The win was significant in many ways: It clinched the AFC East title; it proved that the Patriots can dominate a successful team; and it gave the two-time defending Super Bowl champions their first three-game winning streak of 2005 season. The Patriots have now won five of their last six.
Despite winning their previous two games by a combined 51-10 score, the Patriots came into the game with something to prove because of the questionable quality of the recent competition. The Buccaneers represented a tougher challenge, coming to Foxboro with a 9-4 record, a share of the NFC South lead and wins in four of their last five games.
The Patriots (9-5) silenced their doubters with their first shutout of the '05 season, their largest margin of victory and their most dominant defensive showing. Tampa Bay gained only 138 net yards, made only 12 first downs and never got the ball past the New England 33-yard line.
New England's success started with the run defense, which limited rookie RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to 23 yards on 14 carries.
The Patriots annihilation of the Tampa Bay rushing attack continues a trend: The team has now held its last three opponents to a combined 85 yards rushing. Williams had averaged 102 yards over the last four games, but against the Patriots he was held to three yards or less on every attempt.
"The last three weeks, I don't know if a running back has had over 30 yards on us," said DE Richard Seymour. "We're just playing good football. Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork have been doing a heck of a job. We take it personally any time anyone can run on us." (Curtis Martin of the Jets gained 29 yards to make him the leading opposing rusher of the last three weeks.)
"The D line played great," said LB Willie McGinest. "They gave them no chance to run the ball."
Wilfork offered a succinct explanation. "It's technique ball. We're getting back to basics and trusting one another."
Over the last three games, the Patriots have allowed an average of 162 total yards of offense per game. By comparison, the NFL's leading defense, the Chicago Bears, is allowing an average of 270.5 yards for the season.
Tampa Bay stayed with the run throughout the first half but abandoned it in the second half, exposing third-year QB Chris Simms to an aggressive New England pass rush that logged seven sacks--after totaling only 27 through the season's first 13 games. The Patriots' starting linebackers accounted for six sacks: McGinest and Tedy Bruschi had two apiece, while Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel each had one.
Simms wilted under the pressure, throwing a lot of rushed passes while completing 21-for 34 for 155 yards.
"It's tough for any team to be successful if they can't run the ball," said Seymour. "By the predicament they found themselves in, they had to throw the football."
New England's offense also struggled at times, with six of 11 possessions resulting in punts after just three or four plays.
The Patriots led just 7-0 and were coming off back-to-back punts when they got the ball with 8:10 left in the first half at their own 37-yard line. The drive stalled after six plays, but the Patriots caught a huge break when Buccaneers LB Ryan Nece was called for roughing Patriots punter Josh Miller, giving New England a first down. The Patriots lost six yards on the next two plays, but Patriots QB Tom Brady hit TE Christian Fauria for 17 on the third-and-16. Brady then connected with WR Tim Dwight on a 27-yarder to Tampa Bay 6, and a face mask penalty on Tampa Bay DE Simeon Rice took it to the 3. Tackle Tom Ashworth then lined up at fullback and hauled in a Brady pass in the end zone for the first touchdown of his career.
The score put the Buccaneers down 14-0 with just 2:12 remaining in the first half, and the hole promptly grew deeper. One play after completing a 22-yard pass to WR Ike Hilliard, Simms dropped back to pass at the Tampa Bay 44 and got nailed by a blitzing Vrabel, who knocked the ball loose. McGinest recovered the fumble and ran the ball 19 yards before attempting a lateral that wound up being ruled an illegal forward pass. "That's what we call what-not-to-do," said McGinest. "I should have held onto it and just gone down."
The damage from McGinest's gaffe was minor -- a five-yard penalty -- and the Patriots needed just three plays to score, with Brady threading a beautiful pass to Givens in the left corner of the end zone for a 16-yard score that gave New England a 21-0 halftime lead.
The Patriots closed out the scoring with 11:37 left in the fourth quarter when Brady hit Dillon from two yards out to complete a five-play, 51-yard drive.
While the Buccaneers held the New England offense in check for much of the game, they could do nothing with Givens, who exploded for 137 yards on six catches. The rest of the New England wide receiver corps combined for only four catches and 73 yards. Givens also gained 13 yards on a pair of reverses.
Brady, showing no ill effects from a calf injury suffered last week against Buffalo, completed 20 of 31 passes for 258 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions.
The Patriots gained only 336 yards of offense against the Tampa Bay defense that came into the game ranked No. 2 in the NFL. The Buccaneers held the Patriots to 83 yards rushing, with Dillon carrying 19 times for 48 yards. RB Kevin Faulk, who had averaged 83 yards in the two previous games, was limited to 26 yards on six carries and two receptions.
The Patriots are off for eight days before facing the 3-10 Jets a week from Monday at the Meadowlands. They finish the regular season on Jan. 1 against the Dolphins in Foxboro then host a Wild Card playoff game a week later.
Notes: Bruschi led the Patriots with nine tackles, followed by CB Asante Samuel and safety Artrell Hawkins with seven apiece … TE Benjamin Watson missed the game with a head injury … TE Daniel Graham played after missing two games with a shoulder injury. … Brady surpassed his career high for passing yards in a season with a second-quarter pass to Dwight. He now has 3,888 yards on the season. His previous best was 3,764 yards in 2002. … The shutout was New England's first since they beat the Buffalo Bills, 31-0, on Dec. 27, 2003. … The Patriots' seven sacks was their highest single-game total since they logged eight sacks against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 14, 2003.