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…)