FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Going for it on fourth down is the football equivalent of questioning someone’s manhood.
“It’s a slap in the face when somebody goes for it on fourth down,” said Tommy Kelly, the hulking defensive tackle for the New England Patriots. “Like, ‘y’all can’t stop us.’
“Any time you stuff them on that, it takes a little wind out of them.”
If that’s the case, the Patriots delivered a couple of knockout blows Sunday afternoon. Four times, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attempted a fourth-down play in Patriots territory. Four times, they were turned back.
“It’s a huge momentum swing,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty.
“We know we’ve got to stop them. Usually if they get that first down it can equal points, three or seven. But we know if we get off the field it will give our offense a great beginning to a drive. And our offense capitalized today.”
That the Patriots did. Twice in the second quarter, the defense forced Tampa Bay to turn the ball over on downs — first on fourth-and-5 at the Patriots 34 on an incomplete pass, then on fourth-and-1 at the 38 when Doug Martin was stuffed by Brandon Spikes and Alfonzo Dennard for no gain. Both times, the Patriots’ offense went in to score a touchdown, turning a 3-0 deficit into a 14-3 lead.
Aqib Talib’s interception on a poorly thrown ball by Josh Freeman with 11 seconds left in the first half led to a 53-yard field goal by Stephen Gostkowski that made it 17-3.
The defense continues to shine for New England. Through three games, the Patriots have given up just 34 points, including seven because of a fumble return by the Bills. That’s the second-best start in team history. The 1979 Patriots allowed only 33 points through the first three game.
Kelly doesn’t want anyone to get too excited about anything just yet, though.
“You just really don’t want to get ahead of yourself,” he said. “You just take the good with the bad. You didn’t play as good as you thought you did and you didn’t play as bad as you thought you did.
“I just think we need to have level heads and we’ll be fine.”
Interestingly, that 1979 team lost one of the first three games (16-13 in overtime to Pittsburgh) and finished only 9-7.
THE 3-0 start is the eighth in Patriots history and fourth under Bill Belichick, but the first since 2007.
That, of course, was the near-perfect season, when New England went 16-0 in the regular season and won two playoff games, then lost in the Super Bowl.
The Patriots also started 3-0 in 1964, 1974, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2004 and 2007. Since 1990, only 28 of 114 teams that started 3-0 have not made the playoffs.
New England also started 3-0 in 2004 on the way to its third Super Bowl title in four years.
THE PATRIOTS continue to move slowly with tight end Rob Gronkowski.
He was inactive once again, although he said earlier in the week that he was making steady progress in his recovery from offseason back and forearm surgeries. He has missed all three games so far.
Wide receiver Danny Amendola was also out for a second consecutive game because of the groin injury he suffered in the season opener at Buffalo.
Special teamer Matthew Slater was out with a broken wrist he sustained in the win over the New York Jets. He is expected to be out four to six weeks. Amendola may be back sooner, but not by much.
Running back and kick returner Leon Washington was also inactive. He is battling a thigh injury. Other inactives included linebacker Steve Beauharnais, offensive lineman Will Svitek and defensive tackle Chris Jones.
REPORTS EARLY Sunday morning indicated that defensive end/linebacker Rob Ninkovich, one of the Patriots’ biggest playmakers on defense, had signed a three-year contract extension worth $15 million, $8.5 of which is guaranteed.
Ninkovich’s agent, Craig Domann tweeted the announcement. But there was no word from the Patriots, and Ninkovich did not appear at his locker after the game.
Ninkovich had five tackles, including a half-sack.
RUNNING BACK Brandon Bolden made his season debut after sitting out the first two games and rushed for 52 yards on three carries. He also caught five passes for 49 yards, bringing a dimension that had been missing from the offense.
“To go out there and you work all week and then to see how everything turned out was awesome,” he said.
“It’s exciting to get back out there and play with my teammates.”
The Patriots rushed for 156 yards, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. LeGarrette Blount led the way with 61 rushing yards on 14 carries, and Stevan Ridley had 35 yards on 11 carries.
Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: