The Patriots wrapped up the regular season yesterday with a 21-7 win over the San Francisco 49ers. The 'Niners, who finished the 2004 campaign with the league's worst record at 2-14, gave the Pats more trouble than most had hoped for, especially early on. You can read game reviews by Nick Cafardoof The Boston Globe, Michael Felgerof The Boston Herald, Tom Curranof The Providence Journal, Alan Greenbergof The Hartford Courant, and Michael Parenteof The Woonsocket Call.
One of the more interesting storylines heading into the finale surrounded Patriots running back Corey Dillon. Dillon needed 81 yards against San Francisco to reach 1,600 on the year, and thus kick in a performance bonus of $375,000. While under most circumstances this would be easy for Dillon to attain, it was widely hoped coach Bill Belichick would not play his starters too long, in an effort to minimize the chances of injury. In the end, Dillon saw action in all four quarters, and rushed for 116 yards on just 14 carries, easily achieving his bonus while extending his new franchise record for yards inn a season. Jackie MacMullenof the Globe, Shalize Manza Youngof the Journal, and Tim Weisbergof The Standard Times cover Dillon's gains.
Kevin Mannix of the Herald praises Belichick for his insistence that yesterday's game was as meaningful as any other. While many hoped Belichick would sit his stars because a loss would not affect the team's playoff positioning, he took on the 49ers the same way he did the Jets one week earlier. Tom Brady played three quarters, and did come out until the game was largely in hand. The same goes for Dillon, which, as Mannix contends, fits in perfectly with Belichick's "just do your job" mentality.
Ron Borges of the Globe features backup quarterback Rohan Davey, who got his fifteen minutes of fame in yesterday's fourth quarter. Davey was expected to see more action, but was pleased with the opportunity to run the offense, if only for a short time.
Another player who saw significant action yesterday was backup tight end Jed Weaver. Weaver, seldom used throughout the year, led the receiving corps with four catches for 62 yards. Paul Harberof the Globe, Steve Conroyof the Herald, and Greenberg of the Courant commend the breakout game for Weaver.
One interesting experiment that showed up on the field yesterday was in the punt return game. Kickoff return specialist Bethel Johnson, with just one prior punt return on his resume, was sent out to take back punts. He took his first one back 86 yards for a touchdown, only to see it negated by an Earthwind Moreland penalty. Nonetheless, it is an exciting development to see the explosive Johnson given another opportunity to touch the ball. Cafardo, Felger, Curran, and Parente discuss the move.
Linebacker Mike Vrabel was once again seen on the offensive side of the ball, lined up as a tight end. On the goal line, trailing 7-0 in the first half, Belichick sent Vrabel in at tight end and backup lineman Russ Hochstein into the goal line fullback slot usually reserved for injured Pro-Bowler Richard Seymour. Moments after Vrabel was flagged for his first offensive penalty of the season, a false start, Brady found him for a one-yard touchdown pass, Vrabel's second of the year. Conroy and Joe McDonald of the Journal recap the play of the versatile Vrabel.
Karen Guregian of the Herald contends the Patriots make her nervous heading into the playoffs, and highlights the various areas of weakness that have helped foster such emotions.
Rich Thompson of the Herald gives credit to the defense for showing up in a largely meaningless game. The unit's leaders, Rodney Harrison and Tedy Bruschi, set the tone, combining for 24 tackles and playing the majority of the game.
Manza Young spotlights veteran linebacker Willie McGinest, whose team-leading 9.5 sacks are his highest total since 1996. McGinest, who had 5 sacks in three playoff games last year, has been rock-solid for the Patriots the last few years and, at 33, seems to be getting better with age.
Mike Reiss of The MetroWest Daily News reports a scary moment from yesterday, when Adam Vinatieri experienced blurred vision as the Patriots drove the field. As Reiss points out, Vinatieri is one of the last players the team can afford to lose.
Reiss also delves into what he considers areas of interest for the upcoming playoffs, including the defensive backfield, Corey Dillon's ball security, the Bethel Johnson factor, and the team's overall health.
Dan Pires of The Standard Times writes yesterday's game was emblematic of the team's overall depth, as players stepped up from all angles.
Finally, ESPN.com's lead playoff story by Len Pasquarelli predicts a repeat championship for the Patriots. Pasquarelli asserts it is Belichick's influence and ability that most separates New England from the other playoff teams.