By: Bob George/BosSports.net
November 09, 2003

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Ah, memories. Was it not two years ago where the Patriots all but nailed down a division title on a bye week?

The Patriots had Sunday off, and enjoyed the luxury of watching their three AFC East rivals hook up in three tough games. When all was said and done, only the last place team won, and it took a gift call and an extra session to get the job done. But the Patriots now enjoy a two-game lead in the AFC East, as their main rivals continue to wilt as the season wears on. And, if this wasn't enough, while the Patriots sit at home watching their wounded heal up, one of these AFC East rivals happened to be playing the next opponent of the Patriots, and exposed a lot of their weaknesses in the process.

It was a good day for the Patriots. Miami ventured down to Tennessee and nearly got shutout for the first time since 2001. Only a late touchdown pass from Sage Rosenfels to Donald Lee averted a blanking, and the Titans won, 31-7. Steve McNair had a field day against the vaunted Dolphin defense (201 yards, two touchdown passes) which had to play without the services of Zack Thomas. The Dolphins fall to 5-4, two games behind the Patriots.

The Bills went down to Big D and hooked up in a stifling defensive battle with the Cowboys. Drew Bledsoe had some pleasant chatter with his former coach, Bill Parcells, before the game, then Parcells unleashed his defense on a quarterback he knows only too well. Parcells continued his mastery over Bledsoe, as the former Patriot quarterback fumbled twice, was sacked three times and was held to only 104 yards passing. The Bills also did a good job of putting the clamps on Dallas, which is important to the Patriots and we'll touch on later.

Another game which greatly helped the Patriots took place down in Jacksonville. Fred Taylor broke off a 32-yard touchdown run with 1:01 left in the game, as the Jaguars upset the visiting Indianapolis Colts, 28-23. The loss dropped the Colts to 7-2, the same record as the Patriots, and the Patriots visit the RCA Dome in three weeks. This becomes important for the Patriots if they do hold on and make the playoffs, and the loss stings the Colts as they fall into a tie with Tennessee for the AFC South lead.

The only game which did not break for the Patriots was out in Oakland. The Raiders failed to hold a 21-10 third quarter lead, and the Jets took advantage of a generous call on a two-point conversion to tie the game at 24 apiece, then win the game in overtime on a 38-yard field goal by Doug Brien. After pulling to within 24-22 on a three-yard touchdown pass from Chad Pennington to Jerald Sowell, Pennington found Anthony Becht right at the goal line on the ensuing two-point attempt. Becht's heels were on the goal line even though the ball never seemed to break the plane of the end zone. The play was reviewed and the call upheld.

So, the AFC East standings look good from a Patriotic standpoint. The New Englanders bring up the front at 7-2. The Dolphins check in next with a 5-4 mark, with Buffalo at 4-5 and the Jets at 3-6 bringing up the rear. Some folks out there might think that the Patriots are sitting pretty right now for at least a division title. If the Patriots continue to at least stay the course while injured, or at best improve greatly when players like Ted Washington and Ted Johnson come back, a division title is a distinct possibility, and a first round bye is also a nice prospect (especially if the Patriots beat the Colts, which will mean that the Patriots will hold the tiebreaker edge over both them and Tennessee).

Let's take a quick gaze into our crystal ball and see how things might turn out in December for the entire division.

The Jets are a much different team with Pennington back in the fold. But if one were to make a projection given all that has gone wrong with the Jets this year, they really only have two winnable games left on their schedule, home games against Jacksonville and the Patriots. They have tough road games at Indianapolis, Buffalo and Miami, and Pittsburgh and Tennessee may give them a rough battle at home. If the Patriots have playoff implications when they come to the Meadowlands on December 20, expect the Jets to play their best game of the year and pull the upset. Projected finish: 5-11.

Buffalo looks like they will continue to play well on defense, but as opposing defensive coordinators continue to watch Bledsoe get handled by other teams, they will be able to outcoach Gregg Williams and Kevin Gilbride with ease. The Bills figure to win their remaining home games (Houston, Indianapolis, Jets, Miami) and lose their remaining road games (Giants, Tennessee, New England). The Patriots will be out for blood in the season finale, anything to exact revenge for the season opener. Projected finish: 8-8.

The Dolphins may spend the rest of the year playing to save Dave Wannstedt's job. They will have a tough time with Baltimore at home, a Thanksgiving date at Dallas followed by a trip to Foxborough, and the next-to-last game at Buffalo. What Miami needs to do is to figure a way to get Ricky Williams back as the focus of their offense. Watching Brian Griese take over as starting quarterback in place of Jay Fiedler is not surprising, but seeing him enjoy little sustained success is. Projected finish: 8-8.

The Patriots, as stated earlier, need to at least stay the course. A lot of observers still don't believe in this team, and that historically suits the Patriots just fine. It is not that far fetched for the Patriots to finish on a 6-1 run, which would put them at 13-3 and the best regular season finish in franchise history. The only potential pothole is at Exit 16-W, unless Bill Belichick figures out how to stop Pennington. Houston represents a problem, though they at times still look like a second year franchise. The Patriots will draw on their great record at the RCA Dome as well as Belichick's excellent track record against Peyton Manning to pull off a tough road win.

That leaves their next date, next Sunday night against the Cowboys. Parcells rides into town, with the incredibly unpopular Terry Glenn in his arsenal. It is not Glenn's first visit to Foxborough since leaving the Patriots; he came here as a Packer last year and his side won, 28-10. But Glenn is more of a part of this offense, and he will draw Jason Kidd-esque boos from the Gillette Stadium crowd.

If Belichick pays close attention to Sunday's Dallas-Buffalo game, he will see that the Cowboys have a subpar running attack which will help in defending Glenn and Joey Galloway. This will be a low scoring game, but Belichick will likely find some way to harass Quincy Carter and take away the terrific passing attack of the Cowboys. The real key to this game will be Charlie Weis's ability to find soft spots in the Dallas defense, as the Patriot running game will also find tough goings against La'Roi Glover and Dat Nguyen.

It should be a great last seven weeks for the Patriots, as they have a shot at the two seed in the playoffs (assuming Kansas City continues their imitation of the 1972 Dolphins). So many things can happen, but the Patriots have shown everyone that they are a team that nobody wants to play.

All except maybe Parcells. Put him up near the top of the list of those people who can't wait for next Sunday night.


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