Skip to content

Archive for

Woulda Been: The ’08 Sox

Well it stomped and it growled after rising from the dead, made a valiant last stand on wounded hind legs … but in the end the mighty beast succumbed…

Four score minus one year ago, the Philadelphia Athletics erased an eight-run deficit to best the Cubs in the fourth game of the 1929 World Series. Almost 79 years to the date, because of what went down at Fenway Park in the fifth game of the 2008 ALCS, there are now two distinct returns to the Google search, “Red Sox greatest comeback in history”.

That, folks, is something to behold.

Face it, we were all doing something else by the middle of the seventh inning of Game 5. The TV might have been on, but the Sox were trailing by seven and the Rays had been cranking balls out of Fenway in a fashion unseen since a certain 19-8 thrashing that precipitated the other distinct return to that Google search.

The champs were cooked, and after another October rife with west coast start times and extra-inning heart-pounders, bleary Red Sox Nation was exhausted.

We had accepted — albeit begrudgingly — our fate. Just wasn’t going to happen this year. Papi was some combination of confused, frustrated (though he hates the word) and hurt. Lowell was done for the season. Ellsbury had lost it. Beckett was obviously pitching through a nearly or completely torn oblique muscle. Dice-K and Lester simply couldn’t shoulder all the weight being thrust upon them by Beckett. The old war horses, Varitek and Wakefield, were guaranteed disasters any time their number was called.

With seven outs before the final bell of the ’08 season, in a seven-run — 7-0!! — game, the most promising post-title Red Sox campaign since pre-World War I was going up in smoke. Check that, was engulfed in flames. It was painful and angering to watch them go down like that, in their house, but understandable given the odds they faced.

Wasn’t our year…

Then, just as that notion was settling into the heads of Nationers far and wide, the Fenway magic found its way back. For everyone in the place, while it may have once again come out of nowhere, the disappearing act the Sox pulled was nothing new. It was the Rays who had little idea that the trick itself — the Red Sox making imminent defeat vanish — was an old habit of this team within the confines of this funky ballyard.

It began with Trot Nixon in 2003, when the Moneyball A’s couldn’t seal the deal in Game 3 of the ALDS, and Nixon made them pay with an 11th inning shot that helped prolong a season.

With that stroke and the formal reverse sweep that followed, a franchise whose losing had been nothing short of Shakespearean for 85 years established a new calling card: the Comeback card. It was a card the hardened Sox would play again in ’04, with Ortiz, Schilling and Lowe leading the way to salvation. Then it reappeared in ’07, this time in the form of Drew, Beckett, Pedroia and Papelbon.

That it happened once more was exhilarating for a city already looking ahead to the Celtics and utterly tragic for another wide-eyed and shell-shocked opponent. That Beckett channeled Schilling in a gutsy, palpably painful Game 6 (is there any other such thing for the Sox in the ALCS?) to force a winner-take-all (Red Sox translation: It’s already over) Game 7 is equal parts inspiring and unbelievable.

Let’s give credit where credit is due, though. Those upstart Rays, who likely believed the Devil had gotten back into them after Games 5 and 6, hunkered down and squared up this new incarnation of Red Sox mystique. They did what the Yankees and Indians could not. They stared down and defeated the incomprehensible force.

Wasn’t our year…

But wait. Had Game 5 gone by the wayside and the final entry in the ’08 Red Sox log had read, “Swept three straight at Fenway, out in five in ALCS”, discontent would have briefly ruled the airwaves and journals in Beantown, but rational thought would have ultimately prevailed.

That’s not what happened though. Game 5 wasn’t the final fizzle of a fatigued, broken down and fragmented contingent. It turned into an epic display of resilience and a reassertion of an otherwise farcical and cliched mentality (“Never say die”) that desperate teams adopt in their darkest hour. The Sox, on the other hand, simply breathe life into the fiction. Since Nixon’s walkoff, they are 12-3 in elimination games.

In a town like Boston, second-guessing after a major sports loss is like familial beef during the holidays: No matter what, it’s gonna happen. The question is whether or not it’s unfounded.

Sure, questions about the makeup and drive of the team would have dominated had they gone out in a five-game whimper. Slowly, however, the masses would’ve realized that the climb out of a huge hole in a league championship series is actually less challenging than attempting to win in the ruthless month of October as a team in tatters.

Yet here we are, just a few million New England heartbeats removed from almost experiencing both.

Now there’s a cause for discontent. Between 2003 and this year, the Nation knows all too well how minute the difference can be between winning and losing a decisive game. Against the Yankees in 2003, the faithful will always rightfully believe that sure triumph was snatched away by a man who never picked up a bat and rarely touched the ball, save for when he was passing it from one pitcher to the next.

Versus the Rays, victory was just as close and it was taken just as unceremoniously. Except this time it was the general manager, not the manager, who made the strategic gaffe. And this time it was during the season, not at the climax of the penultimate series, that the fatal move was executed. You know where I’m going with this.

It must be pointed out that Manny Ramirez just completed the greatest individual postseason in the history of baseball. He reached base in 24 of his 36 at-bats, slugged four homers, knocked in 10 runs and compiled a 1.747 OPS. His .520 average, .667 on-base percentage and mind-blowing OPS were all records. (By my unofficial count there were 10 teams in 2008 whose top two hitters didn’t have a combined OPS of 1.747.)

Now I hate to break the news to you, but Manny didn’t do that because he hates Boston. He didn’t do it (solely) because he desires one last monster contract. He may have morphed into the puppet of Scott Boras off the field and to the media, but between the lines Manny will always be mashing Manny. He logged the most impressive October all-time because he’s maybe the greatest October hitter in the history of baseball.

Not coincidentally, his best work has come in the seven league championship series’ he’s participated in (.340/.451/12 homers/30 RBIs in 44 games), making him undeniably the greatest LCS hitter ever. And not surprisingly, the pennant round of the playoffs has been the deciding series of every significant Sox playoff run.

Second-guessing is second nature in Boston, so chew on this. In Game 7 the Red Sox were given a glimmer of hope down 3-1 in the top of the eighth inning when Jason Bartlett booted a grounder off the bat of Alex Cora. A Coco Crisp single and Dustin Pedroia fly out had runners on first and second with one out. Papi was up.

(One quick tangent: There’s no doubt Ortiz has physically been a shell of himself this year, but it’s impossible to quantify the psychological effect Manny’s absence has had on the man we used to call Senor Octubre. Think about it. Every time he stepped to the plate for the better part of six years, he saw in his periphery one of the three best right-handed hitters in the history of the game swinging a fungo bat and stretching out his guns. It wasn’t only the opposition mulling over this dire reality. Manny’s presence unequivocally fueled Papi. The alternative argument is who’s to say what a fully healthy Ortiz would have produced down the stretch and into the playoffs — sans Manny — but let’s be real. He would’ve stood a much greater chance if his bash brother was chilling in the on-deck circle waiting to pick him up when necessary.)

So just like ’03 and ’04, the fate of the Red Sox rested on the broad shoulders of David Ortiz. He grounded out. Youkilis walked. Drew struck out. And for all intents and purposes the season was finished.

Anyone who believes that Manny wouldn’t have smoked a screamer into the gap and won the pennant, or that Ortiz, feeling wholly confident and focused, wouldn’t have again assumed the role of hero has no sense of history. Or chemistry for that matter.

The claim in July was that Manny had poisoned the clubhouse chemistry, but we’ll never know for sure. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight that the vital Papi/Manny chemistry was unilaterally removed at the trade deadline, and conspicuously absent when Theo, the trio, Tito and the Nation needed it most.

Because of that there’s about to be another offseason of pondering what coulda, shoulda been in Boston had they held onto Mr. Mercurial.

Scratch that. What woulda been.

NFL Power Poll and Week 7 Picks

Another week, another reshuffling of teams in the latest power poll. Tennessee at one is about the only thing everyone can agree on at this point in the season.

1. Tennessee Titans (5-0) Last unbeaten team standing gets top billing, that much is undisputed.

2. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) Steelers went into their bye strong and have come out of it refreshed.

3. New York Giants (4-1) Is anyone really surprised that the Eli Manning Face made an appearance on Monday night after the talking heads started throwing around “Better than Peyton” nonsense?

4. Indianapolis Colts (3-2) Speaking of the elder Manning, what Peyton did to a nasty Baltimore defense last week should quell any chatter of unnecessary comparisons between siblings.

5. Arizona Cardinals (4-2) Kurt Warner’s Cards have downed Miami, Buffalo and Dallas by an aggregate 102-51 at home. Greatest Show on Roll-Out Grass?

6. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-2) 27-3 drubbing of divisional rival Carolina certainly shook things up a bit in the wide open NFC South.

7. Dallas Cowboys (4-2) Are the Cardinals really that good or are the Cowboys simply overhyped? I vote the former.

8. San Diego Chargers (3-3) Okay, pasting the Patriots may not hold as much clout as it once did but this is still the best team in the AFC West.

9. Washington Redskins (4-2) So they lost a game they were supposed to win after winning a pair they were supposed to lose. Seems like the Skins are still ahead of the curve.

10. Buffalo Bills (4-1) One thing’s for sure: the Bills are either moving up or down after this week’s bout with the Bolts.


Week 7 Picks
(Home Teams in CAPS)

San Diego over BUFFALO

CHICAGO over Minnesota

Pittsburgh over CINCINNATI

Tennessee over KANSAS CITY

Dallas over ST. LOUIS

MIAMI over Baltimore

NY GIANTS over San Francisco

CAROLINA over New Orleans

HOUSTON over Detroit

NY Jets over OAKLAND

WASHINGTON over Cleveland

Indianapolis over GREEN BAY

TAMPA BAY over Seattle

Denver over NEW ENGLAND

Last Week: 10-4

Overall: 56-32

NFL Power Poll and Week 6 Picks

The Titans improved to 5-0 but ceded top billing in the poll to the defending Super Bowl champs. The NFC East, which continues to grow stronger by the week, now boasts three of the top four teams.

1. New York Giants (4-0) Sure, the G-Men may have benefited from a soft schedule but they’ve rolled through it thus far.

2. Tennessee Titans (5-0) Late rally against Baltimore was enough to maintain an unblemished mark but not sufficient to hold the top spot.

3. Washington Redskins (4-1) Having already completed road legs of divisional play, Redskins are gaining steam each week.

4. Dallas Cowboys (4-1) Allowed the pesky Bengals to sneak back into the game last week but still won going away. What’s next for the Hard Knockers?

5. Pittsburgh Steelers (4-1) Consecutive wins against divisional rival Baltimore and playoff rival Jacksonville have Pittsburgh looking downright steely again.

6. Carolina Panthers (4-1) With 34-0 thumping of Kansas City in the rearview, Panthers will look to establish early stranglehold on NFC South in Tampa Bay this week.

7. Denver Broncos (4-1) So the Broncos do have a defense. Interesting.

8. New England Patriots (3-1) Next four weeks (at San Diego, Denver, St. Louis, at Indy) will reveal a lot about the backbone of the Pats.

9. Buffalo Bills (4-1) Losing 41-17 is bad, particularly when you’re 4-0 and even if you lose your starting quarterback in the process.

10. Chicago Bears (3-2) Over the last two contests Devin Hester has caught eight balls for 93 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

 

Week 6 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

INDIANAPOLIS over Baltimore

MINNESOTA over Detroit

NEW ORLEANS over Oakland

NY JETS over Cincinnati

ATLANTA over Chicago

Carolina over TAMPA BAY

WASHINGTON over St. Louis

HOUSTON over MIAMI

Jacksonville over DENVER

Philadelphia over SAN FRANCISCO

Green Bay over SEATTLE

Dallas over ARIZONA

SAN DIEGO over New England

NY Giants over CLEVELAND

 

Last Week: 9-5

Overall: 46-28

NFL Power Poll and Week 5 Picks

The mighty NFC East has decisively shifted the balance of power as all four teams are among the NFL elite. Who rounds out the top-10? Find out in the first edition of the power poll.

1. Tennessee Titans (4-0) Defense giving up league-best 11.5 points per game and offense much better suited with cool-headed Kerry Collins at the helm.

2. New York Giants (3-0) Champs took care of business before the bye.

3. Buffalo Bills (4-0) Week 2 win in Jacksonville only marquee victory but 4-0 is 4-0.

4. Dallas Cowboys (3-1) Suspect defense and selfish T.O. could spell trouble for Cowboys down the road.

5. San Diego Chargers (2-2) Bolts should be 4-0; LT getting healthier by the week.

6. Washington Redskins (3-1) Played one poor half of football (Week 1 vs. Giants) all year.

7. Philadelphia Eagles (2-2) Week 5 clash with Skins will determine if NFC East is four-team race.

8. Pittsburgh Steelers (3-1) Gritty come-from-behind win vs. Ravens on MNF silenced critics … for the moment.

9. Carolina Panthers (3-1) With Steve Smith back, offense should find another gear.

10. New England Patriots (2-1) Don’t count out a Bill Belichick team just yet.

Week 5 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)

Chicago over DETROIT
San Diego
over MIAMI
PHILADELPHIA
over Washington
BALTIMORE over Tennessee
GREEN BAY over Atlanta
NY GIANTS over Seattle
CAROLINA
over Kansas City
Indianapolis
over HOUSTON
DENVER
over Tampa Bay
DALLAS over Cincinnati
ARIZONA over Buffalo
New England over SAN FRANCISCO
JACKSONVILLE
over Pittsburgh
NEW ORLEANS
over Minnesota

Last Week: 9-4

Overall: 37-23

MLB Playoff Preview ’08

Where would the Dodgers be without Manny Ramirez? Where would the Brewers be if they weren’t able to snag CC Sabathia? Would the Angels be 100-game winners with no Mark Teixeira?

And the survey says: 1) Below .500 in second place, 2) On the outside looking in at the Mets, 3) Probably not.

Indeed, if there’s a theme to this postseason, it’s those new faces in new places giving newfound hope to a trio of frustrated franchises.

But hold on, the Dodgers, Brewers and Angels aren’t the only clubs chasing realistic dreams of October glory.

With that in mind, let’s investigate each of the contenders.

Philadelphia Phillies (92-70, NL East Champions)

Case for an early exit The Phillies aren’t exactly, for lack of a better term, clutch. They took the NL East for the first time since 1993 last year — mainly by playing second fiddle to the Mets and their mammoth collapse — then went three and out against the Rockies in the first round. The 2008 Phillies are basically the same team with basically the same record that felt no pressure down the stretch as the Mets once again faded. And they are expected to win a short series against a squad throwing CC Sabathia twice?

Case for a deep run The three things you need to win a title — an ace, a basher and a closer — the Phillies have. Cole Hamels is as nasty as they come, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley are tough outs that become even tougher in the playoffs, and Brad Lidge converted all 41 of his save chances this year. The formula is there.

Verdict Out in 4 against the Brewers. Because Sabathia threw the last game of the regular season, Hamels won’t be facing him in Game 1. This puts an excess of pressure on the Phils to take the first game. And even if they do they’re likely looking at a split going back to raucous Milwaukee.

Los Angeles Dodgers (84-78, NL West Champions)

Case for an early exit An inability to score runs. The Dodgers Achilles heel the last few years has been just that. Of course sticking Manny Ramirez in the middle of that lineup has paid enormous dividends, but the fact remains that LA scored 155 fewer runs than the Cubs this year, and even with Manny they can’t match the depth of Chicago’s lineup.

Case for a deep run The ex-Sox factor. That would be Manny and Derek Lowe. If Manny continues to smash the ball and Lowe (3.34 ERA in 18 postseason appearances) shows off his abnormally large set of stones, sky’s the limit for this team. Jonathan Broxton and Takashi Saito at the end of games is a dynamic combo.

Verdict Out in 5 vs. the Cubs. Just a tough draw for the Dodgers. If the Mets don’t fritter away another sure playoff berth, Manny and company are headed to Philly for a much easier series. I see them splitting the first two at Wrigley before returning to Chavez Ravine for a tussle with Rich Harden. He’s not the face you want to see in a swing game, no matter what the venue.

Los Angeles Angels (100-62, AL West Champions)

Case for an early exit History. The Angels simply can’t deal with the Red Sox in October. Dating back to 1986 they’ve dropped nine straight to Boston in the playoffs. Their two biggest weapons, John Lackey and Francisco Rodriguez, have been tormented by the Sox in the postseason.

Case for a deep run F— history. Lackey was 2-0 with a 2.81 ERA and .132 BAA vs. Boston this year. They took eight of nine from the Sawx in the regular season. They are a far healthier team than they were last season going into the games that count. And Mark Teixeira completely changes the tenor of that lineup.

Verdict Done in 4 vs. the Red Sox. I’m just not convinced the Angels hurlers can shut down whatever lineup Boston trots out. As good as he was against the Sox this year, Lackey was putrid down the stretch (8.14 ERA and .356 BAA in four September starts). Ervin Santana and Joe Saunders simply don’t instill fear and the Angels bullpen — always one of their strengths — does not cope well with the patient Boston hitters.

Milwaukee Brewers (90-72, NL Wild Card Champions)

Case for an early exit Inexperience. We all saw what happened when the young Brewers got into a pennant race with the Cubs last year. They found that extra finishing gear this time around but that doesn’t change the fact they haven’t been to the dance since 1982. Not to mention succeeding in October requires a shift into overdrive. Is the Brew Crew going to be able to harness all that expectation and emotion?

Case for a deep run Let’s say it together: CC Sabathia. Talk about a man with purpose. In case you missed his body of work last year (AL Cy Young winner, 15 earned runs in 15 1/3 innings in the playoffs), Sabathia has something to prove. As fantastic as he’s been since joining the Brewers, he isn’t getting that desired $200 million payday unless he alters the perception about his ability to carry over regular season dominance into October.

Verdict Beaten by the Cubs in 5 in the NLCS. Sabathia will single-handedly carry them into contention for a pennant. Their lineup should be able to pack enough punch to match the mighty Cubs. Two glaring reasons why they can’t compete with Chicago in a long series: 1) Ben Sheets has already proclaimed he has a “broke arm”. 2) The back end of the Brewers bullpen isn’t strong enough to make up for the loss of the staff’s second-most important arm.

Boston Red Sox (95-67, AL Wild Card Champions)

Case for an early exit Josh Beckett’s oblique strain. He’s already been pushed back to Game 3 of ALDS, and that’s tentative. Oblique strains are by nature nettlesome. They are known to hang around, and in the blink-of-an-eye postseason tournament that is October baseball, Beckett’s is of grave concern to the Red Sox. Oh and have I mentioned the team paid $7 million to dispose of its best hitter? Oh that’s right, I did.

Case for a deep run Pitching. Specifically Beckett getting healthy and joining Dice-K and Jon Lester to form the best starting trio in the American League. All have won at least one World Series game. Beckett (6-2, 1.73 ERA in nine postseason starts) is one of the greatest October fireballers the sport has ever seen. And don’t forget about Jonathan Papelbon. He’s never allowed a run in the playoffs. You read that correctly.

Verdict Beaten by the Rays in 7 in the ALCS. One game swung my feelings about this team. September 9 at Fenway. First place at stake. The Red Sox entered the ninth with a 4-3 lead and Papelbon gave it up. Instead of leapfrogging Tampa Bay and probably cruising to the division title, that was the closest Boston got. And that contest wasn’t the anomaly; it merely underscored what became the norm this year: the Rays coming from behind and stealing games from the Red Sox. What that game did determine, however, was home field advantage for this series. The Rays (57-24) were the best home team in baseball, while the Red Sox, as always, were a different team (39-42) away from Fenway Park.

Tampa Bay Rays (97-65, AL East Champions)

Case for an early exit The pressure that goes with traversing uncharted territory. We’re talking about a team that had never even finished second to last before shocking the world this year. Will the pressure finally catch up to the wildly talented, yet very young and inexperienced Rays? I’m as eager as any to find out.

Case for a deep run Home field throughout the playoffs. As mentioned above, no team was better than the Rays within the confines of their own ballpark. Throw in the fast turf that is ideally suited for the Rays, the circus rules that define Tropicana Field (catwalks are in play!), and the team’s one hardened veteran (Troy Percival) being the guy that will have the ball when nail-biters are on the line, and these upstarts formerly tabbed as Devil Dogs are going to be tough to take down.

Verdict A Game 7 loss to the Cubs in the World Series. (Did I really just write that?)

Chicago Cubs (97-64, NL Central Champions)

Case for an early exit 1910, 1929, 1945, 1998, 2003, 100 years, the Billy Goat, Steve Bartman and quite a bit else that I’m likely missing.

Case for a deep run Rich Harden, Ryan Dempster, Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Derrek Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Aramis Ramirez, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol, Jeff Samardzija and Sweet Lou Piniella.

Verdict The stock market rights itself, pigs fly, the Red Sea parts again, Paris Hilton does gratis club appearances … and … CUBS WIN!! CUBS WIN!!!! CUBS WIN!!!!!!

NFL Week 4 Picks

A few points before picks.

1. The Chargers are one prayer and one awful call from being 3-0. Of course, they are actually 1-2, but this is a very good football team. Dating back to the playoffs last year they’ve played their last five games (at Indy, at New England, Carolina, at Denver, Jets) with limited amounts of LT and, most recently, no Shawne Merriman. They blasted the Colts, fought the 17-0 Pats tooth and nail, then carried that style of play into this season. When everything shakes out this year, San Diego will be a top-three seed in the AFC.

2. As opposed to the Chargers, their divisional rival Denver has benefited heavily from the “that’s football” adage. If Ed Hochuli doesn’t blow a monumental call and Martin Gramatica drills a very makable 41-yard field goal, the Broncos are 1-2. Instead of everyone salivating at the most prolific offense in the league, questions would be floating around about the Broncos spine (or lack thereof) and their ability to finish games. I’m just saying.

3. There was much debate over whether the Patriots needed a bye week or were better off putting the Miami disaster behind them immediately and getting right back to football. Here’s the deal. When you get “Madden 95’d” (my made up term for running the same play five times for a touchdown), you need to go back to the drawing board. In addition, when the paparazzi tailing Tom Brady thinks his backup shares a last name with an aging, alien backup point guard for the Celtics, it’s time for some adjustments to be made.

4. The NFC East is good. Really good. In my opinion this is the best division in football since the AFC East in the late 90s. Offenses that can put points on the board, defenses that pack a hurting and high caliber quarterback play. The Redskins are clearly going to play the spoiler role. Unless they take three or more divisional games, there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing three 10-plus win teams in the NFC East.

5. Speaking of the NFC East, the defending champs have looked pretty nasty — albeit against a Washington team they should beat, a horrendous St. Louis squad and the Bengals. Impressive first trio of games but not enough to convince me that the G-Men are headed for anything more than 10 wins and a third place finish. We’ll start to find out what the champs are made of beginning in Week 8, when they go at Pittsburgh, Dallas, at Philly, Baltimore. The good news is they’ll likely be 5-0 heading into the gauntlet.

6. For everyone heading to the bar Sunday to watch football, take note of the one Bills fan and one Dolphins fan in your establishment. I swear, it’s some sort of phenomenon: there are no more and no less than one of each in every sports bar in the country on any given Sunday. They fascinate me, these hardened supporters garbed in their Jim Kelly and Dan Marino jerseys. These days, with the Patriots suddenly mortal, they’ve ceased to sulk in the one corner of the bar where their game is being shown on a 12-inch flat screen. So this week, see what’s good with the one in your watering hole. Believe me, they have much to say.

Week 4 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)

TENNESSEE over Minnesota
NEW ORLEANS over San Francisco
Green Bay
over TAMPA BAY
JACKSONVILLE over Houston
San Diego
over OAKLAND
DALLAS
over Washington
Denver over KANSAS CITY
NY JETS over Arizona
CAROLINA over Atlanta
Cleveland over CINCINNATI
Buffalo
over ST. LOUIS
Philadelphia
over CHICAGO
PITTSBURGH over Baltimore

Last Week: 9-7

Overall: 28-19

Rethinking the Patriots

Watching the Pats-Jets game Sunday, it dawned on me that’s it’s been a full season-plus since I’ve needed to take an interest in how the Patriots won, as opposed to by how much. Let’s be honest: the 2007 season was surreal. But it didn’t end with a title. Conversely, what the 2001, ’03 and ’04 campaigns lacked in showy predictability, they made up for in hardware.

Technically, all New England did in ’07 was prove beyond a reasonable doubt that talent alone doesn’t win championships in the NFL. The irony being that they fell victim to the very tenet that they themselves established earlier this decade.

When those Patriots won a record 21 consecutive games from the beginning of the 2003 season through the middle of ’04, their average margin of victory was roughly a touchdown. Their formula for success was simple, yet effective: control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, force turnovers and capitalize on them, gain a lead and turn to the ground game to protect that lead, seal the game with one decisive stop on defense.

With Tom Brady running a smart and efficient offense, the Patriots were able to set a new standard for winning. As spectacular as the Patriots were last year, they didn’t resemble anything close to the team that went three out of four.

Upon learning that the league’s MVP would be sidelined for the year, it became immediately clear that if the Pats are to have success this year, they’ll have to revert to “the sum is greater than its parts” mantra.

With that in mind, let’s break down New England’s Week 2 performance in a way that hasn’t been necessary in a long time.

Offense

Considering Matt Cassel hadn’t started a game at quarterback since high school, he did a formidable job of leading the offense. He clearly has the intellectual capacity and longevity to handle the system. However, two of the most critical aspects of the quarterback position — pacing and field vision — are skills that can only be honed through live action.

There’s little doubt that Brady is the standard-setter when it comes to managing the clock and seeing the whole field. Cassel did those things well Sunday. He consistently got the unit up to the line of scrimmage in the face of a bloodthirsty crowd, and didn’t hesitate to use a timeout when the play clock was winding down. Much of the game plan was centered around short, quick passes to Wes Welker and the running backs, which Cassel executed with crispness and precision. He exhibited good field vision in the red-zone on third-and-6 of the Patriots’ final drive. Out of the shotgun with three receivers to his left — including Randy Moss in the near slot — Cassel saw tight end David Thomas on his right slip past the coverage and head to the corner of the end zone. He made the adjustment and tried to hit Thomas but the ball was tipped. A good sight adjustment nevertheless, considering the play was meant for Moss.

As for the running game, the four-headed monster of Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris, Kevin Faulk and LaMont Jordan was up to the task of assuming the brunt of the offense. Maroney missed a good chunk of the game with a shoulder but returned at the end and took a big hit in stride. Morris got the tough yardage and scored the unit’s only touchdown. Faulk had 66 total yards (including receptions) out of the backfield. And a revitalized Jordan came in on fresh legs late in the third and assumed the “clock-killin’ Corey Dillon” role, churning away at the fatigued Jets defensive front for 62 yards on 11 carries.

Defense

Lots to address here, all good. The D-line was stout in the trenches, with the immovable Vince Wilfork anchoring a run defense that will undoubtedly be tops in the league this year. Richard Seymour, who was just never right last year, finally appears to be healthy. Whenever plays end and Seymour is strutting back to the line of scrimmage from the backfield, twitching his left shoulder pad, it’s a sign he’s feeling good. In nine games last season, he recorded 15 solo tackles and 1.5 sacks. He had two solo tackles — including a huge tackle for a loss on the goal line — and a sack Sunday.

For the second week running, rookie Jerod Mayo played every defensive snap and was among the team leaders in tackles. Ellis Hobbs had two passes defended and seems ready to undertake the duty of number one corner. Brandon Meriweather snatched his first career interception. Then there was Adalius Thomas, who made the play of the season thus far, sacking Brett Favre along with his blocker, Leon Washington for a 20-yard loss that iced the game on the Jets’ final drive. The man is a freak. You will be seeing that play on the 2008 highlight reel come January.

Special Teams

Stephen Gostkowski, who is suddenly a much bigger piece of the offensive equation than anyone could have imagined, did his job in spades Sunday. He was a perfect 4-for-4 in field goal attempts and booted a few of his kickoffs into the Hudson River. And Kevin Faulk returned three punts, each one into Jets territory, for a combined 53 yards.

Conclusion

It may have been a bit unnerving and new, but Patriots 19 Jets 10 was a Patriots victory. There was no Brady-to-Moss, but there was Moss saying this after the game: “The New England Patriots [are] 2-0. We got one in the division, so all you haters keep hating. We’re coming.”

Week 3 Picks (Home teams in CAPS)

ATLANTA over Kansas City
CHICAGO
over Tampa Bay
NEW ENGLAND over Miami
TENNESSEE over Houston
Detroit over SAN FRANCISCO
DENVER
over New Orleans
Jacksonville
over INDIANAPOLIS
BUFFALO
over Oakland
Carolina
over MINNESOTA
NY GIANTS over Cincinnati
WASHINGTON over Arizona
SEATTLE over St. Louis
Pittsburgh
over PHILADELPHIA
Cleveland
over BALTIMORE
GREEN BAY over Dallas
SAN DIEGO over NY Jets

Last week: 9-6

Overall: 19-12

 

Life After Brady’s Knee

I’m a die hard Patriots fan. I live in New York. Ever since the sun came up on February 4, 2008, times have been rough.

For six straight months I tried my best to duck all talk of football, the perfect season, the miracle catch, Eli Manning, the Giants. For six moons I attempted to convince myself that Mercury Morris was nothing more than the insolent next door neighbor on a short-lived sitcom.

I walked the streets of Gotham with my head down. I pretended I didn’t understand street vendors whenever they pitched me a Giants championship T-shirt. I changed the channel every time I heard the words “Relive the historic season of the New York Giants”. I playfully — and painfully — feigned amnesia when coworkers and acquaintances broached the topic. I abruptly dismissed any chatter amongst my friends; sometimes through threats, others through a mere slow shake of the head. Please guys, just spare me.

For 219 days I waited, uncharacteristically hushed and vulnerable. I — like many out there — patiently loafed in the wake of Super Bowl XLII.

For all Patriots fans, those darks months helped us come to grips with the fact that what was done in that game couldn’t be undone. Yet that empty feeling was accompanied by a renewed, albeit reserved, swagger. Time might have stood still since 00:00 of the Super Bowl, but days were passing. Redemption was brewing.

Whether our suddenly fragile fan complexes would allow it to surface or not, the fact was that a part of us was waiting to see who dared beat the Patriots again. Another perfect season may not have been expected, but the notion was stuck there in the basement of our consciousness, idling like a custom softail in neutral.

September 7 was the day Tom Brady would finally throw that Harley into gear and see how far it could carry us through The Season After Imperfection.

Then it was over. Brady — along with the mission — crumpled up in a heap on the Foxborough grass not a quarter into the first game of the year. We all thought back to June, when Paul Pierce appeared to tear apart his knee before the NBA Finals had even warmed up. We comforted ourselves with the hope that the script would be rewritten for Brady, that he’d come jogging back onto the field to the tune of Rocky sometime later in the game or the season.

Not this time.

This time, in a town that has experienced unparalleled winning this decade — but is historically conditioned to expect the worst — the worst was apparently meant to be.

Now we must turn back the clocks to another day, a day when the Patriots were a team actually competing in a sport, passably at best. Lest we forget that’s how the true identity of this team was forged. Not through multiple titles, offensive records and devious behavior, but through an ironclad and all-consuming concept of “T-E-A-M”. Those were the Patriots the nation grew to love, the ones that came storming out of the Super Dome tunnel as one.

If you’re desperate for a silver lining, that’s just it. This is an opportunity for the Patriots, a chance to hearken back to a time when the men in red, white and blue were as blue collar as the people cheering them on. When neutral fans came together in support of them, and not against them. Although they became a steely juggernaut, the Patriots used to symbolize hope and overcoming the odds.

That’s how they must move forward without their leader.

As mighty as the Patriots have been this decade, it doesn’t matter how you slice it: the two most catastrophic plays in the history of the franchise happened within 10 minutes of one another. The combined impact of The Helmet Catch and Brady’s Knee will be felt for years to come. Their place is already permanently lodged in the annals of NFL history.

History. For now, that’s what the Pats are.

For the first time since 2002, the playing field is level.

Week 2 Picks (Home Teams in CAPS)

Green Bay over DETROIT
NY Giants over ST. LOUIS
Tennessee over CINCINNATI
CAROLINA
over Chicago
SEATTLE
over San Francisco
New England over NY JETS
San Diego over DENVER
KANSAS CITY
over Oakland
Indianapolis over MINNESOTA
New Orleans over WASHINGTON
JACKSONVILLE over Buffalo
TAMPA BAY
over Atlanta
ARIZONA over Miami
Pittsburgh
over CLEVELAND
Baltimore over HOUSTON
Philadelphia
over DALLAS

Last Week: 10-6 Overall: 10-6

Redeem Team Does US Proud

Anyone who watched Kobe Bryant get thoroughly handled by Paul Pierce and the Boston Celtics in the 2008 NBA Finals knew the other shoe would drop soon enough.

The guy has never been able to stomach losing — from growing up in Italy challenging his dad’s teammates to games of one-on-one as a tyke to rounding into the force that has competed for five NBA championships, it’s always been win or bust for the Black Mamba.

That said, the spanking his Lakers took in June at the hands of an old rival registered a full 11 on the Kobe revenge-o-meter. If there hadn’t been a certain hardwood redemption project in the works, you could’ve probably found him busting guys up on the Venice Beach courts all summer. A reassertion of the MVP’s supremacy was not only necessary, it was imminent. The only question was who would draw the short straw.

To describe the Beijing Olympics as timely would be to understate the urgency of Kobe’s desire to restore the basketball order.

Thus it was fitting that Spain — and not a wannabe And One Mixtape contingent from Inglewood — fell victim to the Mamba’s wrath. It was also revealing — considering that until the waning minutes of the final game the (no longer “so-called”) Redeem Team was able to thrive with the world’s best player serving as an auxiliary.

Kobe the role player? On this team he was, they all were. Which is why it was downright inspiring to see a group of the game’s greatest check their egos at customs, band together as a unit and take back what has always been rightfully America’s: title of best balling nation on the planet.

It was a spectacle to behold from the beginning of the eight-game run to redemption. Assembled by Jerry Colangelo and spurred on by Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA played suffocating defense, exhibited sincere unselfishness, finished quarters strong, refused to respond to the pugnacious ploys of other countries, and visibly relished representing their homeland.

Fluid and flawless as their performance was on the court (average margin of victory: 27.9 points), so too was their work as ambassadors off it. As opposed to the bad taste USA Basketball left in the mouths of most everyone associated with the 2004 Athens Games, the players this time around embraced their status as representatives of their nation.

In a country where Kobe Bryant and Lebron James are as popular as Yao Ming, 12 tall gentlemen were crucial to shaping the American image in China. If accessibility and amiability were tallied in points, the score would’ve been in the thousands for the Redeem Team.

Again, with the reclusive and moody Athens squad as the most recent basis for comparison, the 2008 team registered a PR blowout. They kicked it in the Olympic Village, dined out, signed countless autographs, attended other events in different venues, soaked up the vast cultural and touristic offerings of the host country — all the while living a kind of existence only the Beatles could relate to. Which is to say the experience was equal parts thrilling and daunting.

Overwhelming as the reception may have been at times, they were in it together, a team united as much off the court as on, which not only bolstered the image of their sport and country but demonstrated how they’ve all caught up to the game the world has caught up to. A team game.

From Carmelo Anthony’s rugged international style to smooth Chris Paul’s million dollar smile, from Lebron’s vocal leadership to Jason Kidd’s experience, Dwyane Wade’s panache and Kobe’s competitiveness, these 12 men came to embody everything we as Americans could’ve hoped for: charming, witty, classy winners.

So I found myself nodding my head when Kobe took over the gold-medal game late, having a hand in 18 of Team USA’s final 27 points in a thrilling fourth quarter that tested the resolve of Team Redeem. His time had come after all, the time to reaffirm his place as the best player in the world. He hadn’t forced it though, hadn’t once unleashed the revenge-seeking Black Mamba just because he could. There was something far greater at stake, and he knew it. They all did.

That was the spirit of this squad. All for one.

For that reason USA Basketball has respectfully regained it’s throne atop the basketball world. And they did it on the world’s terms, not their own. They did it the right way.

Olympic Points

National pride is a sensation that — for most of us — rarely manifests itself in a profound way. As Americans, the concept of nationalism is more or less implicit. We’re intrinsically proud to be American (with caveats) but rarely wake up with a burning desire to be closer to Uncle Sam.

It’s for this reason that you don’t commonly observe reverent citizens gathered around American flags in the streets of US cities or see 50,000 people breaking down in tears before sporting events when the Star Spangled Banner is performed.

Indeed, the two most tangible representations of American nationalism — the flag and the national anthem — are so omnipresent that more often than not they evoke a sense of formality rather than one of visceral emotion. In my lifetime there have only been two recurring instances where I’ve felt an instinctive and deep-seated connection to my flag and national anthem.

First is when I’m traveling abroad. Exploring the culture and examining the history of foreign lands has always piqued my interest. It’s also summoned my frequently dormant patriotism.

(Case in point: A vacation I was on in Normandy, France. A friend of mine owns a seaside house on Omaha Beach, site of the American invasion into German-occupied France during World War II. Situated a mere half-mile or so from my friend’s property is the Normandy American Cemetery, a magnificent and powerful memorial that contains the remains of the thousands of American military that perished in the D-Day battle. On a balmy June morning a few years back, I led 15 excited French kids up the hill that adjoins to the Cimetiere Americain while belting out the Star Spangled Banner. It was a goofy and endearing sequence that was also one of most prideful moments I’ve ever had as an American. Chances are it shall remain such.)

The only other happening that can arouse my inner patriotism is the Olympics. I enjoy the clash of countries and cultures through the competition of sport. Frequently I will casually tune into some coverage knowing it’s only a matter of time before I’m totally swept up: as a sports fan, as a journalist, as an American.

This happened on Sunday night, or day three of the 2008 Beijing Games. Work had precluded me from watching any of the Opening Ceremonies or early events, so I was already psyched to get my first dose of the summer games since Athens.

Political and idealogical implications of these Olympics notwithstanding, Michael Phelps’ quest for Olympic immortality (eight gold medals) has been top news thus far. He took home his first gold in the 400 meter individual medley, which preceded what was said to be his toughest event, the 4 x 100m freestyle relay. It was purported to be his sole “long shot” because he would need to rely on three other guys to have a chance.

I don’t know a whole lot about the event, but I do know that the Americans owned it from 1964 through 1996. They relinquished their stranglehold on gold in the 2000 Sydney Games at the hands of the host Aussies before slipping to bronze medal status in Athens four years ago.

Leading up to Beijing, gold in the men’s relay became synonymous with the French. They were the presumptive favorites. Quite presumptive in fact. The French anchor and world-record holder in the 100m freestyle, Alain Bernard, took it up a notch, saying, “The Americans? We’re going to smash them. That’s what we came here for.”

And so French — again — became synonymous with tactless arrogance.

Since I’ve spent so much time in France, love the language and may very well reside there one day, I’ve always had the back of the French when unknowing folks take unfounded shots at them. Which only serves to underscore the wave of patriotism and French antipathy I suddenly harbored upon seeing those comments.

Wait, you’re talkin about my boys? Faux real?! I stewed. Oh it’s on now Frenchy!

As the race began — with Phelps swimming the lead-off leg — I was locked in. Sure enough, the Americans fell behind during the middle legs. By the time the American anchor, Jason Lezak, hit the water, he was more than a half-second behind the world-record holding Bernard (which I’m pretty sure is a hell of a lot).

He made up no eau in the first 50 meters and needed a miraculous push in the home stretch to have any shot at thwarting the brash Frenchman. With a little more than 30 meters to go he started to make his move. The crowd felt it. At 20 meters he had gained more ground, at 10 slightly more.

With one final dominating stroke, Lezak pulled into the end wall a fraction of a second ahead of Bernard — eight-hundredths of a second to be exact. It was so close that Phelps and the rest of the team — along with the announcers — had to look at the official scoreboard to affirm their rapturous delight.

What followed was a state of euphoria experienced communally by the improbable gold medalists, the delirious announcers, the awestruck crowd and every proud American following it all half a world away.

Phelps struck a muscle pose that could grace the cover of any fitness magazine. The broadcaster’s voice cracked. I jumped up and nearly hit the ceiling.

The quest for unprecedented gold continued.

And to think, ten minutes before that piece of history I was mindlessly channel surfing my way through an otherwise mundane Sunday night.

That’s the glory of the Olympics.