Ellis Hobbs showed why the New England Patriots call their kick return unit the "answer team."
On the ensuing possession Sunday following Justin Miller's 92-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter, Hobbs outdid his Oakland counterpart, returning the next kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. The score gave the Patriots a 21-point lead en route to a 49-26 victory over the bumbling Raiders.
"It felt good to get out there untouched," Hobbs said. "As much as you get frustrated sometimes with the hits you're taking, and this and that, it was nice to give back to those guys blocking so hard for you, because it was definitely an 11-man effort on that one."
The Patriots have been one of the best kick return teams all season thanks to Hobbs' contributions, but the veteran cornerback has absorbed his share of hits throughout the year, prompting some critics to suggest he should be absolved of his duties on special teams. The Patriots, however, didn't listen.
"We needed some momentum, and we knew all week from our preparations that there were certain things in their coverage we could really take advantage of," said wide receiver Kelley Washington, who is one of New England's key contributors on the wedge unit. "The guys did a good job blocking them up, and Ellis has done a good job all year of finding the seam and hitting it. It was nice to see everything we had worked on pay off."
The Raiders had a chance after Miller's return, but Hobbs wiped out any chance of a comeback and put the Raiders to bed early, allowing the Patriots to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Miami beat San Francisco and the Jets rallied past Buffalo, leaving all three teams in a three-way tie atop the AFC East 9-5. The Patriots would be on the short end of the stick in terms of tiebreakers, so they need to win their final two games (home vs. Arizona and at Buffalo) and hope the Jets and Dolphins split down the stretch.
If that doesn't happen, the Patriots still have a chance in the wild-card race. At 10-4, Indianapolis has all but wrapped up one of the two available spots, but Baltimore lost to Pittsburgh in the closing seconds Sunday, dropping the Ravens to 9-5.
Again, the Patriots would lose the tiebreaker in this scenario as well, but they still have a chance to pass the Ravens in the final two weeks. Baltimore has a tough schedule beginning at Dallas next weekend and ending at home against Jacksonville on Dec. 28.
"We know we lose, we go home. We know our playoffs started a week ago," nose tackle Vince Wilfork said. "I think everybody knows that. To come on the West Coast and win, that's big for us. Hopefully, we can start stringing them together. If we don't, we're looking at next year. The thing is winning."
The Patriots will return home this week to play the Cardinals, who have already clinched their playoff spot by winning the NFC West. New England then travels to Buffalo for the season finale, and the Bills have already dropped out of the postseason picture.
The Pats need help along the way, but as long as they take care of their business first and control what they control, there's a chance the dominoes may fall their way.
"It's the NFL. It's gone from a three-game season to a two-game season," Hobbs said. "We have to understand that. We have to hold up our end. None of this matters if we don't win. Everybody held serve today, so we're taking it on into next week."
--WR Wes Welker continues to emerge as QB Matt Cassel's favorite target and continues to reach milestones on a weekly basis.
On Sunday, Welker caught six passes, becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to record back-to-back seasons with at least 100 catches. Catch No. 100 came on a 13-yard touchdown in the second quarter as the Patriots throttled the Raiders.
"It was one of those deals where you don't want to take a hit, but I haven't got into the end zone too much," he said. "I wanted to make sure I got in on that one."
--Cassel's effort Sunday inspired his teammates. The former backup quarterback played -- and thrived -- despite dealing with the death of his father just six days prior to the game.
"If anybody didn't respect him leading up to this game, I think everyone in this locker room (does now), because to play with something like that on your heart is tough," NT Vince Wilfork said. "He was very professional about it. I thanked him for it, playing through this game. That's special, when somebody does something like that."
--WR Randy Moss had a field day against his former team, catching two touchdown passes as the Raiders strayed from the game plan employed by every other team, which is to provide safety help to the cornerback covering Moss.
"That's just Randy being Randy," said RB LaMont Jordan, who also had a miserable stay in Oakland as a member of the Raiders. "I'm definitely happy for him. His experience in Oakland, the media out here had nothing but negative things to say about him. It wasn't just them. It was everybody. I would tell people, 'Randy can still play this game. He's a leader.'"
--DE Ty Warren returned to the lineup Sunday after missing the previous two games with a groin injury and resumed his role as the starting left defensive end.
--NT Vince Wilfork returned to the starting lineup after briefly leaving the previous week's game with a shoulder injury. He made his impact felt by blocking an extra point in the third quarter.
--S James Sanders could not shake his abdominal injury and was inactive for the game. Veteran Lewis Sanders -- a cornerback by trade -- moved to safety to replace his injured teammate.
--LT Matt Light (shoulder) and LB Gary Guyton (ankle) left Sunday's game with injuries and did not return. Mark LeVoir and Junior Seau replaced them in the lineup, respectively.
--G Dan Connolly was added to the active roster over the weekend after the Patriots placed LB Pierre Woods (jaw) on injured reserve, but Connolly was inactive in Oakland.
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