September 27, 2016

BSMW Patriots Roundtable – Closing the Books on 2006

By Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan, Bruce Allen and Bill Barnwell
[email protected]

1 more day to the Senior Bowl.

26 more days to the NFL Scouting Combine.

35 more days to the start of the league’s free agency period.

92 more days to the draft.

About 105 days before the first mini-camps for rookies.

About 140 days before the veterans report for theirs.

About 185 days before training camp begins again.

About 225 days before the Patriots start a 2007 regular season schedule that includes the Indianapolis Colts, the San Diego Chargers, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Giants.

One more Roundtable before we can leave 2006 behind. Panel, it’s time to close the books. By the way, Tim packed a grip and split for the coast of Mexico after the game, so our friend Bill Barnwell from Football Outsiders is sitting in.

Let’s clear out any lingering thoughts from last weekend’s championship round loss to Indy.

Greg: The Colts deserved the game. It was close, a few yards here or there or a changed decision here or there and the result could have been a lot different. There were a couple points in the first half where the Colts were literally at a point of no return and could not have come back from if things had just gone slightly differently. Yet, they hung in there and thoroughly outplayed the Patriots in the second half. It was enough.

Bruce: I was shocked when Addai ran into the end zone with a minute left. Yeah, I know I shouldn’t have been, given how things had been going for the second half, but it was still a slap in the face. I guess I never considered the possibility that the Colts would actually get a touchdown there, I had such faith that the Patriots would make the big play and stop them short, and force them to the field goal. When Addai went in, I was just unprepared for that moment. I knew a minute wasn’t enough time to get a touchdown, though it would’ve been enough for a field goal attempt, and that’s where I thought the game was headed. This game was almost a mirror image of the last time the two team met in the Dome…Patriots out to a big lead, Colts come charging back, big goal line sequence at the end, even the same score at the end of the game…just reversed. This time the Colts got the job done.

Bill: You’re the New England Patriots. You have the ball, up 34-31, with 3:22 left. You’re on your own 40 yard line. The Colts have punted to you after scoring touchdowns on three consecutive drives, so you’re doing a far from admirable job of stopping them. Indianapolis has two timeouts left. Indianapolis is the owner of the second-worst run defense in football over the course of the regular season. How can you possibly throw three passes? Why do you think Heath Evans was in the huddle on first down when he shouldn’tve been? If you run the ball three times into the ground, you take 82 seconds off the clock and then hand the ball off to your punter, who’s been fantastic all day, to drive the Colts back. Alternately, the Colts get the ball back before the two minute warning with one or no timeouts. Either way, it’s to your advantage. Instead, the Patriots threw the ball twice and then nearly gave away the game on an interception with the third throw. Maddening. And I don’t mean an old fat guy, either; he would’ve run the ball down the Colts’ throats.

Scott: Just this. There’s 9:25 left in the second quarter, and Asante Samuel has just done his best Ty Law imitation on Peyton Manning. The Patriots lead 21-3 in a damn-near silent RCA Dome. The stunned Colts offense, their long-desired home matchup with their mortal enemies slipping away before it’s even begun, trudge back out for their next series, just trying to get off the field without inflicting any more damage to themselves. The Patriots, on the other hand, have an 18 point lead with just 40 minutes to play before Super Bowl 41. First down, Eric Alexander traps Peyton Manning before he can scramble away from pressure. Second down, the Patriots come again and blast Manning for an 11 yard loss. Third down, a Manning prayer for Marvin Harrison falls incomplete. The Colts punt from their own end zone, and Troy Brown returns the ball to midfield. Taking their time, they get one first down. Within seconds, Ben Watson is racing for another at the Indy 21. I turn to look at my wife, totally missing the flag on the play, and discover that she’s already looking at me. She’s smiling. I’m smiling back. We both shake our heads in amazement. They’re doing it again, I say. Again! Another Super Bowl! We just laughed. Neither one of us even imagined that at that minute we were watching the beginning of the biggest blown lead in the history of conference championship games. Neither one of us – especially then, at that giddy moment – could have ever believed such a thing possible.

Was this season a success?

Bruce: Given the standards that the team has set for themselves this decade, you have to say the end result was a disappointment. In a vacuum, I think it was a success. There was a lot of doubt in the minds of observers of this club heading into the season. That doubt continued all season. They stayed the course and did things their way and ended up 12-4 and in the AFC title game. For many franchises, that kind of season would make their decade. This year it is a disappointment.

Bill: Overall, I don’t think you can say it is. Beating the Chargers in one of the great fluke victories of all playoff time is nice, but the bloom is coming off the Patriots playoff rose. Winning the AFC East should have been expected. Laurence Maroney was broken in well and showed signs of being a future star, but the Deion Branch situation was mismanaged and led to an outcome that didn’t help the Patriots, a veteran team at the peak of their success cycle, head towards winning a Super Bowl. This isn’t the end of the Patriots dynasty, but I’m not sure if you can or will be able to associate the team the Patriots will put on the field in 2007 with the teams they put on the field in ’01, ’03, and ’04.

Scott: First blush, yeah. They made the conference championship with a chance for another Super Bowl. Obviously, they set higher standards for themselves, ones they didn’t reach, but as a fan, it’s extremely hard to call that a failure. I will say that I think its legit to question whether, in the end, they took a step ahead this year, or even maintained. They lost a lot of players and finished the season with as many, and perhaps even more, holes than they started with. There are some vital core players – such as the linebackers, and even the safeties – that are simply not the players they were, nor is it likely they will be again. There isn’t a raft of guys ready to take their place. Areas that were alleged to be thin arguably still are. The Felgerites think they they can solve all this by throwing around money, reaching out there to grab another Harrison or Colvin, but rational adults should understand by now that free agency has never been an NFL panacea. For every Rodney Harrison there are twenty Adam Archuletas. Signing someone to a fat contract doesn’t guarantee a thing. Signing the right someone may, but evidence overwhelmingly suggests that’s no easy chore. Nevertheless, you don’t want to be the kind of contender that finishes every season by plugging holes and gambling on first-time starters like Eric Alexander, either. There’s a lot of work to be done here, I think. Maybe even more than last year. And now they’re the team that blew a huge lead in the championship, a year after handing away another playoff game, two results that run counter to everything they have built over the last six years. Looking at things that way, I can’t argue for ‘success’.

Greg: Absolutely. Not the ultimate success, obviously. But hey, they were better than expected, developed some players who’ll contribue in their system down the road and the coaching seemed to improve after 2005 being somewhat of a transition year. I think you can look at it this way, a lot of changes occurred after the 2004 Super Bowl. These included big changes on the coaching staff and among the personnel. Since that time they have integrated critical guys like Ben Watson, Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur, Ellis Hobbs, Stephen Gostkowski, Laurence Maroney and others. Dean Pees and Josh McDaniel have gained experience as coordinators. In some ways, they took a step back after 2004, but what caught people off guard is they didn’t go as far back as a lot of championship teams do. Some fall off the map. The Patriots stayed a playoff team. This year they went a step further. They have an offensive and defensive line full of guys in their twenties. They are on their way back up as I see it and took another step in that direction this season with a better year than they had in 2005, any way you look at it.

Which Patriots players exceeded your expectations this season? Which ones fell short?

Bill: I thought Vinny Testaverde had a much better year than anyone could’ve expected him to have. Kevin Faulk, amazingly, still produces despite being the poor man’s Tiki Barber. If you told me he’d have a longer career than Barber after last season, I’d have bet $100 against you. I think Ellis Hobbs took a big step forward this year, too — he’s not on the same level as Samuel, but he’s not a Fred Thomas or someone you’re afraid about whenever the opposing quarterback throws in his direction. Stephen Gostkowski was everything the Patriots could have hoped for: competent on field goals, fantastic on kickoffs. Considering the research FO’s done this year that points out how field goal percentage has absolutely no year-to-year consistency, I’m pretty confident Gostowski’s going to be useful for the next several seasons. On the flip side, well, I’ll talk about the linebacking crew in a minute. I’m also down on Ben Watson’s year, partly because of injury, but I think a lot of people expected more out of him.

Scott: I think we’ll all name the same guys for the ‘exceeded’ category, like Gaffney, or Gostkowski, and I’ll go ahead and throw in the name of Antwain Spann, just for that one hit on Eric Parker. As far as the ‘fell short’ guys, I might as well be the one to say it – Tom Brady. This is a classic case of the high bar, but he was badly off at times. Once considered perhaps the NFL’s most accurate short to intermediate passer, he threw a bunch of wayward curveballs and knuckleballs this year. Once considered an unimpeachable and unperturbable decision-maker, he was a little harried now and again, and even took to forcing some balls into coverage. He looked almost human. It was terrifying.

Greg: I think Ty Warren exceeded my expectations. I thought he was a good player. I did not know he could be a dominant player, but he was. As far as disappointments, I’d go with Chad Jackson. He has so much talent, but just didn’t really have it come together this year. He had moments, but far from enough. But there is still hope there, quite a bit in fact. Lets see where he is a year from now.

Bruce: Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney came on strong as the season went along, and proved to be at the very least a good second and third receivers. Gaffney even showed signed in the postseason of being a go-to guy for Brady in the future. What can we say about Stephen Gostkowski? Do you think any NFL rookie was under more scrutiny than this guy? Yet when the pressure was on, he was almost flawless late in the season. I think James Sanders made some good strides as well. On the downside, the linebackers outside of Colvin were a disappointment.

How would you describe the year that Bill Belichick just had?

Scott: It’s presumptuous, of course, but I would have to guess that it was probably one of the worst years of his life. The football stuff, you could write a book about. Somebody probably is. The personal stuff, I’ll leave to you to sum up. Any way the guy turned he was facing torment of some sort. I figure it was pretty miserable, as years go. The way it ended up was probably the fitting capper. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t concern me a little. I much prefer the Lombardi-hoisting Belichick to the fraught and fatigued Belichick.

Greg: I mean, the guy is a great coach. He makes mistakes, but I’d prefer him to any other coach in the league. I didn’t see any noticeable change in his excellent performance this year.

Bruce: For the first time in his tenure here, I’m beginning to worry that the end of the Belichick era might be on the horizon. I’ve always thought that he would be here as long as Brady is, but I just have no idea right now. I would like to think that he doesn’t let all the negative media attention get to him, but regardless of what guys like Borges say, he IS human. This stuff has to bother him after a while. The most recent loss has really brought out the worst in many of the media types, and the onslaught doesn’t appear to be ending soon. I feel for the guy.

Bill: If I had to guess which coach would’ve unexpectedly retired a week or two after the playoffs ended, I would’ve guessed Belichick before I did Parcells. What’s his motivation for coaching this team at this point?

As Mike Reiss wrote on Tuesday the Patriots have as many as 14 players now approaching unrestricted free agency. Most noteable are corner Asante Samuel, tight end Daniel Graham, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, and key veterans like Troy Brown, Heath Evans and Larry Izzo. What are your thoughts about another challenging off-season of free agency for the Patriots?

Greg: To me, Graham is the key. Samuel and Banta-Cain are guys you’d want back, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they lost them. The rest are veterans who you’ll invite back, but its pretty much in their court. I’d actually like them to retain Todd Sauerbraun. I was very impressed with his punting after the first week he was here.

Bruce: I don’t see a scenario in which both Samuel and Graham are gone. I don’t know if both will be back, but I do think at least one will be here next year. Whether it is under the “duress” of the Franchise tag remains to be seen, but I think one will get that slapped on them. Graham would be my gut guess, as his number would only be about four and half million. I think Troy Brown has another year left in him, but it is up to him whether he wants to keep going. I think the team will be more active players than they were last offseason in bringing new blood in, and there are also two first round draft picks to think about.

Bill: It’s one thing to understand how freely available talent like a Heath Evans doesn’t need a long-term deal, and can be grabbed out of the market whenever you want. It’s another to assume that you can replace anyone you want whenever you want. The former’s economics, but the latter’s arrogance. That came up with the Branch situation. I’d hate to see it happen again with Samuel.

Scott: Oh, I can hardly wait. Hopefully, it will be every bit as enjoyable and entertaining as last off-season was. Maybe we’ll be so intrigued by their machinations that we’ll be moved to debate them all effing season long. Oh, I hope so. It’s what made this year extra-special. In short, I have no idea what they’ll do. Daniel Graham’s great, and I think he’s an important part of their offense, WHEN HE’S ON THE FIELD. So what do you do about that? Especially if he’s getting other offers. Do you just plow ahead and pay more than you were willing to pay? I’m just saying I can see how this stuff can get pretty dicey pretty quick. As far as Samuel, I don’t like the way this one feels at all. His agent complaining that the Pats didn’t push hard enough for a pro bowl slot two days after they spit the bit in Indy just doesn’t sound good to me. Let me ask you – are you sure that from here on out, Asante Samuel will play the way he did over the last two months of this season? Because he’s going to be getting paid like it, isn’t he? Something like eight million to franchise him? Before you whip out the debit card, ask yourself: was that a maturing player, or a salary drive? That’s a legitimate question, I think. A year ago at this time, how many people thought Asante Samuel was a must sign? How many people would have said ‘don’t pay Deion Branch six, but pay Samuel eight?’ You tell me.

Of course, those free agent decisions only represent a portion of the Patriots efforts to build their team for 2007. Naturally, they can recruit free agents from around the league, and they are well stocked with draft picks. They’ve also proven to be quite adept with street free agents and undrafted players. With this in mind, what areas of the team would you like to see the team focus on over the next six months?

Bruce: Linebackers is an obvious area, there are some candidates out there that might fit. I also wouldn’t mind seeing the team sign every possible body out there for the secondary as we’ve discussed the annual injuries in that area. Those would seem to be the most pressing needs, as well as seeing if there are any upgrades at receiver available.

Bill: I’m going to make a list of the Patriots linebackers who can still play at a championship-caliber level. Roosevelt Colvin. Hey look, I’m finished! Which, coincidentally, brings me to Mike Vrabel. His struggles this year really stood out to me — in coverage, getting to the point of attack, he was a step slower than he has been. The media hasn’t caught up with it yet, which is why it would be a good idea to hop on Tedy Bruschi’s bandwagon and retire this offseason. I love the guy, but he was a cypher this season. Junior Seau wasn’t much better. As for Banta-Cain, I just don’t see it. Not flashes of it, not weeks where he’ll turn it on, I just don’t see his development into a starting NFL linebacker beyond simply having the players in front of him disappear. Bruschi was the best the Patriots had outside of Colvin, but he’s also a step slower than he used to be — remember that lob Addai dropped early last week? He beat Bruschi by about two and a half steps. Bruschi would have been with him or at least closer a year ago. Again, he’s won three titles, he came back from a stroke; like Belichick, what does he have to prove? This team should be opening up the vault and its arms for Lance Briggs.

Scott: Defense, defense, defense. Obviously linebackers (middle first, then outside) and secondary (everybody talks about corners, but I’ll put in a word here for safety – how much longer can they depend on Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson?). I wouldn’t be averse to them finding another lineman either, somebody to push the Wrights and Greens. The offense got all the attention in last year’s draft, so as Vince McMahon Sr. used to say, turnabout is fair play. As far as free agency, the linebackers are probably the best group available. As far as wide receivers or defensive backs, the options don’t seem as apparent.

Greg: Linebacker. They have gotten a bit long in the tooth there, though they did integrate some young guys in Corey Mays, Pierre Woods and Eric Alexander. Still, they need more here and need to sign a top guy or spend a high draft pick here. The secondary needs work as well, particularly if Samuel leaves. A wide receiver or two, good ones, should be a priority as well.

Any early takes on the Super Bowl matchup between the Colts and the Chicago Bears?

Bill: My heart says Colts so that I never have to read another “Manning can’t do it in the playoffs” story again. Actually, I guess that would be my eyes. My head says Bears because their secondary is deep enough to guard all the Colts receivers, and they have linebackers that can shut down Dallas Clark. It would be a gimme if Tommie Harris was still around. As for Rex? He’s up against the Colts defense. They’ve been awful for sixteen weeks, great for two, and mediocre for one. It’s not as if he’s up against a juggernaut. Bears 23, Colts 13.

Scott: I have no idea what to expect, but I am sure hoping the Colts don’t turn into pumpkins a week from Sunday. That would make last week even worse. Plus, I think I’d enjoy Bill Polian’s Super Bowl hangover. That ‘Katrina’ sign at Soldier Field last week was enough to make me root against the Bears for another hundred years anyway.

Greg: I think the Bears can hang in there. They showed they are physical and tough and can run the ball against the Patriots. The Colts have too many weapons, though. I’ll go Colts 27-17.

Bruce: I find myself rooting for the underdog Bears, while knowing that that Colts are likely to win this game, possibly by a large margin. My only hope is that the physical Bears defense can knock the Colts around, cause some turnovers and miscues. It’s unfortunate that I find myself actually rooting against Tony Dungy because of a guy like Ron Borges. Dungy does seem like a nice man, but having Borges in his corner really does him no favors at all. With friends and supporters like him, who needs enemies?

Okay, men, you get one last parting shot. Mediot of the Week, or whatever you want. Last one out gets the lights.

Bruce: Well, since it’s a season wrap, I’ve got to give the season nod to Michael Felger, who completely sold his soul to media Satan this season. In order to generate attention for his radio show and TV program on FSN, Felger reversed himself on just about every stand he had made prior to this season and turned into what he had openly mocked in the past. It was embarrassing.

Greg: It’s a new season. All sins are forgotten. Until after the Super Bowl anyways, when I start paying attention again.

Bill: Remember when I was talking about freely available talent earlier? I just wanted to make sure that everyone knew I wasn’t talking about Ken Walter. Thanks.

Scott: First, thanks again to Greg, Bruce, Tim and Bill for a great season. Thanks as well to the folks who clicked on the page, and those who wrote us with their thoughts, or just encouragement. In the end, the chance to meet other fans who share our passion is reason enough to put the work in on the page. In the next week or so, we’re going to knock around some ideas for where to take BSMW Patriots Game Day from here. One thing we already know is that we’re going to stay active throughout the off-season, with periodic commentary on the the activities of the Pats, from free-agency to the mini-camps right up through the start of another training camp. We’ll also be focusing heavily on the draft and will probably be posting frequently on that subject through the months of March and April. We’re already looking forward to it. Check back here in a week or so and we’ll be posting our off-season schedule. In the meantime, if you have any ideas, we’d love to hear them. Just toss me an e-mail with your thoughts. Thanks, as always, for your continuing support. Have a safe – and quick – off-season.

Game Day Rear View — Colts Finally Super; Pats Collapse as Indy Celebrates

gdrv_sm.jpgBy Scott Benson
[email protected]

Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts exorcized every demon imaginable tonight when they rallied from a 21-3 first-half deficit to post 32 second-half points on a dog-tired New England Patriots defense and earn the first Super Bowl berth of Manning’s career.

The Colts 38-34 come-from-behind win set a record for AFC championship round comebacks and drove a dagger through the heart of every Patriot and every New England fan. The Colts, worthy adversaries now enjoying their well-earned moment, will now face the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl 41. The Patriots leave not with their fourth Super Bowl appearance in six seasons, but with their first ever AFC Championship Game loss.

Indy’s one-minute, 80 yard drive with two minutes left – which ended when Joseph Addai fairly walked in the end zone on a barely-there Pats defense – gave the Colts their first lead of the game and put Tom Brady and the Patriots offense against the wall as they have never been before.

Marlon Jackson quickly intercepted Brady and ended the Patriots season. It had seemed for most of the day that the Patriots would continue their dalliance with the history books. In the end, Manning and the Colts authored a jarring, sickening new chapter – a blown New England lead, and a bitter, regrettable big game loss for the Patriots.

It’s all too much to take in at the moment. It was an incredible roller coaster ride from start to finish. I’m still shaking. Look, no fewer than TWO offensive linemen scored touchdowns today, A defensive lineman scored another. Against his former team. While playing offense. No ordinary game, this. Even if the Patriots had managed to pull this one out, it would have gone down as the weirdest goddam sixty minutes of their entire Super Bowl run.

Instead, it went beyond weird to just plain, stick-in-your-gut-forever awful.

The Patriots started with the strength of a champion, withstanding the adrenaline of what seemed like the entire city of Indianpolis to run out to an early lead. Even though the first drive ended with a strange mishandling of a handoff that ended up under Logan Mankins in the end zone, the Patriots were moving the ball on the allegedly-resurgent Colts defense while keeping Manning, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at bay. The first quarter ended with a 7-3 Patriots lead, which quickly grew to 11 points thanks to another New England drive that ate up nearly six minutes and put an untouched Corey Dillon in the end zone. The Patriots had taken Indy and their crowd out of the game and were clearly in control. Visions of another Super Bowl danced in our heads.

The visions were downright boogeying when Asante Samuel jumped on a Manning to Harrison out and raced 39 yards for a touchdown with the interception. The Pats front seven was harrassing Manning like old times. The Patriots defensive backs, including Samuel, Ellis Hobbs and James Sanders, each had taken turns making circus break-ups of near scoring passes. With the Samuel touchdown, the Patriots led 21-3 and the Colts hung their heads in that oh-so-familar manner.

That was as good as it was going to get for the Patriots. Not even Stephen Gostkowski’s 43 yard field goal that put them up three with 3:53 left (by the way – CASE FREAKING CLOSED) could restore the same heady feeling that New England was headed for immortality.

It all started, it seems, when the Patriots cuffed up a golden chance to stretch their lead late in the second quarter. A Brady pass to Ben Watson gave New England a 1st and 10 at the Indy 21, and it seemed as though the Pats could head to the half with as much as a 25 point lead. But penalities to Troy Brown (which brought back the Watson first down) and Jabar Gaffney pushed them out of field goal range and forced a punt.

Todd Sauerbrun forced the Colts to their own 12, but the Patriots seemed to relax defensively, allowing Manning to find open receivers underneath for chain-moving gains. New England was clearly guarding against the quick strike, but the trade off was easy first downs for the Colts. It led them to inside the Patriots 10. Still, the gambit seemed to work when the Colts forced to settle for the field goal, and the Pats retained a two-score, 21-6 lead as they broke for the half.

Yet it didn’t feel as though the Patriots were in control anymore. The Colts offense, even after starting slowly, even after the debilitating Samuel interception, was moving again. The Patriots didn’t give up a big score, but they gave something away nonetheless.

It continued as the second half began. The Colts instantly drove 76 yards in a Patriot-like seven minutes, and it was suddenly a one-score game. At this point, it was all Colts, and horrifyingly, the 21-3 lead was a distant memory. Naturally, the Patriots offense was frozen by the wave of momentum, and the Colts had it again for another long drive and, quickly, the tying score. It was none other than Dan Klecko, lined up as a fullback, who completed the comeback, with an assist from Marvin Harrison on the subsequent two-pointer.

The roof of the RCA Dome was falling in on the Pats, but the Dancing Machine himself, Ellis Hobbs, created one of the brief moments of second-half solvency for the Pats with an 80 yard kickoff return that set New England up at the Colts 21. Bonus points for leaving Adam Vinatieri in the dust. Brady then hit Gaffney to bring it down inside the ten, and then the veteran pick up tight-roped along the back line to gather in a third-down touchdown pass before being forced out, a money catch that surged the Pats back over Indy by 7 as the third quarter came to a close. An Indy challenge couldn’t prove that Gaffney had ever gone out of bounds as he leapt for his crucial touchdown. Pats led 28-21.

The Colts were not deterred. Where the Patriots had in the first half put Manning under pressure, and blanketed his receivers, they had no answers now. In just two minutes Manning drove the Colts nearly 70 yards, and like Mankins before him, Jeff Saturday dropped on a Domenic Rhodes fumble in the Patriots end zone for the Indy touchdown. Eric Alexander, a surprise big-minutes guy today, forced the fumble, but no Pats could cover the ball and a golden opportunity was lost.

The teams then exchanged possessions, but the Patriots got a break when a Colts special teams facemask penalty (and a Troy Brown 16 yard return) set them up with 1st and 10 at the Colts 43. Brady worked with Gaffney and Caldwell to move it close enough for Gostkowski (from 28) to give them another lead. The Pats had the 31-28 lead with just seven minutes remaining.

Instead of shrinking from the moment, Manning made the big play. A 52 yard catch and run by Dallas Clark, down the vacant middle of the Patriots defense, set up a tying field goal from Vinatieri. What once seemed like the worst Pats blowout of the Colts ever was coming down to the final five minutes of the game.

The Patriots had something left, though they were working uphill as Manning exploited a tiring Pats defense. Once again it was Hobbs, the center of so much controversy last week, but now rising with his electricfying kickoff returns to perhaps propel the Patriots to the Super Bowl. His 41 yard return moved the ball near midfield, and a Brady strike to maybe-free agent Dan Graham got 29 yards and set Gostkowski up for what could have been a game winner. The rookie – also the center of way too much controversy since August – drained it, proving (along with his booming kickoffs all night) once and for all that Adam’s Money was, in fact, better spent elsewhere.

Yet Manning had the ball with nearly four minutes left, and the inevitable loomed, until the Patriots defense rose a final time (with a ferocious pass rush that hadn’t been seen since the first half) to pin the Colts deep and force a punt that Troy Brown took to the Pats 40 with 3:22 left. New England was about to escape with their life, if they could only earn a first down or two against an Indy defense that had yielded them no fewer than 27 points.

They could not. As they were at the end of the first half, the Patriots offense was put in a position to succeed. No such success was forthcoming. They started with a penalty and finished with a three and out, setting up a punt and the Colts game winning drive.

Manning can point to his final drive, when he drove the Colts 80 yards by hitting two big throws to Reggie Wayne, the next time someone tells him he can’t win the big one. All he needed was a field goal for the tie, but he got the touchdown for the win, even if a Patriots penalty put him in position. On the second throw to Wayne, Tully Banta Cain was flagged for a blow to the quarterback’s head (pretty marginal call for that situation, huh?), which backed up the Patriots to their own goal line and buried them. They could barely muster a reaction to Addai’s winning run. It’s over for Peyton now. He won The Big One today.

There will be alot of talk about Reche Caldwell dropping passes (two beauties, suggesting the free agent might have been in over his head tonight) and the Patriots turning away from the running game and Tom Brady’s inaccuracy/injury, and various other noodling, but make no mistake about it; the Pats lost tonight because they couldn’t stop Peyton Manning and the Colts offense. They haven’t stopped them in (now) the last three tries. Not even tonight, with a defense that set a franchise record for fewest points allowed. The Patriots lost bbecause they blew an eighteen-point lead, and they sure as hell didn’t blow it on offense.

For the Patriots, it’s a cruel end to what seemed to be another Cinderella season. Nobody had the Pats here today, not if they’re telling the truth. Yet they overcame the defections and the holdouts and the unsteady orientations and damn near got to the Super Bowl again. A heartbreaking loss – in a game they had in control, and should have won – should not completely overshadow what the Patriots have proven this season. They’re always in it. And they will be again. Remember that before you send me your gloating e-mail.

But it’s little solace to the proud New Englanders tonight. A punch in the stomach – in good part self-induced, if that’s possible – has ended their drive for four Super Bowl wins in six seasons. Now, it’s the Colts and Bears turn, and the once-again former champions are left, like everybody else, to start all over again.

As I close with heavy heart, I’d like to thank everybody who clicked on our link this season and offered e-mails of good thoughts and encouragement. A special thank you goes to the rest of the GDRV staff, namely Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan, Bruce Allen and Bill Barnwell, who made this our best season yet. It’s my fondest wish that they’ll all agree to be back here with me next fall for another season of (and we should remind ourselves of this, especially tonight) this golden era of New England Patriots football.

Programming Note: Join us later this week for our final GDRV Roundtable of 2006, as we close the books on the Pats campaign and get ready for another off-season. See you then.

Game Day Blog – Who Let THESE Guys in Here?

by Scott Benson
[email protected]

On Friday, it struck me: if I could get a few fans to submit their thoughts on tonight’s epic AFC Championship showdown between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, I could decrease MY workload for the day and leave myself free to start on the cocktails a little early.

Success!

Seriously, though, I owe you guys. I’ve had a great time sorting through your responses and hearing your thoughts on yet another incredibly exciting Football Sunday in New England. Even if you did make me feel inadequate. Thanks very much for being such good friends of BSMW’s Patriots Game Day, and for being such great fans of our Patriots.

Well, to be truthful, we did hear from one guy who I don’t think is a Patriots fan, and frankly, I don’t think he likes us much either. See if you can figure out which one he is!

Let’s get to it. Honest to God, I did not make this stuff up. What follows are the words of actual people.

53 years of black Irish pessimism have usually stood me in good stead as far as the Patriots are concerned. I’ve either had my worst fears confirmed or been pleasantly surprised. That’s why the optimism I feel for the game has me disconcerted. The reason for this era of good feeling? The Colts “defensive resurgence”. I think it’s fraudulent. Sure, their defense has suddenly become Doomsdayesque in the playoffs, but consider the opposition. The Kansas City Chiefs backed into the playoffs, were clearly just happy to be there, had a quarterback with more cobwebs in his head than Mountain Rivera, and were an execrable road team all year long anyway. The Baltimore game gave me pause until I actually observed Steve McNair calcifying while dropping into the pocket. Add that to the fact that if he broke parole tomorrow, I don’t think Jamal Lewis could crack the Mean Machine starting lineup and I remained skeptical.

NFL wizards and shamen from coast to coast have tried to explain it. I read someone who attributed their renaissance to Booger McFarland suddenly “getting it”. Booger McFarland? THE Booger McFarland? To paraphrase Nicholson’s witness stand speech in A Few Good Men, “Please tell me you’re not pinning your case on a washed up journeyman lineman. Please tell me you have more evidence than that. The playoff lives of these men are at stake”.

A wise scribe once said, “if you’re born round you dont die square”………or some damned thing like that, and the Colts spent 16 weeks finishing 32nd against the run and 32nd on third downs. I just dont believe that the addition of a defensive back who is an inch shorter than I am can turn these undersized, non tackling stiffs into the Steel Curtain.

What was startling about the 27-20 loss earlier this year was the lack of answers the coaching staff had for the Colts. I just don’t see that happening again. I’m going against centuries of Irish heritage, but I like the Pats on Sunday.
Ozzy

I believe this week and (hopefully) next week may constitute the official passing of the torch: from the dominant LBs to the dominant DL. I know it’s been happening for a couple years, and many might argue the torch has already been passed. I believe we’ll see it on full display this weekend. Barring injuries over the next 2-4 years, the big three will dominate in a way that no big three in Boston sports has dominated since Bird (Seymour), McHale (Warren), and Parish (Wilfork).
Chris from Reading

Once upon a time, the Million Dollar Man – the great Ted DiBiase – had his own segment on the Saturday morning WWF show. In one such segment, DiBiase brought a young boy up from the crowd on stage with him and his bodyguard Virgil. DiBiase told the young lad – who couldn’t have been much more than 9 or 10 years old – if he could bounce a basketball on the floor ten consecutive times, he would give him $500. He had his loyal minion Virgil fan out the money to show the little boy the cash, and his eyes lit up.

The young lad bounced the ball, and the crowd cheered him loudly and chanted along: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9…

After the ninth bounce, DiBiase kicked the ball into the stands. The little boy got nothing and left the stage sobbing uncontrollably as The Million Dollar Man doubled over laughing.

The Patriots play the role of Ted DiBiase on Sunday.

DEAD.
Ironhead

Win or lose, I am already quite proud of this Patriots team. I honestly did not see them getting to this position to start the year. I figured we’d win the division, win a playoff and I would’ve consider this a successful season. I actually expected them to be much better next year, especially since we should be loaded with cap space, we have two first round picks and will likely get quite a few extra picks because of the players we lost in the offseason.

However, for some reason, I am rooting more for the Colts and Peyton Manning to not to make the Super Bowl more than anything else. All I’ve been hearing this week is talk about “Peyton’s year,” and I think I like it better when we consider him a choker. I’d love to grab another Super Bowl title, but if we can’t, I’d rather not allow Peyton and the Colts to get one at our expense.

This is Peyton’s best shot, I feel, since they finally got the home field advantage and the Pats aren’t the same team they were a few years ago. However, what makes me feel more confident is knowing that I thought that last year’s Colts team was much better than this years, and the Steelers gave them a good beatdown in the RCA Dome that was much more convincing than the Steelers’ 3-point victory would indicate.

I predict this game to be a close one and it will go down to the fourth quarter. I expect us to have our best day running the ball, compared to our earlier two playoff contests. I know we will not crumble early in this one, but at this point, I still have no idea how this one will end up. I sure hope Coach Belichick, Tommy B. and the rest of the Pats do. I do know, however, that I will not be able to handle watching ESPN and other sports news outlets for the next two weeks if Peyton Manning and the Colts win.

GO PATS!
Manny, Nazareth, PA

It’s going to be a slaughter. The Colts defense will force a couple turnovers in the first half, and jump to a early lead. Pats will never be able catch up. Score will be a lot closer then the game indicates. 31-23 Colts.
Dan, Medford

The reoccuring theme for this game nestles somewhere between “This Game Means More to Peyton Manning” and “Manning is Due.” What a load of crap said by people who just don’t get it.

First, “It Means More:” Wow. Why? Because of his legacy? His place in history? Are we to believe that this game has more historical merit to the career of Peyton Manning than Tom Brady? Maybe, but only if we ignore the fact that Tom Brady has something more important than a legacy at stake.

For many, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will forever be each other’s foil. They were the two best at the same time in the same conference. For those who think about the game, that is reason enough to see why the game means just as much to Brady. The Montana/Marino argument would be a lot closer if Marino had beaten Montana in the Superbowl.

In fact, Peyton is playing with house money. How can he fall further? He can’t be more of the guy who can’t win the big one, can he? He can’t suddenly have less than no Superbowls. Tom Brady has as much to lose as Peyton Manning has to win. Brady is playing with his own money, earned in three Superbowls, and he is the quarterback whose legacy can grow OR shrink. Manning can’t lose what he doesn’t have.

On top of all of that, Brady still has more to win tomorrow.

Every time Tom Brady takes the field he is competing with guys like Montana, Unitas, Elway, and Marino. Today, Tom Brady has the chance to take a step so rare that Manning would have to win four of these games tomorrow to be near. It just so happens that for him to take one more step up that ladder it has to be done on the jersey of Peyton Manning.

Peyton Manning might be playing for his legacy.

Tom Brady is playing to be a Legend.

Lots of guys have legacies, few are legends.

And only people who don’t get that would think the game means more to Peyton Manning.

(Oh, and two: Just ask Chamberlain and West how “due” they were against Bill Russell.)

Go Pats.
Michael, Everett, MA

Much more after the jump. Read on!
[Read more…]

Game Day Blog – The Sunday (Conference Championship) Papers

sunday_links.jpgBy Scott Benson
[email protected]

As I write this, it’s 6:00 a.m. in the East, and there’s still more than twelve hours before another classic clash between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts. Once again, the two rivals will battle all the AFC marbles, this time in the Indianapolis hothouse that the delicate Colts call home.

I’ll bet the soon-to-be-cacophonous RCA Dome is silent now, save for the ice cubes in Bill Polian’s first drink of the day, madly clinking around the glass as the Inebriate Executive searches in vain for some early-bird functionary to terrorize.

Compared to that, looking through a few newspaper links doesn’t sound so bad. Let’s get started.

Jim McCabe hits leadoff for the Globe today, and like the ‘Professional Hitter’ that he is, he puts up another solid at-bat by reminding one and all that the Pats’ dominance in the salary-cap era puts them alongside the best teams in league history. As Architect Bill Belichick instructs, Jim confirms this with Charlie Casserly.

Ron Borges says that compared to the Cleveland Browns of the 50’s, they’re all pikers. Of course, they played with white footballs in something called the AAFC, but whatever. Seriously, this is probably Ron’s most thorough tribute to the Belichick Pats, ever. He also looks at Peyton’s Monkey in his weekly Football Notes. Ewww. Note that Ron says both Asante Samuel and Tully Banta-Cain will be pursued by the Jets – a chance to earn an extra 100 grand in the Meadowlands, as Mike Vrabel likes to say – if they get to free agency.

Mike Reiss continues the Official Boston Globe Appreciates the Patriots Day with a look at Robert Kraft’s amazing success as owner and savior of the Pats. The Man From The Stands could be accepting his 5th AFC Championship Trophy from Jim Nantz later today. Mike adds another piece reminding us that the Road to Indy started with last January’s bitter loss to the Broncos.

Reiss plugs away with this morning’s notebook, confirming that captain Rodney Harrison will not play today. Mike also notes that the Patriots will try to beat the second of the NFL’s two undefeated-at-home teams today after taking the Chargers out last week. Jim McBride doesn’t like their chances, giving the Colts the edge in his weekly scouting report.

Dan Shaughnessy has apparently written something today. I’m assuming it’s about the Pats and Colts, but honestly, I don’t dare look.

Mark Blaudschun focuses on long snapper Lonie Paxton (and his new enterprise that develops adaptive sports equipment for the handicapped), Chris Gasper notes that sacks by the Colts defense were cut nearly in half this year, and John Powers thinks Tony Dungy is – in a word – classy. You know, ‘Tony Dungy is a class act’ is catching up with ‘Brett Favre is having FUN out there’ as the NFL’s most oft-repeated phrase. And you know my theory on that – nobody worked harder at his image as an ‘aw-shucks’ guy than the always-calculating Favre. I’m beginning to think that nobody says that ‘Tony Dungy is a class act’ more than Tony Dungy himself.

There’s a few things from Bob Ryan and Frank Dell’Apa on the Bears and Saints, but frankly, I don’t care about the NFC at all – until tomorrow, maybe.

Over at the Herald, through a mist of hair product and androgynous cologne strides Michael Felger, ready for his closeup. Mike’s a real tough guy this morning, calling for a bonerattling Jihad on the persnickety Colts today. You know, when Felger says ‘the only way the Patriots can beat (fill in opponent) is to (fill in pet theory)’, you can be pretty sure that there is at least one other way, if not several.

John Tomase has the notebook again, where he brings news of the idle Harrison, along with a reminder that when it comes to domes, the Pats are king. Like Jim Bouton’s 1969 Houston Astros, the Pats don’t lose in the motherf***ing dome. Let’s see, a hat-and-t-shirt game – in a dome? What the hell are we nervous about?

In his weekly What To Look For, Tomase says that in early December, neither team looked to be headed to today’s match-up, but they’ve rallied to move past all other AFC comers. You know, John’s had a pretty good December and early January himself.

Felger climbs aboard the media’s ‘Let’s See If We Can Get Bob Sanders Elected President in 08′ bandwagon. Steve Buckley is pimping the Colts defense, I think, but I can’t really say because I didn’t read it. Hopefully, he arrived at the conclusion that they suck, because frankly, any other conclusion is as ridiculous as writing story after story about what a Impact Player Bob Sanders is. With him, you only give up 135 yards a game on the ground, as opposed to 150. Sanders is like freaking Dick Butkus out there, I guess. Consider yourself OWNED, Corey Dillon!

In the features department, Karen Guregian has key player Ty Warren tending to his on-the-mend mum Annette, and Albert Breer giving some love to Pats receivers coach Brian Daboll, who’s earned it.

So I clicked on the Herald’s sports page this morning, right? And what do I find there but an article by Lenny Megliola, right? Lenny’s climbing the Belichick coaching tree today, right? Be careful up there, Lenny! Right?

Bob Kravitz of the Indy Star is another guy looking at Manning’s Monkey. Keep your peccadilloes to yourself, you backwater freak. If Peyton played for the Patriots, Dan Shaughnessy would have written this.

Felger closes out the Herald’s coverage with a few slaps at Bill Polian. Watch it, Mikey, unless you like getting brained by one of those tumbler-style glasses. Maybe you do like that sort of thing. In that case, meet Bob Kravtiz of the Indy Star. Felger also has his weekly jaunt around the league, featuring a Matt Light tribute and a shot at Bill Parcells. Meow, Mike!

At the ProJo, Shalise Manza Young looks at the differences between BFF’s Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. In yet another uncredited mystery piece, someone somewhere (Art? Art? Answer me, Art!) says Pats fans have every right to be confident today. No mention of the m’effing dome thing, but whoever wrote this – it’s like they are looking right into my very soul! Eerie.

Note: Reader friend Jill writes in this morning to let me know that the above-noted Unknown Column is hard-copy credited to none other than Jim Donaldson. Which makes the following rather uncomfortable, in retrospect.

Jim Donaldson isn’t fooling anybody. He was supposed to write a column today, I gather, but instead he just goes back through the last several meetings between the Pats and Colts and sums up the box score. There’s something about this piece that makes me feel like Jim is sitting on a beach somewhere in the tropics, with an umbrella drink, sitting on a suitcase full of our savings, laughing at us.

Well, that’s it. Can you believe we get to do this again? Heee.

If you’re looking for more game stuff to inhale, you know the drill. First, hit the BSMW Patriots News Mash Up page. You can drive your Indy car to the Indy Star, where they always Trust Their Stars, but if you hear banjo music, get the hell out of there. Lastly, when its nut cutting time and the season is on the line, turn to go-to guy Mike Reiss and his Reiss’s Pieces blog. He’ll take good care of you.

I’ll be back early this afternoon with a whole crew of Pats fans that have some final thoughts about today’s game. I think we’ve got some great stuff there, but by all means, come back and be the judge. Naturally, I will be back tonight with a rear view look at yet another AFC championship game involving our beloved Pats.

GDRV Roundtable – Conference Championship Edition

By Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen
[email protected]

Benjamin Franklin used to like to tell his buddy Jean-Baptiste Leroy that in this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.

Earlier this decade, New Englanders amended Ben’s pithy phrase about the inevitability of exceedingly high municipal mil rates to include a third lock: Nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes, and the Patriots dominance over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

Then the damn Colts changed the rules.

Literally, of course (thanks to their excessively whiny head coach and raging alcoholic general manager), but figuratively as well. Simply said, the Colts finally figured out a way to beat the Patriots. After years of suffering mightily at the hands of Bill Belichick’s classless, dancing jack booted thugs, the Colts have done nothing less than TWICE run the Patriots completely out of Gillette Stadium, their once-House of Horrors.

In fact, their most recent cathartic victory, a 27-20 worse-than-it-looks trouncing of the Pats in November, is what ultimately enabled Indy to host New England in this Sunday’s AFC Championship Game.

Folks, the Colts no longer take the long way to school. They walk straight down the middle of the bully’s neighborhood, unafraid, defiantly carrying their lunch money in their open palm.

In short, ‘cut that meat’ has officially become a thing of the past, kind of like Ben Franklin.

Of course, neither of those two games were playoff games. Panel, back me up on this.

You’d have to be some kind of cold fish not to have some lingering thoughts about Sunday’s incredible win over the Chargers.

Greg: I do have lingering thoughts and that is, really, how the Chargers did outplay the Patriots in numerous ways. That isn’t really all that surprising, considering how the Chargers were a 14-2 team playing at home. But what lingers is how the Patriots hung in there where a lot of good teams would have folded. Then they made plays at critical junctures like teams that just know how to win do. It lingers in my mind that perhaps last year was the mirage, fueled by injuries, and that this incredible run is not only not over, it may only be somewhere in the middle.

Tim: I do and I think I will for a long time to come. It was a rare game that becomes an indelible part of the team’s history. Another one for the ages that will be used as an example of what these 2000+ Patriots are all about. The first thing I want to mention is Reche “Bubs” Caldwell. I don’t think enough attention has been paid to exactly HOW big of a game he actually had. In the fourth quarter (actually, in the last 8:28 of the game alone) Bubs recovered the fumble that saved the team’s season, caught the touchdown that brought them to within two, and won the game with a 49 yard catch down the sideline on a textbook “go” route. That’s a pretty solid 8 minutes to close out a playoff game. I think it’s safe to say Brady trusts him. If Bubs is a “bottom tier” wide receiver as we’ve been hearing all season, then so is David Givens.

I also want to add my personal plaudits to Troy Brown, who may be the one offensive player besides Tom Brady that has done the most to help the Patriots win 4 of the last 6. There has been much said and written about Brown’s heroic strip of McCree to keep the team’s hopes alive, but I noticed something else in subsequent viewings that has me in awe of the guy. Brown causes the fumble, his momentum pulls him backwards, and he falls down a few yards away from the pile. As the refs are figuring out possession, Brown gets up and, while keeping an eye on the pile from a distance and discovering that the Patriots did indeed recover possession, walks away with that unmistakeable gait of his. He doesn’t raise his arms, he doesn’t jump up and down (or even let a small hop of excitement betray him), he doesn’t do anything….he calmly walks away like it’s 4th down and the punting team is coming on the field. Talk about acting like you’ve been there. Thing is, Troy doesn’t have to act. He’s been there. He’s been there many times.

With the help of the learned observers at the BSMW forum (Blinded by the Lombardis and KT the Brick cited here), here is a sample of Troy’s big plays over the years.

  • The strip of McCree
  • Blocked kick recovery and lateral in the 2001 AFCC
  • Punt return vs. Pittsburgh 2001 AFCC
  • Lying on his back catch 1996 (vs. Giants)
  • Catch across the middle in the last drive of Super Bowl XVIII
  • Catching the TD pass from Vinatieri on the fake kick vs. the Rams
  • Overtime catch in Miami in 2003
  • Punt return to set up game tying FG against Oakland in 2001
  • 4th down catch against Tennessee in 2003 playoffs

If you’re a marketing guy, you may want to add the 2003 United Way ad too. I am generally not in favor of retiring Patriot numbers, but I don’t want to see another player wearing #80 when Troy decides to hang up the cleats. What a magnificent career. By the way, wouldn’t you love to read about these clutch plays in detail in the newspaper after his performance this week? Too bad, you’ll get made-up emails with snooty, humorless replies and and yet another article about the apparently timeless “disrespect card” instead.

Bruce: Wow. That was a game like no other in this run. They just found a way to win that one. Sure, San Diego made plenty of mistakes, but so did the Patriots. The Patriots were just able to take advantage of the Chargers’ mistakes. So many little things that made a difference. Antwain Spann separating the kick returner from the ball after he botched the catch, Troy Brown stripping the ball after the interception. Even Ben Watson breaking up a potential interception by Stephen Cooper. The Patriots just made plays when they needed to. Tom Brady struggled much of the afternoon, but in clutch time of both halves, he was money. Gostkowski – thanks for shutting up a lot of people.

Scott: Just that I hope that one day we can all truly appreciate the win, and the team that earned it. I’ll leave it at that.

Will the Patriots ever have as much class as noted sportsmen (and gracious losers) Bill Polian and LaDanian Tomlinson?

Tim: It’s pretty clear I am an unabashed booster for this team. They have provided us with some great sports memories over the years that have given me great joy as a fan. However, in good conscience I cannot overlook the blatant theft, the outright mockery, of another man’s dance routine. It just goes too far. Mr. Tomlinson has every right to protect the intellectual property of his fearsome and colorful battery mate. How would YOU feel if someone stole your friend’s dance routine? Not that the Charger organization isn’t culpable too. If they trademarked the “Light’s Out!” boogie ala Ricky Bobby’s “If you’re not first, you’re last!” in Talladega Nights this whole thing could have been avoided. As for Bill Polian, I liked him better when he was leading the commonwealth under his alias, “Bill Weld”. Other than that, in the words of the immortal John Candy, “Have another!”

Bruce: How dare you ask that question. LaDanian is classy – he told us so! Bill Polian is a fiery, hard nosed executive, what franchise wouldn’t want this guy as the public face of their front office? The Patriots might have three Super Bowls this decade, but Tomlinson and Polian can look themselves in the mirror with pride, knowing that they’ve conducted themselves with dignity and grace. Which would you rather have?

Scott: I’ve personally had enough of every chickenshit lowlife loser that thinks they can take a shot at Bill Belichick as if he was some sort of sub-human creature deserving of society’s contempt, simply because they know Belichick will never respond. Gutless, worthless jackoffs that will be dust in the wind long before people forget Bill Belichick and what he’s done as a football coach. The San Diego players, coincidentally, never had to answer for their 14-2, first-seeded team blowing 11 and 8 point leads and getting ushered immediately from the playoffs despite hosting the game on their own field. Instead, they pumped up a fake issue, turned the attention towards the media’s new favorite easy target, and slipped out the back door. Punks. The NFL deserves a better champion than them. Fortunately, we’ll not ever have to worry about that. Not with those paper lions.

Greg: If they were to ever achieve that, Bill Polian would just petition the Rules Committee to change the definition of class. The Patriots just can’t win against a schemer as clever as he.

Enough about San Diego, the crybabies. Unbelievably, it’s the conference championship round and yet another epic match up between the Colts and the Patriots. Who saw this coming? Anyway, let’s start peeling back the layers of this onion. We’ll start with the Colts offense against the Patriots defense.

Bruce: Which Colts offense is going to show up Sunday? I think it’s a safe assumption that it’s going to be a more potent attack than we’ve seen over the last two weeks, but how much? I think the Patriots actually played some decent defense against the Colts in November, but got behind and made a few key mistakes that really cost them the game. Things have improved since then. I think if Samuel and Hobbs can avoid giving up huge chunks of yardage, and if somehow Marvin Harrison isn’t running wide open across the middle of the field, the Patriots can keep this manageable. James Sanders impressed me some more last week, and I think he could be a nice piece to defense the running of Addai and Rhodes.

Scott: Before he had to head home to Texas this week, Ty Warren summed it all up in a brief chat with Mike Reiss. Ty claimed the last two games have come down to two things: 1) allowing the Colts solid first and second down pick ups, and 2) not being able to get off the field on third down as a result. Until the Pats can reverse that trend, this matchup is a clear Colts advantage. They’re proven it, no? The Patriots have been playing much better of late than they were in November, of course, and they may be in a better position now to force the Colts into third and long. But that’s one fan’s wishful thinking, which has nothing to do with what will happen on the field. We’ll get an answer pretty quickly on Sunday, I think. One thing I’ll be looking for is the cushion the Pats corners give the Colts receivers. Last couple of times those 10-12 yard buffer zones have allowed the Colts to run free all over the field, even when the Pats DID force Indy into third and long.

Greg: The Colts passing game still scares me, even though its struggled in the playoffs this year. They are still capable of racking up yards in a hurry. I think the Patriots will do a reasonable job against the run, but have to find ways to disrupt Peyton Manning’s rhythm whether it be through bumping his receivers, getting pressure on him so he has to move or occasionally just dropping eight into coverage.

Tim: The Colts offense has struggled in the playoffs. In fact, relatively speaking, they’ve had a pretty bad year. However, they have played against some pretty formidable defenses these last two games. I was really impressed with the Baltimore defense in particular. They have playmakers everywhere and really have no weaknesses. Still, Indianapolis found a way to score enough to win (with plenty of help from their resurgent defense). They are an experienced, smart, and talented unit even if they aren’t as explosive as in past seasons. They are also not strangers to facing a Belichick defense in high stakes games. With all that, anyone paying attention needs to give the edge to the NE defense here. They are equally familiar with the Colts offense and have consistently found ways to stifle it. Until that changes in the playoffs, even once, it’s hard not to give the defense the edge here.

Flip it around. Pats offense against the Colts defense.

Scott: I’ll just say this. We’ll see how much glowing press people like Bob Sanders and Booger McFarland get on Monday. We’ll see who wants to call Brittle Bob (a total of 24 out of a possible 48 regular season games in his career) one of the best players in the NFL on Monday. We’ll see if Booger is still a Godsend. The Colts defense and their unbelievably-short-memory media toadies have nearly drowned us in bullshit over the last five days. Thankfully, that manure will be thrown back over their vanquished carcasses by Monday. I don’t expect the media will follow them down the hole to be covered over though, which should tell you something about their conviction about the ‘resurgent’ Colts defense. Pats don’t get just the edge here, they get the whole thing.

Greg: The Pats will move the ball here. One way to get Colts safety Bob Sanders out of the box is by spreading the field. The the Colts can be run on. They can be passed on too. The Patriots should easily score between 24-30 points at least here.

Tim: For the first time in many years, I like this match-up for the Patriots. The Colts defense is predicated on quickness and speed. They have risen like a phoenix since the playoffs started and have seemingly solved their porous run defense. They also seemed to gain confidence with each series against Baltimore. They are playing very well, perhaps the best they have all year. Good news for NE is that they are one of the few teams in the league have seen this defense before with Bob Sanders and I am sure that the Patriot offense will find ways to exploit it. The first reaction is to assume that the Patriots will not mistakenly abandon the run as they did in the first meeting. However, anytime you guess what the offense is going to do they will usually surprise you by employing a different strategy. Whatever it is, I am comfortable that they can find the points they’ll need.

Bruce: After having a historically bad defensive season, all of a sudden the Colts are the ’85 Bears on defense. I don’t get it. It’s got to be more than Bob Sanders. I think the coaching of Kansas City and the lack of offensive talent on Baltimore contributed to both games, but you’ve still got to give the Colts credit for stepping up their game. That said, I think the Patriots will do better against this defense than the last two opponents did. They have to. Caldwell and Gaffney are now a legit combo at receiver, and with that threat, the running game has got to have more space than Larry Johnson and Jamal Lewis did. I think the Patriots are going to be able to score some points this week, if they avoid mistakes or getting thrown off by the crowd.

How about special teams? WARNING: The following contains references to Adam Vinatieri.

Greg: Vinatieri is a great kicker, but the Colts return game doesn’t do much for me. Their coverage teams are average as well. I give the Patriots the edge here.

Tim: Why don’t we all predict who is going to miss FG’s this week? That seems to be the “analysis-in-the-box” approach that all the local chatters and scribblers are doing. How about this? Everybody makes their FG’s and the special teams match-up is decided by field position in the respective return games. In that case, I think the Patriots have a clear advantage based on what each unit has done this year.

Bruce: Patriots have to have the edge here. The Colts have two players on special teams, Vinatieri and Terrence Wilkins. The Patriots didn’t have a great year on special teams, but they’ve been adequate. The Colts have been right at or near the bottom of the league. I don’t think this game comes down to a field goal, as much as all the media would love it to.

Scott: I might be inclined to give the edge to the Colts here (Terrence Wilkins has always been a threat as a returner), but frankly, I can’t give the edge to a kicker who missed 50% of his field goal attempts in the last game between the two teams. Pats get the edge by virtue of having the more dependable kicker. What were the Colts thinking letting Vanderjagt go? I might have an idea (makes a chug-a-lug motion).

The coaching match up? WARNING: The following contains graphic violence and extreme bloodshed. The doctor in attendance may stop this segment at any time.

Tim: Dungy is unquestionably a very able coach. He’s proven that over the years in Tampa Bay and Indianapolis. This year, he’s even found a way to make his defense play better than it ever has when the lights are the brightest. He’s coached against Belichick more than any other coach in the league during their current historic run. You have to think he’s got some idea as to what makes them successful. The coaching match-up this week may be overstated. Obviously, Belichick always has the edge, regardless of opponent, but I think this one will be in the players hands more than any other this year. The only other thing I’ll say is if you told me that there was an NFL head coach in Tom Cruise and John Travolta’s closet, of the 32 in the league I am guessing Dungy first. Any time I hear the guy talk I get the feeling that he got into football for the locker room towel fights.

Bruce: Ron Borges keeps telling us that Tony Dungy is the coach that he would want on the sidelines if he owned a team. That’s good enough for me. Bill Belichick has won three Super Bowls as a head coach during the course of his career, Dungy hasn’t won any, but conducts himself with dignity and class. It’s an easy choice, really.

Scott: I am not even going to dignify this question with a response.

Greg: Does this really need to be discussed seriously? Is there anyone deranged enough to really think Tony Dungy is even close to Bill Belichick as a coach….besides of course the always idiotic Ron Borges?

All right, then. Let’s have the winner and final score.

Bruce: Hoo boy. I’m tempted to pick the Colts, just because of the stellar (undefeated) record that the Patriots have when I pick against them this season. But too many of the matchups seem to favor the Patriots (though you could’ve said that about the Chargers last week) so I’m going with New England 27-17.

Scott: Now’s the time to come clean. I am a Peyton Manning fan, and here’s why. Because after he got his pedigreed ass continually run over by the New England streetfighters, he worked at his game and got better. Just watch him in the pocket nowadays – he has skills he didn’t have before. It would have been a lot easier to just continue being ‘Peyton Manning’ and wait for everyone else to catch up to his magnificence – God knows we’ve seen a quarterback do that before. But he didn’t, and I respect that. I think you should too, but you know, your call. He’s still obviously struggling with the weight of the playoffs, and he may always, but it says here Peyton continues his strong play against the Pats Sunday. In the end, though, it won’t matter, because defensive guru Dungy and builder of champions Polian have installed over the past six years a defensive scheme and a personnel group in Indianapolis that is not built to win – or even be competent – in today’s NFL. Then Manning gets blamed for eating up the cap, and no one’s the wiser. That’s their problem. The Patriots win this 31-28.

Greg: Patriots easy, 38-17.

Tim: 17 – 9, Good guys.

How about the NFC game? Who do you like in the final between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints?

Scott: Like Tim, I always pick who I want to win. So it’s the Saints. I think a Pats-Saints Super Bowl would be quite exciting. I don’t care if I ever see the Chicago Bears again. With Chicago comes that flaming douchebag Mike Ditka. You want two weeks of that fool? No thanks.

Greg: This is a good game. I am tempted to say any matchup of Drew Brees and Rex Grossman has to tip to Brees’ team. But I think Chicago is good enough in other areas, and at home, they get it done 20-17.

Tim: I pick these games based on what I want to happen because, I have stated unequivocally before, nobody knows what is going to happen anyway. I want to play Chicago. The Patriots match up very well with Chicago and I want no part of the national onslaught of sycophants that will turn the local 53 into the living embodiment of Hurricane Katrina (although that does open up some promising possibilities for a classless celebratory dance, maybe the old swim move from those crazy sock hops that Bob Gamere used to attend as a wild eyed 23 year old?). It’s the big, bad Bears and their badass coach Lovie “Virgil” Smith in a squeaker.

Bruce: As much as the Saints are being hyped, I think the Bears take this one. Their defense didn’t look great against Seattle, but I think they’ll play much better this week. The Rex-Factor is about the only thing I’m worried about here.

Lastly, anybody qualify for Mediot of the Week? Remember, there’s only so much room on the Internet. Try to pare it down.

Greg: You know, I haven’t heard anything overly idiotic this week that I can recall. I suppose we could go old school and revisit Michael Felger’s screaming, panic-stricken pronouncements the Patriots had no depth from pre-season.

Tim: Lots and lots of candidates this week, it’s a veritable “choose your poison” of mediocy. Forced to pick one, I am picking the blow-dried, bag of gas news anchor in San Diego, Stan Miller. Stan, armed with his vast insight into the human condition and an oversized sense of competitive morality, levied final judgment on the Patriots post-game celebration this week. “I DO think that was classless!” he admonished as the clip of the post game chaos, replete with Charger players screaming like fourth graders at a kick-ball game gone horribly wrong, rolled. What a freakin farce. I am sure the guy thinks nothing of his comments and this amounts to nothing but pandering to his spaced out audience, but it’s just the most ridiculous thing I have seen in sports in a long, long time. I want Smarmy Stan to show me a clip of a team winning a road playoff game that DIDN’T celebrate at midfield before he further comments on this very grave matter. If he can’t do it, you know where he’s getting it? That’s right, Stan, right in the ovaries! Right in the baby-maker, Stan.

Bruce: Our old standby Ron Borges has been on better behavior as of late, but he still finds himself unable to hold back from taking the little rabbit punches whenever he gets the chance.

This cracked me up for some reason. Here’s Ron in last week’s Boston.com chat:

jtchowdah If you had to start a franchise today and select one player, would it be LT or Tom Brady?

Ron_Borges Brady, although not for much longer as he’ll be 30 next year.

Then, here is a quote from yesterday’s Boston.com chat:

johnnydoyle Ron, is time running out for Manning to get it done and how much patience will the fans of Indy have for this guy when he fails again on Sunday to bring the Colts to the Super Bowl?

Ron_Borges He’ll be 31 in March so he has a good five years or so more to play at or near his peak.

LT is less than two years younger than Brady, and running backs traditionally have shorter careers than do quarterbacks, mostly because of the pounding that they take. LT might (at most) have 4 or 5 great years left in him. That would bring him to 32-33 years old. As a point of reference, Corey Dillon is 32 now, Curtis Martin is 33 and Emmitt Smith was 35 when he retired. (and many people thought he should’ve hung it up 2 or 3 seasons earlier.)

Borges yesterday says Peyton at 31 might have 5 great years left. But apparently Brady, not yet 30, would have a shorter shelf life than LT. So by that logic, This is what Borges is saying: “Brady will not be 30 until next August. But his career is almost over. Manning will only be 31 in March, and he’s got five, six great years left at least.”

Go figure.

Let’s not forget either that on Thursday Borges picked the Patriots on MSNBC and on Friday picked the Colts in the Globe.

Scott: I’d like to try something a little different this Sunday. I’d like to turn a corner of BSMW Patriots Game Day over to you, our reader (or readers, if there’s more than one), so that you can share your thoughts before another memorable Colts-Patriots battle. It’s simple. Just send your pre-game ruminations to me at [email protected] any time before 10 a.m. Sunday, and I’ll gather them together and post them to the site. Give me analysis, a prediction, your longitude and latitude, whatever. Everybody from full-on zombied kool-aid drinkers to loyal Mike Felger listeners are welcome. Do try to keep it as concise as possible (look who’s talking), and give me an identifier (maybe a first name and hometown, say?) so we can immortalize you for posterity. Come on….this will be fun. I’ll look forward to hearing from you, especially you message board lunatics.

Second Look: Patriots at San Diego

Sunday in San Diego, the Patriots answered convincingly a lot of questions that have floated about them all season. Are they deep enough? You’d have to say yes after watching them advance to the AFC Championship Game. Are they still tough enough? Undoubtedly, yes. They took the hardest punches San Diego could throw and still came out on top. Does the management still know what its doing? Clearly, they do. So, despite all the doomsaying from many, despite all the supposed critical losses and holes, here they are among the NFL final four. Lets take a look at each unit.

QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady struggled for much of the day. He was under heavy pressure, especially in the first half, but didn’t play well even accounting for that. He missed some open receivers, seemed confused at times and got intercepted three times. But there he was at the end, making some critical throws to win the game. The 49 yarder to Reche Caldwell on the last drive, which set up the winning field goal, was an absolute thing of beauty. The drive at the end of the half you have to consider as well, for without those seven points, the Patriots are probably not even competitive in the second half. It was that one good drive in the first half the Patriots needed and Brady delivered on. Winners come through even when they aren’t at the top of their game. That is what Tom Brady did Sunday. He came through when it counted and that was enough.

RUNNING BACK: A very quiet day here, since the Patriots all but abandoned the run in the second half. When they did try, there was little there. It wasn’t the running backs fault. There was simply no room. All three did a good job in pass protection when called upon.

WIDE RECEIVER: A very good day from Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Jabar Gaffney. Gaffney had ten catches and a touchdown. Caldwell had a touchdown and one of the plays of the game with his long catch late in the game which set up the winning field goal. And Troy Brown made one of the smartest, heads up football plays of this six year run when he stripped Marlon McCree of the ball following a possible game-clinching interception with six minutes left. With all the worrying about this position this season, you’d have to give this unit an A+ in the biggest game the team has played so far this year.

OFFENSIVE LINE: A very very solid job pass blocking. They were unable to create any room with the running game, though the Patriots really didn’t try much. You have to give both Matt Light and Nick Kaczur a ton of credit with how they handled the outside rush. The line did have trouble getting out on the couple screens the Patriots tried. But overall, a very nice job by this unit.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Richard Seymour had trouble this game and no one in the unit particularly showed up. The Chargers were able to run and the pass rush that was generated was mostly from blitzes. So this unit could have been better Sunday.

LINEBACKERS: Roosevelt Colvin had a very active day and if you watch the tape, you could see the Chargers had far less success running to his side and much of it was due to the inability of the Chargers to block Colvin. The other side with Tully Banta-Cain was not nearly as effective and the Chargers ran well that way. Both Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi were decent, but not great. A caveat is needed here because the Chargers really are an outstanding offensive team with the best running back in the NFL. Considering that, this unit did okay.

SECONDARY: Asante Samuel has just had an amazing year. And Sunday was no exception. He had several blanket coverage type plays and batted down a big 3rd and 4 pass late in the game with the score still tied. Over on the other side, Ellis Hobbs proved he wasn’t the sorriest corner in the league and is actually quite solid. He gave up some plays, but also made some. Overall, the Chargers passing game didn’t hurt the Patriots too badly and this unit deserves credit.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Good day here. Stephen Gostkowski hit all three of his kicks without incident, including a 50-yarder and the game winner. Todd Sauerbraun’s punts were good. And coverage was decent, including on the big last kickoff the game when they had to cover a kick up three with the dangerous Michael Turner returning. Good day.

Now on to Indianapolis. Its amazing this team is on the verge of what they are, yet another championship. They may not be as good as the 2003 or 2004 teams, but no one can claim they aren’t close any more. Until then.

Game Day Rear View – Gutty Pats Push Past Chargers on Brady Comeback, Gostkowski Winner, 24-21; One Win Away From Super Bowl 41

gdrv_sm.jpgBy Scott Benson
[email protected]

A ballsy New England Patriots team defied four months of abject (and now, obsolete) skepticism with today’s 24-21 comeback road win over the top ranked San Diego chargers, a win that returns the proud three-time champions to the AFC Championship Game for the fourth time in six seasons.

Awaiting the Patriots will be old friends the Indianapolis Colts, and all that they entail, but that is a story for the rest of the week. Tonight is to celebrate another one for the books. The Patriots scored eleven points in the final five minutes to erase an eight point deficit with an unconventional, yet DVD-worthy comeback. They had three turnovers and rushed for 50 yards and still beat the best team in the AFC on its home field.

Troy Brown made the pivotal play, not as a receiver, not as a defensive back, but as both. As the Patriots drove into Chargers territory with little more than six minutes to play, needing both a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie, a miserable Tom Brady was intercepted on a fourth down try from the SD 41. As safety Marlon McCree moved upfield with San Diego’s third interception of the day, he was stripped by intended receiver Brown, and Reche Caldwell recovered. The Pats had not their backs against the wall, but the ball and another life. Even the field position was better.

Brady, fighting through a tough San Diego game plan that left him hurried with few options, would nonetheless not miss this chance. Two competions to Jabar Gaffney (again, the Patriots receiving star, with his second straight 100 yard game) drove the ball inside the Chargers 10 and set up Caldwell’s 4 yard touchdown catch (on a nifty Brady pocket move to his left) at 4:41.

Kevin Faulk tied the game when he took the direct snap and slammed it in for two behind a big push by the Pats offensive line. How in the world did the Chargers not see this – the Patriots signature two-point play – coming?

After the Patriots defense (which had at times been pushed around by the Chargers) forced an immediate three-and-out, an elivened Brady drove the Pats 72 more yards in two minutes, before Stephen Gostkowski capped the comeback with a 31 yarder with 1:14 left. It was the rookie’s his third field goal of the day (including a 50 yard missile to open the scoring) and the first game winner of his career.

Again Caldwell was the central figure in the late drive; his fly pattern past Quentin Jammer put him directly beneath a perfect 49 bomb from Brady, and he fought off a closing Jammer to gather in the ball before stumbling out at the SD 15. Caldwell nearly tightroped the sideline all the way to the end zone (it looked like he could have stayed in, had he not looked behind him) and set up the Ghost’s chip shot winner.

Phillip Rivers drove the Chargers into Pats territory as time ran out (thanks to a 21 grab by Eric Parker, who until then had failed him), but Nate Kaeding’s 54 yard attempt to tie fell short and to the right, and the Patriots had one of the most memorable playoff wins of their already-remarkable history.

An apt comparison to other playoff triumphs comes hard. Perhaps Oakland in January of 2002, when all appeared lost before Brady (and Adam Vinatieri) drove the Pats to the win. Today, the game seemed closed to slipping away on more than one occasion. Yet, when all is said and done, the Patriots play on.

After a slow first quarter, the Chargers burst to a 14-3 lead with two second-period touchdowns. San Diego rode to their first score, a 2 yard plunge by Ladainian Tomlinson, after winning an early field position battle that left them with short fields for most of the first half. Three minutes later, Tomlinson set up another score when he grabbed a screen in the right flat and ran past both Mike Vrabel and Artrell Hawkins for 58 yard play to the New England 6.

Michael Turner carried over on the next play and the Chargers threatened to run away with it with just two minutes remaining in the half.

The Patriots offense – operating, even in the shadow of its own goal posts, from a full spread offense that often featured no running backs – had been unable to move the chains thanks to tight coverage by the Chargers and the ever present threat of their pass rush. Donnie Edwards intercepted Brady first, but no harm was done, expect perhaps to the Pats psyche. But with two minutes left before the break, Brady mixed runs by Kevin Faulk with more intermediate passing to Jabar Gaffney, and a huge third down conversion to Caldwell at the SD 27. As the last seconds ticked off the clock, Brady found Gaffney along the back line of the end zone and the Patriots crawled back in the game at the half.

The defenses took over again as the second half started, until Brady was again pinned back by his own goal line with seven minutes left in the third. After a quick first down to Brown, the Chargers stiffened and forced another Todd Sauerbrun punt. But Parker could not hang on to the 51 yard kick (Sauerbrun crushed them all day), and Antwan Spann slammed him as he tried to reccover. Instead, the ball was covered by David Thomas at the SD 31. But Brady couldn’t move them, and on third down, he fumbled when Shawn Phillips sacked him. Matt Light fell on the loose ball, but the Pats were left with nothing but a long field goal attempt. Until Drayton Florence – who had already extended the dive with an illegal contact earlier – stepped in with a late taunt of Dan Graham, which brought the flag and another first down for the Patriots. The Chargers held again but this time the Pats were close enough for the kick and a one point game.

Yet it almost slipped away again, when the Chargers drove 83 yards for another Tomlinson touchdown – and an eight point lead – to open the fourth quarter. Antonio Gates twice got too open to be believed (in fact, he cost himself God knows how many yards on one catch, when he ran out of bounds despite being unchallenged) and Vincent Jackson out-leapt Ellis Hobbs for a Rivers throw to the Patriots three. LT’s TD brought the game to eight with just eight minutes to play. The Patriots were up against it and just minutes from ending their season exactly as they had last year.

The moral being, of course, thank God for Tom Brady. Even though he was intercepted three times and struggled under great pressure often, Brady persevered, leading the team on three dramatic drives that would win the game. San Diego had the right game plan for the Patriots offense, but even in their own stadium, they could not vanquish the Patriot legend. The two-time Super Bowl MVP bows to no one tonight.

Not to seem unappreciative, but I’ll be damned if I can figure out that Patriots game plan, which flooded the field with receivers and rendered invisible Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon, two of the team’s best offensive players. The Pats struggled mightily in this set, and the runners were conspicuous in their absense, which makes the New England rally that saved the season that much more incredible.

The Patriots defense fought off Tomlinson, occasionally landing a first down blow but still teetering on the edge of a big play for most of the day, right until the end. Tomlinson gouged them badly with the 58 yard screen, and ripped off several runs of 10 yards or more (finishing with 123 on 23 carries). Three times the Chargers drove inside the Patriots red zone – unchartered territory, until today – and walked away with touchdowns. On both sides of the ball, San Diego gave the Patriots everything they could handle. Rivers, the untested third-year pro bowler, did not wilt but battled through tough stretches of his own to make clutch throws to Gates and Jackson and almost lead the Chargers to an incredible last second field goal for a tie.

Tedy Bruschi had eleven tackles to lead the Patriots, but the New England defensive front took its lumps throughout. Neither Seymour nor Warren nor Wilfork took over, and the secondary bore the pressure. Hobbs was beaten for the late throw to Jackson that set up a touchdown, but he scrapped all day as the Chargers went at him with the run and the pass (as did Tomlinson, for a Hobbs post-game homage to Shawn Merriman’s sack dance, which later led LT to claim the Patriots have no class, right up through the head coach. The dance itself, apparently, is plenty classy. By the way – did Merriman play?). Asante Samuel scared the Chargers from even trying his side, and showed why with two timely pass breakups. The safeties (including Chad Scott, who also filled in at corner) tackled well and forced hard to the line of scrimmage in run support. Tully Banta-Cain can’t say the same, as he was worn out repeatedly by Tomlinson and the Charger blocking tight ends. Rosevelt Colvin had an athletic interception, leaping to tip, then catch, a Rivers dump to Tomlinson in Pats territory.

The Patriots offensive line wasn’t asked to run block (53 passing plays to just 19 runs; Kevin Faulk was the leading rusher with 25 yards) and Brady was only sacked twice (once by Merriman, who must have had to leave early). But there was constant pressure and the occasional free blitzer; still, they held it together for the comeback, and their push on Faulk’s two pointer was a critical win on a must-have play.

With no running game, the much-maligned wide receivers really stepped forward for the Pats today. Brown (who also had five catches) probably saved the season with his well-timed strip. He may have also gotten Marty Schottenheimer fired; Marty blew a challenge by claiming McCree was down before fumbling – no chance – and then he didn’t have one to use when Rivers hit Parker with the late pass in New England territory. Basically, this loss came down to the Charger defense not stopping the Pats when it counted; but Marty didn’t help by pissing away that TO.

Gaffney collected ten catches for 103 yards and the late first-half touchdown. So many of his catches were in the intermediate 15-20 area, where the Pats have trailed off this year. In the last two weeks, the former Texan has 18 catches for 207 yards and today’s enormous score. An Incredible in-season pickup.

And then Caldwell. Written off again and again this season, never measuring up in the eyes of the skeptics, alertly recovering the McCree fumble and then catching the tying touchdown minutes later, before sprinting past Jammer to gather in the Brady pass that ensured the win in the stadium he used to call home.

Lastly, we consider Gostkowski. The rookie kicker that makes the ‘experts’ nervous is now 6 for 6 in the playoffs, and has the first notch on his belt.

To review for those scoring at home, the Patriots clinched a berth in the AFC championship today – one step farther than they had advanced last year – on the strength of their wide receivers and their placekicker. Michael Felger and his devoted yet possibly mental following can stick THAT right in their pipe and smoke it tonight. You ignorant mooks have wasted your time and my time and everybody else’s time with your relentless negative bullshit for four months and what the hell did it prove? Nothing. Not a damn thing. You laughed at anybody that suggested they’d earned a chance to recover from what everybody agreed was the pisser of an off-season. You laughed. Wait for what? YOU KNEW NOW. You didn’t need to wait and see, because you just knew. Well, you don’t know jack shit. That much has been proven, by the same team you dogged for four months. They proved you don’t know shit. Now go get your effing shinebox.

And now, one of the great rivalries of the modern NFL is renewed, this time – as the Colts have long dreamed – in Indianapolis. Its all too much to take in tonight. One thing, though, isn’t – the Patriots That Weren’t Good Enough for Anybody are in fact good enough to be one win from the Super Bowl.

Game Day Blog – The Sunday (Divisional Round) Papers

sunday_links.jpgby Scott Benson
[email protected]

It’s five o’clock in the morning, there’s eleven and a half hours before game time, we’ve got a full tank of gas, a half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses.

Hit it.

Pretty interesting game yesterday. Nice ballgame from MacNair. We’re still laughing about Dan Dierdorf’s “He Built This City (On Throwing Low)” speech. Yeah, Steve McNair has really changed things in Baltimore, by the looks. But in what dimension does Peyton Manning throw up a quarterback rating of FORTY and get a breakthrough playoff win anyway? Of course, you’re going to get sick from all the Adam Vinatieri love that’s coming your way soon. Anyway, that was a fun game, I thought, and now, the stakes for today are set.

Let’s open the papers and see what’s up.

Over at the Globe, they’re throwing the kitchen sink at today’s game. We’ve got the usual crew plus a wave of reinforcements, and, of course, a gaggle of preening columnists. It feels like that, anyway, when Bob Ryan and Dan Shaughnessy choose sides for a contrived ‘Tastes Great, Less Filling’ debate. Ryan gets the bullish side, arguing for the been-there-done-that Pats, and I’m assuming Shank got the ‘Super Chargers!’ side, which probably feels more like a shot at the Pats than it does a testimonial for San Diego. I don’t know, I didn’t read it. And I cannot link what I did not read.

Jackie MacMullen gets the ‘can’t miss’ assignment; a feature on how freaking great Tom Brady is. Nice work again by Jackie, the best feature writer out there. And yes, I did breathe a sigh of relief when I got to the end and Brady hadn’t complained about his contract.

The beat guys set the stage with their morning stories, and Christopher L. Gaspar (I’m telling you, I’m about a week away from going with ‘Chris’) focuses on red zone play, and particularly the match up of the Chargers offense and Patriots defense, two of the best red zone units in the league. Gaspar drops a note in here that I didn’t know, though – the Chargers are 29th in red zone defense. Mike Reiss is along with more strength-on-strength matchups, and says in his Notebook that the Patriots will be trying to put 11 men on LaDainian Tomlinson everytime he carries the ball.

Jim McBride weighs in with his weekly scouting report, and Jim doesn’t feel good about the Pats this week. McBride also adds a notebook for the other playoff games, with some best wishes from the triumphant Colts, hoping to be home for the AFC Championship Game next week.

Even Michael Felger would like the Globe’s depth today – veterans John Powers (on the always-popular Corey Dillon), Frank Dell’Apa (fast starter Tully Banta-Cain) and Mark Blaudschun (ace kicker Nate Kaeding) all come off the sidebar bench to great effect.

Ron Borges closes with the weekly Football Notes, where he ponders the Hall of Fame candidacy of Patriots great Andre Tippett, and the possible future of Marty Schottenheimer. I like how often Tippett’s referenced the old Patriots since the announcement; it was awful good to see the name of old favorite Johnny Rembert the other day.

At the Herald, Michael Felger says in his Patriots Beat that its not about Tomlinson or Gates or Rivers; it’s about the Patriots offense. Okay, that’s not an unreasonable position, but let’s just say I’m not surprised to see Felger put the focus on the offense again. This time, though, he tosses a curveball; it’s not the wide receivers that have Mike concerned – now it’s the tackles. Then what was the four months of bitching about the receivers for, if the season was going to come down to the two offensive tackles? They should have traded Branch for Walter Jones or something.

Felger does look at the defense for a minute in his Game With a Game and decides that the Patriots have to use team coverage to combat the explosive Antonio Gates. He also worries about the placekicking, particularly about their balls being slippery. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve give you a few minutes to compose yourself.

Mike finishes up by checking inside the huddle for an old rant by Pete Carroll, who still wishes he had gotten the control Bill Belichick has. Personally, I view Carroll to be among the least culpable parties for the Patriots late 90’s collapse, but not if he keeps talking like this.

Albert Breer and John Tomase have both been strong in recent weeks, and it would have been nice to expand their roles today. Breer gets one shot, and he connects with a vote of confidence in Bill Belichick’s well-prepared Patriots. Tomase disabuses Pats fans who have been fond of citing Marshall Faulk/Tomlinson parallels when discussing this weekend’s game plan. Speaking of game plans, John also tells us what to look for.

Karen Guregian brings us back to draft day 2001 in her look at the great LT. Nick Canepa from the San Diego Union Tribune crows about the Chargers, and why the hell shouldn’t he? I thought the line about the Patriots having more experience than the Gabor Sisters was pretty goddam funny, if you were born in the Fifties. Later, there’s a Churchill reference.

At the ProJo, Shalise Manza Young takes a look back at how the valuable Artrell Hawkins came to the Patriots. Joe McDonald offers up his weekly game analysis, and sees things as pretty even. Jim Donaldson debunks what he claims is a Martyball myth.

If your thirst for Pats-Chargers remains unquenched, you know what to do. Do the Mash-Up! Naturally, you can follow the day’s events at Reiss’s Pieces, and as I mentioned, Breer has been crushing it on his blog the Point After. Both great resources for Pats fans all year, but especially at times like this.

Well, kids, here we go. Basically, after all this, after everything that has been done and said, the Patriots are today playing for the right to go to Indianapolis and the AFC Championship Game. Manning and Dungy and Polian and, yes, Adam’s Money. You cannot make this shit up. But first, the Patriots must close the deal with the star-studded team that was better than anyone in the dominant AFC over sixteen weeks. The storybook ending is anything but guaranteed. Either way, I’ll be back after the game.

GDRV Roundtable — Divisional Round Edition

by Scott Benson, Greg Doyle, Tim Jordan and Bruce Allen
[email protected]

Well, for all their trials and tribulations over the last year, where do we find the New England Patriots but in the same place we left them last January. The divisional round of the AFC playoffs.

Wait, there actually is a difference between this year and last. You tell me how big it is. Last year, they faced the tournament’s second seed when they reached the second round. This year, in San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium, they’ll play the first seed.

Otherwise, without the hall of fame kicker, the two star receivers, and the sage playmaker, and with all their alleged blemishes, the 2006 Patriots have basically ended up right back where they started.

No comment. Just an observation.

For more observations, here’s the Row of Chairs themselves.

Last Sunday was one for the books. Any lingering thoughts?

Greg: I was impressed how Richard Seymour picked up his game. Its probably been Seymour’s least dominant season this year since he got to the NFL. Much of that can probably be attributed to lingering injuries. But when the playoffs came, he was ready and dominated last week. They’ll need that again this week.

Tim: A complete team victory with many contributors. It was just as the team preaches. A thing of beauty in that regard and, despite my aversion to “storylines”, Mangini’s presence playing against a division rival made this game much more memorable to me than last year’s Jaguars game. It is truly uncanny the way this team seems to play at another level at this time of year and watching them do it against a team built in their own image was very satisfying. Some players that made some big plays that haven’t received much attention this week for it: Troy Brown (2 catches, both on 3rd and long during drives that resulted in touchdowns), Ben Watson (a big first down of his own where the defender went low, but he still held the ball, as well as a huge pass interference on Hank Poteat at the goal line setting up the Graham TD), and Heath Evans (blocked two Jets interior lineman on Dillon’s first 11 yard TD run).

Bruce: I was just glad to move on from that matchup. It was uncomfortable watching some of the schemes and formations (or lack of formations) that the Patriots have utilized for years used against them. The AFC East is going to be a tougher place going forward. All that being said, there was no point during that game where I was very concerned that the Patriots would lose. Even when they briefly fell behind, I always thought they were going to come back just fine. It felt like they had control of the game.

Scott: Just that I’m getting carried away with the last eleven-plus minutes of that game. It was a seven point game at that point, with the Jets just having matched a field goal. That might not seem like a close game to you; to me, one fumble or tipped ball by the offense and it’s close enough. But the Patriots just shoved the ball down the Jets’ throats while ripping off huge chunks of clock time. They dominated. Then, on the Jets final gasp, they immediately intercept a pass and return it for another score. Knockout punch. They KILLED them, just like our posting pal Ironhead said they would. They made a close game look like a blowout, and in no way cheaply. I’ve got a wicked case of ‘the Patriots are going to win the Super Bowl’ as a result.

What was your reaction to Camera-Gate?

Tim: I wish you hadn’t asked. Like everyone else, I didn’t like it when it happened (it looked worse live than on Youtube, didn’t it?) and was happy when Belichick both personally and publicly apologized to Jim Davis. The rest is contrived media sound and fury. While we are on the handshake topic though, anyone with access to the OnDemand Patriots Video News on Comcast should check out their entry on the day after the Jets game. They show Mangini and Belichick’s post game handshake from the second regular season game and its pretty telling. Mangini is insufferable. This will be a fun and challenging division rival for years to come.

Bruce: Not smart by Belichick and he admitted as much and apologized to Jim Davis for it. That should be the end of it, but with the media the way it is, there’s been plenty of hand wringing and denunciations of Belichick in the press. It’s tiresome, really.

Scott: I watched it develop as, I admit, I was hanging in there to see what would happen between Belichick and Mangini. It’s the Inside Track in me. Anyway, I saw him push his way through there and I honestly didn’t think anything of it. I wrote a whole thing about the game and didn’t mention it at all – not for any reason other than it didn’t register with me as being something significant. The awkward hug, I noticed. Anyway, the coach was appropriately contrite and the photographer was gracious in accepting the apology. And everybody else got to tsk tsk to their heart’s content, secure in the knowledge their brief moments as an asshole will never, ever be televised, and thus, shall forever remain plausibly deniable.

Greg: That it was just too bad and tragic. I feel really bad. Because if Belichick was going to slug a media-type, its just awful and terrible it wasn’t one of the scribes like Buckley or Felger or Tomase or one of the other giant ass hats that cover this team.

Let’s close the books on last week and get started on this Sunday’s highly anticipated game with San Diego. Who wins the match-ups? We’ll start with the Chargers offense vs. the Patriots defense.

Bruce: In concept it’s very easy. LaDainian Tomlinson. Antonio Gates. The Patriots defense has to be able to slow those two down. Can they? I think they’ll do a decent job at this on Sunday, but the game really hinges on not giving up too many big plays. Those two are going to make some plays, but if the Patriots can keep them out of the end zone for the most part, they’ll be in this game.

Scott: The Patriots finished top ten across the major categories of run defense, particularly in fewest rushing attempts per game (fourth, with a 24.2 average), fewest yards allowed (fifth, with 94.2 per game), and yards per carry (seventh, with 3.9) But Tomlinson is one of those players who rises above all that. He’s probably the best player in the league at this point, and he can do everything. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he was to produce 250 total yards between running and receiving (275 if he passes) and win the game by himself. This isn’t like going into Pittsburgh in 01 and trying to stop Jerome Bettis. As a result, I can’t give the Patriots anything even close to the edge here. They have to stone a guy that very few stone. No offense to Phillip Rivers, but if the game for some reason comes down to him, against the players and coaches of the Patriots defense, I’ll take New England 9.5 times out of 10. That, to me, sounds like the Patriots have to do more than slow down Tomlinson – they need to stop him. San Diego will have no reason to put it in Rivers’ hands otherwise.

Greg: A good matchup. San Diego has some very dangerous weapons. Well, actually, they have two very dangerous weapons LaDanian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates. If the Patriots can find a way to take those away to at least some degree, it’ll force San Diego to do things they don’t want to do. One way to take away Tomlinson is to build a large lead. I expect the Patriots to be very aggressive on offense themselves to try to do this. If they can do this and force San Diego into mostly a passing game in the second half, they can take away Gates and its ballgame.

Tim: LT – Gates. That’s the game. LT – Gates, and I wonder if it can be stopped. Regarding Tomlinson, I’ve heard the Faulk in 01 comparison, but the 01 Rams were a much different offense than this 06 Charger team. Not to mention the fact that LT had 276 more yards from scrimmage (2,147 vs. 2,423) this season than Faulk did in that record setting year in 01. Faulk was playing with the league MVP under center and that offense was one of the greatest in the annals of the NFL. Of course, Belichick had seen that team in week 7 that year too which helped immeasurably in development of the game plan for the Super Bowl. It’s a completely different situation. Nobody seems to mention Lorenzo Neal, probably the best blocking fullback in the NFL, when talking about LT’s MVP season. In fact, that entire offensive line (over 2,300 rushing yards this year) is the best the Patriots will face this year. Add to that the fact that the offense has given up the least amount of turnovers in the league and you’ve got the match-up that concerns me the most as a Patriots fan. If the Patriots defense plays this game like they’ve played most others this year then we should look for a ton of yards between the 20 yard lines and hope for more exemplary red zone play. If not, this is where the Patriots will lose this game.

Okay, how about the Patriots offense vs. the San Diego defense?

Scott: It’s all about sack totals, it seems to me. I keep hearing about this great defense with Jamal Williams and Merriman and Phillips, and they have had a very good year, but at least statistically, they don’t dress out as being a whole lot different than some of the defenses the Patriots have recently played. The one difference being the enormous sack total. Tom Brady’s playing pretty well, just when it counts the most, and I’m going to bet that has the answer for that more often than not. We’ve been talking – as we should – about how the Patriots will contend with an other-wordly force like Tomlinson; I suggest the San Diego defense has a similar problem themselves, with the best big-money player of this decade. Pats get the clear edge here for me.

Greg: The Patriots should be able to move the ball. Tom Brady has been on, the receivers have improved and they run the ball well. I am worried about the San Diego pass rush. They’ll have to use a combination of ways to slow that down…..designed roll outs, quick passes, screen, leaving tight ends and backs in to help and mix those different strategies up. It could keep San Diego off balance in how to attack and help control their pass rush. But the Patriots should be able to score at a decent clip.

Tim: This one looks pretty even on paper (coincidentally, the SD offense and NE defense are both 7th in the NFL), but I think it favors the Patriots. The Chargers are an explosive defensive team with playmakers at seemingly every position, but they have been in their share of shoot outs this year. The Patriots like to talk about their emphasis on situational football and you can see it on display with every offensive possession. Each drive in the Jets game (Kevin Faulk’s touchdown catch being my personal favorite) last week was a great example of how they attack a defense’s weaknesses and adjust to what they are seeing. The key again will be how the team performs in the red zone, but, at the same time, you wonder if the game plan will call for the offense to try and control the clock and keep San Diego’s offense off the field. It will be very interesting to see how they approach it.

Bruce: If the Patriots can keep Tom Brady upright, they’re going to be fine, I think. Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk might be the keys this week, as the Patriots might be able to use some draws and screens to combat the blitz that is certain to come. The Chargers don’t change much from week to week, so we know what we’re going to see. I think in terms of passing, the plan might be similar to the one used in the Jets game. Passing outside, and trying the deep one every so often, hoping to hit one this week.

How do the special teams stack up?

Greg: San Diego is good, but the Patriots are certainly capable of busting a return themselves with Maroney, Hobbs or Faulk. I’ll give a slight edge to San Diego, but if its any, its slight.

Tim: I’d be pretending if I tried to dissect the intricacies of the Chargers special teams units, but the Patriots special teams are playing better than they have all season in the last 5 games. It’s a testimony to Brad Seely with all the losses that that unit has had to deal with. Hobbs and Maroney both had very good days against the Jets, who are a very good special teams unit in their own right. We’ve seen it before, this game could easily come down to a few special teams plays depending on how well each defense plays.

Bruce: I haven’t seen the San Diego special teams enough to really comment, but the Patriots have shown improvement in recent weeks. They’ve done a pretty good job on returns, both ways, and the kicking game has been promising. Gostkowski did just fine in his first postseason action, even making a 40 yarder where the kick was pressured heavily. One of his kickoffs went through the end zone.

Scott: I think you have to go with the Chargers here, though the Patriots do outdo them in the return department. Which reminds me, there was Kevin Faulk and Troy Brown back there on punts last week – and not Chad Jackson – just as I suspected they would be. It was the right thing to do, of course, but I still want to see Jackson. But San Diego obviously kicks the ball great, and covers kicks just as well.

Lastly, how about the coaching match-up?

Tim: Schottenheimer has to be a pretty bright guy and a talented football mind. He’s in the top 5 in wins in NFL history and that doesn’t happen if you don’t know how to coach. He’s had some glaring playoff losses, most recently in 04, which raise some questions about his ability to lead when the lights are the brightest. However, the latter part of this season he’s given more control on the offensive side of the ball to his coordinator, Cam Cameron, and the team has responded well. Particularly Phillip Rivers, who leads the NFL in 4th quarter QB rating during that stretch. It makes one wonder how they’ll play this one. Will they try and alter their philosophy that made them the best offensive team in the NFL this year or will they keep doing what they have and dare the Patriots to beat them on the field? It normally wouldn’t even be a question, but with Marty’s 5-12 playoff record it seems like something that they may consider. It makes me wonder if a component to Belichick’s post season success is the excellence of the teams he’s faced. In other words, the offenses and defenses were so good that they were predictable. Anyway, I am sure everyone with rooting interest in NE feels very comfortable heading into Sunday. The Patriots are the smarter and more adaptable team thanks to their superior coaching match-up.

Bruce: This seems like a layup. We know the postseason stats for Belichick and Schottenheimer. While I don’t put a lot of stock into those numbers for THIS game, they do tell a story. Of course, Schottenheimer is also 7-1 lifetime against the Patriots. It seems that the Chargers just line up and play. They don’t change a whole lot from week to week. If they throw a change-up this week and mix things up, it will be quite a surprise and might mess them up just as much as it would shock the Patriots.

Scott: The answer to this one is in the record books, and it’s not close. Marty Schottenheimer sure is a good one for the NFL Films-ready inspirational pre-game speech, and he’s certainly been a successful head coach in the NFL for a long time. I mean, twelve post-season appearances. I’ve got to wonder, though, if he’s much for discipline and detail. The five player arrests since April speak for themselves. And we’re now learning that he’s got at least a few guys – on a young team that hasn’t done anything yet – that think of the playoffs as just a couple of regular season games the league tacked on to keep the Chargers busy until the Super Bowl. This all plays into my new favorite theory that the Chargers are a west coast version of the 01-04 Steelers, and may offer a hint – at least in part – as to why Schottenheimer’s teams have failed to win a playoff game eight times out of his twelve playoff appearances.

Greg: Obviously you have to give this one to Belichick. I am wary of assuming Marty Schottenheimer will never get hot in the playoffs. You heard a lot of similar things about Bill Cowher last year and there he was, raising the trophy at the end. Schottenheimer has won over 200 NFL games, so obviously isn’t the bumbling moron sometimes portrayed. He isn’t Belichick either. But one of these days he may just be the one raising the trophy in the face of all the knocks against him. Just hopefully not this year.

Let’s get to it then – let’s have the victor, and a final score.

Bruce: Dang. It’s late Thursday night, close to submission time for this piece and I still can’t get a handle on this game. Every time I think about how the Patriots have responded to these types of challenges in the past I remember that this isn’t the same team that beat up the Steelers in January of ’05 or the Colts in that year and the year before. This team has the potential to deliver that type of performance…I think…but when I think of the running of LaDainian Tomlinson, the pass rush of the Chargers defense and the threat of Antonio Gates catching the ball I’m given pause. I think the Patriots are going to play well and have nothing to be ashamed of, however I think Tomlinson is going to break one or two during the course of the game and that might be the difference. I fear that it might. I’m going with the Chargers, 30-20, but hope against hope that I am incredibly wrong.

Scott: This train is bound for glory. Patriots 27, Chargers 20.

Greg: Patriots 30-20.

Tim: 34-31, Good guys. It’s impossible to watch this team for any length of time and pick against them in this game.

What are your thoughts about the other AFC divisional playoff – the Colts and the Ravens in Baltimore?

Scott: I don’t know, seems kind of predictable to me. Colts on the road, hard hitting, aggressive defense……..maybe Peyton will surprise us this time. He didn’t last Sunday, and he’s really up against it this week. I’d bet that Brian Billick will have a more competitive game plan than Herman Edwards did, and the Colts defense will quickly get over the illusion that they’re somehow ‘coming together at the right time’ or something – they suck. I’d love to pick the upset here (come on – next Sunday in Indianapolis? Sweet!) but I think I’ll stick with the Ravens.

Greg: The Ravens are at home and a tougher team than the softy Colts, who’ll fold on the road with their pathetic defense imploding without the comfort of their home crowd behind them. Lets go Ravens 27-13. Manning should be good for at least another 3 picks.

Tim: I am inclined to go with the Ravens here, for two reasons: Dungy looks like the guy at the health club that enjoys naked time in the locker room more than anyone else and the fact that his voice always reminds me of the old guy with the crush on Chris Griffin in Family Guy. Brian Billick once shared the stage with Charles Nelson Reilly and Gene Rayburn, but please believe him when he tells you he doesn’t like attention. He’s also got a scary group of players on the defensive side of the ball. I think, pound for pound, the best group in the league. Indy continues their slow burn to mediocrity. Thanks, Bill Polian!

Bruce: I just don’t see how Indy can pull this one out. They did show me something last week against Larry Johnson and the Chiefs, but I think the Ravens are just too much for the Colts this week. The game is outdoors, out of their element, and until the Colts can beat someone other than the Broncos and Chiefs in the postseason, I can’t pick them.

Let’s close out with another round of Mediot…..of the Week!

Greg: Michael Felger, who once was an astute observer of the Patriots, being unable to find much to talk about except pathetic Belichick to the Giants rumors is my winner. Michael, what happened to you? Seriously? Take a look in the mirror. Its not that sports is the most important thing in the world, but really, you’re making an ass of yourself. Have some self-respect and cover the sports intelligently and live up to your promise to not be about “Manny pissing in the walll…..”

Tim: This is the best time of year as a Patriots fan. It’s when some of our favorite memories have been made while our collective hearts race and emotions soar. We try to balance the excitement of the last win with the anticipation of the next challenge, knowing that the next game could be the last of the season. We are captive and we are captivated. It is a unique escape provided by the drama and pageantry that is professional football. Here in New England, we have been particularly blessed, rewarded for our fervor with a team that plays with character, intelligence, pride, and, most of all, excellence. Win or lose this Sunday, it does not, it WILL not, get any better than this as Patriots fans. We are in the rare position to reasonably assume that the New England Patriots are perennial contenders in a league designed to prevent just that. It’s important that we remind ourselves of this to, if for no other reason, properly appreciate it. And no one is going to do this for us, especially the media covering this team.

Instead, we are going to get a full page spread on our sports page the day of the game reminding us that our best corner is likely leaving after this season with three week old quotes that aren’t noted as such. We are going to get guys who have seen their careers advance partially due to the success and exposure afforded to them by this team tell us how delusional we are not to recognize how little chance they have of winning against the latest NFL juggernaut. We are going to get tedious and transparent arguments as these same folks race to be the first guy to predict the team’s demise and make up statistics to support their flawed analysis without any repercussions. Most of all, we are going to get annoyed, frustrated, and agitated. Why? Because they aren’t following this team for the same reasons. They want you to notice them. They want you to remember their name. They want a reaction. They want to take our attention and use it to augment their W-2’s, or their profile, or their self-esteem. In some cases, all three.

This week I implore you not to give it to them. Let’s save ourselves the aggravation and keep our attention where it belongs; on the team.

Bruce: Aside from the usual suspects we had a new contestant this week as Globe metro columnist Brian McGrory decided to weigh in on cameragate. I must’ve missed McGrory’s similar column of outrage when colleague Ron Borges knocked down a fellow writer at a boxing match.

Scott: I thought Albert Breer had a terrific week with the Herald’s Point After blog. Incredible depth in really every post. And no snarky one-liners; his enthusiasm for the game and for the story showed through, and he delivered items of interest every time. Breer rose to the occasion this week. There’s nothing mediotic about that.

Second Look: New York Jets at Patriots

Sunday’s impressive 37-16 win in the opening round of the NFL playoffs proved the Patriots are once again ready to take on all challengers when the postseason rolls around. Despite the final score, it was a tight, well-played, competitive game most of the way through. But the Patriots were clearly better and I never had a sense they’d lose. It was one of the better and sharper games they have played all year. And they’ll need to continue that trend as the competition is only going to get better. Lets take a look at each unit.

QUARTERBACK: Tom Brady has clearly played better the second half of the year, overall, than he did the first half. Chemistry with the receivers is probably one reason. Sunday, he was very good. He killed the Jets on critical third down after third down and at times made it look easy the precision he ran the offense with. He had a couple bad plays, a pass or two that could have been picked and a sack where he held the ball too long. But overall, he is approaching if not at his previous year’s level and that is good news for the Patriots.

RUNNING BACK: An outstanding day. Corey Dillon was very effective running the ball, though he did have one fumble. Laurence Maroney too ran hard, though he was unable to really shake loose on the Jets. Kevin Faulk contributed and caught a touchdown pass. The blocking was great, especially from fullback Heath Evans.

WIDE RECEIVER: A good day. Jabar Gaffney appears comfortable and made some good catches. His snare on the second Patriots first down of the game was actually a better catch than it appears on television. Live, you could see Brady was a bit inaccurate on it and Gaffney made a nice in flight adjustment to grab it and get the first down. He was good all day and had eight catches, though he did drop one potential touchdown. Troy Brown had one of his better games of the year, catching a couple big third downs and getting down field a bit. Reche Caldwell was his usual solid self and had five catches.

TIGHT ENDS: Good day here. Ben Watson had a drop, but blocked well. Daniel Graham was back to his old self blocking and was excellent. He caught a touchdown pass nicely at the end of the half as well in traffic.

OFFENSIVE LINE: Great day here. Matt Light held up well against the pass and the guards did an excellent job picking up the inside blitzes the Jets tried. They also got out well in space a number of time, especially Stephen Neal. Nick Kaczur at right tackle may have had his best game of the year.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Very good day here, though I don’t think it was as spectacular as I heard others say. That being said, Richard Seymour had his most disruptive and best day of the year. Nice to see him step up his game for the playoffs. He was all over the field including hustling numerous times to make plays on receivers way down field. Vince Wilfork was back from injury and was solid, but not spectacular and the Jets did gash him up the middle a couple times. He did have the heads up play of the year picking up a Jets lateral and running with it in the third quarter. That changed the game. Ty Warren was quiet for the first time in some time.

LINEBACKERS: A monster game here from Tully Banta-Cain, who seems to be getting better and better the more he plays. The rest of the crew was pretty solid. Mike Vrabel was active and had a nice game plugging the middle and dropping into coverage.

SECONDARY: What more can be said about Asante Samuel? The guy has just made plays all year. Before his fourth quarter interception return for a TD, he was solid all day and batted down a couple of big passes. Ray Mickens and Ellis Hobbs did a nice job at the corner spots. At safety, Artrell Hawkins let himself get out of position and took a bad angle on the Jets long touchdown pass and run. That was a major mistake. He had a bit of an off game, as did James Sanders, though neither was terrible. They’ll need to play better from here on out, however.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Nice game from Stephen Goskowski connecting on all three field goal attempts. His kickoffs were mostly long and high as well. The punting was decent and coverage good. Not a bad day here.

As well as the Patriots played, they’ll have to play even better in the next round against a better San Diego team. It won’t be easy at all. But if they can slow down Tomlinson some (I don’t think they need to stop him completely, just hold him down under 120) and take away Antonio Gates, throwing to receivers is not what San Diego really likes to do. On offense, the Patriots have a challenge against the tough San Diego pass rush. They’ll need to find a way to combat that similar to how they combated the tough Carolina pass rush in the Super Bowl a few years back. Do that and they may just advance to the AFC Championship Game.

It Is Time For Stormy Weather

By Bill Barnwell, Football Outsiders – special to BSMW Patriots Game Day

It Is Time For Stormy Weather

Oh, if only the Patriots were hosting the Chargers this weekend instead of heading to sunny San Diego. 62° is the high for Sunday in San Diego; Foxboro, a measly … 60°? El Nino aside, Foxboro’s expecting rain on Sunday; it’ll be bright and clear in San Diego.

I say “…if only…” because of the stories that would inevitably pop up if the Chargers were, in fact, traveling to a blustery Foxboro as opposed to the comfort out West. You know, the ones that would insinuate that Philip Rivers’ fingers would freeze off and that he’d be left crying in a ball on the sideline, quality control assistants cuddling with him, since he’d never been exposed to cold weather before? They always struck me as kinda ridiculous. It’s football! Sure, I don’t like playing football in the extreme cold very much, but I’m not a professional! They can figure it out, right!

What was given as proof of these statements, in the times where they were one, were stats about how the Buccaneers had never won a playoff game above 32°, or that the Packers had never lost one below it, or similar numbers. The figures were obviously a small enough sample and subject to enough bias that they were easily questionable.

So then, when I looked at the Patriots trip to San Diego, I wondered if the opposite was true; if warm-weather teams actually suffered when heading to colder ground, would cold-weather teams suffer when warmed up? Or, alternately, would they play better?

I took every playoff game from 1985 through 2005, outside of Super Bowls, and compiled the results of all 216 games. From there, I added the average January dry bulb and wet bulb temperatures for each city, home and away. In the case that a team played in a dome, I instead replaced the dry bulb and wet bulb temperatures with a dome constant that we’ve found at Football Outsiders to be the most accurate. This was done because teams who play in a dome, after all, would not be used to playing in the cold weather even if their city was cold outside of the dome (see: Peyton Manning).

I then separated the games into three groups. Cold games involved a road team traveling to play in a city where the average wet bulb temperature in January was 25 degrees colder than that of its home. Warm games were the opposite; they involved a road team traveling to play in a city where the average January temperature was 25 degrees warmer than that of its home — for example, the Patriots’ trip to San Diego. All other playoff games were adjudged to be Neutral weather games.

What I found? For one, that riding the winds to success has shown some validity for the playoffs:

weather_wins.jpg

The data clearly suggests that cold-weather teams hosting its warm-weathered brethren perform better than the average.

While the sample is too small to draw a strong conclusion, the data also suggests that the opposite isn’t true: in fact, warm-weather teams seem to be at a disadvantage when facing cold-weather teams!

There is always the possibility that what’s being produced in the data isn’t necessarily because of the separations being made — instead, the results above could have been produced by the cold-weather teams simply being more successful than warm-weather teams. Is that the case?

To check that, I’ll rely on each team’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage. (For more information, please click here.) The median dry bulb temperature for each of the 216 teams was 43°. I used that as the point of delineation in separating the teams into Warmer and Colder buckets. Their performance?

pythag_wins.jpg

As you can see, the warmer teams performed equally as well as the colder teams did, which would eliminate some fears about selection bias in producing the playoff performance results up above.

Is the sample large enough to be able to make strong statements about the weather and how it affects playoff performance? Probably not in the case of cold weather teams visiting warm areas, although it seems pretty apparent that the home teams in those matchups don’t enjoy any advantage by staying warm. When it comes to warm weather teams heading North and East, though, the last twenty years show that they’re most likely to be packing up their lockers Tuesday morning.

Game Day Rear View – Bully Pats Own Final Quarter, Send Jets Packing, 37-16

gdrv_sm.jpgby Scott Benson
[email protected]

The New England Patriots earned a berth in next week’s divisional round of the AFC playoffs – just two games away from Super Bowl 41 – with a decisive 37-16 win over the New York Jets in today’s AFC Wild Card game in Foxboro.

New York hung with New England through three quarters, and matched their no-huddle, quick snap strategizing step-for-step, but the bully Patriots made clear the difference between them and their New York rivals by completely owning the fourth quarter of an elimination football game.

Leading by just a touchdown with eleven minutes to play, the Patriots ground nearly six and a half minutes off the clock behind Tom Brady before extending their lead to fourteen on a Brady to Kevin Faulk 7y swing pass away from broken coverage. Less than thirty seconds later, the Patriots had a blowout when Asante Samuel doubled back in coverage to grab a Chad Pennington pass and race 36 yards for the close-out score. The Patriots added two sacks and a Vinny Testaverde cameo before Bill Belichick (now 12-2 lifetime in the playoffs) warmed the hearts and wet the eyes of wizened sportswriters everywhere by embracing Eric Mangini at midfield.

Though his numbers were modest (just 212 yards in 34 attempts), Brady was all-american material again. The Patriots clearly had the answer for the Jets blitzers this time with the no huddle quick pace, and Brady was masterful in the middle of it, taking short drop, short route throws to the perimeter to avoid sacks, maintain possession, and most importantly, move the chains and the scoreboard against one of the league’s stingiest scoring defenses. With the help of the on-a-roll running game, New England twice had six-minute touchdown drives (one that ate the final seven minutes of the first half; the second the game definer to seize control in the fourth) that dictated the outcome of the game as much as anything did. They piled up 26 first downs and punted just twice.

Pennington and the New York offense moved the ball on the Patriots defense (the Pats outgained NY by a slim 358-347 margin) but as usual, the story was the Patriots red zone defense. Three times the Jets drove inside the Pats 20 and came away with no touchdown, settling each time for a Mike Nugent field goal. Their only touchdown came on yet another freak big play involving Jerricho Cotchery (who caught a 15 yard throw and outran an overmatched Patriots coverage for a 77 yard score), which gave them a relatively brief second quarter lead.

But like they were with the blitz pick ups, the Patriots remained a step ahead of the Jets all day, thanks in part to three field goals by their own draftee kicker, Stephen Gostkowski. The Ghost hit two big third quarter kicks (one a 40 yarder) that kept the Jets at least seven points behind until Brady and Samuel could put them away. In a related story, Michael Felger was last heard shrieking about Adam Vinatieri on Bob Lobel’s program this morning.

Jabar Gaffney was the surprise stand out for the Patriots, leading all receivers with 8 catches and 104 yards. Gaffney took the lead from the opening drive (a humdinger three-minute, 60 yard touchdown march that Corey Dillon finished with an 11 yard run), taking his routes to a 8×8 open area about seven yards up right sideline. Brady kept hitting him with no protest from the Jets (including an ailing Andre Dyson, who was forced from the game immediately), and before you knew it, the Patriots were in the end zone with a HUGE momentum-establishing opening drive.

The Jets overcame a slow start to first dig in, then take the lead. Mike Vrabel couldn’t cover Cotchery on a route up the right hash (he later had troubles with Chris Baker too), and after Pennington looped in a throw, Artrell Hawkins couldn’t reign Cotchery in. Much like he had at the Meadowlands in September, the big galoot outraced New England to its own end zone, and suddenly, the upstart Jets were in front to start the second period. I am buoyed by the thought that Cotchery will not be visiting the Patriots defensive backfield again this season.

The Patriots offense regained control by the half, though. First, Gostkowski tied it for the Pats after a 50 yard drive was stopped inside the Jets 10. After the Pats D held and forced a punt on the next Jets possession, Brady led the Pats on a 80 yard corker that featured a pounding Pats ground game behind Kevin Faulk and Laurence Maroney. They set up Brady, who finished the drive by hitting Dan Graham on a threaded third down throw into double coverage from the Jets 1. The Patriots were back in front by seven by halftime.

There they remained, as the teams swapped field goals through the third quarter. After Nugent hit his third and final kick to begin the final period, Brady went to work again. After nearly being picked on a long throw to Chad Jackson to start the drive (Jackson actually made a nice strip there), Brady pulled in the reigns, going back to the ground with Maroney and Corey Dillon (running hard after an early fumble set up Nugent’s first three-pointer) and hitting Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell and Gaffney with crucial throws. When the Jets tightened again inside their own 10, Brady moved Faulk pre-snap and sent him alone into the flat for the quarterback’s second TD throw of the day. Sixty yards, six points, and perhaps most importantly, six minutes off the clock. The Pats led by two touchdowns with five minutes to play.

Samuel blew it open on the second play of the next Jets possession, when he worked a combination coverage to perfection. The soon-to-be free agent corner, who has not heard the last of his comments to Jackie MacMullen in today’s Globe, looked to be following Laveranues Coles deep when he doubled back, right in front of Justin McCareins. He grabbed Pennington’s throw and – unlike last week – he didn’t hesitate to tack on another score.

And so it was, save for The Hug. Despite reports to the contrary, no guard would be changing today.

The Patriots defensive line got consistent pressure with just four men, allowing enough players to drop into coverage and keep Pennington out of the end zone. Seymour led the front in tackles, Ty Warren was a force early, and Vince Wilfork pushed the middle and hit Pennington. Tully Banta Cain did too, sacking him twice. You cannot say the Patriots aren’t getting contributions from practically everyone.

Rosevelt Colvin caused a third quarter stir when he broke in on Pennington’s left to swat down a screen pass as the Jets approached midfield. Suddenly, everyone (at least Wilfork and several dozen people on the Patriots sideline) realized it was a fumble, as the ball had gone parallel to the line of scrimmage, and the returning nose tackle (back after missing the last three games) rumbled 31 yards to the Jets 15 with the recovery. The play set up Gostkowski’s second field goal, and restored a seven point lead.

The Patriots special teams had a couple of dicey moments early with Justin Miller, but by and large they had the edge. Maroney was back on kick returns, and twice he got the Patriots to the 40 to start a drive.

An invigorating win, and one that reminds (thanks to that fourth quarter) us just how good we have it in New England. And how far they have to come in New York. Their yapping dog media and fans would do well to remember just how helpless their team was over the final eleven minutes today as they force down their latest steaming helping of Shut The F**k Up.

So it’s on to San Diego from here. Let me be the first to say that if the Patriots can get by the league-leading Chargers next week, there will be no stopping them. God help whoever they play. If they’re still standing this time next week, they WILL win an amazing fourth Super Bowl this decade. Like they used to say in New York – I guarantee it.