By: Bob George/BosSports.net
January 12, 2003

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It took long enough, but I finally figured out the key reason why the Patriots are sitting and watching this playoff season.

Terrence Shaw.

This guy laid the lumber on the poor New York Jet receiving corps, especially in the fourth quarter when it was okay to give him lots of playing time. His current team is still playing, his old team is not. Besides, when his team walked out of that rules meeting in August, he walked out with them in an awesome show of Raider support, never mind that his old team was the benefactor of why his new teammates were torqued off.

What will be interesting about next weekend is that both conference championship games will pit the top two seeds in each conference for the first time since 1998. Top seeded Oakland will host Tennessee, while Philadelphia will renew old playoff acquaintances with Tampa Bay in the final football game at Veterans Stadium.

In the odious matchup of Bud Selig versus Donald Fehr, the Raiders continued The Great Grudge against the rest of the league with a 30-10 victory over the Jets. This was the classic "who do you root for" game for Patriot Nation, in that in order for one of the hated teams to lose, the other hated team has to win.

Chad Pennington unfortunately picked this game to throw picks and cough up the football instead of the regular season's penultimate game. Maybe this will inspire Bill Belichick to improve his team's pass rush, because this game showed what wonderful things can happen when Pennington is rushed and given little time to throw the football.

Another quality of Pennington was revealed, though a call to NFL officiating head Mike Pereira will help more than defensive adjustments. Pennington was called for two delay of game penalties and could have been called for two or three more. Pennington ran the clock down to one second on most every play, which as CBS's Phil Simms pointed out, causes problems for offensive linemen to read defenses and know who to block. It also impairs Pennington's ability to read defenses as well.

Oh well, the Raiders won, and they still think they should have won the Snow Bowl. At least every member of the 2001 Patriots has more Vinces than Curtis Martin.

The Raiders will host a banged up Tennessee Titan team, who advanced to this game thanks to a wild 34-31 overtime win against Pittsburgh on Saturday. Patriot Nation may be placing their rooting interests in this Titan squad just to keep the Raiders away from a Vince, but the fact remains that the Titans played a subpar game against the Steelers, and nearly coughed up their membership in next Sunday's game in the process.

The Patriots played all four divisional playoff teams, and went 2-3 against them. The two wins were the first two of the 2002 season. The three losses were among the most disappointing and disheartening losses of the year. These two playoff games helped portray how hard it is to repeat as champions, and that every opponent of the Patriots played them extra tough because they were the champs.

Tennessee and the Jets kicked the Patriots around in weeks 15 and 16. The Titans, in particular, were the most physical team the Patriots faced all year long. Yet the Titans were out-physical-ed at home by Pittsburgh, a team the Patriots are clearly better than. Instead of Steve McNair and Eddie George dishing out licks, it was Casey Hampton, Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Jason Gildon doing the licking. Good thing for Tennessee that Kendrell Bell was hurting.

George coughed up the ball twice on the evening. The second fumble, on the opening play of the second half, resulted from a massive hit in the helmet by Hampton. Hampton hit George so hard that he fell to the ground unconscious. The first fumble was early in the contest with the Titans up 14-0, and moving the ball at will against the Steelers. It transformed a Titan rout into a close game the rest of the way.

McNair faired well, but didn't have as dominating a game as he did against the Patriots. McNair threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns. But McNair also threw two interceptions, and suffered a cut right thumb in the fourth quarter which necessitated former Steeler quarterback Neil O'Donnell to log some playing time late in the contest. McNair averaged only 3.6 yards per carry on 29 yards rushing, and despite scoring a rushing touchdown, did not have as nearly an effective game rushing the ball as he did against New England.

Pittsburgh will stew this offseason, and blame the officials for a lousy finish to the game much like Oakland did last year. In reality, both teams were in this position thanks to playing in cupcake divisions. Both Tennessee and Pittsburgh won their division titles thanks to going 6-0 in their divisions. On the other hand, Oakland, the Jets and New England were all locked up in tight division tussles. Oakland should be a solid favorite to win the AFC title and advance to their first Super Bowl since 1984.

Belichick did all he could, even bringing in Bill Russell to counsel the team on how to repeat as champs. But the fact of the matter is that the rest of the conference is far from impregnable, and that the Patriots had a solid chance to repeat this year as Super Bowl participants. The Patriots, instead, were forced to deal with an aging and exposed defense, an injured offensive line and receiving corps, and a league that was gunning for them every single week.

The Patriots, on paper, could still very well be looked at as one of the class teams of the conference. If what we saw this weekend were the real Jets, the real Titans and the real Steelers, the Patriots should look at not making the playoffs with greater disdain than originally thought. Raider Nation may yet have their day in the sun coming up, and will no doubt be reminding every one that they should have won the whole darn thing last year. But certainly, the opportunity was there for the Patriots to repeat, but that simply was not to be this year.

Philadelphia will likely advance to the Super Bowl, after dismissing the upstart Atlanta Falcons Saturday night, 20-6. Tampa Bay kicked the tar out of San Francisco, 31-6, but that is perhaps as far as they will go unless they find some answer as to what to do in Veterans Stadium in January.

So, you get a potential rematch of Super Bowl XV, Oakland and Philadelphia. Two one seeds, which right there might shock many skeptics and sadden underdog lovers.

This corner of the Nation is still sticking with Tennessee to play the Eagles. Anything to send Oakland home with its tails between its legs. Sooner or later, those insane Black Hole kooks need to be silenced. It's getting tiring of always having to say "good call, bad rule".

And we here in the northeast will rue the day that we let Terrence Shaw fly the coop. He's magic, wherever he goes.


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