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Goats Pave Way to Championship Weekend

The three biggest games of the NFL season have still yet to kick off, but the theme of the 2010 playoffs has already been etched. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Year of the Goat Kicker.

How we got here is tough to tell, but the explanation for what’s gone down might actually be pretty simple.

Kickers have always been the bastard child of the football family. The characteristics that define ninety-nine percent of NFL players — namely big muscles and bigger bravado — are mostly absent in the kicker (exception: Sebastian Janikowski).

The kicker is not required to throw or catch the football. He doesn’t have to memorize hundreds of playbook pages, doesn’t need to know blocking assignments or hot reads. On occasion he’s expected to make a hit, but that’s as the last line of defense when the kick coverage has completely broken down and he’s being counted on to take a good angle and hopefully run the returner out of bounds. Rarely chest-bumping stuff.

The kicker’s job is straightforward — between the uprights and over the crossbar — but his cause is often misunderstood. On a 53-man roster he’s the furthest thing from a “football player”. But at least a handful of times a year and frequently in the playoffs he trots onto the field — his compatriots physically battered and exhausted on the sidelines — representing the tenuous difference between a “W” and an “L”. If the kick is good, he’s the hero, probably gets the game ball. If it’s wide or short, he’s the goat, forced to walk the ultimate walk of shame.

No matter what, he’s estranged to those around him, the recipient of visceral and extreme emotional reactions with no middle ground. And that’s just it. In the ultimate team and man’s game, the kicker struggles not against the opposition, but rather against himself and on occasion, the elements. He can’t relate to anyone else on the field (minus his counterpart on the other team) and they can’t relate to him.

When he steps onto the field with the game on the line, you can be sure all that is swirling around in his head. The physical act of booting the ball is a unique skill he’s honed to near-perfection over years of practice. That is, after all, why he has the job. But the mental burden he carries out there with him, that is what he must conquer in the precious few seconds he has before the ball in snapped and the hold is down.

If he fails, then a kick so expected, so easy he probably literally does it in his sleep, suddenly sails wide.

How else can you explain the league’s most accurate kicker during the regular season (Neil Rackers – 94.1 percent) pulling a shankapotamus on a 34-yard game-winning chip shot vs. Green Bay? Or the most accurate kicker in NFL history (Nate Kaeding – 89.1 percent) yanking a couple of typical gimmes that combined to be the difference in the game vs. the Jets?

In Kaeding’s case, there are clearly some demons present when it comes to the Jets and the playoffs. In the 2005 postseason, as a rookie with the AFC West champion Chargers, Kaeding missed a 40-yarder in overtime at home vs. New York. The Jets won the game and advanced. Kaeding, evidently, never forgot about that kick and it came back to haunt him.

Rackers’ ill-fated boot vs. the Packers was essentially missed before he connected with the pigskin, his form was so visibly altered.

With such a widespread trend of missed field goals over the last three weeks (in addition to Kaeding and Rackers, Shaun Suisham of the Cowboys failed to do his job twice vs. the Vikings), the question becomes: Is there a connection? I say yes, and it goes back to the first game of the playoffs, between the Bengals and Jets.

Cincinnati’s Shayne Graham went wide left and wide right from 35 and 28 at home to begin wild-card weekend, helping the underdog Jets pull out the victory. That he missed one was surprising, but not out of the realm. Shanking both of them was downright shocking. To say the ripple effect that resulted was pure coincidence would be to fail to appreciate the plight of the kicker.

There are still a pair of championship games and a Super Bowl to be contested before the final curtain drops on the ’09 season. The numbers would indicate at least one of those affairs will come down to a kick. Whether it’s Jay Feely (Jets), Matt Stover (Colts), Garrett Hartley (Saints) or Ryan Longwell (Vikings) lining up for the destiny-altering strike, aside from holding the fates of their franchises in their right foot, you can count on them sharing one common bond: temporary amnesia.

Onto the championship previews.

AFC Championship – New York Jets (11-7) at Indianapolis Colts (15-2)

The Jets beat the Chargers because their defense kept them in the game throughout the first half, limiting San Diego’s high-scoring offense to a touchdown and missed field goal attempt. The New York offense punted the ball on each of its six first-half possessions.

That formula would lead to most teams’ demise, but the Jets are not afraid to give the ball to the opposition because of the immense confidence they have in their defense. It all starts at the top with Rex Ryan’s schemes, blitz packages and cockiness.

Ryan loves to bring pressure from all over the place. He’s particularly endeared to the zone blitz (where linebackers or safeties rush the passer while linemen drop into zone coverage), a tactic that ultimately forced Phillip Rivers into many uncomfortable situations that ended with poor throws or turnovers. The difference between Rivers — or any other quarterback for that matter — and Peyton Manning is Manning licks his chops when he senses the pressure because he knows there are one-on-one matchups on the outside he can exploit.

The key to beating Manning is twofold. First, it’s vital to disguise coverages as long as possible so he can’t make line audibles. Second, a delicate balance must be struck between removing him from his comfort zone (the pocket) with some pressure and employing a variety of crafty sub packages. When the Patriots knocked off the Colts in the 2004 and ’05 playoffs, they did so by relying heavily on packages with five, six and sometimes seven defensive backs.

There’s no way the Jets can beat the Colts by blitzing at the same 60 percent rate they have throughout the playoffs. But they’ll still have the luxury of being able to send extra guys because Darrelle Revis and Lito Sheppard have the ability to lock down their receivers one-on-one on the outside. The Jets defense won’t give up the big play, but Manning won’t force the issue. If he has to dink and dunk his way to the AFC title (much like he did to capture Super Bowl XLI vs. the Bears), then that’s what he’ll do.

As effective of a game-manager as Mark Sanchez has been, he’s going to have to deal with the best pair of edge pass rushers in the league in Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. A big sack late by one of them will end the J-E-T-S miracle run.

Colts 22
Jets 16

NFC Championship – Minnesota Vikings (13-4) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson may be the faces of the Vikings franchise, but Minnesota’s defensive line has been the team’s X-factor all year.

It was the impetus of a pair of huge regular season wins over the Packers, as Jared Allen, Pat Williams and Ray Edwards accounted for 10.5 of the 14 sacks recorded by the Vikings defense. And after struggling to pressure the quarterback throughout the stretch run, the Minnesota quartet up front once again dominated the line of scrimmage in last week’s 34-3 pummeling of the Cowboys.

If Favre expects to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in over a decade, he’ll have to put a lot of points on the board while avoiding the costly mistakes that thwarted him the last time he played in an NFC Championship game (2008 vs. the Giants). He’ll also need his defense to come up big. If the Vikings D-line can’t generate consistent pressure on Drew Brees, the Saints slinger will carve up a vulnerable Minnesota secondary.

The Saints love getting off to fast starts at home, and in turn the Superdome crowd loves going wild. Unless the Vikings can throw the first and second blows, they will be on the other end of the marked home field advantage they enjoyed at the Metrodome last Sunday vs. Dallas.  For a team that was a mediocre 4-4 on the road in the regular season and hasn’t won a game away from home in nearly three months, going into the most charged atmosphere in the league is a tall order.

The Saints have never hosted an NFC Championship game, but their building has hosted National Championships and Super Bowls. Now it finally has the opportunity to send its team to the Big One.

Saints 30
Vikings 24

Divisional Preview for the Bettors

Some leftover ramblings from a nightmarish wild-card weekend.

Going 0-for-4 on a playoff weekend is an experience. It’s tough to do. Believe me, I just did it.

Watching your team — The Team Of The (past) Decade — get doused with lighter fluid on the first play of the game (Ray Rice 83-yard touchdown run) and lit by a match on the fourth (Terrell Suggs strip-sack of Tom Brady) before becoming engulfed in flames and frantically flailing about for the next three hours was … (sigh).  OK, here goes: painful, aggravating, enraging, saddening, shocking, bewildering, grounding, amusing (kidding).

The Bengals ought to be ashamed of themselves. Turnovers, mindless penalties at home, poor receiving, poorer quarterbacking, and a pair each of the worst challenges (see: Lewis, Marvin) and most hideous field goal attempts (see: Graham, Shayne) you’ll ever see. Sorry, Cincinnati. You were unfairly duped again. Cedric Benson was the only player wearing a Bengals uniform who deserved to be on the field Saturday.

Of all the picks gone awry, Dallas is the one I regret the most. I weighted far too heavily Donovan McNabb’s track record in playoff openers, the fickle nature of the NFC East and the Cowboys’ knack for January disasters. I also failed to give Dallas its due. Ending the Saints’ perfect season in the Superdome and shutting out the Redskins and Eagles in succession was as much of a forewarning as a team could give, and I missed it. D’oh.

Green Bay got screwed. Not only did the Packers salvage an atrocious weekend of football by displaying what neither the Eagles or Patriots could — some spine — they came all the way back from 21 points down and won the coin flip in overtime only to have the refs stick it to them. On second-and-10 from the 20, the officials flagged Green Bay for a hold, yet failed to offset that penalty with what was a blatant helmet-to-helmet hit on Aaron Rodgers.  On the ensuing third-and-5, Michael Adams came off the end and used his right hand to strip the football from Rodgers, except he also clearly grabbed and twisted Rodgers’ facemask in doing so.

Those missed calls jobbed Green Bay and absolutely destroyed many bettors.  The Vegas line on the Cardinals-Packers game opened at Arizona minus-3 and closed at Green Bay minus-3.  That means so much money was placed on Green Bay at plus-3, plus-2.5, plus-2 etc., the Vegas bookmakers kept having to lower it to get some action on the Arizona side.  What resulted was a six-point swing of the spread, the likes of which is rarely seen in an NFL playoff game.

Only the whales who saw the value in getting in on the other side of said six-point swing — and thus laid heavy money on Arizona at plus-3 Sunday morning — ended up profiting from this one.  Even then, those wiseguys were essentially hedging their bets because it was their big money that served as the impetus for such a wild line shift to begin with.  So basically, as was the case with the epic disaster that Panthers-Cardinals turned out to be last year, the bettors took a sizable beating last weekend.

Now if gambling were legal, someone like yours truly would’ve probably thrown a four-team parlay with his winners, immediately lost, tried to make up the weekend by parlaying the Pats, Packers and the Packers over, lost again, and tried one more time to salvage something with a Packers/Packers over parlay on Sunday afternoon.  Phew.  At least gambling isn’t legal.

Let’s move on.

Arizona (11-6) at New Orleans (13-3)

In a nutshell: After watching them hang 51 on one of the hottest teams entering the postseason — not to mention the No. 2 defense in league — it’s clear the Cardinals can score on anyone, anytime. And fast. Problem is, their defense is still pretty banged up (and was never a stingy unit to begin with), and the Saints, in their building, should be able to move the ball at will on Arizona. This game will come down to ball security, particularly for New Orleans, as Arizona’s D has always been predicated on forcing turnovers.

If gambling were legal: The divisional schedule couldn’t have shaken out more favorably for the bettors, as this game is the toughest call of the weekend. Arizona has spent the last two Januarys busting everyone up in Vegas and defying the so-called “prognosticators”. With the Saints giving seven points, the smart-money move is to take those points with Arizona. Even if New Orleans is up by 14 or 17 in the fourth quarter, a couple of late drives led by Kurt Warner can probably cover that spread. The over — even though it seems astronomically high at 57 — also seems safe. Of the 18 playoff games that have been played in domes since 2000, the average total has been 56 points.

The pick: Saints 36 Cardinals 31

Baltimore (10-7) at Indianapolis (14-2)

In a nutshell: History says the Colts, when they rest starters after locking up a bye in December, lose their first playoff game at home (2007 vs. San Diego, 2005 vs. Pittsburgh). It also says the Ravens are true road warriors; their three January road wins over the last two years (in Miami, Tennessee and New England) are the most in the league.

If gambling were legal: So much to sift through here. The Ravens were ever-so-close to knocking off the 9-0 Colts in November, but Joe Flacco threw a huge pick when Baltimore was driving for the go-ahead field goal attempt. With that said, the Ravens have not fared well against Indy — straight up or against the spread — over the last few seasons. They lost 31-3 in the regular season last year and 15-6 at home in the playoffs in 2006. The Colts moneyline is the only workable action in this one.

The pick: Colts 24 Ravens 17

Dallas (12-5) at Minnesota (12-4)

In a nutshell: The Vikings were far from impressive down the stretch. They got run over by Carolina (26-7) in a nationally televised game Week 15, were minced by Jay Cutler and the Bears the following Monday night, and concluded with a 44-7 pasting of a Giants team that may as well have been on the golf course. The Cowboys, meanwhile, are as hot as they’ve been since the days of their dynasty. Tony Romo is playing the best football of his career and the defensive line has been absolutely owning the line of scrimmage during the Boys’ four-game winning streak.

If gambling were legal: There are two conflicting theories at play here. One line of thinking instructs the bettor to lay the points on a home team if the line is three points or less (Minnesota is currently minus-3, with some sportsbooks offering it at 2.5). The other is to only take the points on an underdog if you expect that ‘dog to win outright. It really boils down to who you like in this game.

The pick: Cowboys 26 Vikings 24

New York Jets (10-7) at San Diego Chargers (13-3)

In a nutshell: The Jets are peaking at the right time. They’ve won six of seven, and in their victory over the Bengals last week Mark Sanchez took care of the ball and made the throws he had to make. That’s all you can ask for from a rookie quarterback in the playoffs. The Chargers haven’t lost since a Monday night game vs. Denver back on Oct. 19. They’ve won 11 straight — including at Dallas on Dec. 13 — which makes them unquestionably the hottest team in the tournament.

If gambling were legal: It’s been said many times but I’ll reiterate: Beware of the Round 1 team that generates so much hype the facts are ultimately overlooked. The fact is the Jets beat a mediocre Bengals team to begin with that happened to submit its worst cumulative performance (offense, defense, special teams, coaching) of the season last Saturday. The prevailing argument is the Jets are equipped to shut down the pass and San Diego can’t run. Let’s make the reasonable assumption that Darrelle Revis adds Vincent Jackson to the milk carton that already contains Chad Ochocinco, Randy Moss, Andre Johnson etc. Who’s left to defend the dynamic duo of Antonio Gates and Malcolm Floyd (both of whom resemble basketball forwards more than football receivers)? Jim Leonhard? Kerry Rhodes?  Really?  How about Darren Sproles?   Lay the eight points.

The pick: Chargers 27 Jets 13

2010 Wild-Card Preview

Three Week 17 blowouts giving way to a trio of wild-card rematches. Wow. Let’s get right to the breakdowns of a quartet of truly pick ’em Round 1 games.

NY Jets (9-7) at Cincinnati Bengals (10-6)

Make no mistake.  The Jets are dangerous.  They can run the ball and defend the run.  The defense gave up just 14.8 points per game in the regular season, best in the league.  Darrelle Revis is a shut down corner, having neutralized a handful of the finest wide receivers in the game this year (Randy Moss twice and Andre Johnson among others).  As winners of five of the last six, they’re peaking at the right time, highlighted by the 37-0 thumping they doled out to the Bengals last Sunday.

While that game should certainly help the psyche of the Jets, it was far from a true representation of the Bengals.   Cedric Benson — the eighth-leading rusher in the AFC — was inactive.  Receivers flat out dropped four of Carson Palmer’s first 10 passes.  The Cincinnati defense was without a handful of cogs, including Domata Peko, Robert Geathers, Rey Maualuga and Chris Crocker (all are expected to play Saturday).  Surely not to be overlooked is the fact the Jets were playing for their season.  The Bengals were not.

Now the tables have turned.  Cincinnati hasn’t won a playoff game in nearly two decades.  They’ve had only two chances, the most recent of which saw Palmer suffer a devastating knee injury on his first pass against Pittsburgh in 2006.  It’s taken the franchise four years to recover from that blow, and Sunday is their first chance to avenge the misfortune.  As if they don’t have enough motivation, they will also be playing in the memory of their fallen teammate, Chris Henry.

With the fans at Paul Brown Stadium foaming at the mouth, and Mark Sanchez — who has turned the ball over multiple times on six occasions this season — being counted on to lead his team to victory as a rookie in a hostile environment in the playoffs, it’s tough to see the Jets beating Cincinnati twice in seven days.  The Bengals D, which ranked ninth in the NFL with 19 interceptions, will pick Sanchez in a big spot and notch that elusive playoff win.

Bengals 19
Jets 13

Baltimore Ravens (9-7) at New England Patriots (10-6)

The Patriots have been forced to start developing a new offensive identity on the fly less than a week after losing Wes Welker to a massive knee injury.  His loss really throws a wrench into New England’s Super Bowl chances, but shouldn’t drastically affect the outcome of this game.  The Ravens are a talented team; their proponents would point to the four games they’ve lost by three points or fewer and more relevant, the 27-21 defeat they took to the Patriots Week 4 at Foxborough when Mark Clayton dropped a fourth-down pass inside the New England 10-yard line with under a minute to go.  A few different bounces of the ball and the Ravens could be 14-2.

The flip side to that is they are simply not as mentally tough as their AFC runner-up squad of a year ago.  Teams that have success in January typically aren’t on the short end of close games in the regular season, because those are the ones that are playoff-like, in that they require 60 minutes of physical commitment and superior mental toughness to prevail.  In the postseason, when talent gaps are reduced and intensity and competition levels are raised, the team with the psychological edge usually comes out on top.  Baltimore hasn’t shown any signs of having that edge in 2009.

Even without Welker, the Patriots will be able to move the ball on a front-seven heavy Ravens defense.  The Baltimore corners range from decent (Domonique Foxworth) to below-average (Fabian Washington, Chris Carr).  Because of that, Ed Reed will be forced to shade towards Randy Moss all day, which should open up the middle of the field for some seam routes from the tight ends, running backs and Welker’s replacement, Julian Edelman.

When two teams are relatively even on paper, as the Pats and Ravens are, two main factors come into play when trying to determine a winner.  1) Who’s the home team and how significant is its home-field advantage?  2) Which team is more disciplined?  In respect to Question No. 2, the nod clearly goes to the Patriots, as the Ravens were second-to-last in the NFL in number of penalties per game (7.2) and were flagged for the most penalty yards (68.4) of any team.  New England ranked fourth- and 10th-best in the penalty categories, respectively.

As for home-field advantage, the Patriots were 8-0 at home during the regular season.  Tom Brady has never lost a home playoff game (8-0) and the franchise has won 11 straight do-or-die contests at Foxborough, the second-longest run of home dominance in history (Green Bay won 13 in a row at Lambeau Field).  All those streaks will continue Sunday.

Patriots 24
Ravens 20

Green Bay Packers (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (10-6)

The Cardinals snuck up on everybody last year — pulling a stunning upset of Carolina en route to a Super Bowl berth —  but won’t have that luxury this season.  Despite being undressed by the Packers last week, the defending NFC champs have many wary of picking against them.  Turning a 9-7 season into a Super Bowl run will do that.  However, even though the Cardinals finished one game better than last year, this is not the same team it was a year ago.

Arizona’s passing game, No. 2 overall in 2008, slipped to 12th this year.  The offense has continued to turn the ball over in droves, yet the defense hasn’t made as many big plays to offset the offense’s carelessness.  The team’s turnover differential, which was even in 2008, dropped to minus-5 in ’09.

Injuries are a major concern for the Cardinals as well.  Blessed with the closest thing to good health throughout the 2008 playoffs, Arizona has suffered a bunch of injuries this time around.  Anquan Boldin missed practice Wednesday and Thursday with a sprained ankle.  The team leader in sacks, Calais Campbell, will be taking the field Sunday with a broken thumb.  In the defensive backfield, corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie is nursing a bruised kneecap.  And the status of safety Antrel Rolle (thigh) is still not clear.

The Packers, meanwhile, have been tearing teams apart on both sides of the ball.  They’ve won seven of their last eight, the only loss coming at Pittsburgh (37-36) on a Ben Roethlisberger-to-Mike Wallace touchdown pass with no time on the clock.   They’ve put up nearly 31 points a game in that span and surrendered just 15.6.   Aaron Rodgers has had an MVP-caliber campaign leading the offense while the new 3-4 scheme instituted by first-year defensive coordinator Dom Capers has helped the defense come into its own; 24 of the unit’s 37 sacks came in the second half of the season.

When you combine a swarming and pressuring defense like Green Bay’s with a quarterback like Kurt Warner, who likes to survey the field in the pocket, a recipe for disaster is brewing.  As great as he is, Warner has a habit of giving the ball away in the face of a fierce pass rush.  With Defensive Player of the Year candidate Charles Woodson (9 interceptions, 4 forced fumbles, 3 touchdowns) on the prowl, the Packers D will make some big plays.  The offense will too, rendering the Cardinals’ defense of their NFC crown a brief one.

Packers 29
Cardinals 24

Philadelphia Eagles (11-5) at Dallas Cowboys (11-5)

Every so often, there’s a wild-card game with Super Bowl implications for both teams. Saturday night the Eagles and Cowboys will clash for the second time in seven days and third this season.  The winner will have to be considered a favorite to come out of the NFC.

Judging from last week’s tilt, Dallas is the obvious choice in the rematch.  The Cowboys jumped on the Eagles from the beginning and dominated them at the point of attack throughout, piling up 179 yards on the ground while holding an excellent Philly pass rush to a pair of sacks.  The game was over by halftime.  Who’s to say the same thing isn’t going to happen again?  Bear with me.

First off, Donovan McNabb played an ugly game.  He didn’t put enough air under a deep pass to DeSean Jackson in the second quarter.  A sure touchdown and 7-7 tie would have been the result if not for the poor throw.  On the ensuing drive — after the Cowboys had taken a 14-0 lead — McNabb led the offense 67 yards to the Dallas 14 before fumbling a snap out of the shotgun and turning the ball over.  Ballgame.

To think McNabb will submit a similar performance in the playoffs is to both underestimate the quarterback and undervalue his track record.  Other than Tom Brady, McNabb is the only slinger this decade who has never lost a playoff opener.  He’s 6-0 in his career.  He’s also had success away from Philadelphia in January, winning three road playoff games, including in Minnesota and New York last year.  You will see a whole different Donovan McNabb come Saturday, which spells trouble for a Dallas secondary that Jackson has proven he has the jets to get behind (along with every other secondary in football).

Not to be forgotten is Brian Westbrook.  Since returning from a second concussion, he’s totaled 20 touches in two games.  Between the delicate nature of concussions and the fact that Philly’s postseason fate was never in question, there was no reason to rush him back.  Westbrook will be more significantly featured this time around, and at the very least, his presence should keep some of the Dallas edge rushers a little more at bay.

As golden of an opportunity as the Eagles blew in missing out on the second bye in the NFC last week, that loss swung all the pressure back onto Dallas.  Whereas — had they fallen to Philly in Week 17 — the Cowboys would have been a wild-card team not many expected to go on the road and win, they are now the prohibitive favorite of the weekend.  They’re hot, they’re at home and they’re playing a team they pushed around seven days ago.  Dallas is expected to win.

That could be a problem for a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff contest since 1996 and a quarterback who has so far experienced an inglorious run in the tournament.  A loss Saturday would drop Tony Romo to 0-3 in his postseason career and give the Cowboys seven consecutive defeats in January, which would be an NFL record.  The burden of expectation weighs especially heavy when history is not on your side.

One final note: Of the 19 times divisional opponents have met for a third time in the playoffs after one team swept the other in the regular season, 12 have made it a three-game sweep.  However, last year the Giants swept the Eagles in the regular season … and lost at home in the playoffs.  In 2007, the Cowboys swept the Giants, and yep, lost the rematch of the rematch at Texas Stadium.  Translation: In today’s NFC East, it is nearly impossible to pull off the trifecta.  These teams are all too balanced and know each other too well not to make the appropriate adjustments.

The Eagles are going to come out with a better gameplan — they are known to get crafty in the playoffs (hello, Michael Vick?) — and execute it far more soundly than last week.  The Cowboys will end up wilting under the pressure of a tight affair in the fourth quarter because whether or not they’ll acknowledge it, that monkey remains on their back.

Eagles 30
Cowboys 27

Patriots’ Decade Still Lacking Final Chapter

More often than not, teams that rise to greatness use adversity as a springboard at some point before their ascent.

The 2003 Patriots jettisoned franchise mainstay Lawyer Milloy a week before the season opener at Buffalo. Milloy ended up with the Bills and played a significant role in Buffalo’s 31-0 Week 1 pasting of the Patriots. It was a stunning and brisk series of events that culminated with ESPN’s Tom Jackson proclaiming “they hate their coach.” New England proceeded to win 34 of its next 37 games and back-to-back Super Bowls.

The 2007 Giants, an exceptionally talented yet wildly inconsistent outfit, took the Patriots’ quest for a perfect season as an affront to their manhood, and spilled blood in a meaningless Week 17 defeat. The first ever moral victory in football galvanized the fragmented G-Men, and spurred them on to the biggest upset in the history of the game.

Most recently, the 2008 Cardinals were eviscerated by New England in late December. The 47-7 humiliation left them at 8-7 and returned the franchise to its familiar place atop the dubious list of gridiron laughingstocks. Somehow, less than six weeks later those same Cardinals found themselves leading Super Bowl XLIII with less than a minute to go. They may have lost the title game, but suffice to say they wouldn’t have seen the light of the second round had they not banded together after being so nearly torn apart.

Is it a coincidence that the three most stirring tales of teams overcoming adversity this decade directly involved the Patriots? I say not; the Patriots have been the gatekeepers and headline-grabbers of the NFL since 2001. They have had as much reason to hate the universe as the universe has had to hate them.

Love em or hate em, from Pats-Rams to Pats-Giants to Steelers-Cardinals — not to mention everything Brady-Manning — this decade has been the most riveting and divisive in league history. And it’s principally because of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.

Isn’t it fitting then, that in the final year of the 00s (or aughts or whatever you want to call them), things have seemingly come full circle for the Pats?

Touted as a redux of the ’07 juggernaut (by yours truly, among quite a few others), these Patriots have struggled — to say the least — uncharacteristically showing themselves to be starters and not finishers; able to throw the first punch, but not take the last. Blown second-half leads accounted for four of their five losses. The word “rebuilding” was associated with the franchise for the first time since Belichick took over in 2000.

Then the hammer dropped. After a stinging 22-21 loss to the Dolphins, the Coach preached renewed commitment and dedication to his players, a tenor undoubtedly echoed by the Quarterback. When three of those players showed up a few minutes late to a team meeting the following week because of a snowstorm, he sent them home.

Adalius Thomas pulled the proverbial twisting-of-the-knife by sounding off to the media. Randy Moss, meanwhile, remained silent but despondent. The seams weren’t just fraying, they were ripping apart.

Not surprisingly, postmortems of the ’09 Patriots got written, Thomas was deactivated for the game vs. Carolina, and Moss submitted such an atrocious and listless performance that the team probably had to check the standings for confirmation of its “victory”.

Oh, how times can change on the fly in the NFL. Less than three weeks removed from that New England win wrapped in a moral loss, the Panthers are suddenly looking like the team that went 12-4 a year ago, this after croaking the Vikings and Giants by a combined 51 points.

Simultaneously, the Patriots have been busy notching their first true road victory of the year in Buffalo and dominating Jacksonville in what was unquestionably their most complete effort of the season. The defense, which made big play after big play against the Jags, has been solidified by the returns of James Sanders and Shawn Springs to the starting lineup.

The New England secondary, for so long its Achilles heel, now boasts a formidable combination of veteran leadership (Sanders, Springs, Leigh Bodden), explosiveness (Brandon Meriweather) and depth (Brandon McGowan, Jonathan Wilhite, Pat Chung). The unit has a whole has allowed 9 points per game over the last three.

On the other side of the ball, Brady is no longer being counted on to throw the ball 40 times a game; during the win streak, the Patriots have run the ball 58 percent of the time (110 rush plays/81 pass plays) for an average of 163 yards per contest. Fred Taylor’s return has certainly helped the running game. Through the air, Brady has started to find his tight ends again while Wes Welker continues to be the steadiest presence in the game.

And there’s Moss. The man so many believed would pack it in and call it quits — he who is averse to adversity — has been recharged, reinvigorated, reborn … whatever you want to call it. All that’s necessary to know is he snagged three touchdown passes last Sunday, had this exchange with the same fans who booed him two weeks ago, and gave an impassioned postgame speech that anyone who watched “Inside the NFL” was lucky enough to see and hear.

Does all this mean the Patriots are poised to capture their fourth Super Bowl as the final bell tolls on the aughts? Time shall tell, but for now it’s clear the Patriots are not the same team they were in mid-December.  They met their darkest hour head on and emerged from it stronger, healthier and more balanced.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the Coach did not lose the team.  The Quarterback rediscovered a bit of that mojo. The Receiver has a whole new look in his eyes. The mission is back on.

Week 17 Picks (home teams in CAPS)

BUFFALO over Indianapolis
CAROLINA over New Orleans
Jacksonville over CLEVELAND
Chicago over DETROIT
HOUSTON over New England
Pittsburgh over MIAMI
MINNESOTA over NY Giants
San Francisco over ST. LOUIS
Atlanta over TAMPA BAY
Philadelphia over DALLAS
ARIZONA over Green Bay
DENVER over Kansas City
Baltimore over OAKLAND
SAN DIEGO over Washington
Tennessee over SEATTLE
NY JETS over Cincinnati

Last Week: 10-6
Overall: 158-82