By Jimmy Toscano
TAMPA BAY - Unlike last week, the stars came out to play for the Patriots Thursday night.
But just like last week, the Pats crushed the opponent early and often.
Summary and statistics
The Patriots, led by Tom Brady, scored three touchdowns on their first three possessions in the first quarter, and led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 28-0 at halftime, en route to their 31-14 win.
And it wasn't even that close.
With the Bucs receiving first, the Pats defense took it to Josh Freeman and the Bucs offensive line -- and they took it to them hard.
It was Jerod Mayo, Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Love, and Andre Carter putting tons of pressure on Freeman at the start, and the Bucs punted after three downs and just one yard.
Consider that foreshadowing.
That one-yard drive would be the Bucs' longest drive of the entire first quarter. The Pats defense literally pushed the Bucs backwards on their next three drives (negative-three, negative-seven, and negative-nine yards).
Finally, Tampa Bay got some positive yardage early on in the second quarter -- five yards -- before they punted again.
All in all the Bucs punted six times in six possessions in the first half, accumulating a total of just 35 yards.
The Pats, on the other hand, almost doubled Tampa's total first half yardage on their first drive.
Brady found a wide open Aaron Hernandez streaking to the end zone for the 16-yard TD, after a well-executed 64-yard drive started by Brady to Welker, and continued by a Danny Woodhead 29-yard run.
But that wouldn't be it for Brady and the starters. On the very next drive, Brady, rarely under much pressure, threw the ball six times, connecting on four, and hitting Chad Ochocinco on the third pass attempt between the two on an eight-yard TD.
With the Pats up 14-0, the hurt was just setting in.
A pair of BenJarvus Green-Ellis touchdowns would make it 28-0 at the half, and with the majority of the starters pulled for the second half, it was a job well done for the Pats in Tampa Bay.
Brady ended the night 11-for-19 for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Welker had 5receptions for 56 yards, Hernandez 3 catches for 42 yards and touchdown, and Ochocinco 2 receptions for 14 yards and a touchdown.
Steven Ridley led all rushers with 84 yards on 14 carries, while Green-Ellis added 51 yards on 11 carries.
As expected, Ryan Mallett took over for Brady to start the second half, and the results weren't great for the rookie QB out of Arkansas.
On his opening drive, an under-pressure Mallett lobbed a ball that ended up right in the hands of Buccaneers cornerback Elbert Mack. Mack took the ball to the house to get the Buccaneers on the board with 12.12 left to play in the third quarter.
On the night, Mallett went 9-for-14 for 71 yards and one interception in five drives with the Pats. They scored a field goal during his time as QB.
It wasn't until 9:34 left in the fourth quarter when the Bucs offense scored on a two-yard run by Allen Bradford that capped off a 12-play 84-yard drive.
Danny Woodhead rushed for 63 yards on five carries, but was hit hard covering a punt in the fourth quarter, and left the game with what appeared to be concussion symptoms.
The Patriots will play the Lions in Detroit next Saturday.