PHOTO: Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Chris Simms grimaces after getting sacked during the third quarter of their 28-0 loss to the New England Patriots in NFL football action at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass, Saturday, Dec. 17, 2005. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
Bring on the playoffs. With many experts and fans wondering just how valid their last two wins over the Jets and Bills were, the Patriots dominated Tampa Bay -- a first place team with more wins than the Jets and Bills combined -- in every facet of their 28-0 victory. With the win, the Patriots are champions of the AFC East for the third year in a row, and have guaranteed a home playoff game and the chance to continue their remarkable Super Bowl run.
The defense once again led the way for New England. They held potential rookie of the year running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams to just 23 yards rushing. They sacked quarterback Chris Simms seven times, forced him to fumble twice, and held him to just 155 yards passing thanks to a ferocious pass rush. Tampa Bay crossed the New England 40 just twice all game, and got no closer than the 34-yard line
On offense, the Patriots got a monster game out of wide receiver David Givens (6 catches for a career best 137 yards, 1 touchdown, and 13 yards rushing). Tom Brady was his usual, effective and efficient self (20-for-31, 258 yards, 3 touchdowns), and Corey Dillon chipped in 48 of New England's 83 rushing yards.
The Patriots scored on their opening drive for the first time in four games. Moving 76 yards in 12 plays and consuming over 6 minutes, New England found the holes in Tampa's defense and bullied their way down the field. Going 3-for-3 on 3rd downs, Brady completed a 9-yard pass to Givens for the first, and gained 2 yards on a quarterback sneak for the next. After Dillon picked up 6 yards to put New England at 3rd-and-goal from the 1, offensive lineman Tom Ashworth caught his first NFL pass for a touchdown. The play-action to Dillon froze the Buccaneers' line enough for Ashworth to get free in the end zone and give the Patriots a 7-0 lead.
Tampa Bay had a good drive going on their first possession, as Simms completed his first 3 passes. But the New England backfield stepped up, and Simms was forced to run out of bounds on 2nd down. On 3rd down, there was great coverage again, and Willie McGinest worked from the outside to pick up the first of his two sacks, forcing a punt.
Each team's defense dominated the rest of the 1st quarter and most of the 2nd. New England pressured Simms every time he dropped back to pass, with Roosevelt Colvin picking up a sack and Ellis Hobbs breaking up several passes. On offense, Dillon couldn't find any running room, and the Tampa Bay pressure led to some off the mark passes by Brady (one that was almost intercepted).
A Tampa Bay penalty was the opening New England needed to finally get on the scoreboard again. After Dillon carried on four straight plays for 15 yards, the offense stalled and Josh Miller trotted out to punt for the 4th time. But the Tamp Bay was flagged for roughing the kicker when Ryan Nece ran into Miller. After Derrick Brooks came untouched and dropped Dillon for a 6-yard loss and Brady threw wide of Givens, the offense started moving.
Brady completed a 17-yard pass to Christian Fauria on 3rd-and-16. Two plays later, on 2nd-and-16, Brady -- while his facemask was getting pulled sideways -- nailed Tim Dwight with a 27-yard pass. Dillon busted through the line with a 3-yard touchdown run and a 14-0 New England lead.
Just after the two-minute warning, Simms completed a big 3rd-and-8 pass to Ike Hilliard (5 catches, 50 yards), and it looked as if Tampa Bay's offense would finally move the ball. But on the very next play, Mike Vrabel came untouched on the outside, sacked Simms and forced a fumble. McGinest recovered and ran it back 19 yards to the Tampa Bay 22.
Three plays later Brady found Givens -- who made a great move to shake free from cornerback Brian Kelly -- in the corner of the end zone for a 16-yard catch and a 21-0 lead at the half.
Tampa Bay started the 2nd half 2-for-2 on 3rd down, and picked up a third 1st down thanks to a Seymour penalty. Tedy Bruschi (11 tackles, 2 sacks) then put his stamp on the drive, sacking Simms and forcing a fumble. On 3rd-and-22 he knocked down a potential 1st down pass and the Buccaneers had to punt again.
New England had to punt on their next three possessions, but it didn't stop the defense from continuing their dominating effort. After stuffing Williams on 2nd-and-1, Simms threw short and incomplete on 3rd down. Tampa Bay went for it on 4th down, but Hobbs knocked away a pass intended for Joey Galloway. The Bucs went for it on 4th down again on their next drive, and this time McGinest came up with another sack.
New England capped the scoring with a 51-yard touchdown drive. Brady was 4-for-4 for 46 yards on the drive, and found Dillon for the 2-yard touchdown pass. Following one last defensive stand by the New England defense, the Patriots ran the final 7:15 off the clock to cap the win and the AFC East title.
New England plays at the New York Jets next week on Monday Night Football before finishing the regular season at home against Miami on New Year's Day. But with the AFC East title wrapped up and little chance of earning a first round bye (they would need both Cincinnati and Denver to lose their remaining games and get more help), these next two weeks will be spent preparing the team for the playoffs, and another run at the Super Bowl.
Darren is a regular contributor to Patriots Insider. You can find him in the forums under the name: DestinationSuperBowl. You can also find archives of his columns on the Insiders by searching for "Darren Kelly"