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Patriots still look just super in their opener

Raiders' Standford Routt collars Deion Branch.
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Raiders' Standford Routt collars Deion Branch. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Hank Gola New York Daily News

FOXBORO, Mass. – The new-look Oakland Raiders strutted their stuff for awhile on Thursday night. They aired one out to Randy Moss. They showed they can run it with ex-Jet LaMont Jordan. Even their previously porous run defense played well.

Unfortunately, they were playing the same-look New England Patriots.

It doesn’t seem to matter that the two-time defending champs lost both coordinators and three defensive standouts this year.

Using two first-half touchdown passes by Tom Brady and converting the only turnover of the game into a third-quarter score, the Patriots won another one, kicking off their three-peat bid with a 30-20 victory in the NFL opener. They weren’t especially dominant, just efficient – as usual – leaving their opponents numb – as usual.

“It was a nice game to win,” coach Bill Belichick said. “Overall we’ve got a lot of work to do in all areas. You name it. We kind of stumbled around.”

For the most part, the defense, after taking a couple of early shots, won this one. It held Moss to five catches for 130 yards, although one went for a 73-yard touchdown. And the Pats made ex-New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins – who had two touchdown passes in the first half and ended up completing 18 of 40 passes for 265 yards and three touchdowns – look worse as the game went on. Meanwhile, the Patriots scored 20 unanswered points to break things open.

The turning point in the game came on a Collins turnover shortly after Warren Sapp and Bobby Hamilton stopped Corey Dillon on third-and-1 at the Raider 31 midway through the third quarter. Oakland was down by only a field goal at the time and it should have been a huge momentum shift. Instead, the Pats’ defense came up big.

Nose tackle Vincent Wilfork got into Collins’ face, popped the ball into the air, and gathered it in. When the big guy clutched the ball while on his back, it was ruled an interception and gave the Patriots possession at the Oakland 20. Brady hit Deion Branch for 12 yards on second down, then Dillon, who had gained 11 yards on 11 carries before then, got inside a seal block by tight end Daniel Graham and scampered eight yards into the end zone.

Usually reliable kicker Adam Vinatieri had his PAT blocked but the 23-14 lead was safe.

“It was like last year,” Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel said, comparing Thursday night’s game to last season’s opener against Indianapolis. “Our worst game might have been against the Colts, but we got better and moved on.”

The Patriots would finally wrap it up with a fourth-quarter TD drive. Aided by a personal foul and a pass interference penalty, the Patriots used a 25-yard screen pass from Brady to Dillon to set up Dillon’s second touchdown of the game, a 2-yard run.

With Collins and Brady trading two TD passes each, the first half had more fireworks than the pregame ceremony during which the Patriots’ third Super Bowl championship banner was raised. Though stung by the Raiders’ quick-strike offense, including Moss’ big TD, the Patriots responded immediately and hit halftime with a 17-14 lead.

As they usually do, the Pats honed in on a weakness in the Oakland defense by spreading the field and letting Brady pick out open receivers, virtually forgetting about Dillon and the running game. Why not? Brady finished the half 14 for 20 for 212 yards, distributing the ball to eight different receivers.

He found Super Bowl MVP Branch, who had not played in the preseason, for an 18-yard scoring pass with 2:48 left in the first quarter, completing a five-play, 68-yard drive, and regained the lead for the Pats with a 5-yard TD pass to Tim Dwight, completing a seven-play, 64-yard drive with 4:49 left in the half.

The Moss touchdown came about four minutes earlier, one play after a punt. Moss ran a go-pattern, jostling in single coverage with Tyrone Poole. Poole fell backwards as the ball arrived and Moss juggled and held it, then shrugged off safety Rodney Harrison at the 15 en route to the touchdown and the longest completion against the Patriots since 2000.

But as the game wore on, the big plays weren’t as easy to come by against the Patriots’ gritty defense.

“The team we’ve got suited up is the team we’re going to have all year,” Vrabel said. “Whatever that is, we’ve just got to make it work.”

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