games, while playing in all nine contests … Has been a contributor to a solid defensive line that has helped the Patriots rank sixth in the NFL in stopping the run … Has made 23 tackles, including a sack.
2a Eugene Wilson, DB — Has started eight of nine games at free safety … Leads all NFL rookies with three interceptions … Ranks sixth on the team with 35 tackles and has batted away seven passes.
2b Bethel Johnson, WR/KR — Serves as New England's primary kickoff returner and has started two of nine games at wide receiver … Has broken off three kick returns of 50 yards or more, including a 71-yarder against Tennessee (10/5) … Has caught 7 passes for 112 yards.
4a Dan Klecko, DL — Has proven to be a valuable versatile presence in all phases of the game … Has made 11 tackles, including 1.5 sacks while playing nose tackle, defensive end and outside linebacker … Has lined up as a fullback on occasion, tallying two carries and blocking on three of the team's five touchdown runs.
4b Asante Samuel, CB — Has taken on a role as the Patriots' nickel back … Ranks second among AFC rookies with two interceptions … Named AFC Rookie of the Week after returning an interception 55 yards for a touchdown against the New York Jets (09/21/03) … Has made 18 tackles and batted seven passes.
5 Dan Koppen, C — Has started eight of nine games at center and has been a valuable part of an effective offensive line … Has helped New England average just one sack allowed over the past four weeks … Part of an improved running game that has broken the 100-yard barrier five times in 2003.
6 Kliff Kingsbury, QB — Placed on injured reserve during training camp.
7a Spencer Nead, TE — Released by New England, but has played in six games for St. Louis.
7b Tully Banta-Cain — Has played in three games after spending time on Reserve/PUP, and has registered four special teams tackles and a defensive stop.
7c Ethan Kelley, DT —Patriots practice squad.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Patriots' record in preseason, regular-season and postseason games since 1996 (.606 win pct.).
NO PASSING ZONE
THE KRAFT ERA
THE BELICHICK ERA
NOT HALF BAD
THIRD DOWN DOMINANCE
CHEWING UP YARDS
TURNING OVER WINS