It's pretty obvious. Win the battle on third down on both sides of the ball and you generally win the game. There may not be a better example of that than New England's 30-21 win Sunday at San Francisco.
Offensively, Matt Cassel and Co. converted on an efficient eight of 17 third downs (47 percent). Defensively, New England held J.T. O'Sullivan and Mike Martz's high-powered offense to just one third-down conversion on nine attempts (11 percent), and that single conversion didn't come until a third-quarter Isaac Bruce 5-yard touchdown.
Put the two numbers together and you end up with a ridiculously lopsided time of possession, with the Patriots holding onto the ball for 39 minutes and 52 seconds of the road win that was probably more dominant than the final score might indicate.
The bottom line was New England's offense stayed on the field and put together scoring drives while its defense had time to make adjustments and settle in after San Francisco scored a pair of touchdowns within three minutes and 34 seconds in the first quarter.
"It was good, because it gave us the opportunity to get some rest. I think that from a defensive standpoint when we came out and got down early, there was some extra time to get on the sidelines and get some adjustments taken care of," safety Rodney Harrison said. "It gave us the ability to calm down, because we were all over the place. With the offense controlling that possession time, it gave us the chance to calm down and get things together."
It also gave some defensive players time to enjoy the third-down show that Cassel and his receivers were putting on. Six of the team's eight third-down conversions came through the air as Tom Brady's budding backup kept things moving.
"I think my favorite part of Matt (on Sunday) was the third-down conversions," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "On some of those (throws), he just fired them in there. Those were true conversions."
Given the added rest, and the time to watch Cassel's completions, New England's defenders made true stops on their third-down chances. And it was a stark improvement for a team that hadn't held any of its three previous opponents to anything less than a 44 percent conversion rate in any game this season.
"We used different combinations in our sub-defense," coach Bill Belichick said of the third-down improvements on defense. "Some four-man lines, three-man lines, two-man line and at times we only had one defensive lineman out there -- Jarvis (Green) or Mike Wright. It was something strategically that we felt we would want to run against San Francisco. Those guys did a good job, although we had several players that really stepped up in some of those passing situations.
"The bottom line was we were able to do a combination of things. One was get ahead in the game and two (was) do a decent job against the running game. Those two factors helped to push it toward a passing game and more of a one-dimensional game. So we really only defended one thing, and that helped us on third down and on fourth-quarter, two-minute situations."
And helped the team improve to 3-1 on the season with a key win in the first leg of a two-game West Coast road trip that continues Sunday night in San Diego against Philip Rivers, LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers in a rematch of last winter's AFC title game.
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