If the Saints came marching in, they sure left limping. New Orleans had the reputation of being a physical team, but it was New England that really threw its weight around on both sides of the ball. The Patriots (6-5) got back on the winning track as they put forth their finest effort of the season, jumping out to a 20-0 lead before holding steady en route to a 34-17 win over the Saints in rainy conditions.
"We have been searching to have a complete game, both offensively and defensively," safety Lawyer Milloy said. "It seems like when the offense has been hot, we've been cold [on defense], and when the defense was hot, the offense was cold. Today, along with special teams, we were able to put it all together."
After the game, Head Coach Bill Belichick told his players he thought it was their best game of the season. It's easy to see where he got that idea. The offense gained 432 yards, including a whopping 191 on the ground, and got three touchdowns in three trips to the red zone. The defense held the NFC's leading rusher, Ricky Williams, to 56 yards on 15 carries, effectively taking the New Orleans ground game out of commission. The special teams units contributed the third blocked field goal of the season and two punts that were downed inside the 5-yard line.
Heading into the game, the Patriots had major concerns about the burly Williams. With inside linebacker Ted Johnson out, New England switched to a 4-3 front and got a strong effort from Tedy Bruschi.
"Man, I was in there doing my best Ted Johnson imitation," said Bruschi, who finished with four tackles in helping hold Williams in check. "Ted is our big man in the middle stopping the run and throwing guards and fullbacks out of the way. He has been a great model for me to try and learn from."
Belichick offered strong praise for Bruschi, who has played in the middle before but is more accustomed to playing the weak side.
"Ricky's put up a lot of big numbers and he's a tough runner," Belichick said. "I think Tedy Bruschi is a little bit of an unsung guy the last couple weeks. He's done a nice job. You've got to give everybody credit; they all stepped up. But in the middle linebacker's position, Tedy's just done a nice job."
With New Orleans unable to run the ball and the Patriots jumping out to the early lead, Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks was forced to try to use his arm to rally his team. It didn't exactly work. His final numbers (16-of-39 for 307 yards) were decent, but much of his yardage came after the game was well in hand. Through three quarters Brooks was 7-of-24 for 199 yards as the Patriots were able to get significant pressure on him throughout.
"I wouldn't exactly say that we shut him down, but we were able to do enough to keep him off balance a little bit," said Belichick, whose defense sacked Brooks once and picked him off twice. "He's tough. He's got a big arm, he's athletic and he's accurate."
As big as it was for the defense to contain Williams and Brooks, the performance of the offensive line against the New Orleans front was even more impressive. New England had its way on the ground all night long, running 38 times for 191 yards. Antowain Smith led the way with 111 yards, getting his third 100-yard outing in four games. The ground attack helped give the Patriots more than an 11-minute advantage in time of possession.
"All week we've been hearing about how physical New Orleans is on defense, and we feel like we are a physical team on offense also," said Smith, who also scored the first receiving touchdown of his career on a 41-yard screen pass in the first quarter. "We just wanted to go out there as an offensive unit and play smash-mouth football."
Tackle Matt Light said the line established a mental advantage early, but he had no idea just how productive the running game was.
"Really? I didn't know we ran for that many yards," Light said. "I think the conditions may have lent themselves toward us having a little more of an edge in the running game. We executed well and had a good game plan."
The New England Patriots take on the New Orleans Saints at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday, November 25, 2001.
If the raging quarterback questions had any effect on Tom Brady during the week, he sure didn't show it. He completed 19-of-26 passes for 258 yards and four touchdowns, which went to four different receivers. The passes were distributed well. Troy Brown led the team in receiving with seven catches for 91 yards, but David Patten (3 catches, 47 yards), Smith, Marc Edwards (3 catches, 30 yards) and Charles Johnson (2 catches, 44 yards) all came up big as well.
Brady's biggest moment came just before halftime. The Patriots had the ball at their own 22 with just 1:50 left, and a sack on first down pushed them back 7 yards. Brady fumbled on the play, but somehow Jermaine Wiggins came up with the recovery. Instead of a momentum swing for New Orleans, the Patriots made the most of a second chance.
A pair of long runs by Smith and an 11-yard scramble by Brady moved the ball just across midfield, and then Brady hit Patten for 27 yards to the New Orleans 24 with 17 seconds left in the half. Brady then hit Charles Johnson for a 24-yard touchdown to send a deflated Saints team into the break down by three scores.
"I thought that play at the end of the [first] half was a heck of a throw," Belichick said. "If we don't get that one in, I'm not sure we get anything. That was a big time throw, to make sure C.J. [Charles Johnson] was in the end zone on the catch."
Even Brady's throws that didn't connect were a huge help. Two different long balls near the end zone intended for Patten resulted in pass interference calls that set up first-and-goal situations. Both times the Patriots converted the plays into touchdowns.
"It wasn't a thing of thinking we could take advantage of them in particular, but any game we go into, we want to go at the [defensive backs]," Patten said. "We want to back them off our routes, and when you go downfield defenses are going to think twice about sitting on the underneath things."
Now the Patriots are sitting on an exciting situation. They have already topped their win total from a year ago, and heading into the stretch run, they are legitimate playoff contenders. Next up is a huge game against the AFC East leading New York Jets, and a victory there could actually move them within one game of the division lead. New England can actually control their own fate as they push for something very few thought possible.
"We haven't had a game like this around here in a long time," Bruschi said. "We've had a lot of mountains and valleys to get through, but this is a big playoff implication game that people around here can get excited about. This locker room can get excited. If we can go down there to New York and get that game, we are going to put ourselves in good position."
2001: A Super Bowl Sound Odyssey
An aural history of the 2001 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. The six-part podcast features interviews with over 20 players, coaches, media members and others who were there to witness this historic season, mixed with the iconic sounds that detailed every dramatic twist and turn of an unforgettable season. Every memorable moment from the 2001 Patriots season is revisited with new-found perspective 20 years later. It's a fresh and thorough look back at the team that started a football dynasty.
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