The New England Patriots are notorious slow starters this season, not just because they found themselves with a 2-5 record seven games into their regular season. They also were unable to put pressure on teams early during games, scoring only three first quarter touchdowns between opening day and last week’s contest against the Arizona Cardinals — and one of them came on an interception return by Devin McCourty.
Sunday’s blowout victory over the Los Angeles Chargers was a different story, though, and it all started with the first possession.
After receiving the opening kickoff, quarterback Cam Newton and company embarked on a 13-play series that covered 75 yards and took seven minutes off the clock. Most importantly, however, the drive ended with a touchdown when Newton leaped over the goal line from one yard out. That play and the ones that preceded it set the tone for the day and allowed the Patriots to play with a lead right from the get-go.
It also was something the team spoke about before the game, as Newton pointed out during his postgame press conference.
“It was the right way we wanted to start the game,” Newton said in the aftermath of his team’s 45-0 win. “We had that as a key to victory this week, and I think we hit pretty much most of it — not only scoring on our first possession in the first half but also in the second half as well. Major kudos to the offense for that, but more or less it was set up by our great defensive performance.”
The Patriots’ ability to play complementary football — the offense scored four touchdowns, the defense had two interceptions and three turnovers on downs, special teams scored twice — was obviously a key factor in the game, but jumping to a fast start was no less important. After all, New England has repeatedly struggled to play games on its own terms this year. Against L.A. that was obviously not the case.
Josh McDaniels’ unit came out guns blazing to start the first quarter. Led by Newton and early-down back Damien Harris, it methodically drove down the field and did not slow down even in the face of a fourth down. The quarterback himself converted that one, and later crossed the plane himself to and the drive with six points.
“Be the hammer not the nail,” Newton said about his mentality heading into a situation such as his goal-line leap. “God has blessed me with the stature that I have, and anytime that I have an opportunity to create some type of force and momentum then I’m going to do it. But at the same time I have to be cognizant of the position that I play, and when I need to get down, I need to get down.”
All in all, the first-year Patriot finished the game with some solid numbers. He completed 12 of 19 pass attempts for 69 yards and a touchdown, and also carried the football 14 times for 48 yards and two more scores. While his statistics as a passer did again not stand out, Newton’s skills as a dual-threat QB and ability to lead New England’s offense to a quick start both proved valuable against the Chargers.
That did not happen by accident, though, as the Patriots were well aware of their slow starts. Head coach Bill Belichick even touched on the topic during one of his virtual press conferences earlier during the week.
“We’ve been working on it. We work on it literally every day,” he said. “We’ll keep working on it and see if we can get better results here. We’ve had a few, but not consistently as a team not where we need to be or want to be. That’ll be important this week. It’s important every week. Honestly, if I had the answer, I would have done it 10 weeks ago.”
Belichick’s team also tried to adapt its practice routine to get out of the gates faster. It started doing team drills right at the start of practice as opposed to the end, for example, in an attempt to create a spark. Sunday’s game was, at least for one week, a confirmation that the Patriots’ approach worked.
Their offensive game script and execution were both at a high level, with the defense later following up the touchdown with a stop of its own to preserve the 7-0 lead heading into New England’s second possession. Starts like that is what the team will need more of heading into the stretch run of the season, but the game against the Chargers was an encouraging next step in getting there.