ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- This time the father had the numbed look -- tha certain New England Patriots look -- as he tried to explain the day. "It was a nightmare," said Paul Zolak, "nothing but a nightmare."
Well, Mr. Zolak is a nice man and so he speaks in understatements. Suffice to say that former Patriots coach Ron Meyer had to drop in after the first quarter -- when the Patriots were down a mere 14-0 -- and remark, "I'll tell you what, the Patriots are looking ahead to the Colts. That's the only way to explain this."
And by the fourth quarter, when it was 34-0 and things unseen in the history of professional football were happening -- a woman writing a letter in the stands, now thoughtfully into her third page, oblivious to the "contest" in front of her, and injured Falcon Tim Green, in street clothes, bringing his son to the Atlanta bench, where Deion Sanders frolicked with the tot as the "game" played on -- Meyer put on his coat and left, but not before saying, "I'd be looking ahead to the Colts, too." After this.
So can this be explained? Fifteen yards of net passing against the league's 27th-worst defense against the pass, five sacks by the Falcons even though they gave up their usual blitzkrieg attacks (if high school offensive linemen know about defensive stunts, shouldn't the Patriots?), the first shutout in four years by the Falcons, a slipping team that was being booed on the third play of the game and was ready to keel over.
But the Patriots lay down first. "We just came out like a team where everybody didn't know what they were doing," said running back Leonard Russell, who played only a few plays. "We came out quiet, we really weren't flying around the ball. I had a chance to watch like you did -- I only played a few plays -- and it just seemed to me like we were flat. The only reason I've got that we lost the game is that everybody was flat. Why we were flat, I don't know."
Well, numbers can explain a bit of this tragi-comedy. Deion Sanders gained more yards (50) catching Scott Zolak passes than Patriots wide receivers (33), New England amassed a numbing total of 105 yards of offense against the NFL's 28th-ranked defense (in other words, the worst) and, if we had more fingers to point, we'd point at the defense and special teams, too, because they were just as bad. It was a miserable, miserable non-effort by New England. And, for the 10th time this year, it played like a team that is uncoached.
"You'd think they would have come into the game high after the last couple of wins," said Paul Zolak, new cult figure and father of the Patriots quarterback. "But I'll tell you, it was tough even being a spectator at this game." Next time he might bring a writing tablet to pass the time as the canny woman on the Atlanta side did; nightmares in daytime can be haunting.
Not far from where the father was standing, the son was trying to explain his fall back to mortality. It is an old lesson in New England but new for Scott Zolak the utterly Biblical way putting on a Patriots uniform can induce humility -- sackcloth and ashes can seem like velvet by comparison -- and Zolak said what had to be said: "When the team wins, the quarterback gets more credit than he should, and when the team loses he gets more blame."
True, the Maryland alum was as terrible as any Patriot -- one of the interceptions to Neon was thrown into triple coverage ("It was one shot; I just put it up there"), while the other came when Zolak thought Irving Fryar was going deep and Fryar thought Zolak was going to run and the wide receiver was ready to come back to the quarterback -- and Zolak could only say the offense was "out of sync" and he was like a bowler who only throws "gutter balls."
"But I'm a competitor, I'm not a quitter and I expect to be back next week," Zolak said. "I expected to light it up today, and I expect to light it up next week. I'll come in with the same mind frame, the same spunk. We didn't rise to the occasion today. The execution was not there today."