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Fourth-and-2 and Week 11 Picks

Let’s go back to Jan. 21, 2007.  The site is the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the contest is the AFC Championship.  The Patriots have watched an 18-point lead evaporate and are clinging to a 34-31 advantage.  New England is faced with a third-and-4 at its own 46.  There’s 2:30 remaining in the game and the Colts are down to one timeout. Translation: One more first down and it’s over.

The Patriots fail to convert, as Troy Brown uncharacteristically doesn’t make the same read as Tom Brady and runs an in-route when Brady is anticipating an out.  The Patriots punt the ball back to the Colts and Peyton Manning promptly leads a crisp 7-play, 80-yard championship-clinching drive in 77 seconds. For the Patriots, out the window goes a fourth Super Bowl victory in six years and the title of greatest dynasty of all time.

Yet perhaps more significant, the driving force behind a vengeful drive for perfection is spawned. As a result of that failed third-down and the ensuing culmination of an epic Manning comeback, the Patriots would embark on a furious spending spree that would net their just-a-tad-not-good-enough offense Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth.

The message out of Foxboro was clear and decisive: We have taken every measure to ensure that if and when we’re confronted by that scenario again, Manning will NOT get the ball back in his hands.

17 wins, zero losses and 365 days later, the Patriots were back in the AFC Championship Game, and had the Chargers not shocked the world by knocking off the Colts in the Dome, we just may have seen that philosophical change come to fruition.

See, time was, Belichick’s defenses — be it in blizzardy New England or climate-controlled Indianapolis — had the talent, gameplan and execution to go to war with Manning for 60 minutes and come out on top.  Over the last few years the tables have turned, though, partly because the Pats D has aged.

But the real reason is Manning has entered a new zone cerebrally.  Defenses can no longer win a 60-minute battle against him, no matter how crafty the scheme or how precise the execution.  The guy will always make the adjustments.  Coverages that burn him for picks in the first quarter he will look at on his satellite snapshots on the sideline, hatch a new plan of attack and put a quick six on the board when he sees the same coverage again in the fourth quarter.

He did it on the biggest play of the championship drive in ’07 (a 32-yard sideline pattern to backup tight end Bryan Fletcher) and again last Sunday, recognizing that the Patriot corners were jumping slants and hitches and thus becoming increasingly susceptible to double moves.

Which brings us, at last, to the fourth-and-2 that no one has been able to stop talking about this week. Did Belichick make a mistake? Yes he did. Was the mistake going for it on fourth down? An unequivocal NO.

Forget about the history for a moment and look at Sunday night’s game on its own. The Patriots offense was as dominant and free-moving as it had been at any point during the undefeated season, amassing 477 total yards vs. a depleted Colts secondary. On the other side, the Patriots played inspiring defense for three quarters before beginning to tire, holding Indy to 14 points. Of course, that was exactly the time when Manning implemented his adjustments and started to exploit the fatigued Pats D.

(Side note: A major argument for Belichick punting the ball was that his defense had already stopped Manning in the fourth quarter. That’s barely true. Here are the Colts first three drives of the quarter.

Drive No. 1 — Begins at Indy 21, 5 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 2:04.
Drive No. 2 — Begins at Indy 18, 1 play, Manning intercepted by Jonathan Wilhite on a duck that he clearly lost grip of as he released it.
Drive No. 3 — Begins at Indy 21, 6 plays, 79 yards and a touchdown in 1:49.

Watch Drives Nos. 1 and 3 then look at the ball Manning throws to begin Drive No. 2 and tell me he wouldn’t have found the end zone on that possession if it weren’t for a fluky throw. Thus I must respond with an emphatic PUH-LEASE when folks assert the New England defense was capable of stopping the Colts when Manning had 2:08 and a timeout to boot.)

That Belichick opted to go for it and failed is a perfect segway into how — despite making the correct decision on fourth down — Belichick still played a major role in the game being lost. Almost everyone with an opinion will assert that the fourth down miss was the final — and fatal — move by the Hooded Coach in his latest chess match with Manning. It wasn’t.

Aside from the fact that the Patriots had used all of their timeouts (including an unprecedented stoppage before the drive even started because of personnel issues, which ended up being the one they needed to challenge the spot of Kevin Faulk’s reception on fourth down), Belichick didn’t properly articulate the big picture to his defense. I use the words “properly articulate” because he must have been prepared for the eventuality that the conversion attempt could miss, in which case the strategy would become allowing the Colts to score the inevitable touchdown in an expedited fashion so Brady could salvage some time to work his own magic (remember, the Patriots only needed a field goal to win once Indy scored).

For some reason, though, Belichick didn’t relay that message to the defense, and sure enough, it bit him when Brandon Meriweather dragged Joseph Addai down from behind at the 1-yard line on the second play of the ensuing Colts drive. If Meriweather had allowed Addai to walk into the end zone (as he was about to do), Brady would’ve had roughly 1:10 to get his team into field goal range.

If you’re a New England fan, you know what that means. Just like Belichick knew what it meant for Manning to get the ball period, regardless of field position. Dunzo.

Anyone who still believes that Belichick made the call because of hubris or ego or early signs of senility is sadly misinformed. Moreover, they fail to appreciate that this man has probably endured countless sleepless nights ruing his decision to give the ball back to Manning on that fateful fourth down 34 months ago.

Once again, I’ll reiterate: On its own, given the circumstances, he made the right call. When you consider the history involved, and the fact that the demise (if you can even call it that) of the Patriots dynasty can arguably be traced back to that one play in the RCA Dome, there’s only one answer to the question of whether Belichick made the right move in sending Brady back out there.

And the question itself is rhetorical.

Week 11 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

CAROLINA over Miami
DALLAS over Washington
DETROIT over Cleveland
GREEN BAY over San Francisco
Pittsburgh over KANSAS CITY
MINNESOTA over Seattle
NY GIANTS over Atlanta
New Orleans over TAMPA BAY
Indianapolis over BALTIMORE
Arizona over ST. LOUIS
San Diego over DENVER
Cincinnati over OAKLAND
Philadelphia over CHICAGO
Tennessee over HOUSTON

Last Week: 11-4
Overall: 93-51

NFL Power Poll and Week 10 Picks

1. New Orleans Saints (8-0) With a couple of cupcakes in the Rams and Bucs on the horizon, it’s going to be difficult for the Saints not to look ahead to a monster Monday Night showdown with the Patriots on Nov. 30.

2. Indianapolis Colts (8-0) The Colts have looked mortal the last two weeks, squeaking by the Niners and Texans to remain unbeaten.

3. Minnesota Vikings (7-1) If the Vikings run through Detroit, Seattle and Chicago at home over the next three weeks, they’ll head into December with a great shot at snagging the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC playoffs.

4. Pittsburgh Steelers (6-2) The champs sure look like they’ve hit their stride, but they still have to avenge a Week 3 loss to the Bengals if they want to capture their third straight AFC North title.

5. New England Patriots (6-2) A win in Indy Sunday night will change the entire landscape of the AFC, as the Patriots will become the odds-on favorites for home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

6. Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) It’s a tall task, but the Bengals can all but wrap up the AFC North with a victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field on Sunday.

7. Dallas Cowboys (6-2) Fanfare aside, the Cowboys have been playing at a high level for the last month, highlighted by a rousing come-from-behind win in Philadelphia last week.

8. Denver Broncos (6-2) The Ravens and Steelers established the blueprint for beating Denver: throttle the short-passing game and force Kyle Orton to beat you deep.

9. San Diego Chargers (5-3) If the Chargers can take care of the Eagles at home on Sunday, they will be in prime position to assume control of the AFC West with a win over the Broncos next week.

10. Arizona Cardinals (5-3) The Cardinals can’t seem to decide whether they’re the team that nearly won the Super Bowl or the one whose most famous player was Rod Tidwell until last year.

Week 10 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

SAN FRANCISCO over Chicago (picked Tuesday)
CAROLINA over Atlanta
MIAMI over Tampa Bay
MINNESOTA over Detroit
NY JETS over Jacksonville
PITTSBURGH over Cincinnati
New Orleans over ST. LOUIS
TENNESSEE over Buffalo
Denver over WASHINGTON
Kansas City over OAKLAND
ARIZONA over Seattle
GREEN BAY over Dallas
SAN DIEGO over Philadelphia
New England over INDIANAPOLIS
Baltimore over CLEVELAND

Last Week: 8-5

Good Health Could Mean History for Celtics

The new NBA season is not even two weeks old, yet the Celtics have already drummed up the lion’s share of controversy so far.

To get things started, Rasheed Wallace said Boston could “definitely” make a run at the ’96 Bulls and 72 wins. He made the proclamation before having played a single game with his new squad.

Next — less than 48 hours before Opening Night, no less — Glen Davis broke his thumb punching out one of his old high school buddies. The incident occurred in the street at 4 a.m. after a night probably not spent playing backgammon.

Then, in the fourth game of the season vs. New Orleans, Rajon Rondo scrapped with Chris Paul in the second quarter before talking some smack to him after the game while Paul was in the middle of a conversation with Paul Pierce. That caused CP3 to get visibly heated and attempt to seek Rondo out for an encore. And the question became, could you blame him?

Rondo has a reputation for being a pain in the rear, to put it lightly. He earned that m.o. at Kentucky, and as everyone from Danny Ainge to Kevin Garnett to Kobe Byrant can corroborate, he’s carried it into the league. Trash-talking and contempt-breeding, but also exceptional at what he does, Rondo is pretty much a microcosm of the 2009 Celtics (particularly with Sheed on board and KG in axe-to-grind mode).

When you look up and down the roster, it’s hard not to see a team that — with good health — could make Sheed look prophetic when all is said and done. It’s also a group that will clearly not be making many friends throughout the league this year.

Judging from the first six games of the season, a few things stick out. There’s Rondo himself. The kid made a quantum leap in the playoffs last spring, emerging as the premier point guard of the postseason before the Celtics were eliminated (might that have been the essence of his parting shot for Paul the other night?). He seems to have gotten to the point in his career where he’s determined to dominate games with his passing and defense. Scarier yet, he knows he can do it (look no further than the 26 assists and four steals he piled up while taking a total of 10 shots in a pair of wins over the Cavs and Bulls).

With Rondo and a rock-solid Kendrick Perkins flanking the Big Three, the Celtics boast the best starting five in the NBA, bar none. It’s their bench, though, that will ultimately determine whether they can challenge the ’96 Bulls.

Wallace is Wallace: long and versatile, capable of carrying an offense on any given night he has his stroke. Fellow newcomer Marquis Daniels is a big and strong guard who, in addition to his scoring capabilities, is a two-fold upgrade for the team because he can run point with the second unit and allow Eddie House to move to the two-guard spot and do what he does best: fire away from the perimeter. That’s an eight-man rotation that doesn’t even take into account Davis (who’s on track to return in a month) and Shelden Williams (who’s averaged 7 and 6 getting Big Baby’s minutes).

That depth is what should help the Green overcome their only real weakness, age. It has already, in fact, as the Celtics were able to pull out a 92-90 win in Minnesota in their first of seven road back-to-backs. Playing successive nights in different cities is a tall order for guys like Garnett and Ray Allen, given their NBA odometers. But because they had dispatched of Philadelphia by 31 points the night before, Pierce (31 minutes), Allen (31) and Garnett (23) had the legs to play heavier minutes against the Wolves.

Back to Wallace for a moment. In addition to the depth he adds, an All-Star caliber player coming off the bench, his presence late in games is going to completely alter the defensive strategy opposing coaches employ against the Celtics. In the past, teams could double Garnett, who would be forced to find the open man on the perimeter. That in itself was always a tall order, given how adept Garnett is at finding shooters out of a double team.

But with Sheed on the floor in place of Perkins in crunch time, defenses are going to have play much more straight up against the C’s, who will be able to isolate KG with a trio of shooters surrounding him on the perimeter and Rondo lurking in case of a breakdown. Simply put, it’s going to be exceptionally difficult to defense the Celtics in the closing minutes of tight games.

On the other side, it’s going to be equally hard to score on Boston in close games. Through six games, the Celtics already lead the pack by a landslide in average points allowed (81.5) and are one of three teams holding opponents to 40 percent from the field.

If there is a blueprint for 72 wins, the Celtics have exhibited it thus far. And for what it’s worth, they “only” need to go 66-10 from here on out.