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NFL Power Points (and Jack)

I had to catch last Sunday’s Patriots-Bills game at the bar because the Jets-Dolphins game was being televised in the New York market. I met one of my buddies outside of a subway station at Fifth Avenue and 9th street in Brooklyn. We had a ways to walk to get to the spot I usually frequent but ended up stumbling on a hole in the wall that I noticed was playing the Pats game. Since the place was relatively empty we decided it was as good as any. It ended up being better. Mugs of Budweiser were a dollar fifty, served by a barkeep who probably remembered life during the Prohibition. There was also no kitchen, which earned this particular bar the designation of “only bar open at noon on Sunday just for drinkers” (or so I would surmise).

The clientèle fell in line with the venue; guys on the solo, sipping brew, uttering profanities at the particular television where their gaze was directed. There were two women in the bar; the token football-bar cute girl (who’s ratcheted up a few notches on the “cute scale” simply because she’s drinking beer and watching football on Sunday) and the bartender’s lady friend (who took intermittent breaks to share a Newport with her man). Since there were no greasy burgers or dry eggs benedict to be had, food deliveries were rampant. I kid you not; I’ve never been to a place where one guy was inhaling a cheesesteak with fries next to a guy chowing on lo mein and egg rolls out of a box. The experience was perfected when a gentleman arrived with a bag of pirated movies, proclaiming “best DVD from Chinatown”. Good times. Now let me unveil the first installment of my NFL top five power poll.

1. Patriots (3-0) Usually the defending champs have to drop a game before relinquishing the top spot. Except this year. In 2007 the Patriots have outscored their opponents, 114-35, and have won each game by at least 24 points. Tom Brady has thrown for 887 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception; his completion percentage is 79.5% and his quarterback rating is 141.8. All are numbers I can’t even fathom projecting. Randy Moss has been the best receiver in football and the Patriots defense is simply nasty (and missing its two best players). Add that all up and you know why the Patriots are number one until they fall.

2. Colts (3-0) After smoking the Saints at home on opening night the Colts have struggled in victory against Vince Young and the Titans (one of four teams to beat Indy last season) and the emerging-Texans. Wins are wins in the NFL, don’t get me wrong, but the Indy defense remains suspect, especially with the losses of Nick Harper and Cato June. Offensively (per usual) the Colts need not worry. Joseph Addai looks like he’s about to bust out a 1400 yard/15 touchdown sophomore campaign, which will makes things much easier for Peyton Manning as the Colts pursue a (futile?) defense of their title.

3. Steelers (3-0) So far the knock has been that they haven’t beat anyone that good just yet. But three decisive victories (Browns/Bills/49ers) with an average margin of three touchdowns has me believing the Steelers are once again for real. In terms of “Steel City Football”, Mike Tomlin has picked up right where Bill Cowher left off. By pounding the ball with Willie Parker (who leads the NFL with 368 rushing yards) and playing hard-nosed defense (the Steelers D ranks second in the league), Pittsburgh looks likes it’s ready to take back the AFC North.

4. Packers (3-0) The only thing more surprising than the Packers’ 3-0 start was when Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” thought its quarterback was named “Brett Faaahvraaaah”. Indeed, the man and legend who’s time and again teased us with notions of retirement is guiding a team that has “NFC contender” written all over it. Wins over Philly, the Giants, and most recently San Diego, mean the cheeseheads have returned in full force, and with reason. Green Bay now has a young and vibrant defense complementing the old war horse, and in a division/conference where anything is possible, I say the Pack is back.

5. Cowboys (3-0) I’m not sold on this team yet. The talent is there, no doubt. In fact, top to bottom the Cowboys are probably the most talented team in the NFC. But the NFC East is also the toughest division in the conference and I’ve never thought a whole lot of Wade Phillips (especially in comparison to Bill Parcells) . Because the Eagles are notorious slow-starters I’m far from anointing the Cowboys NFC East champs. Although I will say their second half thrashing of the Bears at Soldier Field on Sunday night was a big statement. I felt they were going to win the football game; I just didn’t know they were going to become “the team” that forced a major shakeup in Chicago.

On a different note, I felt I had to address Jack Bauer errr Kiefer Sutherland’s recent DUI arrest. In case you missed it, Jack was cited for driving under the influence after he was pulled over for making an illegal U-turn Tuesday morning in West LA. While TMZ.com caught Jack lethargically signing autographs at the Fox function he was attending before the incident, I can only imagine how the actual apprehension went down. I’m guessing it was something like this:

Officer: Do you know why I pulled you over, Mr. Sutherland?

Jack: Who the f–k are you talking about?!?!!? I’m Jack Bauer!!!!!

Officer: You made an illegal U-turn, sir.

Jack: I used to run CTU you sonavabitch!!!!

Officer: Have you been drinking, sir?

Jack: There is a terrorist threatening to detonate a nuclear warhead in Los Angeles!! Millions of lives are stake!!!! I implore you to let me go!!!!!!!

Officer: Will you step out of the car please, sir?

Jack: Millions of lives!!!!!!

Officer: Sir, I’m going to have to ask you again.

Jack: Do the names Glen Livet and Jack Daniels mean nothing to you!!!!?!?!?!?

Officer: Mr. Sutherland, I’m placing you under arrest.

Jack: Habib Marwan!!!!!!!!

Cally-Sox-Pats Points

I just spent 10 days in Los Angeles, which should explain the recent void in posting. For that I apologize. However the time I passed in Southern California was more or less a marathon of sports and gaming, culminating with a mega-sports weekend back in Boston. Before I get into the Red Sox and Patriots let me catch you up on the highlights of my wacky sports voyage out on the left coast.

LA is a city that couldn’t be any further removed from New York (and I’m not speaking continentally). In the City of Angels it’s 82 and sunny everyday, and woe to he who spots a cloud. Tans and radiance in LA are as common as suits and scowls in New York. Cars are either classy and ostentatious or average and unnoticed. That’s Southern California in a nutshell: an endless struggle to be seen. Sports act merely as another manifestation of the Hollywood-driven, image-conscious SoCal culture. So yes, sports fans exist in abundance, but their level of interest and passion is dwarfed by their East Coast fan-counterparts. But then again, when everyone is so smoking hot and the sun perpetually shines, I guess sports really don’t need to be so all-consuming.

Case in point was the Dodgers-Padres game I attended last Wednesday. In a do or die ballgame for the Dodgers, the Stadium at Chavez Ravine (a beautiful ballpark situated in the hills above LA) was at least 15,000 short of sold out. The only buzz generated before the late innings was in reaction to the timeless-Tommy Lasorda as he posed for a photo with a pair of cute coeds at his post behind the Dodgers on-deck circle. And the one time the crowd appeared genuinely united in celebration was during the “kiss cam” between innings. This is a ritual where some seedy guy with a camera prowls through the stadium looking to goad older couples and first dates into awkward embraces, all with the crowd peeping gleefully on the jumbotron. (Although I definitely got the best show because it turned out the couple in front of me were actually cousins, forced to sweat out that particular half-inning dreading the scenario in which they were compelled to become incestuous kiss cam-culprits).

The other infusion of energy came when the ever-chipper Vin Scully led the house in his token-double rendition of “Take me out to the ballgame”. While we’re here let me tell you how truly dumbfounded I was when a buddy of mine told me that Scully calls both the radio and television broadcasts, on his own, simultaneously. That’s like trying to recount a Vegas story for your grandmother and best friend on a conference call. Which reminds me…

Smack in the middle of the trip I had my first foray with the mercurial beast that is Las Vegas. Three friends made the trek with me. We got there at 1 am on a Monday night and proceeded to run the gauntlet for the next ten hours. We hit the MGM Grand, Paris, Bellagio, Caesars Palace and the Monte Carlo before calling it a day (or whatever you call unorthodox hours in succession spent in Vegas). Other than some ups and downs, a hooker sweet talking my buddy, and me riling up a blackjack dealer at the Grand, there was astonishingly little to report from Sin City. I was expecting Times Square on speed without the cops. I was ready to be baffled!! I ended up being befuddled. This sensation was later validated when I learned that Britney Spears had made a wrenching comeback at the MTV Video Music Awards the night before at the Palms. What eventually hit me like a sack of bricks was the realization that we unknowingly became those guys who decided to roll through the night after the biggest cooler in the history of Vegas. Excellent.

If you want to laugh or feel my pain watch the “performance” for yourself.

The good news was that a monstrous sports weekend was on the horizon 3,000 miles away in Beantown. The Yankees were visiting the Red Sox for their last regular season tilt beginning on Friday while the Patriots were absorbing a cheating scandal and trying to prepare for a playoff rematch with the San Diego Chargers on Sunday.

Friday’s Sox-Yanks game was spent on the couch at my buddy’s place. A few mornings at the beach combined with the still-present Vegas-hangover was sufficient enough to keep us out of the bar. With the three-game sweep statement the Yankees made at the Stadium two weeks before, it was vital for the Sox to come out and reciprocate that statement. Everything looked nice, as Dice-K submitted his first good start in a month and the Sox carried a 7-2 lead into the eighth inning. It was then that the Yankees decided to reciprocate what the Sox did to Mariano Rivera in the clubs first meeting of the season, way back on April 20th. Namely score a lot of runs in a very short period of time. They battered Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon for six lightning-quick scores, turning a sure “W” into a ringing “L”. The Sox saved face behind their ace on Saturday, as Josh Beckett proved once again he’s the stopper. But the empty feeling was back on Sunday night as the Nation watched Big Papi fly out with the bases loaded and the game on the line against Mo. The Sox will now enter October having dropped five of six to the Bombers.

So the obvious question is how worried should we be? Seeing Dice-K throw well, albeit laboriously, was about the best thing we could’ve seen minus Manny making a triumphant and healthy return last weekend. The Sox need Dice-K in the playoffs. As for Manny, his oblique muscle strain is absolutely a cause for concern, because the soreness affects both his swing and mobility. It looks like he’s going to end up having a whole month to rehab and strengthen the muscle, which should be enough time. If Manny comes back healthy the lineup is not a concern entering the postseason. The bullpen evidently is. Okajima hasn’t been able to get anybody out the last month and Eric Gagne has cost the team four wins since he came on board six weeks ago. Mike Timlin seems to have finally gotten old. Papelbon has sputtered of late but will be lights out come October because he scares people.

Don’t be fooled, if the Red Sox keep playing the way they’ve been playing they’ll surely surrender the AL East. At 90-63 it’s realistic that they could go 5-4 over their last nine, finish with 95 wins, and (like 2005) lose the division to the Yanks with identical 95-67 records because they dropped the season series 10-8. For this scenario to come to fruition, the Yankees would only have to win seven of their last 10. Shivering yet?

I’ll give you reason for optimism. First, the Red Sox are ambassadors of the wild card, and have their habitual meal ticket to October already punched if need be. While these Sox may not douse themselves in champagne, donning “Wild Card Champion” T-shirts like the Cowboys or Idiots, there’s always comfort in knowing they’re “in” on September 20th. Second, look at the recent past. Last year the Tigers pushed the self-destruct button in September and allowed the Twins to erase a late-August double digit lead and take the division on the last day of the season. The wild card Tigers then chomped their way to the AL pennant before losing a bizarre World Series marred by rainouts and the Cardinals. Then there are the 2000 Yankees, who lost 15 of their last 17 and almost let the in-shambles-Red Sox steal the division, before abruptly steamrolling their way to a third-straight championship. So rest (relatively) easy for the time being and let me talk about the reason why I barely watched the last Sox-Yankees game.

It was very difficult to turn away from NBC on Sunday night, even if the network refused to acknowledge the existence of one of the most thorough NFL thrashings in some time. ESPN.com’s Sportsguy tackled that in his latest column, detailing in form everything Al Michaels and John Madden chose not cover (like, for instance, the Pats-Chargers game that took place in Foxborough). Assuming you’ve read Sportsguy or one of the other gazillion pieces written about the Patriots lately, I’ll abstain from dropping stats, except this one: Roosevelt Colvin finished the game with 5 tackles, 2 sacks, an interception and two forced fumbles. That’s next level. Collectively that’s where the Patriots appear to be residing on a perch of their own these days. Yet, like NBC, the football world and national media currently know only two words to associate with the Patriots: CameraGate. Or maybe that’s one word. Whatever.

In any event what strikes me is that most people I’ve talked to (on both coasts) are in agreement on two fronts about this Patriots team. First is the common belief that, injuries notwithstanding, the ’07 Patriots have a better than 50% chance of vanquishing the ’72 Dolphins by becoming the first team in league history to go 19-0. Second is the fairly unified and time-honored notion that the rat is dirty too. While Bill Belichick decided to interpret NFL rules in his own way (read: cheat), it was Eric Mangini who had no qualms about blowing the whistle on Belichick and assuming the role of “the rat”. Why Belichick was being so brazen in defiance of NFL mandates, in the presence of the one guy in the league who knows more about his skeletons in the closet than anybody else is beyond me.

That definitely doesn’t clean up what Mangini did, however. Football is not like other sports. If anything football represents the closest a game can come to combat. It’s the one sport where the boundary between “gamesmanship” and “cheating” cannot be clearly defined. In football, it shouldn’t be. Teams play once a week, 16 times a year. Preparation for a football game involves much more than scripting the first drive for your offense or honing your special teams unit. Preparation for a football game involves gathering sensitive information about your opponent; identifying and learning how to expose its weaknesses; discovering new ways to confuse and exploit it. You might as well liken being an NFL coach to being a CIA field office chief overseas (within context of course). The goal is to target a system (be it a mark or a team) and infiltrate that system, all towards the greater goal of gaining intelligence about your adversary that you can later use when the time warrants. By nature the work is devious and manipulative. Some work, as they say, is not for the faint of heart. Whereas the CIA develops human assets as its principle means of gathering intelligence, NFL coaches employ the use of video cameras.

Again, I’m not condoning Belichick’s actions; the videotaping of the Jets signals he authorized was a shady and underhanded tactic aimed at gaining inside info about the Jets defensive calls so as to better prepare for the teams second meeting later this season. It was also a means he used to more thoroughly prepare for the teams second meeting later this season. (No, I’m not being redundant.) Fact is, scheming and illegal as it was, it’s pretty commonly held throughout the league that all teams and all coaches do exactly what Belichick was doing, just not as arrogantly. The terms “squeaky clean” and “football” have no business being uttered in the same breath. Rules and violations aside, anyone who sits down and watches football on Sundays knows implicitly that the game is raucous and dirty, defined by battles in the trenches and chess-like maneuvers by coaches. Players don’t hesitate in classifying it as “war”.

What I find interesting in everything that’s happened is the fact that Eric Mangini presented the entire league and its franchises with a golden opportunity to permanently relegate Belichick and the Patriots to the fringes of NFL-society. Yet last Sunday it was Mangini himself who drew the ire of Ravens head coach, Brian Billick. Ater the Jets dropped a hard-fought 20-13 game to the Ravens, Billick said the Jets defense “did a very, very effective job of illegally simulating the snap count” to thwart the Ravens’ offensive line. Coaches are rarely impulsive in press conferences, especially those with the stature and tenure of Billick. While he later backed off what he said, pointing the finger instead at the officials for not properly harnessing the Jets’ maneuvers, Billick’s postgame comments should assuredly not be taken with a grain of salt. In modifying his statement from after the game, Billick later said, “I was more upset that [the Jets] were doing it better than we were. We all do it.”

Very crafty on Billick’s part in my opinion. He succeeded both in blowing the whistle on the whistle blower and subtly conveying that in a word, s–t goes down in the NFL. So you know what? Let’s leave it at that and get back to some football because I’ve lost all feeling in my fingers.

Pats ’07 Preview and Picks

Turmoil amid new faces. New faces amid turmoil. The 2007 New England Patriots.

For the last week that palindromic diagnosis of the three-time ex-champs has been eaten up and regurgitated by much of the nation’s sports, news and entertainment media. The fodder has been abundant: Randy Moss just began practicing; Richard Seymour was just placed on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list; Rodney Harrison was just flagged and suspended for using HGH (Human Growth Hormone). And Tom Brady just had a child out of wedlock.

Caught up yet? I know what you’re thinking. The only way you couldn’t be caught up with the recent goings on of the Pats is if you fail to acknowledge the existence of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, People, the New York Times, CNN, and of course, TMZ.com. (Check out the piranhas at work on Brady’s tail). So in the interest of preventing further regurgitation, pay attention to the following, fully-integrated, piece by piece, Patriots preview.

Randy Moss Since his arrival Moss has been a model Patriot. Okay, he barely made an appearance in training camp (although regulated his competition during his brief stint), and sat out the entire preseason. In total, a pulled hamstring afforded him a nice month-long rest with which to prepare for his first year in red, white and blue. So, given that we’ve barely seen or heard from Moss, how then could he possibly constitute a model Patriot? Because, well, we’ve barely seen or heard from Randy Moss. He’s spoken to the media, but when he’s done so it was if he was eerily channeling his coach and quarterback. Far cry from the verbal loose cannon that inhabited Minnesota and Oakland. He’s also had no brushes with the law; no funky smells seeping through the tinted windows of his Escalade. So you see? He’s been a perfect superstar, and has been given his due leeway from the masters of player management running the organization. So far it looks like the “meet you halfway” agreement between Belichick/Brady and Moss has worked out pretty well.

Richard Seymour There is no disputing that Seymour is the second best player on the Patriots, and probably the most skilled and versatile defensive lineman in the NFL. When you play six seasons in the league, notch five Pro Bowls and win three rings, “the best” is generally the category you fall into. That’s a Hall of Fame resume in less than half of a career. Because Seymour is only now entering his “prime”, and also happens to be recovering from offseason knee surgery, it is wise to sideline him now. While six games may mathematically represent nearly 40% of the season, I believe it is the Patriot-platitude that states: it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. In the case of Seymour, he need not play the first six games, because the only bearing those games will have is on where the Pats stand in terms of the home-field advantage picture in the AFC. Trust me, that picture doesn’t even start to come into viable focus until week 10. Seymour now has the opportunity to extend his training/rehab camp into October and return when he’s comfortable on that knee.

Rodney Harrison Before all the preposterous comparisons to Barry Bonds start flying, let’s get something straight: Rodney Harrison was not using HGH with devious intentions. In other words, as opposed to Bonds, he’s not a cheater. Of course this is a matter of opinion, and since he did break the law, you have every right to label him a cheater. But I believe him when he says he was using HGH to try and recover faster from a shoulder injury and ligament tears in his knee. The guy has been both an iron man and an enforcer throughout his career (before the 2005-06 seasons he had only one injury-marred campaign in his 11-years as a professional). But that’s also a double-edged sword. Because Harrison has maintained the reputation as one of the most fearsome and dirty players in the league, once the injuries started coming, opposing teams (see: 2006 Tennessee Titans) started turning the tables on the Pats safety. Loosely interpreted as a “put him out when he’s down” policy, it’s clear that there’s been no love lost between the recently-ailing Harrison and his (literally) sore competitors throughout the league. Judging from the forthcoming and sincere way in which he’s dealt with this situation (as opposed to his MLB counterpart, Gary Matthews), and the fact that it doesn’t look like prosecutors are going to charge him, I say let him serve his suspension (four games) and forget about it.

Tom Brady Wow, how times have changed. It wasn’t even six years ago that Brady unbelievably found himself standing smack in the middle of the football universe, hoisting the Lombardi trophy and Super Bowl MVP, ecstatic and stupefied, hands on his cheeks, staring wide-eyed at Drew Bledsoe, like the little boy who had just been told he received a lifetime pass to Disney World. Five seasons and two titles later, the kid who brought a legacy to New England has helped bring a boatload of drama to Hollywood and the fashion world. After his long relationship with actress Bridget Moynahan ended in the middle of last season, and before he started dating supermodel Gisele Bundchen, Brady learned he was going to become a father. Fast forward to the week before last, when Moynahan had Brady’s son, while Tom was balancing the Patriots preseason regimen in Foxborough, with Gisele in New York and the mother of his child in Los Angeles. Quite precarious, considering by nature, such balancing acts traditionally involve stabilizing two entities, one on each side of the center. Unfortunately, even for the mega-man, the laws of gravity still apply. Three’s still a crowd last time I checked. Crazy as it may sound, the time for parting with the hottest woman in the world may soon be upon Tom.

Prediction As we have already (many times over) established, the Patriots are dealing with more than a handful of issues, the reverberations of which are being felt from Boston to Hollywood; from New York to Milan. Just a tiny deviation from the crew of unknowns that chose to be introduced as a team before Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. Like the Red Sox, the Patriots no longer fall within the greater classification of “little guys”. To the absolute contrary, they are the giants. They remain the hunted, even if they haven’t hung a banner in two years. So how are they planning to navigate through the trenches of overblown injuries, overstated sanctions and glamorous personal and familial affairs? I’ll tell you why. Because the one person who can truly and earnestly say that the CNNs, ESPNs and TMZs mean squat; the one guy who can operate blissfully oblivious to the outside world; the one coach who can stand at the podium and address everything without divulging anything, well he happens to be the man in charge of the 2007 New England Patriots. For years Bill Belichick has been using his unparalleled knowledge and esoteric schemes to win football games. He’s done it with fringe talent; he’s done it with stars. He’s done it with fringe talent turned into stars. This year he has the nucleus. It may not be intact today, but if Belichick will tell you anything it’s that the road to a Super Bowl is a voyage. The beginning may be rocky, but it’s not about where you begin. For the 2007 New England Patriots, the road will end in Phoenix, and a dynasty will be reborn.

Picks

AFC East: Patriots

AFC North: Ravens

AFC South: Colts

AFC West: Chargers

AFC Wild Cards: Bengals and Jets

NFC East: Eagles

NFC North: Bears

NFC South: Saints

NFC West: Seahawks

NFC Wild Cards: Panthers and Giants

AFC Championship: Patriots over Ravens

NFC Championship: Saints over Bears

Super Bowl XLII: Patriots over Saints