By: Bob George/
July 24, 2003

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FOXBOROUGH -- Huh? Eight and a half wins? Again?

This is what Vegas thinks of your Patriots. Ron Borges of the Globe thinks worse, naturally. He feels that the Patriots have no marquee player (we're still checking to see if Tom Brady was traded, but we think Adam Vinatieri is still alive and kicking) and that nobody in the league fears Richard Seymour.

So Bill Belichick and Scott Pioli hit the team improvement trail all winter long, make some upgrades and changes, and it's still only eight and a half games. You mean all this euphoria over Ty Warren, Roosevelt Colvin and Rodney Harrison is for nothing?

Such as life in the NPL (National Parity League) these days. Five of the last six Super Bowl winners won it for the first time in their history. Any team that manages to win eleven games is considered the greatest thing since the Packer Sweep and the Fearsome Foursome. You might need your sanity checked if you put Arizona down for ten wins, and then again, you might not.

But dadgummit. Eight and a half wins. This was the same figure a year ago, and this was for a team that was the defending champs. These guys sure won a lot of respect on February 3, 2002, didn't they?

Be angry all you want, but after you've simmered down a bit, let us inject some reality into this prediction.

First of all, it is just that. A prediction. When predictions become absolute, then we'll stop playing the regular season and award the Vince in training camp.

But a closer analysis of these win projections reveals the Patriots as being victims of the most competitive division in all of pro football, a division where four very even teams finished about the same in 2002, and neither team really outdid the other in the offseason. If nothing else, the defending division champ gained one stud and lost several others, which added up may bring about a new champ in 2003.

Round eight and a half up, and you get nine. Nine wins were what the Patriots got last year. Nine wins were what the Jets got also, and that was enough to win the division.

Five teams finished 9-7 last year. Two made the playoffs, three didn't. Cleveland and the Jets got lucky. New England, Miami and Denver got stiffed thanks to a numbers game in which you need Tom Lehrer's The New Math to figure out. In fact, Lehrer makes a statement in that comedy ditty which might just apply here: "In the new approach, as you know, the important thing is to understand what you\'re doing, rather than to get the right answer!"

Translated, this means, loosely, that few fans loyal to the Patriots or the Dolphins will be led to believe that their teams were "worse" than either Cleveland or the Jets.

Back to the win total. Nine wins won the division last year. Up went your optimism level, no?

Here is how the AFC East ended up in '02: Jets 9-7, Patriots 9-7, Dolphins 9-7, Bills 8-8. Chris Berman of ESPN opined that "eleven teams could wind up 8-8 in the AFC". He wasn't that far off (three teams finished 8-8, one 7-9). Such as life in the NPL.

All levity aside, what these numbers are telling us is that a projection of eight and a half wins for the Patriots in '03 is not as disrespectful, nor inaccurate, as we might think. On Wednesday night's Sports Plus show, Bob Lobel mentioned that "ten wins for the Patriots this year would be fantastic". If that be the case, it likely wins the division and likely gets the Patriots a home playoff game.

To make Patriot fans feel better, Lobel mentioned on the same show that Miami's win projection in Las Vegas is nine and a half wins, a mere one game better than the Patriots. And this is a team whom many think (have we heard this before?) might make it to the Super Bowl. They now have Junior Seau at linebacker and a new backup quarterback named Brian Griese (though we still think the Dolphin backup pitcher should be named Jay Fiedler).

The other teams made changes too. Half of the Jets went to Washington, though they reeled in a 700-pound tuna named Dewayne Robertson. The Bills lost Peerless Price and gained Takeo Spikes. The end result is perhaps a division of four teams finishing with about the same record, like last year.

If there be any team a cut below the rest, it may be the Jets. They took severe losses in the attrition department, losing Laveranues Coles, John Hall, Chad Morton and Randy Thomas to Daniel Snyder and the Capitol Gang. Other departures include Richie Anderson, James Darling, Damien Robinson and Matt Turk. The Jets will wind up relying heavily on Chad Pennington and Curtis Martin to keep up with the rest of the Nine Win Gang.

If you still think the Patriots should have been put down for eleven or twelve wins, go get some anger therapy. Ten wins are more like it, and eleven wins aren't that far fetched.

If the Patriots truly want to contend for more than nine wins, how they do in the division will be critical. Belichick may continue his hex on Drew Bledsoe, but the Patriots have a difficult time winning in Miami and at home against the Jets. That projects out to 4-2 in the division. Going on past expectations, the Patriots do get ol' pal Indianapolis (and Belichick's hex on Peyton Manning) on the road, plus Cleveland and Jacksonville at home. Maybe the Patriots can score home wins against the Giants and Tennessee, and a win at Washington and Houston aren't out of the question. There's eleven wins right there, if outside forces don't get too testy.

This naturally means that they lose a Tuna Bowl date at home, plus tough road losses at Denver and Philadelphia. That Dallas game could go either way, with the game at home and Belichick coaching for the home team and not for Bill Parcells.

Vegas says eight and a half. This column says eleven.

Just expect nine and a little help from Tom Lehrer this time.