September 26, 2016

Poking and Prodding the Playoffs, Final Edition

Week Seventeen
December 29, 2004
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

It痴 the final week of the regular season and all but the bottom two seeds of the AFC playoff bracket have been settled.

With their convincing win over the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers (14-1) clinched the first seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Our own New England Patriots (13-2) climbed off the mat to thump the New York Jets and clinch the second seed, and a home game in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

With their dramatic rally over the Chargers, the Indianapolis Colts (12-3) assured themselves of the third seed, and the right to host the sixth seed on Wild Card Weekend.

The San Diego Chargers (11-4), winners of the AFC West and fourth seed, will host the fifth seed in the other wild card game when the playoffs open on January 8th and 9th.

What remains to be seen is which teams will earn the right to face the Colts and Chargers in the wild card round. Five teams still vie for two spots. Presently, the New York Jets (10-5) and the Denver Broncos (9-6) hold the advantage, as the only two AFC teams who truly control their own destiny this weekend. Win, and they池e in, exactly in that order.

The other three challengers � the Buffalo Bills (9-6), the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-7) and the Baltimore Ravens (8-7) � all need wins plus the right combination of losses by their rivals to advance to the tournament.

Of the top four seeds, only Pittsburgh (playing at Buffalo) and Indianapolis (playing at Denver) can still influence the AFC痴 final playoff seedings. New England (hosting the Niners) and San Diego (hosting Kansas City) cannot.

Arguably, though, this weekend痴 action is still critical for the Pats. On the weekend of January 15th and 16th, they will host the highest seeded team among the survivors of the wild card round. Pittsburgh will play the lowest seeded remaining team.

Let痴 look at possible fifth seeds:

(Brief disclaimer: I told you before � I don稚 work with ties. Ties almost never happen. I don稚 see the point of getting a headache over something that almost never happens. So enough with the ties already.)

(Second brief disclaimer: I wouldn稚 swear that any of what you池e about to read is right.)

The New York Jets (at the Rams) have the inside track. A win in St. Louis and they clinch the fifth seed. They can even absorb a loss to the Rams and still retain the fifth spot, if Buffalo loses to the Steelers. Of course, the Jets should also keep in mind � they can miss the playoffs entirely if they lose and Buffalo and Denver win.

The Denver Broncos (home with the Colts) can be the fifth seed if they defeat Indianapolis and get wins from St. Louis (over the Jets) and Buffalo (over the Steelers). Denver too can miss the playoffs entirely if they lose and Buffalo, Baltimore (home with Miami) and Jacksonville (at Oakland) all win.

The Buffalo Bills (home with the Steelers) can be the fifth seed if they defeat Pittsburgh and get wins from St. Louis (over the Jets) and Indianapolis (over the Broncos). If the Bills lose, however, they will be eliminated from the playoffs.

And now, let痴 look at the possible sixth seeds:

The New York Jets will be the sixth seed if they lose to St. Louis, the Bills beat the Steelers and the Colts beat the Broncos.

The Denver Broncos will be the sixth seed if they beat Indianapolis and the Jets beat St. Louis or the Steelers beat Buffalo. Denver can still be sixth seed even with a loss to Indy, if Pittsburgh beats Buffalo, Miami beats Baltimore, and Oakland beats Jacksonville.

The Buffalo Bills would be the sixth seed if they beat the Steelers and either: 1) the Jets lose and Denver wins, or: 2) the Jets win and Denver loses.

The Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens can still grab the sixth spot. To do so, they both need wins by themselves coupled with (at minimum) losses by Buffalo and Denver. That scenario sets up a ridiculous sequence of three-way and four-way tiebreakers (broken ultimately by Strength of Victory) that I frankly don稚 have the time nor interest in working out for you.

I don稚 know why it matters anyway. In the last ten years, there have been 20 teams that have advanced to the AFC championship game. Eight of them have been first seeds, six of them have been second seeds, four have been third seeds, and two have been fifth seeds. Baltimore and Jacksonville were both been thoroughly emasculated last weekend, so do you really think either of them can beat Indy or San Diego on the road, even if they roll the Lucky Seven this weekend?

Me neither. So why are we talking about this? Let痴 face it; the greatest likelihood is that the Patriots� divisional round opponent will be either Indianapolis (the only need to beat the sixth seed to assure this) or San Diego (but only if they win and Indy loses its wild card game in an upset). No sense spending any more time on this.

Since this is the last playoff column for the year, let痴 take a shot at predicting the outcome of this weekend痴 meaningful games:

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, New York Jets at St. Louis � at first, you have to be a little concerned about the Jets, seeing that they just got their ears boxed by their older brother, and the tabloids have decided that the only thing better than unnecessarily pumping up Chad Pennington is relentlessly tearing him to shreds. However, in an amazing stroke of luck, the Jets draw Mike Martz for their final game, and I don稚 care if the Rams are playing for their playoff lives too, at home no less, they are still coached by Mike Martz. The Jets win here and clinch the fifth spot, and a trip to the coast.

Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, Indianapolis at Denver � I suppose since the Colts 蘇ave nothing to play for� (except the backs of their football cards) the prevailing wisdom will favor Denver, who can get in with a win. I don稚 like any prevailing wisdom that favors a cruddy team like Denver over anybody. They suck. They致e lost their last two home games and are facing a team that hasn稚 lost since October. The Colts win.

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Pittsburgh at Buffalo � I don稚 see how anybody can be rooting against the Bills at this point. Never the first team to fall of the lips in any playoff discussion, they致e now won six in a row after they had been given up for dead. Buffalo presents a formidable challenge for Pittsburgh, another team with 創othing to play for�. I think the Steelers have a little more on the ball than to casually dismiss this contest, but when it comes down it, I like a Bills win to grab the sixth seed and a date with Indy next weekend. Rock on, AFC East.

Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, Jacksonville at Oakland and Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Miami at Baltimore. Who cares? I値l tell you, THESE are the games Bob Neumier and Greg Dickerson should have no interest in watching.

But if you’re insistent in working yourself into a migrane over two teams that are way too flawed to make any difference whatsoever, knock yourself out by visiting with Joe Ferreira at http://www.sportsline.com/nfl/playoffrace/notes

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 15

December 26, 2004
Jets vs. Patriots
At Giants Stadium, Patriots WIN, 23-7
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

展ell my rig’s a little old, but that don’t mean she’s slow.
There’s a flame from her stack, and the smoke’s rolling black as coal.
My hometown’s coming in sight, if you think I’m happy you池e right.
Six days on the road and I’m gonna make it home tonight.�
� Dave Dudley, 全ix Days on the Road�

The Patriots finished their own six days on the road in the Meadowlands today, and by the time they made it home tonight, they壇 proven to one and all that there痴 still some flame left in their stack.

With an astounding turn, the defending champions � a mere six days removed from their disheartening Miami Meltdown – returned to inspirational form with a 23-7 drubbing of the New York Jets that restored badly needed momentum to the Patriots� December and, most importantly, clinched the 2nd seed in the upcoming AFC playoffs.

The Patriots have a first round bye and will host a divisional round playoff game on the weekend of January 15-16.

In a game that was every bit as big for the Jets as it was for the Pats, New England dominated every square inch of the Giants Stadium turf. Despite having been beaten and bloodied Monday night, the 13-2 Patriots rose from the canvas and returned once again to the center of the ring, masters of their dominion, to earn as complete a victory as they致e had this season.

The defense led the way, nullifying Curtis Martin and unnerving Chad Pennington before some late game soft coverage allowed the Jets a few pity statistics. But when it was nut cutting time, the defense that had looked so vulnerable six days ago was � improbably – almost invincible tonight. Most startling was pass coverage that rarely left Pennington anything � or any time – to work with.

Tom Brady came back from his Miami nadir with a first class game � on the road � against one of the NFL痴 highest rated defenses. He threw for two scores and did not have an interception, but most importantly, he came up with a big game when his team needed it the most. It isn稚 the first time Tom Brady has done that sort of thing, so we probably shouldn稚 be surprised. I mean, you壇 have to be an idiot from the sports department of the New Bedford Standard Times not to understand by now what Brady is made of. With the Pats running attack slow to get rolling today, it was on Brady from the start, and like a champion, he responded with his best.

There was one down moment. Pro Bowl DE Richard Seymour got caught in a third quarter pile up and suffered a leg injury that knocked him from the game. He was able to walk off, but the decision to shelve him for the rest of the afternoon was a quick one. The possibility of another major loss for the team casts a shadow over an otherwise invigorating and affirming win.

I値l be honest, in the wee hours of last Tuesday morning, I was wondering a little bit about the old rig. I was wondering if � after so many miles of this sometimes historic run, now stretching out over nearly two complete seasons � it might just simply be getting too tired and worn down to make it home.

But tonight, with a renewed wind behind us, and with a deafening low answered firmly by a resounding high, our hometown is coming in sight. There痴 a little flame in the stack and black smoke in our wake.

If you think I知 happy � and relieved – you池e right.

Patriots on Offense

I don稚 know what was more heartening � the previously maligned pass defense throwing a virtual shut out against Pennington and the Jets, or Brady痴 must-have 祖omeback� from his four interception flame out last Monday night.

Brady and the Pats stayed close to the vest early, playing field position with the Jets along the blustery Meadowlands pitch. They tried to establish Corey Dillon and the run, and when that met with little early success, the Pats managed to avoid the kind of turnover that a week ago caused that little vein in New England痴 collective forehead to bulge. To the relief of many, the first quarter amounted to little more than an exchange of several punts, and a negligible home field boost for the Jets.

In the second quarter, though, Brady led the Pats on three scoring drives that would be all they would need to dispatch the New York for the afternoon. As the quarter began, reserve running back Patrick Pass keyed a seven minute drive that resulted in a field goal and a 3-0 lead for the Pats.

Less than two minutes later, after Pennington and company had been forced from the field after just four plays, Brady led New England to its first touchdown. From his own 14, and with little help from his running attack, Brady completed passes to four different receivers, including a perfectly thrown 35 yarder to David Givens that brought the Pats inside the Jets 20 at the two minute warning. Two plays later, Brady hit Daniel Graham down the middle for the Pats first TD and a 10-0 lead.

They would add to it again before the half, and by extension, dig the hole from which the Jets would never escape. New York was unable to drive the ball in their two minute offense and was forced to punt just 30 seconds after taking possession. Troy Brown痴 23 yard return led to three straight Brady completions (including a 21 yarder to Deion Branch) and another field goal with just seconds remaining.

Brady and the offense returned in the second half with a clock grinding attack that neutered any hopes for a Jets comeback. Another field goal ended a seven minute third quarter drive, and when Pennington threw his second interception of the day to open the fourth quarter, the Pats and Brady punched in another touchdown with an easy 6 yard flip to a wide open Branch.

You can稚 say enough about Brady. He did everything he could to lose that game last Monday night. But with the Pats immediate playoff hopes unmistakably at risk tonight in New York, he did everything he needed to do to win.

Corey Dillon wound up with nearly 90 yards, but he averaged just a speck over 3 yards a carry on 29 touches. The Jets were focused on shutting him down, particularly on first downs, and even forced him to fumble once (Christian Fauria recovered). However, in the second half, Dillon began to roll, setting a new Patriots single season rushing record (of 1,519 yards, besting Curtis Martin, who watched from the sideline) as the Pats ran down the clock.

The line mostly struggled to spring Dillon and Pass, but protected Brady reasonably well throughout (he was sacked only once).

Branch led Pats receivers with seven catches, but Graham, Fauria, Givens and Pass all managed at least one key reception that contributed to a scoring drive.

Patriots on Defense

When last we left the Patriots defense, they were backpedaling into oblivion. After watching them blow a last minute 11 point lead to a struggling Dolphins team, it wasn稚 hard to wonder if the bubble gum and bailing wire that had been holding its depleted secondary together was about to give out.

Yet six days later, with precious little recuperation time and with no reinforcements yet on the scene, the Pats defense straight up stoned the Jets.

They did it first with run defense. Curtis Martin couldn稚 get anything going, finishing with just 33 yards. The middle front seven, led by Tedy Bruschi, Ted Johnson, Ty Warren and Vince Wilfork, wouldn稚 allow the former Pats room to do anything. His longest run was 5 yards.

Without a productive Martin, Chad Pennington was left to work the air. Considering he would be doing it against a secondary that had just been torched by the illustrious AJ Feeley, the Jets had to feel pretty good about this part of their game plan. Yet, surprisingly, the Pats pass defense left almost no room for Pennington to breathe, much less pick up first downs.

Two early big plays ensured that the Jets would get no quick lift from their home crowd. On their first possession, the Jets drove inside Patriots territory. On a first and ten from the 40, an attentive Bruschi, following the quarterback痴 eyes every second, drifted back in a zone to pick off a Pennington pass intended for Santana Moss. He returned it all the way to the Jets 38.

On the next drive, with the Jets inside the Pats 40, Willie McGinest, as he so often does, came up with a huge third down stop on Martin, dropping him for a 5 yard loss on 3rd and 2. Though the Pats offense was unable to convert either opportunity, their defensive counterparts had succeeded in taking the early game piss and vinegar out of the Jets. They would not enter Patriots territory again until the third quarter, and by then, they trailed by two touchdowns.

The secondary, with Eugene Wilson at corner and the increasingly valuable Don Davis at safety, held Wayne Chrebet to only 4 catches and Moss to just 2. Fourth quarter garbage time stats should do little to mask the fact that the Patriots defense bodyslammed the Jets all afternoon.

Wilson grabbed a fourth quarter interception, and Jarvis Green nabbed a later fumble recovery after Pennington was stripped by Rosevelt Colvin. Colvin, Green, and Mike Vrabel all had sacks.

It will be hard for several days to determine the seriousness of Richard Seymour痴 injury (you know how they do things down there), at least as hard envisioning the impact on the Pats D should the normally dependable Seymour be lost for any length of time.

Patriots on Special Teams

A rare day when everything went right for the Pats on special teams. Brown痴 23 yard punt return set up a late 2nd quarter score, and Adam Vinatieri made three field goals (in a tough Northeast setting) after several weeks of inactivity. Most importantly, punt and kickoff coverages were as good as they致e been in weeks, or at least since the last time Rabih Abdullah was covering them.

Patriots on the Sidelines

Whatever Romeo Crennel did this week, it was the right thing. The Jets couldn稚 run, even with 1,500 yard rusher Curtis Martin, and in a home divisional game that could have put them in the playoffs, Pennington was by and large hopeless. And this was with no Randall Gay, and for that matter, no Ty Law. An absolute home run this week by Crennel and the defensive staff.

On the other side of the ball, ball control and security were main concerns, and when the Pats smelled blood, they were able to get points on the board. After everything that痴 happened in the last week, and with so much suddenly on the line, you could not have asked for anything more from the Pats coaches than what they gave in New York today.

By the way, the Jets have not beaten the Patriots since that devastating home loss that cost New England the division in 2002. Heh, heh, heh.

Patriots Next Week

The final regular season game of the campaign, a 1:00 PM home start with the horrendous San Francisco 49ers. Thanks to the Pats heroic recovery today, this game will be little more than a playoff tune up.

Poking and Prodding the Playoffs, Fourth Edition

Week Sixteen
December 21, 2004
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Let痴 just start out this week by agreeing that, with two weeks remaining in the regular season, first seed is no longer a realistic possibility for the New England Patriots. That, in essence, is the price they will pay for their Monday night sins.

Sure, there痴 still a chance. The Pats could win out, and the streaking Steelers could lose both. Want to spend any more time on this topic?

As it turns out, the most pressing concern now is the Pats� hold on the second seed, and the all-important bye week. With an ignoble defeat in Miami fresh in mind, and with the homestanding10-3 Jets looming ahead, the concern grows.

The salve for that wound is readily available, thankfully. If the Pats can beat the New York Jets in the Meadowlands this weekend, they will clinch the first round bye and settle any question about their favorable placement in the AFC playoff bracket, once and for all.

As crazy and outrageous as it seems, though, we have to allow for the possibility that the Patriots could be defeated this weekend, throwing the door wide open for their upheaval from the coveted second chair. I know, a Patriots loss in a December divisional game is almost too incredible to fathom, but we must, in the interest of science.

It comes down to this � if the 12-2 Patriots finish at 13-3, and the San Diego Chargers win their final two games (including this weekend痴 trip to Indianapolis) to finish with an identical record, the Pats get the bum痴 rush straight to Wild Card Weekend, by virtue of San Diego痴 superior conference record.

As far as I can tell, that痴 the only true threat against a first round bye for the Pats. A 13-3 Colts squad, for example, would indeed tie the splittin� Pats (again, only for the purposes of wacky, implausible speculation), but Indy would still finish third by virtue of New England痴 increasingly valuable opening night win.

Yeah. You heard me right. The Pats could probably use a win by the Colts this weekend. I know – I feel lost and confused too. First Monday night, and now this.

I suppose the other true threat against a first-round bye would be a total meltdown by the Pats over their final two (actually, three) games, and even I, even tonight, don稚 believe that痴 going to happen.

If the Playoffs Started Today

1. The Pittsburgh Steelers (13-1). I知 an emotional sap this week. The fallout from the Pats loss to the Dolphins is that I知 ready to anoint any team that didn稚 suffer a major upset this week as worthy of a championship. Top honors this week go to the Men of Cowher, who coincidentally found themselves in a similar situation to the Pats this weekend, struggling on the road against an upstart opponent. The difference was, of course, that the Steelers were still able to hang the W up there when it was all done. They finish with the Ravens (home) and the Bills (away). I知 sure they値l slaughter them both. The Steelers are awesome.

2. They are what they are. The New England Patriots (12-2).

3. This brings us to the San Diego Chargers (11-3), former sweethearts of this space who must now meet their very timely demise. Sorry, Chargers. San Diego also has the Chiefs (home) remaining, a game which I sincerely hope I値l be following in a very casual, detached way next week. Sounds like our eggs are squarely in Indy痴 basket.

4. Gads, on Sunday, I知 actually going to be rooting for the Indianapolis Colts (11-3). The less said about this the better. Again, unless the Patriots come to pieces over the final two weeks, the Colts don稚 seem to be our concern for awhile. After Monday night, I can稚 see myself fretting about who the Colts play in the first round anymore. That痴 why I don稚 care that they still have Denver (away) after the Chargers.

5. Let痴 face it; the New York Jets (10-4) can leave a wicked turd in our holiday punchbowl this weekend. Other than that, the division champion Pats can稚 go any lower than fourth seed, and the wild card Jets can稚 go any higher than fifth, so I don稚 see how the Jets are that relevant at the moment, playoff race-wise. But believe me, the whole punchbowl thing is plenty, thanks. The Jets also have the Rams (away) left on their schedule.

6. Incredibly, the Jacksonville Jaguars (8-6) could clinch one of the wild card spots this weekend, with a win at home and a 7-10 split combination of losses by their rivals. The Jags face Houston (home) and then Oakland (away).

On the outside looking in:

7. The Baltimore Ravens (8-6) (facing Pittsburgh away and then Miami at home), the Denver Broncos (8-6) (Tennessee away, then Indy at home), and the Buffalo Bills (8-6) (at San Francisco, then home with Pittsburgh), are all lumped in here with the Jaguars. The Bills lose the first tiebreaker (for now) and Jacksonville goes on to prevail in a strength-of-schedule battle with the other two.

Who Can Clinch This Week, and How

The Steelers can clinch home field advantage throughout the playoffs with a win. There are other scenarios by which this could happen, but they all involve ties. I thought I heard over the weekend that there have been fewer than 20 ties in the history of the league. Worry about that kind of stuff if and when it happens.

The Patriots can clinch a first round bye with a win.

The Jets can clinch a playoff berth with a win. Yet, even with a loss, they get in if Baltimore and Buffalo both lose, or if Jacksonville and Buffalo both lose, or (of course) if all three of them lose.

The Jaguars (!) can clinch a playoff berth with a win, combined with losses by the Bills, the Ravens, and the Broncos.

Who We池e Rooting for This Week

The A Game: Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, New England at New York Jets. Pretty simple. The Pats win, clinch a bye, and are free from here to quietly prepare for the weekend of January 15-16. They lose, and it痴 another week of hand wringing psychopaths like me. And that痴 before you even turn on your radio. If you have any decency at all, you池e pulling for the Patriots.

The B Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, San Diego at Indianapolis. Really amounts to the first shoe to drop on Sunday, with the 1:00 PM start. A Colt win, however unseemly, loosens the knot in the Patriots necktie a little, and allows for the possibility that a first round bye can still be achieved even with a Meadowlands loss. I look at it this way � it痴 either root for the Colts at home this weekend, or the Kansas City Chiefs on the road next week. Which one do you like?

The C Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Baltimore at Pittsburgh. As noted above, the shocking upset by the Dolphins on Monday night has caused us to be a little less nosy about our playoff race neighbors this week, particularly those in Suites 1, 5 and 6. I知 sure they池e all very nice people who only deserve the best (bastards!), but frankly, we have our own problems now. Still, we might as well keep an eye on the Ravens, who with a win could leave the door still cracked slightly for that (sniff) number one seed.

These are indeed my fondest Christmas wishes. Of course, fat lot of good its done me over these last four weeks, but its the magical holiday season now, where miracles happen……..so what the hell.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 14

December 20, 2004
Dolphins vs. Patriots
At Pro Player Stadium, Dolphins WIN, 29-28
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Frankly, its late, I知 tired and pissed off, and I don奏 feel like making the effort. Here are 37 cents and an envelope. Drop this in a mailbox when you池e done with it.

Let痴 just leave it at this. This is the rule � you are what you are. And the Patriots are a 12-1 team that just blew an eleven point lead in the final four minutes to lose to a 2-11 team that � until tonight anyway � was the reigning laughingstock of the NFL.

You are what you are, and that痴 what the Patriots are. They池e the laughingstocks tonight, and rightfully so. They earned it, big time.

The gruesome detail is immaterial. I wasn’t particularly concerned about the awkward flow of the game, though it was ugly to watch. Hey, I figure every game, no matter who against, is hard. And despite their record, the Dolphins has gradually become competitive again, under their interim coach. So it wasn’t altogether surprising to see the game play so close.

However, it is surprising, to put it mildly, to see the New England Patriots give up twelve points in the final 3:52 to lose by one. To a 2-11 team. In December. With the previously omnipotent Tom Brady looking like an amateur while personally giving the game to a team that needed a win like I need a drink right now.

Can you just imagine what we壇 be saying if this was Pittsburgh that lost this game tonight? Or how about Indianapolis? The Jets? We壇 be killing them. We壇 laugh in our self-superior way about what pretenders they are. Well tonight folks, the jokes on us.

Teams that are about to win the Super Bowl don稚 lose these games. That痴 all there is to it. They just don稚. Any tortured rationalization to the contrary would be an even bigger joke than what we just witnessed.

Anyway, have a Merry Christmas everybody. See you next week. They have to finish out the schedule � it痴 a contractual thing.

Poking and Prodding the Playoffs, Third Edition

Week Fifteen
December 14, 2004
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Another week down, another week closer and the Patriots remain the bridesmaids for the coveted first seed of the AFC playoffs.

Only one of the six current seeds lost on Sunday, and it was the team (New York Jets) that we most wanted to see win. The Pats are getting no help in respect to the first seed, not that they deserve it. Their missed opportunity to one-up the Steelers – a resounding Halloween loss in Pittsburgh – still looms.

From the bright side department comes news that the Jets loss, combined with New England’s defeat of the Bengals, clinched the Patriots third division title in four years.

As we stand today, that title assures them only of the fourth seed, and a home playoff game on wild card weekend. That doesn’t sound all that enticing to me.

The Patriots DO have a strong edge – at the moment – to gain (at minimum) a first round bye and the right to host a game on Divisional Playoff weekend. And that’s the whole point really – shortening the distance between two points.

Over the last 10 seasons, the first seed has played in the AFC championship 8 times (though remarkably winning only three of those – I blame the Steelers). The second seed has reached the final 6 times (winning four). 70% of the teams that have played for the AFC championship over that time did so after having enjoyed a first round bye.

Beyond that, the third seed has reached 4 times (winning three). Only twice has a lower seed advanced (both fifths), and neither won the championship game.

By the way, there were six AFC Super Bowl wins over those 10 years, and four of them came from the top two conference playoff seeds.

So, as I was saying, the Patriots presently have the inside track on drawing a bye and a home playoff game. They remain two games ahead of the Chargers and the Colts with three to play. With some machinations this weekend, the Pats could clinch the bye and the high-percentage track towards the conference championship.

Is anyone going to comment on how I’ve subtly shifted the focus from the first seed to the second seed? These Pittsburgh winning streaks will do that to a man. Our Seeds of the Week remain unchanged, again, undisturbed by human hands.

If the Playoffs Started Today

1. The Pittsburgh Steelers (12-1). Stupid Steelers. They keep acting like a championship team. Can they be stopped? In front of them stand the Giants (away), Ravens (home) and the Bills (away). Come on Jamal Lewis.

2. Shhhhhh, quiet, you’ll distract the New England Patriots (12-1).

3. Onward march the San Diego Chargers (10-3) towards our fondest holiday schadenfreude – a third seed playoff berth that sticks it to both Payton and Eli Manning. San Diego has the Browns (away), the Colts (away) and the Broncos (home) remaining. Gonna be tight.

4. Just when you thought you couldn’t hate the Indianapolis Colts (10-3) any more than you already do, along comes Buddy Thomas of the New Bedford Standard-Times. The contemptible Colts have Baltimore (home), San Diego (home) and Denver (away).

5. It’s the friggin’ New York Jets (9-4), who were no help last week at all. I’m sure they’ll get all tough again in another week or so, though, since they’re being so helpful. The Jets have the Seahawks (home), the Patriots (home) and Rams (away). I have to keep pumping up the Jets, though. I want them ready to upset the fourth seed.

6. If there was ever a time for the Baltimore Ravens (8-5) to put it all together, it’s these next two weeks. Throw on those Ray Lewis jerseys, people. The Ravens have Indy (away), Pittsburgh (away) and then (they’ll probably need this) Miami (home) to finish.

On the outside looking in:

7. The Denver Broncos (8-5) apparently trail the Ravens by something called ‘strength of victory’ at the moment. I don’t know what that is and you shouldn’t either. The Broncos face the Chiefs (away) and the Titans (away), but all we care about is their finale with the Colts (home).

8. To be honest, I debated even listing the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-6) this week, but then I realized they have Green Bay (away), Houston (home) and Oakland (away) left, and could very well end up 10-6 and in the mix.

9. The Buffalo Bills (7-6) were on thinner ice than the Jaguars. They are a player though – they close the season by hosting the Steelers.

Who We’re Rooting for This Week

The A Game: Saturday afternoon, 1:30 PM, Pittsburgh at New York Giants (5-8). Great. Not only am I forced to watch Eli Manning, I have to root for him too. We’re behind the Giants, reluctantly. I fully expect to see them wiped out. Still, got to love these Saturday games in December.

The B Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, San Diego at Cleveland (3-10). A Pats win and a Chargers loss will clinch that first-round bye for New England, so I’m all about the Browns this week. The Chargers can make up the ground with an upset of Indy next week. For now, time for some of that old Terry Robiskie Magic.

The C Game: Sunday evening, 8:30 PM, Baltimore at Indianapolis. This is shaping up to be quite a weekend. First, a Saturday afternoon well spent, pulling for Eli, followed by Payton Manning, From Legacy to Legend (featuring Ray Lewis) with the three ESPN meatheads. Remind me to stash my hatchet where I can’t find it. All we can hope is the Ravens aren’t just about ready to fade out of the playoffs.

The D Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Denver at Kansas City (5-8). The Broncos could still capture the 5th or 6th seed, so why not pull for the Chiefs? I certainly don’t want to see another Denver at Indy match up in the wild card round. The fallout from that would be insufferable.

The E Game (TIED): Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Buffalo at Cincinnati (6-7) and Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, Jacksonville at Green Bay (8-5). Just to limit the number of games I’ll have to write a half-assed blurb about next week, I’ve got the Bengals and the Packers.

Who Can Clinch This Week, and How

The Steelers can clinch a first round bye with losses by the Chargers and Colts.

The Chargers can clinch the AFC West with a win and a Broncos loss.

The Jets can clinch a playoff berth with a win and three lemons.

As I’ve been mentioning, they’re still carrying on over there in the NFC like everything is fine, which it isn’t.

What about the Pats?

New England at Miami (2-11), Monday evening, 9:00 PM. The Pats can clinch a first round bye with a win and a Chargers loss. Even if they lose to the Dolphins, the Patriots could still clinch the bye if the Colts and Chargers lost and the Steelers won. I’m sure there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 13

December 12, 2004
Bengals vs. Patriots
At Gillette Stadium, Patriots WIN, 35-28
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Oy.

Listen, the New England Patriots were very fortunate, and very good, to come away with a seemingly razor-thin 35-28 win over the Cincinnati Bengals today at Gillette.

Just as they had in pre-season, the Bengals knew exactly how to render the stout Patriots defense rubber legged. The Pats D hasn稚 scrambled like that since last February. As a result, Cincinnati was never out of the game, and a three touchdown Patriots lead nearly evaporated over the final 25 minutes.

But the crafty Pats forced two Bengal turnovers inside New England痴 20, and took a third back for a touchdown. Once again, their experience and composure under duress won out. In the end, every turning point was turned by them.

And that痴 a damn good thing. Even with all the forced errors, this game had a real skin of their teeth quality to it. But the Patriots � never ones to underestimate an opponent –are always prepared to fight for their lives, and that痴 one very big reason they sit at 12-1 tonight. One of the greatest two-season runs in pro football history continues.

The offense added emphatic punctuation throughout the afternoon, answering every Cincinnati strike, and when the Bengals brought the game to within seven points with nearly four minutes to play, it was Tom Brady and the offense who secured the ball, the clock and the game for New England.

The win, combined with a Jets loss later in the day (arrrrgghh), clinched the Patriots third AFC East title this decade. They池e in the playoffs again. Giddyup.

Patriots on Offense

Key defensive turnovers aside, I think you have to credit this one to the Patriots offense. Every time the Bengals had the Pats D on back peddle, the offense would respond with a scoring drive of its own.

The best example of this occurred in the 2nd quarter, after Cincinnati had tied the game at 7-7 with a scoring drive that featured three third-down conversions. The Bengals had chewed up nearly six minutes in traveling just 45 yards, serving notice that their recent upswing was no mere rumor.

The Pats� answer? Three plays, 70 yards, and a quickly regained seven point lead. Two short passes to Jed Weaver and Kevin Faulk set up a perfect Brady play-action to David Patten, who broke behind single coverage to haul in a well-thrown 48 yard touchdown pass.

But that wasn稚 all. Later in the 2nd quarter, after another Cincinnati score, the Patriots took over with a 21-14 lead and 2:25 on the clock. Once again, the Patriots marched for another late first-half score, this time behind two straight Brady connections with Patten and a clever 4 yard Kevin Faulk counter for a touchdown.

Then, to open the second half, Brady led the Pats on a six-minute, 75 yard drive that was capped when he hit a wide-open Christian Fauria for the 35-14 lead. The Patriots offense had scored on thee straight drives and now led by 21. It looked like the Pats would coast. As it turned out though, nearly every point was needed.

Though they wouldn稚 score again, the Pats best offensive drive may have been its last. The Bengals � behind Jon Kitna, in for an injured Carson Palmer � had given New England a pretty good case of the howdy-doos with a 60 yard touchdown drive in just under three minutes. The Bengals would kick away to the Pats with 3:50 left, and there seemed to be no avoiding a white knuckle ending if Cincinnati could quickly stop the Pats offense.

Here again, no dice. Corey Dillon came out of the chute with an 11 yard run on first down, and Brady followed with big gains to Deion Branch and Troy Brown. Before you knew it, Cincinnati was out of time outs and Brady was taking three knees inside Bengals territory. Kitna and his crowd never made it back to the field. The best defense was in fact a good offense.

Brady, who was thought to be struggling lately, was precise and productive, particularly on his two touchdown passes. The offense worked through him today, and not Dillon as so widely advertised. He did not throw an interception, and he was sacked only once. He finished at nearly 70% with 260 yards. He even completed a pass from his ass.

That didn稚 sound right, did it?

Dillon didn稚 rush for 100 yards against his old mates, and that痴 sure to set off a Corey Dillon Explosion this week as he bitterly complains about his diminished role in the offense. He値l be raging. I wouldn稚 want to be lockering next to him. He値l probably bring down the whole organization this time. Stay tuned to your radios � particularly early mornings � for details.

Dillon was solid today, averaging 4 yards on 22 carries. He added another one of those jackhammer 1 yard touchdown runs that I致e grown so accustomed to. Kevin Faulk had one relief carry, and it turned out to be a score.

David Patten stepped up in the absence of David Givens and Daniel Graham and led all Pats receivers with 107 yards on five catches. He used his speed to get behind Cincy痴 secondary on that important 2nd quarter score.

The line moved the ball on the ground (without Graham, a key run blocker) and kept Brady clean, so all is good on them tonight.

Patriots on Defense

I値l tell you this � the Bengals looked entirely too comfortable and confident against a very good Patriots defense today, not unlike they did in August. I don稚 know what the hell Marvin Lewis and Bob Bratkowski have figured out down there, but I hope they take it to their graves with them.

Carson Palmer was poised and unaffected in the pocket, and at times he shredded the Patriots. The Bengals converted 9 of 13 third downs, many times on the accurate arm of the second year quarterback.

In all actuality, he could have afforded to be a touch wild even, as he always seemed to have a wide-open option at the end of every progression. But Palmer was dead-on anyway, and the Bengals ate up yardage in a surprisingly efficient manner. He hit a wide open Matt Schobel and later Chad Johnson for touchdowns.

But even when Palmer was forced from the game (twisted knee in the 3rd quarter on a hit by Richard Seymour), the Bengals persisted. Jon Kitna, throwing his first passes of the season, continued the Bengals success and had them to within seven points with time left for more.

But throughout, the Bengals were undone by their own mistakes. They turned the ball over at the Patriots 12 and 10 yard lines. Palmer threw one dreadful rookie pass and saw it intercepted for a touchdown.

Asante Samuel痴 2nd quarter touchdown came when Palmer quickly went to his right for a short out. Samuel sliced in front of Palmer痴 receiver and caught the ball on the run. He raced 34 yards untouched. You know Samuel saw that formation and that play on film this week, and to his credit, he recognized it when it was presented to him. It was a big play, coming as it did on the heels of Patten痴 touchdown bomb, and it gave the Pats an early 21-7 lead.

Later, it was Kitna who was picked, this time by Troy Brown (it doesn稚 even seem strange to say it anymore; he痴 a defensive back) on a third down play from the Pats 10. It was early in the 4th quarter and the Bengals trailed by 14. If Kitna doesn稚 cough up his only furball at that point, that last period gets pretty hairy.

I wish I could tell you what happened on the Bengals first possession of the game, besides the fact they came out of the locker room rolling. They went 54 yards to the Patriots 12 in no time.

Anyway, Rudi Johnson takes a first down hand off and tries the middle, but finds nothing. At this point, I知 pretty sure that痴 Rudi I see laying on the ground, right? Second down.

Except there痴 a small wrestling match that seems after the fact and now the ball is free, and apparently Rudi wasn稚 laying on the ground after all, even though he was (they replayed it and everything, I saw the same thing I saw the first time, which changed nothing, which is, after all, ok). Rodney Harrison had stripped the ball, and it was recovered by Willie McGinest, at least according to referee Jeff Triplette. A certain scoring drive nets nothing for the Bengals, and the Pats are off on their own scoring drive.

Their 壮cored first� streak, which now dates back to the Carter Administration I think, was also uniquely preserved by that sequence.

Cincinnati was generally able to move the ball on the ground against the Pats, netting 150 yards and a 4.8 average. Johnson had 89 yards on 24 carries. Tedy Bruschi (16) and Rodney Harrison (11) led the Pats in tackles, which speaks to the amount of time the Bengals spent pounding away at the Pats middle.

I thought Richard Seymour, though not showing big on the stat sheet, really had an impressive game today. On more than one occasion he forced a Bengals holding penalty because it was the only way they could prevent him from surging through.

TJ Houshmandzadeh was really the offensive star for the Bengals (12 catches and 145 yards), but his name is TJ Houshmandzadeh, which is why I waited until now to mention (i.e. cut and paste) him. I will say this � he worked on the Pats slot defenders (often Brown) and played them like a drum.

Patriots on Special Teams

OK, 9:06, 3rd quarter, Pats lead 35-14. The Bengals start at their own 23 and pound 60-something yards before they are stopped at the Pats 11. Shayne Graham is trotted out for the field goal attempt.

It never happens. Holder Kyle Larson � A PUNTER FOR GOD担 SAKE � takes the snap, rises to his feet, and bolts off left tackle for 11 yards and the touchdown. Nobody lays a finger on him.

So, you know, that痴 not good. The Bengals knew they would score with that play before they even snapped it. They knew last Monday, for crying out loud. Ouch.

On the plus side, though, Bethel Johnson痴 38 yard kickoff return just before the half brought the ball near midfield and set up yet another two-minute drill scoring drive by the Pats.

Patriots on the Sidelines

After three years with minimal success, the Nick Cafardo Talent Agency has finally hit pay dirt for its marquee client.

If, as we expect, Charlie Weis is named head coach of Notre Dame tomorrow, it will be a just reward for his efforts here as the creative force behind a world championship offense. One that just happened to score the winning points on the final drive of the Super Bowl�..twice.

Clearly, Weis will go down in history as the guy who held Tom Brady痴 hand when the Pats first crossed the threshold from the mundane to the sublime. But any fair and reasonable history book will also note that Weis� performance before and during Super Bowl 38 was the best thing done by any Pats offensive coordinator, ever. It痴 hard to imagine that any coordinator anywhere ever had a better day than Charlie Weis did in Houston.

We like to have fun (i.e. wildly fly off the handle) with Charlie now and again, and let痴 face it, in his wackiest video-game moments, he makes it eminently easy for us. But he痴 a great coach, and in all sincerity, he clearly deserves this moment in the sun. I don稚 normally give a hoot about college football (except on the final weekend of April) and don稚 see any reason to start now, but I will be checking the Irish scores from now on, hoping for the absolute best.

That said; just keep your eye on the right ball for a little while longer, Charlie. There are still many more miles to go in your present position.

Patriots Next Week

Another God awful Monday night game, this time in Miami. The Dolphins gave the Broncos a tough time before losing in Denver today. It値l be interesting to face the Dolphins post-Wannstedt.

Poking and Prodding the Playoffs, Second Edition

Week Fourteen
December 8, 2004
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Well, our playoff wish list fell sort of flat last week. The Patriots’ chief AFC rivals, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, San Diego and the New York Jets, all won their games.

The Jacksonville Jaguars nearly did the Pats a solid on Sunday night when they – after an extended five minute drive – took a 16-14 lead over the Steelers with less than two minutes to play. The Pats were thisclose to grabbing the current lead for home field throughout the playoffs.

But maddeningly, Jacksonville allowed Pittsburgh and Ben Roethlisberger to drive straight back up the field to kick the winning field goal. Pisser. Let’s face it – a playoff race is a tough town.

Baltimore was the only current playoff seed to lose (at home, to Cincinnati), which enabled Denver (losers to the Chargers) to stay just behind them for the sixth playoff spot. The Bengals win brought them to 6-6 and put them just behind the Jaguars (and just ahead of the Buffalo…..what?….Bills) as sixth seed hopefuls.

They’re all fighting for the right to visit the third seed in the wild card round of the playoffs, and while we’d very much like to see the Chargers hold on to third (frustrating the dandy-fied Colts and leaving them to draw, say, the plucky Jets, albeit at home), that’s not the egg on the front of our griddle at the moment. It’s all about the Men of Cowher for the foreseeable future.

If the Playoffs Started Today

1. The Pittsburgh Steelers (11-1) won the kind of game that number one seeds usually win on Sunday night. Then there’s that little matter of a complete ass-whuppin’ put on the Patriots earlier this season. We may be stuck with these guys as top dog. Their home game with the Jets this weekend may be their toughest remaining test.

2. It’s those awful, rub-your-nose-it, star-placating New England Patriots (11-1). They’re so smug.

3. The San Diego Chargers (9-3) have won six in a row, and the last three were over division rivals. They’ve all but mathematically won the West and now look to host the sixth seed on wild card weekend. The big one in that respect will be a trip to Indy on the day after Christmas.

4. The Indianapolis Colts (9-3). Bah, humbug. Look, I’m rooting for the Colts to miss the playoffs completely, so anything less than that I’ll consider a direct attack against me, my family, and everything we believe in. The Colts actually have a comparatively tough row to hoe here, with three potential playoff teams (the Ravens, Chargers and Broncos) left on their schedule, as well as this week’s grudge match with the Texans.

5. The New York Jets (9-3) have won three in a row (albeit against a very Patriots-like schedule) since their latest dish of Shelved-Pennington had croaked their fast start by early November. Things get pretty tough for them (at Pittsburgh this week, home v. New England on December 26th) from here, though there are temporary respites along the way (home with Seattle, and the season finale in St. Louis).

6. Well, the NFL Defensive Player of the Century Ray Lewis-led Baltimore Ravens (7-5) lost a divisional home game down the stretch and now we’ve got all these .500 teams thinking they can make the playoffs. Thanks a million, Ravens. This isn’t the NFC, you know. Go stand in a corner or something. I don’t suppose you’re going to be any help when you face Indy (12/19) and Pittsburgh (12/26) on the road.

On the outside looking in:

7. The Denver Broncos (7-5) have lost four of their last six and (after a dalliance with Miami) still have to go to KC, and Tennessee, as well as face the Colts at home to close things out. They currently lose the tie with Baltimore because of a 4-4 conference record.

8. Lost in all the Peter King puffery lately is the fact that the Jacksonville Jaguars (6-6) have lost three straight. They have Chicago (home) and Green Bay (away) the next two weeks, before finishing with Houston and Oakland.

9. Here’s a team on an upswing, finally. The Cincinnati Bengals (6-6) have won five of six, though their divisional and conference records are abysmal. They have the Pats on the road this week, then home games with the Bills and Giants before finishing with the Eagles in Philly. Ewww.

10. I’m not surprised the Buffalo Bills (6-6) are making a little noise, but I’m flabbergasted they’re doing it with Drew Bledsoe. The Bills only shot is for the sixth spot obviously, and right now, their conference record is 3-6. They also lose the head to head tiebreaker to Jacksonville. They’ll get shots at the Bengals (the 19th, on the road) and the Steelers (the 26th at home) before they’re done. They need a miracle, and it looks as though they’re already had one.

Who We’re Rooting for This Week

The A Game: Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, New York Jets at Pittsburgh. Providing Pennington doesn’t break his jaw on a Fig Newton or something, maybe there’s some hope in this match up of current seeds. They have a decent defense, but the Jets have beat only cupcakes (including pre-playoff run San Diego) on the road this season. I guess I won’t go crazy with the anticipation.

The B Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Indianapolis at Houston (5-7). The last time the Colts played the Texans, they pulled their typical BCS BS, and a few Houston players apparently took note. This will probably mean zero, but an upset would hang both division and conference losses on the Colts, as well as some December doubts, and that sounds like a very nice Sunday to me.

The C Game: Sunday afternoon, 4:15 PM, (5-7) Tampa Bay at San Diego. Right now, I’m pulling for the Chargers out of deep hatred for the Colts (who’d dearly love to have that third slot, so as to ensure they’d get to put a pounding to the lowest playoff seed), so we’d just as soon see them win out. If the Pats lose this week, though, I’ll be seeing San Diego through a different set of eyes entirely.

The D Game: There is no D game.

The F Game (TIED): We got plenty of F’s. But they involve the Miami Dolphins (at Denver), the New York Giants (at Baltimore), the Chicago Bears (at Jacksonville) and the Cleveland Browns (at Buffalo). Next!

Who Can Clinch This Week, and How

The Steelers can clinch the AFC North with a win, or a Ravens loss or tie. Even if they lose to the Jets, they can clinch a playoff spot with a Denver loss.

The Colts can clinch the AFC South with a win over Houston, or even if somehow they wind up in a tie with the Texans (the Giants have a better chance of beating the Ravens), they can still win the title with a Jags loss or tie.

Just to be difficult, the Jets can clinch a playoff berth with a win over Pittsburgh and losses by Buffalo and Denver, along with wins or ties by either the Chargers or Ravens. Yeah, whatever.

I’m hearing they’re still going through with the NFC playoffs, though I’m not sure why. I’ll keep digging. Anyway, the Eagles have already clinched the East, and can clinch a first-round bye with a win over the Redskins. The Falcons can clinch the West with a win, but weren’t we just saying the same thing a week ago?

What about the Pats?

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, Cincinnati at New England. The last time we saw the Bengals, they were making mince-meat out of the Patriots. I don’t care if it was August or not. Something has to be done about it. The Patriots can clinch the division title with a win over the Bengals, combined with a Jets loss to Pittsburgh. They can clinch a playoff berth with a win, or losses by either the Ravens or Broncos.

Game Day Rear View, Edition 2004, Volume 12

December 5, 2004
Browns vs. Patriots
At Cleveland Browns Stadium, Patriots WIN, 42-15
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

Butch Davis may be all done in Cleveland, but the mistakes by the lake remain.

That was welcome news for the visiting Patriots today, as the defending champions took advantage of four turnovers to dismantle the woeful Browns in a 42-15 game that was over, in all essence, before Cleveland had even touched the ball.

Bethel Johnson痴 remarkably easy 94 yard return of the opening kickoff gave the Patriots an immediate 7-0 lead and placed a pair of shiny new roller skates on a Browns team that had already been careening wildly downhill for most of the decade.

From there, New England controlled the clock and the game by rushing for 225 yards against a defense that has now given up 110 points in its last eight quarters. The Pats success on the ground (50 carries and 3 touchdowns) masked a curiously awkward and uncomfortable struggle throughout by their usually reliable passing attack.

On defense, it was about what you expected when the Browns announced on Wednesday that rookie Luke 塑et Another� McCown would start at quarterback. They hounded him from the beginning with repeated blitzes, which continued even after the Pats led by five touchdowns. When the rookie turned to his running game for relief, it led only to more agony for the reeling Browns.

The game story can be written with these simple words: Rohan Davey entered the game with 1:56 to play in the 3rd quarter.

A final thought: is facing all these struggling teams at the end of the season necessarily such a good thing for the 11-1 Patriots? I noticed a few sloppy, less-than-edgy moments today � three turnovers by the offense, a ridiculous two-play, 93 yard drive given up by the (albeit second-team) defense � and I wonder if it might be mixed blessing that the 2-10 Dolphins and the 1-11 Forty-Niners are half of the remaining schedule.

No disrespect intended to anybody, that is.

Patriots on Offense

Corey Dillon took his opening carry straight up the gut of the Browns defense for 21 yards, and he dominated the game thereafter, until leaving late in the 2nd quarter with another minor leg injury. In all, he had gained 98 yards (5.7 a carry) and scored twice.

In two consecutive scoring drives midway through the first half, the Pats went to Dillon 11 times, and he finished both with the now-familiar short TD blasts that resemble nothing short of rib-breaking body blows. Shortly after, he was done for the afternoon.

Sort of. Later, apparently OK, he returned for a 3rd quarter cameo to crack the 100 yard mark for the seventh time this year.

The Pats were able to rest Dillon thanks to a solid effort by his backups. Kevin Faulk spelled him with 13 carries, finishing with 80 yards and a slashing 3rd quarter 10 yard TD run. Dillon痴 absence also prompted the first extended action for sixth round pick Cedric Cobbs, who predictably struggled (1.8 a carry on 16 tries, and a late fumble) but showed a flash here and there. It was a day carried by all of the Patriots running backs.

That was a good thing, considering that Tom Brady and the Pats receivers could do very little against the defense that was last seen giving up four touchdown passes to Carson Palmer.

It was a rough go for Brady from the start, due in large part to a surprisingly good Cleveland pass rush led by Kenard Lang (2 sacks). Brady痴 fumble on a Lang sack stalled the Pats first possession at the Cleveland 35 (Dan Koppen recovered, and the Pats punted), and when Dillon immediately fumbled to begin the next drive, the Pats offense left the field looking harried.

They brought it back from there, mostly behind Dillon痴 strong running but also thanks to two key plays by their quarterback. Brady kick started the Pats third possession with a 10 yard scramble on 3rd and 4 from the Pats 11. The Pats stayed on the ground, and behind Dillon, Faulk and Cobbs advanced to the Cleveland 36. On first down, the Browns bit for Brady痴 sharp play action and left Christian Fauria running free for a 25 yard gain to the Cleveland 11.

In two plays the Pats were in, and on their next drive, it was Brady痴 bomb to David Patten that drew pass interference at the Cleveland 5, setting up the second of Dillon痴 TD痴 and a 21 point lead. In the process, they had driven for 95 and 72 yards.

The Pats offense came back in the third with another 70 yard touchdown drive (Faulk, behind the left side of the offensive line) and just 90 seconds later (after a Steve Heiden fumble) Brady hit Patten with a beautifully thrown 44 yard touchdown pass to make it 42-7.

You can稚 say Brady doesn稚 complete the long ones anymore, can you? Some days, it痴 all he completes.

While I知 on the subject , I値l just say it: it just seemed downright odd to see the New England Patriots throwing 44 yard scoring passes when leading a last place team by four touchdowns. That痴 all I知 saying. Just odd.

Still, it was an uplifting way from Brady to end a difficult day, typified by a lousy out pattern to David Givens that was intercepted by Lewis Sanders as the Pats tried to drive for a field goal in the first half痴 final seconds.

Joe Andruzzi left the game for a short time with a leg injury (a lot of that going around) but returned to play later. The Pats offensive line, always known as a pass blocking unit, has (with Dillon痴 arrival) been remade as voracious, road grading, killing machine, of a sort. Just goes to show you, I guess.

Patriots on Defense

They were all over their second McCown in four months. Cade, for the love of Mike (there isn稚 a Mike, is there?), take cover.

Predictably, the Pats pressured the young quarterback into mistakes that would become his undoing, sending blitzers all afternoon (three sacks and several pressures) while removing any hope for a running game. Rodney Harrison痴 juggling interception at the Pats 5 stunted Browns hopes after Dillon痴 early fumble, effectively snuffing out the Browns only chance to make a game of it. Harrison痴 pick set up the Pats 95 yard drive and before long, New England led by three touchdowns.

Early in the second half, more ball hawking and stout defense took the lead from 祖omfortable� to 素reaking luxurious�, when Richard Seymour forced a William Green fumble on 3rd and short, which was picked up by Randall Gay at the Cleveland 41. Once he shook off Willie McGinest (the only guy who seemed to be trying to tackle him) Gay weaved cross country before nose diving into the end zone for his first (and probably not last) professional touchdown.

That made the score 28-7. After a quick Browns three and out, the Pats offense drove for another seven.

About six minutes later, the Pats D was at it again. After McCown had hit Heiden for a first down at the Cleveland, Dexter Reid forced a fumble that was recovered by Eugene Wilson. A minute later, the Pats lead was 42-7, and if Terry Robiske if was weighing the pros and cons of being a 叢layers coach� at that moment, you wouldn稚 have blamed him.

Despite their success today, there were a few sloppy moments that leave a slightly bitter aftertaste, kind of like cranberry juice. There was the inexplicable 70 yard, 1:17 drive by the Browns to close the first half, ending in a strange deflected pass for touchdown, and then the inexcusable two-play, 93 yard drive in the fourth, when Dennis Northcutt and Antonio Bryant got deep and wide open on successive plays (Bryant a 40 yard score, his second of the day). To make matters worse, McCown then hit an open Heiden for a successful two point play.

Let痴 close on an up note. Time is drawing close (we hope) to the dual return of Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, and they are going to find that rookies like Gay and Reid, and veterans like two-way star Troy Brown (now leads Charles Woodson by two interceptions), have set the bar pretty high in their absence.

Patriots on Special Teams

Boffo ratings for any game where you return a kick for a touchdown, much less on the opening kickoff. Bethel Johnson took the directional kick to his left, but quickly slanted across the field until he found himself virtually alone down the right sideline. He went in untouched and must have utterly deflated the Browns right out of the chute.

Johnson has struggled this year with rare returns across his own 40, but his burst today recalled the lightning strikes of his rookie season.

I知 still trying to figure out why the Patriots, leading 21-0 in the 2nd quarter, went for it on 4th down from the Cleveland 30. Adam Vinatieri was on the field but the Pats called time out and brought back the offense for a lackluster Patrick Pass attempt on 4th down. No big deal, but I noticed.

Patriots on the Sidelines

That aside, another solid week here, as the Pats managed to avoid the dreaded 奏rap game�. Listen, when their opponents are allowed to set actual traps on the field, like bear traps, then I値l worry about a 奏rap game� for this bunch.

I値l say it again: a 44 yard bomb when you池e up by 28? I知 not saying it痴 bad, just strange. I thought for a minute that Ron Borges had actually gotten his wish and Tony Dungy was coaching the Patriots.

Patriots Next Week

Home again for (thankfully) another 1 PM tilt with the 6-6 Cincinnati Bengals (winners over Baltimore today). I have the vaguest recollection of an August beat down in the Queen City. It was just a pre-season game, but still.

Poking and Prodding the Playoffs, Edition 1

Week Thirteen
November 30, 2004
By Scott A. Benson
[email protected]

With three quarters of the NFL regular season now behind us, it might be a good idea if we try to get a handle on how the upcoming playoffs are shaking out.

Really. I don稚 think it would be too presumptuous. The Patriots are 10-1, and the remaining teams on their regular season schedule have a combined record of 19-36. I think they値l make it (knock, knock, knock).

Sponsored links



The question is where, exactly. Naturally, the road to Jacksonville gets progressively bumpier the further you池e seeded from the top of your conference. In both of their championship seasons, the Patriots finished with no worse than the second-best record in the AFC. In �01, that clinched them a first-round bye and a home game. In �03, they enjoyed home field advantage over Tennessee (the day Mr. Freeze actually froze) and Indianapolis (I think those pansies would have preferred to be indoors, don稚 you?) before advancing to their second world championship game in 24 months.

So where they finish, exactly, is important.

I thought that about this time every week, we壇 poke and prod at the playoff picture as the Pats try to map the smoothest route to Alltel Stadium.

NFC

You致e got to be kidding me. There are FIVE teams with winning records. I知 not even going to bother.

AFC

If the Playoffs Started Today

Random thought: You never see a 訴f the playoffs started today� story on the day of the first playoff game. That seems strange. You壇 think that would be the one day it would be worth something.

First Seed: By virtue of their October win over the Patriots, the Pittsburgh Steelers (10-1) currently have possession of the Holy Grail � home field.

Second seed: Good news � it痴 the good guys. New England Patriots (10-1).

Third seed: With the third best record of all division leaders, it痴 the San Diego Chargers (8-3). AFC South leader Indianapolis is also 8-3, but the Run It Up Gang痴 three conference losses come back to bite them here.

Fourth Seed: They池e probably a better BCS candidate then they are a playoff team (might we suggest the Legacy Audio Holiday Classic?), but its here we place the fourth division winner, the Indianapolis Colts (8-3).

Fifth seed: The New York Jets (8-3) fortuitously hit a soft spot in their schedule when the normally durable Chad Pennington surprisingly went down with an injury. Must have been a freak thing. Anyway, the Jets hang on for this week痴 fifth spot (is this morphing into a Sunday morning Top 40 countdown?)

Sixth seed: Hey, it痴 the just-vanquished Baltimore Ravens (7-4). They win a tie with Denver because of a better conference record (5-3 to 4-3). The Broncos obviously have a game in hand there. The next tiebreaker is common opponents, and that just sounds like too much of a headache right now. Like they say, it痴 early yet.

Who We池e Rooting For This Week

The A Game: Sunday night, 8:30 PM, Pittsburgh at Jacksonville (6-5). The Steelers, winners of nine in a row, have to be number one on our hit list every week as they alone stand between the Pats and home field (the Pats must finish one game ahead of Pittsburgh as they have lost the head-to-head tiebreaker). Still, I can稚 get excited about the Jaguars, losers of three out of their last four. That痴 OK. We値l have other chances with the Jets (next week in Pitt) and the Ravens (week 16, also at Heinz) or even the Bills and Giants (both road games). A surprise this week would be nice, though.

The B Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, (5-6) Houston at New York Jets. The Pats have a two game lead in the division (actually three, with the Pats current head to head advantage), and a Jets loss/Pats win inches our favorites closer to their second straight division title. Let痴 hope the Texans stay on the high they got from drubbing Tennessee.

The C Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, (4-7) Tennessee at Indianapolis. Speaking of the Titans, here they are. They池e relevant for this week anyway, because in the race for a first-round bye, the Colts trail the Pats by two losses (actually three again, thanks to opening night) with five left to play. We壇 still like more in the way of mathematical certainty.

The D Game: Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, (5-6) Cincinnati at Baltimore. Look, I realize the Ravens are even less of a threat than the Colts at the moment, but they are currently one of the six AFC playoff seeds, and we are contractually bound to root against them. If the Bengals can score a third of what they scored last week, all hope is not lost.

The F Game: Sunday afternoon, 4:05 PM, (7-4) Denver at San Diego. If there was any way both of these teams could lose, that would be great. But you know what? Let痴 pull a swerve and go with the Chargers, giving them a two game lead in their division and keeping the heat on the bound-to-choke-sometime Colts for that third seed.

What about the Pats?

Sunday afternoon, 1:00 PM, New England at Cleveland (3-8). The Patriots have a two-game lead in their division to protect, as well as the two game conference record advantage they hold over the rest of the lower seeded teams. Naturally, the Pats also have to keep pace with the Steelers if they want a chance for the rematch to be played at Gillette.