by Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen
The Patriots head to Tennessee this Sunday to end their regular season with a grueling road match at LP Field, home of the surprising Titans. With six straight wins, coach Jeff Fisher and sensational rookie quarterback Vince Young have led a bottomed-out Tennessee squad all the way back from the NFL’s basement (9-23 over the previous two seasons, and 2-7 to start this one) to an outside shot at the AFC playoffs on the last day of the season.
The Titans can get into the playoffs with a win over the Patriots combined with losses by Cincinnati (actually, a tie works here too) and Denver, and a win by the Chiefs. Tennessee would no doubt rather hold their destiny in their own hands, but either way, there’s no denying that the Titans re-emergence is one of the best stories of the NFL season.
In New England, the Patriots seem headed for the fourth seed, yet the possibility for moving up still remains. An Indianapolis home loss to Miami, combined with a Pats win in Music City, would give the Patriots the third seed and a wild card round home game against the sixth and final AFC playoff entrant.
Let’s see what the panel has to say for itself, with the playoff season fast approaching.
Any lingering thoughts about last Sunday’s win over the Jaguars?
Tim: Lingering is right. This is the type of game that really sticks to your ribs as a fan. It was everything you could ever ask for: dramatic without being too cardiac (they were the superior team from start to finish), featuring great plays from new and exciting players (David Thomas most notably, but Gaffney looks pretty damn comfortable out there, doesn’t he?), and it meant the playoff world to the local 11. Just a great way to spend the day as a fan. Hopefully, everybody did so with loved ones who share their passion for great NFL football (I watched while my sonic engineer / patented inventor / Slavic father-in-law looked on like I was watching Faces of Death 7, so be thankful for whoever shared couch space with you). This victory is a great endorsement for this team’s legitimate chance at a prolonged playoff run, although I think the Jaguars are similar to the Steelers (whom the Patriots match up with very well each time they play), a physical and talented team that can be outsmarted. I think that was clearly the case Sunday.
Bruce: Clearly, a lot more positives from this game than from weeks past. Strong play from start to finish. No clusters of turnovers or penalties. Big plays when needed. You’ve got to be encouraged by this performance. A couple of things to nitpick…the defense did give up at least three bug plays, which is a problem they had early in the season, but hopefully they were just a fluke this time around. It was great to have Rodney Harrison and Laurence Maroney back on the field and productive, and David Thomas showed that signs of being that big time receiver at tight end that the Patriots were looking for. I watched this game in the Bay Area with my Grandmother-in-law telling me tales of how great the 1970’s Raiders were and showing me her autographed photos of Jim Plunkett, and snapshots of her taken with Willie Brown and Cliff Branch. She told me that since the Raiders were so bad, she was going to root for the Patriots the rest of the way. I’m still pondering whether that is a good thing.
Greg: Just that it was a pretty good overall performance with the score really not indicative of how much the Patriots outplayed Jacksonville. You had that somewhat flukish run by Jones-Drew and a late TD by Jacksonville, but the Patriots pretty much dominated the play most of the game. That is encouraging.
Scott: I really thought David Garrard was going to run with the ball on that last Jacksonville play. I thought his arm was on the way up for a pump fake when Jarvis Green hit him from behind, which of course caused the ball to come out and his arm to go forward. I’ve since learned I’m the only one who thinks that. Something else I’m probably alone on is Travelin’ Tom Brady, Running Quarterback. I loved the heady sneaks for first downs, and to me, there’s no shame in having to bring it down and go for it once in awhile, especially against a defense that has been allowing nine – I said NINE – points a game at home. I was of course mortified by the shot he took, but I don’t equate that in any way with quick sneaks and something-from-nothing hook slides, which I wholeheartedly endorse. They need to scratch and claw the ball down the field, quite obviously, and it seems to me that’s exactly what he’s doing.
This weekend is bound to remind fans to some extent of last year’s season-ender with Miami. They’ve won their division and clinched a playoff spot, and the odds seem to be against them moving up to the third seed even if they beat Tennessee. What would you like to see Bill Belichick do this weekend? Protect some key starters – maybe even Tom Brady – and let the chips fall where they may, or play it straight up and hope for a break on the third seed?
Bruce: I think they’re going to try and win this game. It’s possible Brady might get some rest, along with some other guys this week, but I think for the most part, the team is going to try and do whatever they can to move in the the # 3 slot in the conference. Indy has to lose, of course, but they’ve been erratic down the stretch, and the Dolphins just might be able to help the Patriots out for once. Anything is possible, I think they might even try to win the game with Matt Cassel getting significant snaps, just to give him some real game experience.
Greg: I’d like to just see them play it out and win the game. What I’d really like is to have a bye, I think that is so huge….last year notwithstanding. But there was no shot at that last year at this point and there is not a shot this year either. Still, I’d like to see them just play the game straight up, win 12 games, possibly get the 3rd seed and keep rolling into the playoffs. But, I don’t expect to see that and I expect to see a heavy dose of Matt Cassel and guys like Marquise Hill and LeKevin Smith. Maybe Willie Andrews will get a pick!
Scott: Playoff permutations aside, I just feel like they’ve worked all season to get into the kind of groove they’ve been in the last two games, as far as cutting turnovers and penalties and just generally clean play, the scrappy offense notwithstanding. I’d hate to see them break that momentum, but I acknowledge the risks associated with that. I’ll still put my chips down on playing my best and trying to beat another good team on the road to keep rolling into the playoffs. They played it coy last year and then played some pretty sloppy football after that.
Tim: I am actually surprised by how much sentiment I’ve read endorsing a scrimmage approach to this game. I was surprised when they did it last year too, but the notable difference was they had full control of their destiny then. A win or a loss determined which opponent they played. They chose the 12 win Jaguars and chose them wisely. They don’t have that luxury this year. Sure, whether they win or lose in Tennessee does factor in, but there are other variables outside of their control this time. For this reason, and the fact that the difference between a 3 and a 4 seed could determine home field should an upset occur to one of the top 2 seeds (ala the AFC Championship game in 1996), tells me that they are playing this one straight. As Brady said earlier this week, “worry about one team instead of 5″. I also think they are equally familiar with each one of their likely first round opponents which could normally be a deciding factor.
In general, do you have any particular preference for a first round playoff matchup? Anybody you’d rather avoid? Do you care?
Greg: In general, I hate these kind of discussions. I guess I’m of the mindset we’ll find out soon enough and I don’t think there is any team the Patriots couldn’t beat or couldn’t lose to. So just discussing it is pointless, it’ll come down to how they play that day against whomever they match up with.
Scott: If the favorites win this weekend, the Patriots will face Denver at Gillette. I know that’s supposed to be a bad match-up and everything (Mike Shanahan has had the better of Bill Belichick), but has any AFC playoff contender had a worse second-half (3-4) than the Broncos? Do the matchups factor in a rookie quarterback that would be starting his sixth NFL game? Do they factor in the 23rd ranked pass defense? Point is, you’d have to put that game at even, at a minimum. I don’t see where Denver is any worse a matchup than any of the other teams in what seems to be a pretty even conference.
Tim: I’ve got this irrational fear of the Jets every year. It’s a deep seeded neurosis with origins from the Tuna Bowls of the nineties and a carryover from that ugly Sunday night game 4 years ago (almost to the day of the Jax game this year). I’d just assume not see them or their turncoat coach again this year (BTW, what are the chances that Charlie Weis has tried to score some referral money from his staple surgeon by giving him Mangini’s address?). I know that I should probably feel the same way about Denver, and to some extent I do, but the odds of losing 4 times in a row to the same team just doesn’t seem likely. I still respect and fear the speed of that Denver defense, especially the linebackers. That type of speed has proven to be very effective against the NE offense. Truth be told, I am more concerned about the divisional round than any of the others. Denver and New York are both tough outs.
Bruce: All playoff opponents are tough. Even though they basically hand-selected their opponent last season, I think that’s not something you can do that often and get away with it. Obviously Denver and the Jets beat the Patriots at Gillette this season, so you’re going to have it in your head that they are capable of knocking the Patriots out. I think we’re familiar with just about all the possible first round foes, and it doesn’t really make difference who they play…it’s going to be a tough game. I guess that’s my long winded way of saying that I don’t care who they play…but I’m glad they’re in.
Let’s dispense with the other games and move right to Pats and Titans. What do you think?
Scott: It seems like the Pats may treat this like any other game, in which case, I think they’ll find a way to outlast the inspired Titans. The Patriots ought to be able to score on the Titans defense (28th in scoring defense, 32nd in yards allowed, 28th against the run, 26th against the pass, though 13th in takeaways), and if the Pats can stop Travis Henry (no sure thing) to consistently force second and longs, I think they’ll handle Young. He’ll never be out of it, though, which makes this feel like last week part two. Pats, by a hair, 20-16. If the Pats end up sitting this one out, Tennessee wins, 21-13.
Tim: I think they win with the under. Vince Young will struggle going against a Belichick defense for the first time and we will all see first hand why the Titan defense should be garnering more attention for their recent winning streak. I think Fisher is a great coach, especially for his dogged persistence with the porn mustache, and he’ll prove a worthier adversary then Del Rio was this past week. I am thinking 10-6 . Something like that.
Bruce: I admire Scott’s approach of picking things both ways. I should’ve been doing that all along! As I said above, I think the Patriots are going to try and win this one, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to risk all their banged-up players. I think Wilfork and Watson, if they play will do so sparingly…just enough to get a taste of being back in action. Brady might not play the whole game. So even though they’re going to try and win, I think Tennessee might try harder, and be jacked up in their home finale. I’m picking the Titans, 24-14.
Greg: I just have the feeling the Patriots will win even without the starters going the whole way and even with the Titans playing it straight up. I’ll go Pats 30-17.
Anybody have a Mediot of the Week?
Tim: I was in Ridgefield, CT (home of the beautiful people with better dressed pets than any person in my family) for the game and had to do some last minute shopping on the boss’s orders. At halftime, I turn on the ignition and, like a cold, scaly hand on my privates, I am greeted by the discordant tones of Andy Gresh admonishing the New England players for the Jones Drew run. “ANY PLAYER, from PEE WEE through the pros knows that you PLAY TO THE WHISTLE! YOU PLAY TO THE WHISTLE!”. It was actually worse than I describe because I also caught the tail end of Tanguay’s voice asking the original question. It’s telling that this was the first thing these two clowns decided to talk about even though the lasting impression from the first half to any fan paying attention was the beautiful 14 play, 7+ minute, 82 yard drive that gave the Patriots the halftime lead. I turned it off instantaneously, it’s the equivalent of listening to a tee-totaling God Squadder while you try and enjoy a few cold ones after all, but it was my only exposure to the local broadcast sports media this week. I have to give them my Mediot of the Week award just on principle for intruding on an otherwise fantastic game experience. You show me a woman Andy Gresh has kissed and I will show you a hairlip you can’t help but stare at.
Bruce: I don’t even want to think about Andy Gresh kissing a woman with a hairlip…nice mental picture, Tim. Thanks. Steve Buckley and Bill Burt put on as annoying a performance as I’ve ever heard on the Big Show Wednesday. They constantly harped on all the negative things that have been around this club all season…the receivers…the team would be better with Deion Branch and David Givens, Corey Dillon is old and slow, they have had a cakewalk schedule etc etc etc. Obviously they did a lot of it to get a rise out of head pom-pom Pete Sheppard, who did his best to defend the club, but Buckley was at his smarmy worst that day, mocking Sheppard all afternoon (Which normally I would be in favor of.) and saying that Pete was going to shout down anyone who said the Patriots have any weaknesses. It’s again the case that this club suffers from comparison to the ’03 and ’04 clubs. But they don’t need to be as good as those teams. But some media types seem to be treating this team like a 4-11 team instead of an 11-4 team.
Greg: With many of the regular idiots in the media on vacation, I think I’ll take a week of vacation from this feature and list some of the guys and gals in the sports media, local and national, I enjoyed the work of this last year. They include Bob Ryan, Mike Reiss, Mike Fine, Mike Lynch, Tom Curran, Jackie MacMullan, Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason, Ron Jaworski, Jerry Remy, Joe Castiglione, Sean McDonough, Dale Arnold, Mike Holley, Shira Springer, Mike Tirico and John Madden, who improved a lot on a new network this year. There are many others, but these are some whose work was top notch off the top of my head.