FOXBOROUGH - After New England running back Corey Dillon caught a 2-yard touchdown pass with 11:32 left in the game, he attempted to punt the ball into the stands - and whiffed.
It might have been the Patriots' only real mistake on the day in their 28-0 demolition of the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose record drops to 9-5 with the loss, before a nationally televised audience on Fox.
Saturday was unofficially Patriots' Day as the back-to-back Super Bowl champions imposed their will on Tampa Bay in every facet of the game. In suffering through its first shutout since December 19, 1999 when the Jon Gruden-led Raiders defeated Tampa Bay, 45-0, it certainly was not Bucs' Day.
"It was one of those days where it was their day and it wasn't our day," said Buccaneers defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whose defense gave up four touchdowns and 336 yards in defeat.
But as poorly as the defense played, Tampa Bay's offense was even worse against New England, who had the 29th-ranked total defense and the 30th-ranked defense in terms of sacks heading into the contest. Aside from not getting on the scoreboard, the Bucs generated just 138 yards of total offense, the play-calling was stale and questionable, running back Cadillac Williams was held to just 23 yards on 14 carries (1.3 avg.), and the offensive line and running backs surrendered a season-high seven sacks.
"Well, obviously they beat somebody, an offensive lineman or a back," Gruden said of the Patriots, who blitzed quarterback Chris Simms virtually every play. "We came in with a lot of seven-man protections. We were not outnumbered. We got whipped a couple of times."
Linebacker Teddy Bruschi and defensive end Willie McGinest each recorded two sacks, while safety Artell Hawkins and linebackers Rosevelt Colvin and Mike Vrabel each had one sack of Simms.
After the game, Tampa Bay's offensive linemen were frustrated with the play of their unit and certainly respectful of New England's talent and Bill Belichick's defensive scheme
"Lack of concentration and lack of execution" were the reasons Tampa Bay left tackle Anthony Davis gave for the poor play of the offensive line. "Our intensity level wasn't there today."
"They are the champs, man," said Bucs right tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "You have to give respect to the champs. You can't get yourself in a hole and get behind a team that wants to blitz anyway. We played their game. It's disappointing to get your (butt) whipped on national television in a game like this. They're a good team. We're disappointed."
Tampa Bay's special teams play also factored mightily into its 28-0 loss. Aside from having an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown by Mark Jones called back in the third quarter due to a penalty on safety Kalvin Pearson, Bucs linebacker Ryan Nece was flagged for a questionable roughing the punter penalty on fourth-and-13 at the New England 47 when the Patriots led 7-0 in the second quarter. That costly personal foul gave the ball back to the Patriots at the Tampa Bay 38 and they would score a touchdown seven plays later.
"I didn't even realize I hit him," Nece said of his roughing the punter penalty. "I didn't even feel it. If he would have fell as hard as he did, I would have felt it."
Even though Nece's penalty was big, the Bucs had the chance to get the Patriots offense off the field on a third-and-16 situation three plays later but couldn't prevent New England quarterback Tom Brady from hitting tight end Christian Fauria for a 17-yard strike. The Patriots would score a touchdown four plays later.
"It was very uncharacteristic of us to give up those big plays," Nece said. "The one that really hurt us was that third-and-16 situation after the (roughing the punter) penalty. We had an opportunity to get off the field and they got that first down."
"When you play Tom Brady, you can't have foolish penalties," Kiffin said. "You can't (put) the ball in Brady's hands. You can't give Brady too many snaps. The guy is just too good. It's not just today. He's fantastic. He has a nice supporting cast, but it's him.
"He was exceptional. Some of it was us, and some of it was him."
Brady was 20-of-31 for 258 yards with three touchdown passes, and hit wide receiver David Givens with six passes for 137 yards, including gains of 37, 32 and 31 yards against Tampa Bay nickel cornerback Juran Bolden, who struggled mightily in coverage and dropped a crucial interception at the start of the second quarter deep inside New England's territory.
"That's all I've been asking for all year - the opportunity to make plays," Bolden said. "The defense has put me in position to make some plays and that was a play I was supposed to make. That play - maybe that's the turning point for us to get some momentum. I didn't make the play and I'm held accountable. I'm upset. I'm very upset. I look at the (28-0) score, and say that's just not this defense."
New England's defense was the story of the day, and played a key role in putting itself up 21-0 at halftime when Vrabel beat Walker to sack Simms and force a fumble at the Tampa Bay 41 with 1:32 left in the second quarter. McGinest recovered for the Patriots and returned the ball to the 22-yard line. Three plays later, Givens beat cornerback Brian Kelly off the line of scrimmage and Brady hit him in stride for a 16-yard touchdown with 32 seconds remaining before the end of the first half.
"When you get down 21-0 and you know that you're going to throw every play, it gets into the kind of game that they want to be in," said Simms, who was 21-of-34 for 155 yards on Saturday. "We had a few mistakes here and there, and we had a chance to kind of get back in the game, but we didn't make the plays and they did. They were the better team today - period.
"They played with more urgency than we did, I know that. But you can't question them. They're the best team in the NFL until somebody proves otherwise. I don't care who has what record. They've won three of the last four and they have proven that they could get it done when they have to - always. Until they get beat in the playoffs, they are the best team in the NFL."
"Oh, it was a bad day for us," Gruden said of his team's loss to the Patriots. "It was a bad day. We had (an 81-yard) punt return called back. We dropped passes that would give us possession to give us some momentum. I did not like the fact that New England took the opening kickoff 80 yards for a touchdown. That did not help matters. To get behind and allow this crowd to get into the game is something that we do not take a lot of pride in."
The big play on New England's first scoring drive came on third-and-7 from its own 27 when Brady completed a 32-yard pass to Givens down to the Buccaneers' 41. Givens found a soft spot in between safety Dexter Jackson and Bolden in the Bucs' Cover 2 defense. On first-and-10 from the 41, Givens ran a reverse for nine yards. The Patriots then proceeded to move down the field by converting three straight third-and-1 situations, including a 1-yard touchdown pass from Brady to offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, who was lined up as a right tight end on the play, on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips was late coming over in coverage on the play. The result of the Patriots' 12-play, 76-yard drive was a 7-0 lead with 8:52 left in the first quarter.
The Patriots' second touchdown came on a similar drive to their first - this one was a 12-play, 63-yard drive with 2:12 left before halftime. After Nece's personal foul gave the Pats new life, and Fauria's 17-yard converted a first down on third-and-16, Brady found wide receiver Tim Dwight for a 27-yard gain down to the Tampa Bay 3. On the next play, Dillon scored on a 3-yard run to put New England up 14-0.
New England's third score, Brady's 16-yard touchdown to Givens, came off Vrabel's sack of Simms, which forced a fumble just before halftime.
Tampa Bay had opportunities to get points in the third quarter, but couldn't get on the scoreboard. The first such opportunity came when the Bucs drove to the New England 33-yard line, but the decision to throw the ball on third-and-1 and fourth-and-1 was very questionable, as the result was two incompletions in Joey Galloway's direction.
The Bucs would get the ball back four plays later and have another chance to score, but Jones' 81-yard punt return for a touchdown was a moot point due to Pearson's penalty, which nullified the play.
New England would end the game's scoring early in the fourth quarter after a five-play, 51-yard scoring drive that featured back-to-back 19-yard receptions by Deion Branch and Andre Davis. On third-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 2, Brady eluded the Bucs' pass rush and flipped a short, 2-yard pass to Dillon, who was in the end zone, to make the final score 28-0 with 11:37 remaining in the game.
Due to Saturday's loss at New England, Tampa Bay ends its brutal, three-game road trip with a 2-1 mark. After the game, Gruden discussed how difficult it was to play three consecutive road games, which is a rarity in the NFL.
"It was tough," Gruden said. "I will be honest with you; I have done this long enough to know that three games in a row, on the road, late in the season doesn't happen that often. We were able to win two-out-of-three. I told the team after the game we aren't going to just brush this under the rug; say it's a mulligan or whatever. We did not play well enough to win today. I take credit for that."
Tampa Bay's final two games of the 2005 regular season are NFC South contests at home against Atlanta (December 24) and New Orleans (January 1). The Bucs will probably have to win at least one of those games - likely next Saturday's Christmas Eve battle against the Falcons - to secure at least an NFC Wild Card playoff spot. Winning both games and having Carolina lose at least once would give the Buccaneers the NFC South division title and a home playoff game.
The chance of missing the playoffs remains a possibility if Tampa Bay fails to win both of its last two games.
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