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Pats post-mortem points

It’s hard to imagine that, for the most part, Patriots and Red Sox fans are one and the same. Case and point: Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS. The Red Sox had surged ahead of the Yankees, 8-1 (their historic comeback clearly just a formality) in the fourth inning, yet not a soul throughout the Nation dared utter the words, World Series. However, on Sunday night in Indianapolis, with the Patriots holding a 21-3 lead and driving in the second quarter, New England fans near and far had collective visions of South Beach dancing in their heads.I was one of them. Talked to and text messaged my friends about more impending glory. Even declared out loud that the day the Patriots blew an 18-point lead in a playoff game would be the day I declared the end of the dynasty. And I sort of am. But not really. Just wait.

See that’s the difference between Patriots and Red Sox fans: two polar opposite psychological dynamics operating within the same fan-framework. In other words, we’re real screwed up, so cut us some slack.

Back to the original point. Ask any Sox fan if they’ll ever have to hinge great chunks of their personal and professional lives on a Red Sox playoff run. Ask them if life will ever be as good as it was during those eight nights of baseball in October, 2004. Answers will always be some variation of: Nope, Sox got the one, did it unprecedented, now my father/grandfather/son/pet can die having lived a fruitful existence. I’m saved.

While we obviously want to see the Sox succeed (and not get five-game swept by the Yankees), that familiar chill and snicker when recalling the ’04 playoffs will never cease to be. It is there in that Sox-psyche, forever embedded.

But it’s different with the Patriots. Much different. We saw this team rise from the ashes of NFL futility. A team that for over two decades didn’t even merit discussion on the Boston sports scene. The Patriots played home games 26 miles from the hub, could rarely be seen on TV, and had appeared in one thrashing of a Super Bowl in their history. With the Celtics and Bruins hanging banners in the 70s and 80s, and with the Red Sox losing in Shakespearean fashion, the Patriots were blander than white toast.

But after its acquisition by a savvy businessman with a passion and a plan, the New England franchise grew so fast and so decisively that suddenly it could only be compared with the all-time greats.

Which brings us to Sunday night. The Patriots, driving for a fourth-first half touchdown, saw their drive halted on an offensive pass interference call against Troy Brown. A possible 28-3 lead and assured 24-3 advantage was nixed by one play. But that didn’t really matter. If a lead in a playoff game against a great opponent has ever been airtight, it’s a Patriots lead. And we know that from past experience (17-3 in the 2001 AFC Championship at Pittsburgh; 17-3 in Super Bowl XXXVI against St. Louis; 21-3 in the 2004 AFC Championship at Pittsburgh).

In all those games the opponent made a strong push, but our defense never gave up a lead and Tom Brady did what was necessary to win. We had no reason to believe the Patriots would allow a new ending to be written. But hindsight’s 20-20.

And hindsight tells me the Patriots had to play three quarters of tough, playoff football against the Jets before traveling 3,000 miles to beat a team that was nine times better than they were on paper. (Well nine Pro Bowlers at least.) It was the proverbial “game they had no business winning but always win.”

The team then got hit by the flu-bug somewhere in between San Diego and Boston, and it accompanied them to Indy. It put Artrell Hawkins, the backup safety to the injured Rodney Harrison, out of the game. It rendered the steely Troy Brown eerily human (he ran a curl when he was supposed to run an out on the third down play that would’ve essentially sealed the game). Coupled with Rosevelt Colvin’s absence in the second half, along with Eric Alexander and Rashad Baker’s presence in crunch time, the Pats D was, for the first time, vulnerable. Not to mention uncharacteristically ragged and fatigued.

Yet we all feel that with another thirty seconds or so, Brady would have found a way to get the boys into the end zone, and onto Miami, because that’s what he does in January. But not this time. It took a perfect storm to drown the Patriots Sunday night. That is why I am not sticking to my comment from in the moment, that the dynasty is dead, because it isn’t. Unfortunately, this phase of it is. Guys like Tedy Bruschi, Corey Dillon, and Troy Brown all deserve to retire. Especially Bruschi.

I have a feeling we haven’t seen the end of some (maybe all) of that trio, but we certainly have seen their dominant days pass, and that is sad. That said, Brady is staring his prime square in the face. He has an offensive line that is young and cohesive, and most importantly, protects him. He has a budding running back that will emerge as one of the league’s best over the next few years. He has a young wide receiver with all the tools to become his next principal beneficiary, if he can only adopt the Patriot-ethic.

Defensively, the only area without question marks is up front, which is a good thing. With Vince Wilfork, Richard Seymour, Ty Warren and Jarvis Green manning the trenches for the next three years, the Patriots will be remain a run-tough defense. They must find a way to get younger and faster at the linebacker position, a notion we’ve never had to embrace in the Bruschi-era. And if they can find a way to keep Asante Samuel opposite Ellis Hobbs, good luck to opposing quarterbacks. If not, there’s still the x-factor, the reason why the Patriots have gone through 500 defensive backs in the last four years and have four AFC East crowns and two rings to show for it.

Bill Belichick. True, after this January good ole Bill may not be recognized as the classiest coach in the league, but he’s still the undisputed best. In Bill we still trust. So too does the Kraft family.

And as I alluded to before, Robert Kraft is not only a class-A businessman, he’s also a passionate Patriots fan who…HATES…LOSING!!!

He gave the Jets a first round pick just to snag Belichick, so don’t be fooled into thinking he’s going to let him get away (translation: the Giants may get Asante, but as for the guru, dream on). And don’t underestimate the mutual dependence Belichick and Brady have on each other. They each saved the other’s career. So with Brady’s best years on the horizon, watch as the Krafts hammer out a new deal for Belichick, and ride what they’ve been patiently waiting to declare as the second wave of the Brady/Belichick Patriots-dynasty.

I said after the second Super Bowl that when history was truly ready to look at the Patriots, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick would each have five rings. With that tandem at the helm you’re going to be hard pressed to find a Patriots fan who doesn’t believe that they’ll win another two. And thus we have revealed the one inherent similarity, rooted somewhere within our vast sports-psyches, between Red Sox fans and Patriots fans. We, more than any other fan base, embody our athletes.

Manny, Pedro, and the Sox got their title, are content with life, and can ride off into the sunset as perpetual champs. Brady, on the other hand, has made it no secret that his most coveted ring is the next one.

On both accounts, we concur.

AFC/NFC Championship Points

On HBO’s championship edition of “Inside the NFL”, before Bob Costas had his panel (of Chris Collinsworth, Cris Carter, and Dan Marino) pick this weekend’s games, he presented a graphic. That graphic was a summation of Marino’s picks in playoff games involving the Patriots over the last five years. Of the 13 games New England has played, Dan picked against them seven times, including all three AFC Championships and two Super Bowls.

The kicker?

Marino is one of the few personalities in football who has actually had the Patriots’ back throughout their glorious run. The caveat being that his premier gig is alongside traditional Pats-haters, Boomer Esiason and Shannon Sharpe, on CBS football’s flagship show, “The NFL Today”. Since football analysts would prefer to be “not wrong” than “right on”, Marino’s HBO picks have essentially been cover picks. Which is to say his faith has never totally been with the Patriots, but hey, the guy’s gotta keep his day job, ya know?

LACES OUT DAN!!!!!!! (Just thought that quote would emphasize the brevity of Marino’s film career.)

In my opinion Marino is the most steadfast Patriots supporter among his TV colleagues, as well as throughout the national print media. So for the purposes of this column we’ll disregard Dan the businessman, because his CBS picks have clearly been more consistently from the heart.

Why is it that Marino’s heart frequently tells him the Patriots will prevail? A few reasons. First, he knows through painful firsthand experience that teams win championships. He was an outstanding quarterback on some very good Dolphins teams under Don Shula, but his corps were never the likes of Joe Montana’s 49ers (the Dolphins lost to San Francisco in Super Bowl XIX, 38-16) or even Jim Kelly’s Bills (Marino lost twice to Buffalo in the playoffs, 1990 and ’95). He’s also a product of the AFC East, which has been the NFL’s most hard-nosed, trench-football, defense-heavy division over the last two decades and change.

Historically, the warm weather Dolphins fade in December and January, when the Northeast becomes a bitterly cold and snowy mess. Marino himself would be the first to tell you that the elements had quite a bit to say about more than a few Dolphins seasons. So he understands the kind of toughness the Patriots embody.

The other principle reason Marino’s heart is usually with New England is Peyton Manning. Dan Marino is petrified that Peyton’s career will end up erasing his own. Manning has already trumped some of Marino’s trademark NFL records while becoming the new face of the league.

Peyton Manning is a statistician’s best friend, a publicist’s dream, and Dan Marino’s worst nightmare. But he hasn’t won a Super Bowl. And that, my friends, is the one thing keeping Marino from pulling a full-fledged Ray Finkle of his own.

While Peyton Manning is truly Marino’s arch nemesis, Tom Brady is his buddy for life. Brady won more Super Bowls in his first five years than Marino has in his last five Madden seasons. Never will Brady threaten any of Marino’s (hopefully) timeless records. He doesn’t in the least bit crave the spotlight. But, thankfully for Dan, Tom Brady beats Peyton Manning in the playoffs, and will continue to do so.

The Colts hype and exposure is so documented and ludicrous, I’m not even going to take time to address it. Instead I’ll stick with righting the pathetically and perennially wrong national media. In 2003 and ’04, it was the Peyton Manning is just too good to lose argument. This year it’s the well the Colts have really dominated the Patriots in the last two meetings, and those were at Foxborough case.

Okay, the 2005 meeting on Monday night at Gillette was the one game in this era of the Patriots that they entered with absolutely no shot of winning. Yes, they got dominated. They got dominated after a seven-game stretch to open a second consecutive defense of their crown that included four games against 2004 playoff teams, all on the road. It was deemed the hardest opening schedule in league history. Nuff said.

As for the November 5th game at Gillette this year, I need not emphasize the fact that the Patriots played their worst game of the season while the Colts played their most complete game ever against the Patriots. Tom Brady threw four picks yet probably would’ve tied the game at 27 on the Patriots final drive had Kevin Faulk not missed an easy pass at the Indy 32, forcing Brady’s fourth and final interception.

(If you want to see my thoughts from after that game go to the vault:

In short, the Colts did everything they could have hoped for to put themselves in a position to win that November game. Yet the game was undoubtedly decided by Brady’s implosion. Which begs two questions: 1) How likely are the Colts to twice play a perfect game against the Patriots? And 2) how likely is Brady to twice mess himself against the Colts defense? Early results are 1) highly unlikely and 2) over Brady’s dead body.

Patriots 29 Colts 23

NFC Championship

I picked against the Bears last week because of Rex Grossman, and he played well enough and the Bears won. Barely. Had Matt Hasselbeck not tripped on an attempted handoff to Shaun Alexander in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter it would’ve been the Seahawks traveling to New Orleans for the NFC Championship. Grossman played a deceiving game. The throws he made were long, authoritative, and game changing. But he was also pressured at times, and the old Rex came out, as he threw an interception and lost a crucial fumble.

The Saints offense is essentially a high-octane college offense run by a cool, effective professional. Their offense is college-like because of the versatility and athleticism of their skill players. On any given down Reggie Bush could be lined up in the backfield, as a wing, in the slot, or split wide. There’s always the threat of Deuce McAllister splitting defenses open with runs up the middle, but then again he could be split wide or offset himself.

The Bears are depleted on the defensive line after the loss of Tommie Harris. And no secondary is suited to account for the speed and versatility of the Saints passing game. Thus not only with New Orleans move the ball, but they will score with relative frequency. I don’t doubt that Grossman will once again connect on some big deep balls, but the Saints offense will keep applying the pressure, and Grossman will make a crucial mistake in the fourth quarter.

Saints 27 Bears 23

Pats-Chargers and Class

Class, like many overly thrown around terms in sports, is all relative. On this January 15th, 2007, the New England Patriots are a mean, classless crew of a**holes with an even meaner and class-lacking a**hole at their helm.

To the San Diego Chargers at least.

Back in New England, however, they are the same group of warriors (with some new working parts) that continue to rewrite football history. History, it is often said, is not without a sense of irony. It is human nature to reflect on the past, identifying moments that, for better or worse, inexorably impacted the future. Irony only enters the equation when that future is finally determined, and has been accordingly altered by some seemingly unrelated prior event.

Truly ironic instances tend to be humorous. But for those with big egos and short memories, irony also tends to be a dish best served cold, when prepared by the right chef.

Since history is the impetus of irony, travel back to October 2nd, 2005. The Patriots were two-time defending Super Bowl champions, owners of the longest home winning streak in league history, and battered. Rodney Harrison had torn all the ligaments in his left knee the week before in Pittsburgh, and Tedy Bruschi was still recovering from a stroke. Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were the starting inside linebackers.

The Chargers came into Foxborough, and beat the Patriots, 41-17. But that wasn’t all. They yapped. They disrespected the Patriots’ house. They showed very little class in victory. After the game Marty Schottenheimer made comments about the Patriots’ injuries coming full circle, and pondered how long the team could continue to be a force. It wasn’t so much a sign of disrespect than it was an observation. It was an observation that the traditionally even-tempered Tom Brady took exception to in the media the next week. Brady asserted that Schottenheimer had no right to make comments about his team, and with reason.

While Schottenheimer’s comments were not overtly disrespectful, they may have been the most concrete way for an incensed-Brady to respond to a few other occurrences at the end of that game. When the contest had concluded, with the Chargers scoring the final 24 points, the San Diego players took some time to “take in” the surroundings, and most likely had a few words for the angry and pugnacious Gillette-faithful. In addition, Chargers defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was overheard saying, “That was an ass whupping!”

These are all instances of professionals not living up to their titles. Players are paid to play; coaches to coach. For the Chargers to walk onto the hallowed ground of Foxborough and knock off the champion Patriots was impressive. They earned that victory. But for a team that had only appeared in one Super Bowl (a 49-26 thumping at the hands of the 49ers) in over thirty five years of existence, to act the way they acted following that game was simply disrespectful. Disrespectful to the stadium they were competing in, to the three banners waving over them, and to the game they represent.

The Patriots have given new meaning to the concept of team as it applies to the most inherently team game in sport. They have illustrated that MVP’s and Pro Bowls mean squat when it comes to winning football games in January. And yes, from time to time, they fall. When they do, they fall to worthy adversaries. Adversaries that are usually ecstatic for having taken advantage of the opportunity to have played sixty minutes of better football than the Patriots.

After that Week 4 game last year, the Chargers didn’t respectfully bask in their accomplishment. Rather, they did their best to throw it back in the face of the Patriots, which itself became one of the few sour pieces of history embedded in the “Razor”.

Before we get to history turning into cruel irony for the Chargers, let us look at some other history, to better illustrate why San Diego will ultimately look back at that October 2nd with biting regret.

The Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have been rivals ever since Bill Parcells was matching wits with Bill Cowher in the mid-90s. The rivalry became even more intense following the 2001 season when the Steelers were destined to meet the Rams in the Super Bowl, and Cowher made the grave mistake of overlooking the Patriots. Since that time, it seems nobody except the Steelers have had true reverence for the Patriots.

The Steelers and Pats have battled in the regular season; they’ve battled in two AFC Championships. The Patriots went into Pittsburgh in October, 2004 and had their NFL-record 21-game winning streak snapped. The Steelers, students of the past, barely acknowledged their own end of the game, opting instead to remark at the magnitude of the Patriots accomplishments. The Patriots, meanwhile, got back to business, regrouped, and marched back into the Steel City for the 2004 AFC Championship and ended the Steelers 15-game streak.

Point is, the Patriots have been respected by the Steelers, and reciprocated that respect. The tables were turned after the fateful outcome of the 2001 AFC Championship in Pittsburgh. Never again would the Steelers slight the Pats, and never again would the Patriots have that added incentive to make them eat their words.

The difference between the 2001 Steelers and the 2005/06 Chargers? History!!!!! The ’01 Steelers had no idea what they were getting into. They didn’t respect the Patriots because they had no reason to. They were the best, and the Patriots were that team kneeling in their way.

The San Diego team that came into Foxborough didn’t just disrespect a coach, a team or a fan base. They disrespected a dynasty. So with all that transpired between then and now, with the Chargers this year emerging clearly as the team to beat, I found myself chuckling after listening to everything I heard in the week leading up to this game.

Fate, it would seem, is not without a sense of irony. Another applicable phrase. From the events at Gillette last year, to Shawne Merriman going on TV last Sunday and disrespecting the Patriots, to trying to keep Pats fans out of Qualcomm, to Schottenheimer entertaining hoards of media to openly talk about his atrocious playoff record, I mean, geeez! Is it any wonder that the Chargers a) dropped passes, b) fumbled balls, and c) committed inexplicable penalties? Is it any wonder that Merriman was practically an afterthought? Or that Schottenheimer went for it on a 4th and 11 from the Patriots 30 yard line and had no general control over his players?

Who’s truly surprised that the Chargers lost this game? Was it fate? Maybe on the surface, but at its core it was just another case of a talented group of players losing to a mentally tougher, more experienced, and better coached team.

As for the whole “class” thing that LaDainian Tomlinson referenced, yep, sometimes irony is painfully blatant, especially when you don’t see it coming. But history always precipitates irony. The Chargers refused to look at the 2001 Steelers with a historical and self-evaluating perspective. They opted instead to act classless in an October matchup with New England, a giant that evidently (and within character) put its reactive mechanisms on snooze until the time was right. And as if that wasn’t enough, Merriman did that giant the service of pressing the alarm button just to make sure it woke up in time.

So while the reputable LaDainian Tomlinson wants to point to the Patriots’ lack of class in mocking Merriman’s sack-dance, maybe he should take a step back and look at that jig as an appropriate reciprocation of a winner’s bravado.

Because as we all know, fate and history are not without a sense of irony.

Pats Playoff Points and Picks

How short a memory the NFL has. Just five years ago the New England Patriots were an upstart group of pretenders. They were appearing in the AFC Championship only after the reception of an immaculate call reversal. They were heavy underdogs to a ‘vastly’ superior Steelers team. So superior the city of Pittsburgh had already minted Super Bowl tickets and head coach Bill Cowher was booking hotel reservations in New Orleans.The Patriots won that game, shocked the Rams in the Super Bowl, and became the most disrespected group of world champions in this media-deluged era of the NFL. They were written off as a one year wonder after winning just nine games and missing the playoffs following the 2002 season. They lost the first game of the 2003 season to the Buffalo Bills, 31-0, which led to the famous “They hate their coach” assessment by ESPN’s Tom Jackson. They lost two weeks later to the Washington Redskins, and not again for an entire calender year.

After that defeat against Washington the Patriots ran off the greatest stretch of football in the history of the NFL. They won 32 of 34 games, including 21 in a row. Back to back Superbowls. Second team in league history to win three out of four titles. The common thread? Disrespect. From the Steelers to the “Greatest Show on Turf”, from Jackson to Peyton Manning, the one constant throughout the streak was a systematic denial of the Pats excellence. It came in many forms, but the underlying factor was that nobody outside of New England ever believed in these guys. Vegas didn’t even come around until Super Bowl XXXIX against the Eagles.

The Patriots have always been a very observant, reactive team. They speak minimally in public. But they listen, and stew over what they hear. They’ve turned slights into poster board material, and poster board material into victories. Any hogwash they hear off the field gets cultivated into motivation on the field. Which leads me to the matchup in San Diego this weekend with the Chargers. The Bolts have been the best and most complete team in the league this year, led by the NFL MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson.

The Chargers have been the Super Bowl pick. And now that the draw is New England on Sunday, it appears that San Diego is beginning to stutter. Evidence is in the team restricting ticket sales to fans with credit card billing addresses in southern California. Translation: Patriots nation is vast, and far from sedentary. This is not only preposterous, but possibly illegal. Many Patriots fans who had the intention of making the 3,000 mile trek to San Diego were quite literally turned away because the Chargers feared losing their home field advantage.

What is lost in this ridiculousness is the fact that Qualcomm Stadium seats over 71,000 people, and not once have the Chargers filled it up this year (they averaged around 66,000 per home game). So by taking such action the team has essentially admitted that they fear the Pats fan-factor and would rather sacrifice revenue than threaten their home field advantage. Unfortunately for the Chargers, there are many New England transplants domiciled in SoCal. And they will be heard from.

If anything, the ticket-move was probably a poorly conceived acknowledgment of the Patriots-aura; a concerted effort to not make the task at hand more difficult than it already is. Certainly seems to have backfired.

While the Chargers as a team misstepped in overplaying the venue hand, Shawne Merriman certainly gaffed in the PR realm when he went live on CBS during the Pats-Jets game last week and asserted that the Jets were the better team and would probably win the game.

Merriman later attempted to cover himself by saying that his job as an analyst is different than his role as a football player. Not to the Patriots. PR is PR. A player is always representing his team. And you can be sure that the Patriots took note of this representation. Merriman is a beastly talent, but he is also young and immature. He’s been a marked man since his violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy. But not through the eyes of the Patriots. Not until he made it personal.

Obviously one quote isn’t going to swing a game but I wouldn’t be surprised if the scout teamer who’s simulating Merriman this week was wearing that quote on his jersey just to remind Ben Watson, Daniel Graham and David Thomas that the guy they must block thinks very little of them.

It’s these little things that accrue over the week leading up to playoff games that always seem to happen to New England, while they stand pat, gameplan, and wait until Sundays to react. This week is no different, and as opposed to the Chargers gameplan, which is as simple as L+T, the Patriots will surprise a few people offensively come game time. Tom Brady has reached a comfort level with his receivers, mainly because they have finally learned to make the same reads as him. He’s been consistently throwing the deep out with crispness and precision, and Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell have benefited.

Because the passing game has been something of an entrepreneurial endeavor this season, the Pats have yet to open it all up. Sunday’s the time. Chad Jackson has spent countless hours rehabbing his hamstring, getting situational reps, and most importantly, learning the offense. Belichick has kept his progress under wraps, and Brady has even come close to alienating him at times. This is all a calculated effort on their behalf. Watch as Action Jackson hauls in the longest touchdown pass of the season for the Patriots this Sunday. And don’t be surprised to see him take a few handoffs. The time has come to battle speed with speed.

Another trademark aspect of the Patriots offense that they’ve gotten away from recently is the screen game. Last week Kevin Faulk took handoffs in a few situations when Eric Mangini was probably expecting a screen. This week the Patriots are going to bait the ferocious and speedy Chargers front seven with a variety of screens, utilizing Faulk and the tight ends. And if they were able to put a twist on that nifty quarterback throwback…

Screens, bombs, trick plays, the Patriots will do whatever they can to keep the Chargers defense queasy. As simplistic as the offense has been this year, it has been so merely as a conduit for a developing unit. Trust me, they’ve been practicing more than the 13 yard out and deep square in patterns. They just haven’t been ready (or willing) to introduce the craftier and more dangerous aspects of their passing game.

Until Sunday. In the words of Miami Sharks coach, Tony DaMata, the Pats offense is “goin nine nine nine”. New England will come out with superior schemes on both sides of the ball. Defensively, the Patriots front seven will remain committed to their assignments, allowing LT to hit the intended gap, thus giving him a consistent three to five yards per carry. Tomlinson is most deadly when a defensive front has blown up a hole, and he cuts back with unparalleled speed and grace. The Patriots will give him the initial yardage, gang tackle him and force the Chargers into second and sixes, putting the pressure on Schottenheimer and Phillip Rivers.

This will be a one possession affair in the fourth quarter. The interesting thing is that most who are picking the Chargers believe the Patriots will put up a fight, but ultimately fall. I’m sorry, but I’ll run with Bill Belichick over Marty Schottenheimer in a close game. Call me an opportunist. And when it comes down to that “one drive”, I’ll take Tom Brady any day of the week. Especially on Sunday.

Patriots 31 Chargers 26

Other Divisional Picks

Colts 20 Ravens 17 (Bob Sanders transforms the Indy defense into a viable unit that stymies the Ravens offense and Peyton Manning sighs at the relief of playing the underdog role for once.)

Seahawks 17 Bears 16 (Defense wins championships. Quarterbacks lose them. And when was the last time Chicago won a home playoff game?)

Saints 34 Eagles 24 (Reggie Bush can now be considered a sophomore and Drew Brees is just too good for the Eagles banged up secondary. Plus that whole Super Dome thing…)