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Cheers and Jeers: NFL Week 12

Here are some cheers and jeers following a bizarre Week 12 in the NFL…

Cheers to Chad Johnson for bringing back some of that Ocho Cinco zest and revealing he still has a knack for the theatric. Against the Titans Johnson caught a season-high 12 passes for 103 yards and three touchdowns. After his first score, which doubled as the first time he’d seen the end zone since Week 2, #85 took control of a sideline camera and filmed his fans in happy mode. Other than a classic (yet seemingly under-the-radar) ESPN interview between Keyshawn Johnson and Chad, the entertaining Ocho Cinco has not been heard from nearly enough this year. The NFL put its foot down on excessive touchdown celebrations, which is one reason for the generally toned-down merriment following scores. As for Chad’s fall from grace, the Bengals played poorly all season, which should explain why until Sunday we’d seen very little of one of the more vocal and dramatic personalities in the league. If Chad can lead Cincinnati back to relevance that’s a good thing for the NFL (considering this season it hasn’t repeatedly had to send representatives to courtrooms on behalf of Bengal players).

Now, to go from the uplifting to the unfair…

Jeers to Peyton Manning for showing up to “root” for his brother when the Giants hosted the Vikings. Like Eli doesn’t know Peyton has been better than him at every level of football since Pop Warner. Not only did Eli have to contend with Minnesota’s formidable pass rush, he had to do so with his big bro dissecting every play from his perch in a Giants Stadium luxury box. How did Eli respond to the sibling pressure? By throwing four interceptions (three for touchdowns) to the woeful Vikings secondary. Sibling rivalries are always intense, especially when they wind their way to the pinnacle of a sport (just ask Venus and Serena Williams). Thing is with Peyton and Eli, only one of them is at the pinnacle of football. The other one is a serviceable quarterback who just happened to throw three touchdowns to the other team Sunday. Look, this may have been destined to be one of those “Eli games” but his brother certainly didn’t help the cause. Shouldn’t Peyton have been buried in a tape room somewhere preparing for Jacksonville?

Speaking of two guys who will be spending some time in the tape room…

Jeers to Gus Frerotte and Kurt Warner for fumbling the ball on the last the play of the game. All Frerotte had to do was take the snap on fourth-and-goal from the Seattle 1-yard line, hand the ball to Steven Jackson and walk off the turf that formerly housed “The Greatest Show”. Instead he botched the snap, dropped the ball and lost the game. Warner’s gaffe was almost as egregious and equally decisive. In overtime against the 49ers, Warner’s Cardinals were backed up at their own 3-yard line. On first down Warner dropped back into the end zone, couldn’t find an open receiver, and was stripped of the football. Tully Banta-Cain recovered the freebie for the game-winning touchdown. For two quarterbacks with a combined 23 years of NFL experience, the fashion in which Frerotte and Warner exited the field Sunday was embarrassing to say the least.

On a more positive note…

Cheers to the Eagles for displaying their disgust at being on the short end of a 24-point spread by nearly taking down the Patriots in Foxborough. If New England has been the ruthless model of efficiency this season the Eagles have been the total opposite model of chaos. Donovan McNabb and the city of Philadelphia are approaching the end of a bitter relationship. Eagles coach Andy Reid has dealt with domestic issues of monumental proportions. No one would have blinked twice if the Patriots dropped the Eagles by four touchdowns. Yet led by A.J. Feeley and a fearless, unrelenting pass rush Philly hung with the Patriots for four quarters, something no team (even the Colts) has accomplished against the Pats this year. While the term “blueprint” may be a little exaggerated, the Eagles clearly showed the rest of the league that any defense with the stones to consistently rush five and six guys can disrupt Tom Brady. If an NFL team ever deserved a pat on the back in defeat, it was the Eagles on Sunday night.

Speaking of pats on the back…

Cheers to NBC for pumping up the volume on the sideline microphones at Gillette Stadium, which enabled viewers to literally hear how Tom Brady was dealing with the Eagles’ various defensive alignments and pass rushes. Time after time Brady took the play clock down to the final seconds, letting out a hail of adjustments to his receivers and linemen in an attempt to warn them of impending defensive movement. More than once he called out a hot route or refined blocking assignment to a receiver by name (“Gaf..” “Randy..”). We also heard Brady use the audible “Omaha” on more than one occasion, and given the tranquil atmosphere he even took to whispering something in the ear of Kevin Faulk before taking a snap out of the shotgun. NBC’s first two broadcasts of Patriots games were filled with a lot gushing on the parts of Al Michaels and John Madden. In Week 2 against San Diego it was all about CameraGate and last week in Buffalo they took turns tossing the “perfect season” salad. Last night NBC simply broadcast a football game and let the players do most of the talking.

Finally…

Jeers to Todd Sauerbrun for pretty much single-footedly losing the game for Denver in Chicago. As a kicker I believe Sauerbrun should have gotten the memo about Devin Hester. You know, the one that outlines how Hester is the most electric return man ever to play the game of football!!!!! How’s this for a bad day: first Sauerbrun booms a punt to Hester in the third quarter, which the lightning returner takes to the house; then after the offense has given the Broncos a 20-13 lead, Sauerbrun’s kick off sails straight down the field to Hester, who snatches it and torches another Denver coverage unit for six more; then with a 34-20 lead late in the game and Denver forced to punt, Sauerbrun, so concerned with keeping his boot away from Hester, instead doesn’t even get the kick away and has it blocked. 17 unanswered points later and the Broncos had ample reason to leave the Windy City feeling pretty Sauer.

Here’s the updated power poll…

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 12

1. Patriots (11-0)

2. Cowboys (10-1)

3. Packers (10-1)

4. Colts (9-2)

5. Jaguars (8-3)

Patriots vs. Vegas/Week 11 Power Poll

Vegas always wins. That’s one adage to live by if you don’t happen to reside in the top one percent of gamblers. There’s a reason the Vegas Strip is so gaudy, the casinos are so flashy and the sportsbooks are so ethereal (so to speak). It’s because you’re leaving your money there. Duh. The point of this piece is not to rant about the ploys and allure of casinos, because there are tons of spots around the country where you can get screwed at the blackjack table and have it sanctioned by the state legislature. However only in one locale can you happen upon the aforementioned, otherworldly venue called a sportsbook, and wager on any sporting event you desire. That would be Las Vegas (and the rest of the barren state it’s a part of, Nevada).

The reason Vegas always wins when it comes to sports wagering is because, quite simply, it’s smarter than the vast majority of people making bets. Vegas has professional analysts, cutting edge computers and some of the most shrewd statisticians, all working in accord to assure it comes out on top. The logic behind Vegas gambling lines (or “point spreads”) is simple. The goal is to set a line that will attract an equal number of wagers on either side. In other words, if 1000 people are each going to bet $100 on a specific game, oddsmakers ideally want 500 of those wagers to go on the favored team and the other 500 to go on the underdog. Considering for each bet the gambler must pay a ten percent wager-fee (colloquially called “the vig”), if oddsmakers succeed in balancing the bets, the house takes in its ten percent on all bets made, and wins. Of course the strategy is far more complex than that, but in a nutshell that’s the essence of a Nevada sportsbook.

So how does this tie into the Patriots? Put bluntly, the Patriots are seriously threatening to fleece Vegas like no sports team in my memory (and possibly of all-time). The answer to how and why the Patriots (read: those people gambling on the Patriots) are systematically beating Vegas is two fold. First is the the sheer talent and capability of this team relative to the rest of the league. They’re better than the field, and everybody knows it. Second (and more importantly within the context of Vegas) is CameraGate. Post-CameraGate, Bill Belichick has his team so bloodthirsty and vengeance-seeking, even Vegas can’t account for it. Traditionally in professional sports, wins and losses are more or less all that matter to teams (meaning average margin of victory isn’t very significant). Unlike college, where writers and coaches vote to determine how teams rank in relation to one another (which is why forty and fifty point blowouts are common in the NCAA), professional sports boil down to “Ws” or “Ls”. In addition, Vegas has always benefited from the concept of professionalism within pro sports. That is to say that these guys are, at the core, part of a business, and while habitually competing against one another, they are nonetheless colleagues in their respective professions.

The Patriots are nobody’s colleagues but their own. You can throw “professionalism” into a bucket with “running up the score”, douse it with lighter fluid, add a lit match and toss it right out the window. The only way this team interprets the notion of professionalism is by playing sixty minutes of butt-kicking football every week. This is the conundrum Vegas has found itself trying to solve. Here are two constants that Vegas must cope with: 1) on any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team; 2) the Patriots are winning football games by an average of 25 points.

Now because the goal of a sportsbook is to get action on both sides of a point spread, and given the historically-tested “any given Sunday” theory, Vegas is wary about pushing NFL lines into the 20s, no matter how obvious a perceived mismatch there is. It screws up that balance they’re looking for, and usually teams don’t keep pouring it on with three touchdown leads. Except Bill’s boys, driven by superior talent and fueled by retribution. For the record, the Patriots are either 9-0-1 or 9-1 against the spread this year (the line against the Colts fluctuated from -4 to -5.5 and the Patriots won by four, so some gamblers who utilized the four point spread conceivably pushed their bets that week, neither winning nor losing.)

That said, non-compulsive gamblers likely steered clear of the Colts game, simply because Pats-Colts has proven a tall order to predict. To put all this in perspective, imagine you were in Las Vegas before Week 1 of the NFL season and put $100 on the Patriots. If each week, minus the Colts game, you let it all ride (ie reinvested your initial bet plus what you profited into another Patriots-wager), today you would be sitting on $46,080 (or $51,200 – $5,120). The little more than five grand would be the ten percent you owe to the sportsbook for placing the bets.

Allow me to be the first (or millionth) to inform you: you’re not supposed to be able to turn a hundred bucks into fifty thousand. Vegas is supposed to curb that streak waaaaay before it gets going. If you went on a run like that at the blackjack table the casino powers would have you set up in a luxury suite before you turned your first ten grand. Yet here we are, two-thirds through the 2007 NFL season, and the Patriots have already dealt a severe blow to the sports gaming monopoly residing in the western desert. Believe me, there are many serious gamblers out there riding the heck out of this Patriots wave. Sure, in the grand scheme it may only be a pin prick through the monstrous moneymaking enterprise that is Vegas, but rest assured, it’s a pin prick straight through the heart of the beast.

How’s that for a different take on the Patriots’ dominance? Now here’s my latest power poll, highlighting the cream of NFL mortals…

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 11

1. Patriots (10-0) The Pats are early 22 point favorites this week against the Eagles. Now someone tell me they’re surprised.

2. Cowboys (9-1) For the first time since I’ve been an online sportswriter (which isn’t terribly long, but still) I have an NFC team in the top two. My logic here is that with the Colts losing twice and the Cowboys standing at 9-0 against everyone but the Patriots, they deserve the ranking. The Tony Romo to Terrell Owens combo has been jaw-dropping of late. Since their loss to New England in Week 6, the Boys have run off four straight, and Romo has found T.O. eight times for touchdowns. The defense has played markedly better as well. After giving up 48 points to New England, the Dallas D has shut down opposing offenses to the tune of 18.5 points per game.

3. Packers (9-1) What more can you say about Brett Favre and the Pack? Green Bay has won in Denver, in Kansas City and in New Jersey against the Giants. Favre’s quarterback rating of 98.6 is the highest of his career since 1995 (99.5), when he was embarking on a streak of three-straight league MVP awards. He’s already thrown more touchdowns (19) than he did all last year (18). What was unquestionably the team’s greatest weakness, its running game, appears to be solved. Ryan Grant (who? an undrafted free agent from Notre Dame, that’s who) has busted onto the scene, and averaged over 90 yards rushing in Green Bay’s last four games, all wins. Assuming the Packers win on Thanksgiving Day in Detroit (never an easy task), home field in the NFC will be on the line Thursday night November 29, when the Pack travels to Dallas.

4. Colts (8-2) The Colts are having a season in ’07 similar to the ’06 Patriots campaign. They’ve battled key injuries throughout (most significantly, Marvin Harrison) and struggled to win games. But they’ve continually found ways to post victories and look like a 12-4 team that will be contending for the second bye in the AFC. Still the Colts must get healthy if they want to even gain a rematch with the Patriots, let alone entertain notions of defending their crown against the Pats.

5. Giants (7-3) Earning a spot in the top five for the first time, the Geeeeeee-Men. As in “geeee this team loves laying an egg after a 6-2 start”. Yes, the Giants probably did lose the division by shooting themselves in the feet multiple times two weeks ago at the Meadowlands against Dallas. Down two games in the standings (which is basically three because the Giants lost both matchups with the Cowboys), the New York football Giants better get used to winning on the road, because that’s what they’ll have to do (again) come playoff time. The good news is with a fairly kind schedule (Minnesota, at Chicago, at Philly, Washington, at Buffalo) down the stretch, the G-Men should be 11-4 entering the season finale at home against the Patriots. Barring a Cowboys-implosion or a Patriots-loss, this game will be very interesting because neither the Giants (who will have the top wild card locked up) nor the Patriots (who will have home field secured) will have a lot to play for. Which means this game will officially qualify as “most playoff-like game with least on the line” status.

5a. Steelers (7-3) Let’s not mince words. When you lose to a 1-8 team you probably don’t deserve to be in the top five, no matter what your record is. Luckily the Steelers have the football tradition, not to mention a top-five running back and quarterback as well as one of the league’s elite defenses. That said, each statement the Steelers have made this year has been a losing statement (see: Arizona and the Jets). To date, their biggest win was a 38-7 trouncing on a Monday night of a Ravens team we all know would be better off with USC’s offense. After they beat the Dolphins and Bengals, Pittsburgh will see where it truly matches up on the proverbial measuring stick. On Sunday December 9, the 9-3 Steelers will travel to Foxborough to meet the 12-0 Patriots.

NBA Preview 2008: A Glimpse into the Future

With all the NBA Previews floating around, here’s an uncompromising vision of the 2008 NBA Playoffs…

Mid-April 2008: the NBA Playoffs are set

East

1. Celtics (58-24) versus 8. Knicks (41-41)

2. Pistons (52-30) versus 7. Cavs (43-39)

3. Magic (47-35) versus 6. Heat (45-37)

4. Bulls (47-35) versus 5. Nets (46-36)

West

1. Suns (61-21) versus 8. Kings (43-39)

2. Spurs (59-23) versus 7. Hornets (46-36)

3. Nuggets (54-28) versus 6. Rockets (51-31)

4. Mavs (54-28) versus 5. Jazz (52-30)

Late-April 2008

The first round of the 2008 NBA Playoffs featured a few laughers, some unforgettable subplots and one epic series. In the East, the Celtics beat the Knicks in four. In Game 1 Isiah Thomas (who just before the postseason signed himself to a 10-day $40 million contract to prevent Stephon Marbury from running point) took the opening tip and drove to the basket. The ensuing swat by Kevin Garnett was so severe that player-coach-GM Isiah opted to forfeit the series and all three of his job titles, and move to a country where it wasn’t frowned upon for a male boss to make sexually insinuating remarks to a female subordinate. The next day Marbury led the Knicks in a parade down Broadway.

The Nets/Bulls series was a first round joke, as Vince Carter dropped 45 in Jersey’s Game 1 victory. His agents then informed him on a conference call that the 2008-09 season wasn’t a contract year, and the Nets lost the next four straight. In the 3-6 matchup Dwight Howard and the Magic knew something was awry when Shaq rolled up to Amway Arena in a 22-wheeler emitting pungent diesel fumes. In the Heat’s 4-1 series win, Shaq went for at least 18 and 12 each night.

The best series was a rematch from last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, between the Pistons and Cavs, won by King James. The Pistons made the necessary adjustments and were in position to eliminate the Cavs in Game 6 before Lebron iced Rasheed Wallace at the free throw line, if you can call it that. As he did to Gilbert Arenas two years ago, Lebron walked up to Sheed and whispered something in his ear. Sheed then removed his head band, threw it around the neck of Lebron, pulled him close and whispered something back through a loony smirk. For that he received his fourth technical of the series, allowing the Cavs to force a Game 7, which the Pistons won in double overtime.

Out west the Kings battled the top-seeded Suns to a split in Phoenix. In Game 3 back in Sacramento, the Maloof brothers, evidently too close to the action, inadvertently tripped Ron Artest as he was running back up the court after a dunk. An incensed-Artest chased the petrified owners into the stands, making him the first player to leave the court both on the road and at home. There were no injuries, but the remainder of the series didn’t go too well for the Kings, and their owners, the Queens.

In other first round action, the second-seeded Spurs dismantled the Hornets, sweeping four straight. The series was so one-sided Tim Duncan only protested every other call against him. Meanwhile, in the 3-6 set, the Nuggets (who owned the best record in the league over the last six weeks) maintained their high level of play against Tracy McGrady’s Rockets. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony hit many, many jays and Marcus Camby’s lanky, shot-blocking frame consistently frustrated Yao in the Nuggets’ 4-2 series win.

That left the Mavericks and Jazz, a series which Mark Cuban assured everyone who was willing to listen that his Mavs would not lose. Too bad they didn’t have an answer for Deron Williams, who methodically picked apart the Dallas defense with a dizzying array of fast break dishes, no-look bounce passes and smooth jumpers. Dirk Nowitzki didn’t replicate his dud performance of a year ago against Golden State, but in the end the Mavs fell in an anti-climatic Game 7, very similar to their Game 6 elimination at the hands of the Warriors. After his team’s second consecutive first round exit, Cuban was so enraged he vowed never to speak to the team or media again. In their pieces the next day the Dallas beat writers declared the season a success.

May 2008

After the Celtics smoked the Heat in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Dwyane Wade held a players-only meeting in the locker room. He told his teammates that the Celtics were very beatable, given how “freaking old” they all were. By the end of his tirade he realized that the cold stares of Shaq, Alonzo Mourning and Penny Hardaway were burning holes through his jersey. The Celtics coasted in five. In the other second round matchup, the Pistons and Bulls squared off for the second year in a row. Chauncey Billups (aka Mr. Big Shot) was neutralized by Ben Gordon’s protruding chest. Due to this, Pistons coach Flip Saunders was rendered completely useless since he had only one play on his clipboard (“Chauncey create offense”). Da Bulls advanced in six.

In the second round of the west, Phoenix started looking like a team ready to handle business. The Jazz, who had looked so workmanlike in the first round, simply couldn’t run with Steve Nash and the Suns. After Utah lost the first three games of the series by a combined 42 points, Carlos Boozer tracked down Phoenix GM Steve Kerr and told him he had a hidden “screw over my team” clause worked into his contract and he’d be willing to exercise it for an immediate trade. Sans Boozer, Utah was swept the next night. Meanwhile, the Nuggets and Spurs clashed for the third time in the past four postseasons. In a startling reversal of roles, it was the Spurs who captured Game 1 before losing four of the next five to a Nuggets team clicking on all cylinders. For the third time in five years, the Spurs again could not defend their title. When Tim Duncan was asked if he felt his team didn’t have the necessary fire and drive to repeat as champions, he responded by saying that Dirk Nowitzki’s game-tying three point play in Game 7 of the 2006 Playoffs was “bulls–t”.

That left four teams standing in the ’08 Playoffs: the Celtics, Bulls, Nuggets and Suns. The Eastern Conference Finals was a backyard brawl. The teams split the first six games, all hotly contested affairs. Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Ben Gordon each hit a game-winner. What was an up and down, guard-oriented affair throughout the first eighty percent of the series turned into the KG show in Game 7 at the Garden. Garnett went for 37 with 24 rebounds in the decisive contest, and entered select company when he shattered the backboard glass on a tremendous two-handed throw-down. He then ate the remnants of the defunct apparatus. The Western Finals was equally entertaining. While the Suns took care of the Nuggets in six, Denver won the first game against a suddenly lackadaisical-Suns team. The series became an instant classic when Iverson arrived unannounced at Mike D’Antoni’s press conference after Game 1, during which the coach was questioning if his Suns had practiced hard enough to adequately prepare for the tough-minded Nuggets. A.I. looked up at the snarling coach, and asked him if he was really talking about “practice?!?”.

June 2008

The Celtics and Suns, after waiting a combined 34 years (the Celtics since 1986 and the Suns since 1993) to return to the Finals, waged hardwood war in the championship round. The hype going into the series revolved around an ongoing debate of which franchise and its players was hungrier. Was it the Suns? who had only appeared in two Finals in their history, the ’93 loss to Michael Jordan’s Bulls and a 1976 loss to their father’s Celtics. Or was it the Green? who had suffered through two decades of total futility after three decades of systemic dominance.

Each side claimed it was hungrier than the other. In the first shocker of the series, Steve Nash beat KG in a hot dog eating contest prior to Game 1. For the first time all season the omnipotent and omnivorous Garnett was upstaged, which set the tone for the series. Nash was simply too much for the slower-Celtics and their epically overwhelmed point guard, Rajon Rondo. The Suns notched the first two games in Phoenix plus the second game in Boston, pushing Boston to the cusp of elimination going into Game 5. In that affair the Green looked done with just under a minute remaining, trailing by eight points. It was then that Danny Ainge pulled the string on an incredible transaction, securing Reggie Miller’s services for 38 seconds. The baller who had redefined “clutch” entered the game and ripped off three treys in a row, sending the Garden into oblivion and implausibly jettisoning the Celtics back to Phoenix for Game 6. Returning to the arena formerly known as America West, Nash ended any hopes of a Boston-comeback. The Suns won a track meet, 123-119, and Phoenix clinched its first basketball title behind Nash’s 24 points and 16 dimes.

And just like that 2008 was in the books.

Pats and Colts: Then and Now

This time around, it was the team with red trim to complement its white and blue that made the plays when they counted most. It was only Week 9, but the Patriots proved beyond a reasonable doubt that they are again kingpins of the NFL.

For the time being, after a 24-20 defeat, the still-defending champion Colts are number two.

Until matters are settled once and for all in January, the Colts will have to live with the fact that the script got flipped in here is my test captionthis rivalry. Again. After all, when you’re playing at home in the fourth quarter holding a 10-point lead and you happen to be Peyton Manning, the script is usually yours to pen. Especially in light of the demons the Colts were able to slay last January in that same Heat Dome.

In the 2006 AFC Championship Game, the Patriots played 40 minutes of superb football before collapsing to a superior Indianapolis team. Despite playing so well for so long, the game came down to two plays for New England: a failed third-down conversion at the 2:17 mark, which gave the ball back to Manning; and on the ensuing Colts drive, the inability of linebacker Eric Alexander to cover a sideline flag pattern run by tight end, Bryan Fletcher.

The impact of those two plays on the depleted and exhausted Patriots was season-ending. The third down that would’ve iced the game was ill-fated because of an unprecedented miscommunication between Tom Brady and Troy Brown. Mr. Old Reliable simply ran the wrong route. The 32-yard strike to Fletcher, which accounted for the bulk of the Colts championship-winning drive, was inevitable. Alexander, starting his first NFL game at linebacker, was nowhere near nimble enough to contend with the down field presences of Fletcher and Dallas Clark (who singlehandedly torched the Pats linebacker corps and secondary).

In that game the Patriots out-schemed, out-executed and thoroughly outplayed the Colts for the majority of three quarters, but it wasn’t enough. Two more plays and it would have been.

Lest we forget, that was then and this is now. What a difference an offseason makes.

Subsequent to that defeat the Patriots went on a talent-feeding frenzy, making it clear that lack of viable personnel would never thwart them again. As fast as you can say “Randy Moss for a fourth rounder plus CameraGate”, the entire mindset of the team and its fans morphed. No longer would games be played merely to win, they’d be played to conquer.

What we knew before Week 9 was that the Patriots could pretty much systematically destroy any opponent, and show no mercy in doing so. Any opponent, that is, but the Colts. What we discovered after this regular season’s Pats-Colts installment was that these Patriots still remember how to win close games in the fourth quarter, which used to be the team’s m.o.

Playing consistent sound football was also a requisite of past-Patriots teams; that’s how they won an NFL-record 21 games straight between the 2003 and 2004 seasons. Many of those games were won by Brady leading a late go-ahead drive or the defense making a game-saving stop. Their average margin of victory was just a shade over a touchdown. However those teams didn’t have a receiving corps of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte’ Stallworth. But these new Patriots do, and last Sunday against the Colts they showed they’re capable of beating the best even while playing almost their worst.

Let’s be honest: the Patriots had no business winning this football game. They were down 20-10 with 9:42 left. The first fifty minutes were sorry. Tom Brady had thrown not one, but two interceptions (although the second was a “play of the year” pick by Gary Brackett), only his third and fourth of the season. The noise level in the RCA Dome was so high the only way the coaching staff could get plays to Brady was via signals, and it’s evident that Brady himself had to call at least a handful of plays.

The defense was suspect too. At the end of the first half it allowed a check-down play to Joseph Addai to go for a 73-yard touchdown, and the Patriots lost the lead. The severity of giving up an uncharacteristic big-play in quasi-kneel time was augmented by the defense’s lack of discipline. The unit was penalized four times for 30 yards, and that doesn’t even include two pass interference calls (one mediocre and one terrible) on Asante Samuel and Ellis Hobbs that tallied 77 yards. Each one placed Indy on the doorstep of the Patriots goal line. Within character, the D tightened when manning the red zone against Peyton, and the Colts were only able to add a few “3’s” onto the scoreboard.

The Colts continued to let the Patriots hang around and they paid for it. It took all of four plays (a Moss 55-yard catch setting up a Welker 3-yard touchdown and a Stallworth 33-yard reception setting up a Kevin Faulk 13-yard score) over two successive fourth quarter drives for the dynamic Patriots offense to turn a 10-point deficit into a four point lead.

And just like that it might as well have been 2003, because this lead–unlike typical ’07 Pats leads–had to be protected. Protect it they did, as a team. The one play the defense had to make came at the 2:34 mark: it had to prevent Manning from converting a third and nine from midfield. Rosevelt Colvin accomplished that and more, charging Manning from his outside linebacker position and strip-sacking the helpless quarterback. Then the offense needed to gain one more first down before the two minute warning, and Brady found Welker on a quick-out (or the Troy Brown special), sealing the deal.

While CameraGate is due its fair share of credit for inspiring the Patriots to grind teams into the ground over sixty minutes, the concept itself is longstanding in Foxborough. The teams in ’01, ’03 and ’04 won Super Bowls because every time they took the field they were ready to fight for all sixty minutes. They lost the AFC Championship game last year because they didn’t have the talent and stamina to go the distance. This season they have both, and ever since CameraGate turned a philosophy into a vendetta, the Patriots have been downright nasty. Over the first eight weeks, they played from start to finish every Sunday and won each game by an average of 25 points.

Then they returned to the house of their demise last year; the place where they were taught the harshest of lessons, lessons that would’ve been many touchdowns harsher had that ’06 squad come out the way the Patriots did Sunday. While cumulatively the most recent sixty minutes they played was a far cry from their collective performance over the first eight games, the common thread of finishing what was started remained. That’s clearly been the message this season. It was the same message the 2006 Patriots couldn’t heed. But that team didn’t have a Moss. It didn’t have a Welker or Stallworth or Adalius Thomas. It didn’t have CameraGate.

This team has all those things, and apparently, a little bit of each can go a long way. Even against the best.

NFL Top Five Power Poll: Week 9

1. Patriots (9-0)

2. Colts (7-1)

3. Cowboys (7-1)

4. Packers (7-1)

5. Steelers (6-2)

Manny Became Manny: Red Sox World Series Champs

“If it doesn’t happen, so who cares? There’s always next year. It’s not like it’s the end of the world.”

– Manny Ramirez, before Game 5 of the ALCS

—————————————————————————————————————————-

Three days after the Red Sox won their second title in four years, I found myself thinking one thing: this was Manny’s October. Of course, it was Beckett’s as well. And Papelbon’s. And Papi’s and Lowell’s and the young guys’ and everyone else (including Drew and Lugo!). It obviously took a resolute effort by all parties involved to win eleven games. That’s how World Series are captured. It was Manny, however, by virtue of the comments he made before Game 5 in Cleveland, who galvanized this team.

Manny the Galvanizer? you may ask. True, it may not roll off the tongue as easy as, say “William the Conqueror”, but for the record, since Manny made those remarks with the Red Sox facing a 3-1 ALCS deficit, the Sockers are undefeated, and will remain so until next April.

Statistically, Manny’s imprints are all over this postseason. He led the Sox or tied for the team lead in home runs (4), RBI (16), walks (16) and on base percentage (.508). He hit the walk-off blast in Game 2 of the ALDS that brought the element of the surreal back to Fenway. And when the Sox again found themselves on the brink of elimination, he channeled the guy who had made it all seem so simple three years prior.

Whenever I think back to 2004, I see Kevin Millar, working The Walk that led to The Steal. I also see Millar, on the field before Game 4, talking to the fans. Most of them were holding signs vividly detailing their despair and heartache. And there was Millar, telling the fans (in reference to the Yankees), something along the lines of “don’t let us get this one. Because then we have Pedro in Game 5 and Schilling in Game 6 and anything can happen in Game 7.” He then directed himself to the clubhouse, where he led some of his teammates in a shot of Beam, and the rest became history that the sport of baseball had never known.

The parallels between the ’04 and ’07 teams are significant. Both squads played with a distinct confidence; the Idiots used Varitek’s Glove in A-Rod’s Face as a rallying cry, and plowed their way through the final two months of the season and the Angels en route to the 2004 ALCS; the ’07 team was a slower, steadier roll, as it surged into first place in April and never relinquished its lead, sweeping basically the same Angels team again in the first round. Then for both teams, something happened. They hit a brick wall. Never will I understand how the Idiots got down three games to the Yankees. I only understood how they came back. They came back because they were all battled-tested from the shock of 2003 and because they had a blue-collar swagger that had captivated a Nation.

The explanation for how the ’07 team got down 3-1 was not only identifiable, it was cut and dry: they stopped hitting. They stopped hitting because they had two perpetually unproductive players (Drew and Lugo) who began feeling the gravity of Boston and the weight of their contracts and a rookie catalyst at the top of the lineup (Pedroia) who started to stall out as the games became more important.

Enter Manny (or as I like to now call him, “Media Cowboy of October”). In truly Millarian (ie what the %$&# are you thinking??) fashion, Manny, as had become a regularity in the ’07 postseason, addressed the media, and verbally shrugged his shoulders about the implications of defeat in Game 5.

Manny the Trivial? Now that sounds more accurate.

You know what? He was right. He was absolutely right. After 2004, Red Sox Nation could no longer be compared to Atlas, Greek god of heavy burdens who had to hold the heavens on his shoulders. After 2004, for once in eight generations, it really wasn’t the end of the world if the Red Sox lost. Manny was well aware of that. His hot and cold relationship with the city of Boston started frigidly; he requested out multiple times early in his contract because the team had no camaraderie and the sports climate in Boston was cooking him alive. But when his career became marked by its greatest achievement and a fan base with its 86 years of baggage was finally vindicated, Manny must have realized that only green pastures lay ahead.

The fact that Manny came out and said what every Red Sox fan was thinking in the recesses of their minds makes him a genius. Manny, ladies and gentlemen, has seen and endured it all and emerged as, you guessed it, Manny. While his time in Boston has tested him to the nth degree, at certain points he’s survived it and others he’s relished it, in the process he’s carved himself what is going down as one of the great legacies of all-time.

So he got in front of the camera and, for the benefit of Lugo and Pedroia and Drew and the Nation, issued a collective tranquilo. He saw his team needed a load taken off, and he nominated himself point man. In doing so he brought us all back to earth, and brought his teammates back to baseball. Over the subsequent seven games, Lugo played with an electricity none of us had seen before, Pedroia grew up (again) before our very eyes, this time into a five and a half foot long-range assassin, and Drew hit a I’ll-never-forget-where-I-was-when-this-happened grand slam that he’s now receiving a check in the amount of $14 million for.

Oh, and Red Sox Nation got another parade. So there. It all worked out.

Just like Manny cared it would.