Patriots 30, Raiders 20
It was a new season but the same old story for the New England Patriots. They found a way to win, riding the first-half passing exploits of quarterback Tom Brady and a second-half crackdown by their defense to a 30-20 triumph over the Oakland Raiders here Thursday night in the NFL's season-opening game.
The Patriots extended their Gillette Stadium winning streak to 21 games and got off to a good start in their drive for a fourth Super Bowl title in five seasons.
Brady completed 24 of 38passes for 306 yards. Most of his success came in an opening half in which he threw touchdown passes to wide receivers Deion Branch and Tim Dwight. Tailback Corey Dillon was ineffective for most of the evening but provided a pair of second-half touchdown runs. The first came after the New England defense forced Raiders quarterback Kerry Collins into a costly third-quarter turnover.
Collins threw a pair of first-half touchdown passes, including a 73-yarder to Randy Moss in the wideout's first game with the Raiders. But the Oakland offense was shut down in the second half until another Collins touchdown pass in the final minutes after a blocked punt. And a new season began just as last season ended -- with a Patriots' victory.
"We gave them some easy touchdowns," Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. "We didn't really play our game. Fortunately we were able to get a victory."
The Raiders were playing their first game in Foxboro since losing to the Patriots in the controversial "tuck rule" playoff game in the 2001 season that put New England on its way to the first title of its run of dominance. The Patriots unfurled their latest championship banner in a lavish pregame ceremony fitted between the musical performances booked by the NFL in its bid to make the season-opening game as Super Bowl-like as possible.
But the fans barely had settled into their seats by the time they had to start fretting about the home team's retooled defense. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick has received plenty of credit for the club's tactical wizardry on defense in recent seasons, and rightfully so. But he lost his top defensive lieutenant when Romeo Crennel became the head coach of the Cleveland Browns days after last season's Super Bowl, and new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini faces the daunting task of replacing two of the unit's most accomplished players. Cornerback Ty Law was released in the offseason, and linebacker Tedy Bruschi is sitting out the season after suffering a stroke in February.
The Oakland offense immediately put the Patriots defenders on their heels Thursday by marching 72 yards for a touchdown on the game's opening drive. Collins dropped a pass between Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel and safety Eugene Wilson for a 29-yard completion to Moss on the Raiders' third offensive play. Another newcomer, tailback LaMont Jordan (Maryland), turned a short pass from Collins on the next play into a 28-yard gain and a first down at the New England 4-yard line.
On second down from the 2, Collins rolled to his right and found tight end Courtney Anderson uncovered in the end zone for the touchdown. Already, Harrison was waving his arms in disgust. But the Raiders' defense is far less imposing than their offense, and Belichick was having an easier time dealing with life without departed offensive coordinator Charlie Weis than life without Crennel.
"We kind of stumbled around there on a few things tonight," Belichick said. "It's going to catch up to us if we don't watch out. But it's good to win."
Belichick didn't appoint a new offensive coordinator after Weis left to become the head coach at Notre Dame. He plans to take an active role in running the offense this season, and some observers have questioned whether Belichick has stretched himself too thin. But Brady practically can serve as his own offensive coordinator at this point, and he led the Patriots to 10 quick points to reclaim the lead before the end of the first quarter.
Brady found tight end Benjamin Watson for two completions totaling 55 yards on New England's first possession. The Patriots had to settle for kicker Adam Vinatieri's 26-yard field goal, but they got into the end zone on their second drive on Branch's 18-yard touchdown catch on a third-and-nine play.
Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski pushed a 43-yard field goal try wide left early in the second quarter. But the Raiders forced a Patriots' punt, and Moss struck quickly for his first touchdown with his new team. He sprinted past cornerback Tyrone Poole on the drive's opening play, and made a juggling catch of Collins's well-placed deep throw. Moss maneuvered around Harrison around the 15-yard line and outran Wilson to the end zone, and the Raiders had a 14-10 advantage.
No matter. Brady again had a quick reply, taking the Patriots down the field and zipping a throw to Dwight for a five-yard touchdown. Brady had 212 passing yards in the first half alone.
"New England is not a 'C' average team. They're 'A-plus,' Moss said. "For us to come at them and put them back on their heels some of the time like that, that's something you can really smile about."
The Raiders got pinned inside their 5 twice on superb third-quarter punts by New England's Josh Miller. Oakland didn't manage a first down either time, but the Patriots weren't cashing in on their field-position advantage. Belichick left his offense on the field for a fourth-and-one gamble from the Oakland 31, but the Raiders stuffed Dillon for no gain.
They couldn't savor that accomplishment for long, however, as the Patriots defense made a big play. Reserve defensive end Jarvis Green knocked the ball loose from Collins's hand with a jarring hit on a powerful pass rush. The ball popped into the air and fell gently into the hands of nose tackle Vince Wilfork for his first NFL interception. The Patriots took over at the Raiders 20, and Dillon finally found some running room to plow into the end zone on a first-down carry from the 8. Vinatieri's extra point was blocked, but the Patriots had a nine-point lead.
"My goal was not to have any turnovers tonight. I knew that's what it would take to beat these guys," Collins said. "It was a disappointing play."