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Game Recap: Patriots close it out with big win

Lethargy is fatal in the NFL where parity reigns supreme, but every rule has an exception and in this instance, it comes when a playoff team takes on a terrible, mistake-prone 1-14 team that is winless at home. With that, New England put forth a sloppy performance that was still enough to win going away, 38-6, to capture its first AFC East championship since 1997.

However it was accomplished, the team should be commended for turning around a 1-3 season and finishing with six straight victories for an 11-5 final record — one that matches the best in franchise history — and completing a worst-to-first turnaround within the division that earned the team a first-round playoff bye thanks to the Jets 24-22 win over the Raiders.

The postgame celebration was certainly well deserved as cigars, AFC East Champion hats and T-shirts and a postgame Gatorade shower for Head Coach Bill Belichick signaled the culmination of an impressive second half run that saw the Patriots sprint past the division competition.

"We'll enjoy this for a while," Belichick said of the division-title celebration. "Then we will set our sights on the playoffs. We're real happy with what we accomplished, but there's a long way to go."

The team already has come a long way in reaching its goals to capture the division title and secure a winning record in division games while also overcoming a sluggish start to win 10 of its last 12 contests.

"Nobody predicted us to be in this position," running back Antowain Smith, who scored his only touchdown of the day on a 32-yard run, said. "The veterans took control and pulled this team together and told us it's not a sprint, it's a marathon, and we responded."

"It was a good feeling from the get-go," linebacker Ted Johnson said referring to his preseason sentiments. "We brought in a lot of pros, and 11-5 matches the best record of my career. I'm extremely happy."

The New England Patriots take on the Carolina Panthers at Ericsson Stadium on Sunday, January 6, 2002.

While the final score and final record are obviously the bottom line for a franchise that captured only its sixth division title in 42 years, Sunday's game was hardly among the team's most impressive performances of the season. 

Playing on a soggy Ericsson Stadium turf before a sparse crowd of 21,070 mostly Patriots fans, New England received a spirited effort from a special teams unit that Belichick challenged in the week leading up to the game. But other than that, credit for the win has to go to a brutal Carolina Panthers team that set an NFL futility record with its 15th consecutive loss in a single season. 

The Panthers offense coughed up the ball five times via three Chris Weinke interceptions and two fumbles, which the Patriots turned into 21 points, including two interception returns for touchdowns. Weinke was awful in the game, hitting on just 15-of-36 passes for 144 yards despite being aided by a ground attack that produced 193 yards — 168 by running back Richard Huntley, who ran through gaping holes and feeble Patriots tackle attempts while setting a single-game franchise rushing record.

But despite being pushed around up front, the Patriots defense rose to make the necessary big plays in their live-to-fight-another-day philosophy. Otis Smith picked off two passes, one which he returned 76 yards for a score and a second which he returned 33 yards for a score that was called back because of a Matt Stevens holding penalty. Ty Law grabbed an interception of his own and took it back 46 yards for a touchdown. The defense also limited the Panthers to just 4-of-13 (31 percent) on third down.

But the special teams units led the way on every front. Troy Brown's 68-yard touchdown return midway through the third quarter broke open an ugly 10-3 game and gave the Patriots the sizable lead they needed to send the Panthers packing. 

But beyond Brown, the Patriots coverage teams limited a lethal Panther return game with solid tackling and a takeaway of their own, giving Carolina six overall turnovers. That fumble came from dangerous return specialist Steve Smith, who was held to a 16-yard average on six kickoff returns and a 3-yard average on three punt returns.

Patriots special teamer Patrick Pass recovered Smith's fumble while also averaging 29.5 yards on his two kickoff returns and downing a Ken Walters punt on the 1-yard line for another big play. Walters continued to impress with four of his six punts downed inside the 20, creating a long field for the Panthers offense. In fact, the punt downed at the 1, in a sense, set up Brown's touchdown as Carolina punted from deep in its own territory on the ensuing possession and Brown took the punt all the way.

"That was huge," quarterback Tom Brady said of Brown's return. "That was the turning point of the game and he's been making plays like that all year."

The importance of that return was magnified by a sluggish Patriots offense that turned the ball over three times itself, including one Smith fumble at the 1-yard line as he pranced into the end zone for a sure touchdown. Smith did break the 32-yard scoring run that put the Patriots up 24-6 in the third quarter, but overall, he found running room hard to come by. He gained 81 yards on 21 attempts, but the Patriots managed just 2.8 yards on 36 carries, as the physical play seen recently from the offensive line was notably absent. 

Brady completed 17-of-29 passes for 198 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions, both of which went to Panthers safety Deon Grant. The Patriots offense officially accounted for 17 of the 38 points, but seven of those came after defensive lineman Riddick Parker recovered a Weinke mishandled snap at the Panthers 9-yard line. Three plays later, Brady hit tight end Jermaine Wiggins for the touchdown that made it 31-6.

Brady started out hot on the game's opening series when he completed 5-of-7 for 53 yards, but when a holding penalty on guard Joe Andruzzi nullified a 5-yard Smith touchdown run, New England settled for a 19-yard Adam Vinatieri field goal for a 3-0 lead. 

Five plays later, Weinke threw a quick slant right to Law, who raced 46 yards for a touchdown and a 10-0 lead just eight minutes into the game.

It was 10-3 at halftime, but by the time the third quarter ended, the Patriots had the game in hand with a 24-6 lead that was impossible for the lowly Panthers to overcome.

Before the Patriots charter flight back to New England landed, the team knew of its first-round playoff bye.

"It's an exciting time," Brady said. "We put ourselves in this position. I don't really care [who we play]. To be the best you have to beat the best."

Now the Patriots will enjoy their second bye in three weeks, but this time they had better come out with a sharper performance than what they put forth in earning that additional time off with the win in Carolina, a game which followed the team's first bye week of the season.

"There's more on the line," Johnson said. "You're playing for a lot more so I wouldn't anticipate a letdown."

The Patriots will host the highest remaining seeded team in a divisional playoff game at Foxboro Stadium the weekend of Jan. 19-20.


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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