Fast starts used to be a staple of the Patriots' offense. That hadn't been the case recently, as the Patriots had failed to pick up even one first down on any of their last three opening possessions. However, they reversed the trend last week against Tampa Bay, marching 76 yards in 12 plays in a crisp, 6-minute 8-second drive that culminated with offensive tackle Tom Ashworth catching a 1-yard touchdown pass as a goal-line fullback.
The march set a good early tone in what became an easy 28-0 win over the Bucs that seems -- on a national level - to have inserted the Patriots back into the discussion of serious AFC Super Bowl contenders.
The Bucs entered the game with the league's second-ranked defense -- one that had allowed only two field goals on opponents' first drives all season. However, the Patriots were undaunted. "That was a great first drive that we had to start the game and play from ahead," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "(That was) something Tampa hadn't given up all year, and something we had not done very much of."
The Patriots used to do this all the time under former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. In fact, in a 16-game stretch that bridged the 2003 and 2004 seasons, including the Super Bowl XXXVIII playoff run, the Patriots scored points on their opening drives 13 times (eight touchdowns, five field goals). They started that streak with first-possession touchdowns in five straight games, including playoff victories over the Titans and Colts, the latter in the AFC championship game.
Against the Bucs, the first possession highlighted several areas of improvement for the Patriots.
They were 3-for-3 in converting third downs, including Ashworth's touchdown. Through their first nine games, the Patriots were hitting at 35.7 percent on third down (No. 23 in the NFL). Since then they are 38 of 74 (51.4 percent) and have risen to No. 7.
Receiver David Givens, in his third game back after missing three weeks with a knee injury, had two big plays on the drive; catching a 32-yard pass and running 9 yards on an end-around. Givens' return provides a legitimate threat opposite leading receiver Deion Branch.
Finally, Ashworth's score and Givens' run are evidence of a heightened creativity on offense. With injury concerns at tight end, the Patriots opted for a three-receiver look most of the time against the Bucs and had QB Tom Brady in the shotgun on five of the first 10 snaps, including twice on first down. That attack mentality wasn't always apparent earlier in the season.
For over a month, Wayne Chrebet had stayed away from the Jets' Hofstra University training complex, after suffering a season-ending concussion against San Diego on Nov. 6. He finally came back Thursday, and said he has come to terms with the end of his career.
"It's a shame that it's over," said Chrebet, who indicated that he intends to file retirement papers with the NFL after the season, "but I'm trying to focus on how great it was and how much it meant to me, instead of being selfish and being miserable that I can't play anymore."
That's one of the reasons he came to practice Thursday; to he able to see his now-former teammates.
"I went from keeping to myself to needing and wanting to be around" the team, said Chrebet, who finished with 580 receptions, second-most in team history behind Don Maynard's 627. In third place, coincidentally, is Al Toon with 517. His career also was ended by repeated concussions. Second-year player Jerricho Cotchery inherited Chrebet's role as the third-down receiver, and has 16 receptions for 174 yards. He has 13 catches for 153 yards since Chrebet was injured.
"I definitely want to be there and be on the sideline" for Monday's game against New England, Chrebet said. "Hopefully, I don't run on the field. I don't know. I don't know how it's going to feel.
"It's just a weird thing you don't want to accept," he added, "but I've had a lot of time at home with my kids (sons Lukas and Cade) and that's been great. It's something that I always looked forward to."
Wide receiver Laveranues Coles, a close friend of Chrebet's, was asked if the word "clutch" described the third-down specialist, whose final catch converted a third-down situation.
"It wouldn't be enough," Coles said, "really, just 'great'. Anytime you think of Wayne Chrebet, you think of greatness. There's not enough numbers, words or enough of anything to describe what he meant to this team and what he meant to me. Again, just seeing him come here today is difficult knowing he's not going to play with me again."
And Chrebet admitted he will miss the adrenaline rush of playing.
"There was nothing like game day for me," he said. "I'm hoping to find something to replace that feeling, and I don't think there ever will be. I always said I would pay so much for my friends and family to run out of the tunnel one day. Just to know what it's like to drive to a game with the music on, and you see everybody with your jersey on, the Jets' chant, and being the center of that; it's been the greatest 11 years of my life."
Quarterback Vinny Testaverde, also a close friend, will likely retire after the season as well.
"I told him that I have a plan," Testaverde said. "If I get in the game, he's going to come out of the tunnel, I'm going to overthrow everybody and hit him in the end zone. He said he was afraid he was going to drop it, though."