Corey Dillon and Tom Brady returned to the Patriots on Monday night.
This time, however, Dillon was wearing No. 34 and going by Sammy Morris, and Brady was donning No. 16 and masquerading as Matt Cassel. Randy Moss and Bill Belichick, on the other hand, were fully content being themselves.
The Patriots used a page from their old playbooks, as Morris chewed up the clock and the Broncos defense for 138 yards, all in the first half, Cassel hit Moss for two of three touchdown passes and Belichick's defense stifled a dynamic offense in a 41-7 obliteration of the playoff hopeful Denver Broncos in the primetime spotlight of Monday Night Football.
To make a mathematical analogy, while the Chargers game was a complete and utter disaster, the Broncos game was its inverse. The Patriots hit Cutler hard, early and often (resulting in lingering finger and thigh injuries), the defense stifled the run and, most impressively, the deep passes, and the offense ran and passed through the porous Denver defense.
True, the Patriots didn't shred a potent defensive unit, as the Broncos defenders have all the strength of a wet Kleenex. But this game wasn't about the matchup, it was about making a statement, showing you can beat a team that can expect to win itself. Mission accomplished. Marked for dead twice this season, the Patriots showed in a resounding 60 minutes that, Brady or no Brady, you can't count out the defending AFC champions.
Credit belongs everywhere. Already facing questions as to whether he can win without Tom Brady, Belichick silenced the naysayers with a shutdown defense that got physical with Jay Cutler and minimized his outstanding receiving arsenal, a sudden, remarkable improvement considering that Charger QB Philip Rivers was essentially unchallenged while launching deep pass after deep pass merely eight days ago.
And as for the crew ardently calling for Cassel's head? After getting the vote of confidence from Belichick, the first-year starter did a spot-on impression of Tommy Franchise, from using screens to maximize passing opportunities, to utilizing Randy Moss in the endzone. True, Cassel has trouble avoiding the rush, as six sacks will show, but he proved that he can throw the ball, and run the vaunted Patriot offense.
Denver doesn't beat teams with defense, but the Broncos do beat teams, especially the Chargers (we know how tough they are) and the NFC South-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Broncos have shown that they expect to be in the AFC elite, and the Patriots showed that it may be a bit too early to rule them out of that group just yet.