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Time To Talk Football, And Not Deflated Ones

Does anybody out there have an opinion on whom Richard Sherman will cover, and how might it turn out a week from Sunday?

Right now, nobody has said word one on Super Bowl XLIX itself, which at present is still listed as pick ‘em in Las Vegas between the Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks.  All anyone can talk about is DeflateGate, made worse thanks to the NFL revealing that it has found that 11 of the 12 game balls used by the Patriots from Sunday’s AFC Championship at Gillette Stadium against the Indianapolis Colts were two or more pounds per square inch below NFL standards.  It has become a national news story, way beyond any local spin or muse.

Both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady held press conferences on Thursday to address this issue.  Belichick said he had no knowledge of any wrongdoing until he was informed of the situation on Monday morning.  He offered that quarterbacks and specialists like to have the ball a certain way, and that any questions should be directed to the proper affected individuals.  This would seem to throw Brady under the bus, and that may have been the Patriot game plan all along.  Brady denied any wrongdoing, spoke in very somber tones about the integrity and respect for the game, and also offered that “more people have more information on this than I do.”


Tom Brady has denied altering game footballs and has said he has no knowledge of such on Sunday during a press conference on Thursday.
(USA TODAY Images)

This subject has completely dominated the Boston sports scene.  It is all anyone can seem to talk about.  Entire talk shows deal with this one and only subject.  Opinions are flying all over the place, ranging from the national and local perception of the Patriots to the audacious and hyperbolic view that the Patriots should vacate their conference championship and not go to the Super Bowl.

Enough already.  Let’s just talk football.  To be more specific, how in the hell are the Patriots going to beat the Seattle Seahawks next Sunday night.

This column does not advocate cheating or subverting league rules.  If the Patriots did something wrong, let them be punished for it.  If you are a Gilbert and Sullivan aficionado, you might want to remember the famous line “Let the punishment fit the crime!” and work off it.  But even before considering what should happen to the Patriots if it is concluded that they did indeed doctor footballs for the AFC Championship Game, or other games as well, let’s analyze this whole situation and expose it for what it really is.

This has become a story.  A very juicy and seductive story.  A story with legs more beautiful than Betty Grable’s.  This Super Bowl promises to be one of the best matchups on paper in years, if not ever.  Add a story like this to the mix, and you have the makings of this Super Bowl being the biggest spectacle in the last 50 years.

The NFL has to be doing cartwheels and summersaults.  It is feeding the story-hungry media just right, and thanks to the interaction between the two of them, you are looking at a huge advertising bonanza for the league.  Both the league and media are getting what they crave:  money and copy.  To both entities, it is the equivalent of being alone with the object of your desires and you just got the green light.

The NFL will propagate this story to the maximum, let the media do their thing, raise the level of interest to the prospective viewers who will turn in to the broadcast, especially those outside of New England and Seattle, and then start lining their pockets when it’s time to set advertising rates.  The media will take this story and run with it like they have never run with a story before, generating more web hits, viewers and listeners to listen to and read every word they have to say.  Actual game analysis will have to be set aside.  This story is much more important to both the league and the media.

If you are paying close attention, all you are hearing is reaction from the media.  NFL players who are going on record are not condemning the Patriots or the practice of preparing game balls.  Aaron Rodgers has said on several occasions that he prefers harder balls.  Brad Johnson, the winning quarterback for Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, said he had balls scuffed on a regular basis.  Former Arizona quarterback Matt Leinart dismissed all this as a non-story and said that it goes on all the time.

And how about the Colts?  An ABC News report said that D’Qwell Jackson, who intercepted a Brady pass on Sunday which more or less became the linchpin for this whole thing, said that he didn’t feel anything unusual about the ball he picked off.  “If anybody recognized anything, it definitely wouldn’t come from me,” said Jackson.  Tight end Dwayne Allen tweeted “(The initial report on Fox was) not a story.  They could have played with soap for balls and beat us.  Simply the better team.”  Nobody in the Colt organization has cried foul.

If the Patriots are indeed found guilty, fine them and take a way a draft pick.  Period.  Then get on with things as usual.  Quit this vacating the conference championship malarkey.  Quit this condemnation of the Patriot brand.  Quit this overblowing of some indiscretion which probably goes on all the time and which had no effect on any game.

If anyone needs scrutiny, it is the NFL itself.  Once the balls are inspected and marked by the referee (Sunday’s referee at Gillette Stadium was Walt Anderson), why give them back to the Patriots?  In MLB, the home team provides a gross of baseballs which go to the umpires to get rubbed up with Delaware River mud and retained by them for use during the game.  It is foolish for the referee to mark the balls and then give them back to the home team, leaving the possibility of skullduggery open.

The NFL needs to revamp its handling of game balls before each game.  League officials, not home team officials, should take charge of all game balls two hours before game time.  The home team should furnish their mandated quota of a dozen footballs, then relinquish all control of them two hours before kickoff, and let league appointed officials take complete control from that moment on.  That way there will be no chance of any irregularities taking place, in the name of gamesmanship, cheating, or otherwise.

Until this happens, this affair will continue to be more than what it really is.  The NFL wants more notoriety added to this game, and the media needs stuff like this to keep themselves busy and relevant.  Unless you take the time to listen critically, you will be sucked into this maelstrom of shock journalism.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder how much more time will Belichick and Brady be taken away from what is really important, that being how in the hell they are going to beat the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks.

And would some reporter or sports talk show or commentator offer up some idea as to who Sherman will cover, how his left arm will hold up, and what Brady’s second and third options should be if Sherman blankets Julian Edelman.

At least we know that football inflation or deflation won’t be a problem.  Thank goodness.

As The Ball Bounces: Conference Championship

Norm Johnson is the all-time leading scorer in Seahawks history.  He kicked for them for nine seasons and amassed 810 points, 138 more than second place Shaun Alexander.  He was the kicker for Seattle during its previous great run in the mid-1980s, with the best coming in 1983 when they lost the AFC Championship to the Raiders.  He lofts one deep into the end zone, and Danny Amendola has to think about bringing it out before taking a knee.

Deflate-gate.  Ugh.  Someone please explain how it is easier to throw an under-inflated football.

Meanwhile, let’s hope that discovering a possible soft football isn’t the high water mark of D’Quell Jackson’s career.

The good people of Green Bay now know what it was like to be a Red Sox fan in October of 1986.

Simply stated, this loss will eat at Packer Nation until they win their next Super Bowl.

If that ever happens.

Richard Sherman might be a big mouth who loves to run smack with the best of them.  But he is a gamer.  He is tough.  When Bill Parcells says “In the fall, football players play football”, he’s talking about guys like Sherman.

Bill Belichick used to take Peyton Manning to school.  What would you call his handling of Andrew Luck?  Out to the woodshed?

Geek of the week:  I am not copying you, Peter King, but I decided on this long before you wrote your outstanding MMQB article.  Brandon Bostick learned a very tough lesson on Sunday.  Do your job.  At least he’s not alone.

Geek of the week II:  How in the world does Luke Willson catch that two-point conversion?  Talk about a play that negates two picks earlier in the game.  Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix perhaps did more to lose that game by jumping up without raising his arms to bat down the pass, a play even I could have made.  The Alabama rookie will also do some brooding over the spring and summer.

Marshawn Lynch is a man-child of the highest order.  But he can run.  He looks nothing like he did in Buffalo.

Right up there among the more enduring memories of Sunday night’s blowout was Adam Vinatieri’s missed 51-yard field goal.  You had to feel a little bit for a guy who is still immortal in the eyes of many fans in these parts.

It is gratifying to see Davante Adams make the transition from a super wideout with Derek Carr in Fresno the last three seasons to a budding NFL star in Green Bay.

That said, who is a more potent receiver corps, Adams, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb or Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola?

Nate Solder used to be a tight end in grade school.  Why has it taken so long for him to become the next Mike Vrabel?  All he does is catch touchdowns, you know, that sort of thing.

We all now know that 58 minutes of solid football against Seattle won’t get it done.

The 12th man is awesome.  It won’t be there in Glendale, Arizona.  Thank goodness, sighs Patriot Nation.

Back to school:  The people of Fort Worth, Texas and Waco, Texas can complain all they want about TCU and Baylor not getting into the first ever college football playoff tournament.  They need to shut up.  Ohio State proved that they got it right.

Now, next year, get it even more right and make it eight teams.  Bring in the Cotton, Orange, Fiesta and Peach Bowls as the quarterfinals.  Teams nine and ten will be the new complainers, but team 69 will complain at March Madness.  Someone always gets stiffed.  Oh well.

Can’t you just picture Pete Carroll trying to game plan for all sorts of exotic offensive line packages the Patriots might throw at them?  He’d better get pumped and jacked for that job.

You love it when guys like Darrelle Revis, LeGarrette Blount and Brandon LaFell are going to their first show, and it’s with the Patriots that they’re going.

Even more fun is Brandon Browner going up against the team he won the whole thing with last year.

Let’s get fanciful for a second.  Instead of Mike McCarthy, it’s The Old Man.

The Packers go for it both times inside the Seattle five-yard line in the first quarter.

Morgan Burnett takes the punt and scampers about 20-25 yards, and doesn’t fall down.

Eddie Lacy rushes for 183 yards thanks to the power sweep.

Clinton-Dix doesn’t make a play on that two-pointer because Bostick makes his block and Nelson covers the onside kick.

Yes, folks, there was only one Vince Lombardi.  But so many fundamental errors by Green Bay on Sunday would have been absent if he were there.

Remember him:  Any of you remember what a big choice Bill Parcells had in 1993 when he took over the Patriots and had the top pick in the draft?  The choice was Drew Bledsoe from Washington State or Rick Mirer of Notre Dame, the top two quarterbacks and players available.  Parcells took Bledsoe, and Seattle took Mirer with picks one and two.  Back then, there was actually a large faction of experts who thought Mirer was the better choice.  You all know how Bledsoe did.  Mirer lasted only four seasons in Seattle, compiling a 20-31 record and a passer rating of 65.2.  He would last four more seasons with four different teams and had a 4-13 record.  Parcells got it right.  True, more prosperity was in the offing with Tom Brady, but in 1993 Bledsoe was the man and Mirer most certainly was not.

Glendale, Arizona.  In Boise, Idaho, University of Phoenix Stadium is known for the watershed victory in Boise State football history, when the Broncos beat Oklahoma 43-42 in overtime, winning the game on a Statue of Liberty two-point conversion.

In Chicago, it is known as the place where the Bears made a terrific comeback against the Cardinals in 2006, prompting the famous Dennis Green “They are who we thought they were!” rant after the game.

In Gainesville, Florida, it is known as the place where Florida beat Ohio State in the 2007 BCS Championship Game, 41-14.

But in New England, it is known as the place where the perfect season died.  Several players are still here who played on the 18-1 2007 team that lost Super Bowl XLII to the Giants, 17-14.

The 2014 Patriots will have to draw inspiration from the 2001 Patriots, who won Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans after having lost two Super Bowls in the Superdome prior (XX, XXXI).  The loss in XLII was the most painful in team history.  Coming back to this stadium for those who remember that game will be re-living a bad memory.

Brady was one of the guys who played in XLII.  But he also was one of the guys who played in XXXVI.  Make of it what you will.

Ultimate Irony: Belichick Versus Super Pete

If you were a close follower of the Patriots in 1999, could you have ever envisioned this sort of Super Bowl coaching matchup 15 seasons later?

To fully appreciate the meaning of the coaching matchup in Super Bowl XLIX, we need to take you back a few decades to re-acquaint you with the state of affairs with your favorite football team at the time.  The Patriots were going through what Charles Dickens might categorize as “the best of times, the worst of times”.  Then commissioner Paul Tagliabue was kept plenty busy in mediating disputes between the Patriots and the underhanded shenanigans of one of their division rivals.

Bill Parcells put the Patriots back on the NFL map, led them to Super Bowl XXXI, but along the way became disenchanted with Bob Kraft for meddling and ordering him to draft players he didn’t want to draft.  Parcells played footsie with the woebegone Jets in the months before the Super Bowl and even during the week of the event in New Orleans.  The Packers beat the Patriots, Parcells flew back to New England separately from the team, and resigned a few days later with his now-famous “shop for the groceries” farewell address.

Tagliabue had to eventually step in and broker a deal where Parcells could leave the Patriots for the Jets in return for a huge draft compensation package.  To replace Parcells as head coach, Kraft tabbed San Francisco defensive coordinator Pete Carroll, who was also a former Jet head coach.  Carroll was known throughout the league as one of the best defensive minds in the game, but not necessarily a good head coach.  His one-year tenure in the Meadowlands was not nearly as putrid as his successor, Rich Kotite, but it was mediocre at best (his team finished 6-10; Kotite was 4-28 in his two seasons as Jet coach).


Pete Carroll was Patriot head coach from 1997 to 1999 before giving way to Bill Belichick. He is now the head coach of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks.
(USA TODAY Images)

Carroll came to New England for the 1997 season.  He led the Patriots to the division title that year, clinching on the final Monday night of the season at Miami.  The Dolphins turned around and came to Foxborough the following week for Wild Card weekend, and the Patriots squished the Fish again, 17-3, completing an NFL rarity by sweeping all three games against Miami that season.

The Patriots then went to Pittsburgh and held Kordell Stewart and the Steelers to only seven points.  Carroll was missing many of his top offensive weapons, including tight end Ben Coates and running back Curtis Martin, and the Patriots could only manage two Adam Vinatieri field goals.  This game remains one of the finest one-game defensive performances in team history, and the 1997 Patriots could be arguably the finest one-season defensive team in history.

Carroll’s tenure as Patriot head coach went downhill from there.  He lost a 1998 Wild Card game at Jacksonville, and his Patriots did not make the playoffs in 1999.  Carroll was saddled with all sorts of problems, like lousy drafting, players breaching the chain of command, and most of all, Carroll’s inability to work through all the problems and keep his house in order.

Kraft fired Carroll after the 1999 season, then resorted to some underhanded tactics to help pry Jet defensive coordinator Bill Belichick from his contract.  With Tagliabue again providing intervention, Belichick came to the Patriots for the 2000 season.  Carroll surfaced at USC, and enjoyed great success with the Trojans despite several wins being vacated later due to NCAA sanctions involving Reggie Bush.  Belichick won three Super Bowls and is now poised to take his Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl during his tenure.  Carroll returned to the NFL in 2010 with the Seattle Seahawks, and most everyone wondered why in the world a coach so perfect in college and so imperfect in the NFL would have another go in the pros.

Then in 2013, Carroll ascended to the top of the football world by leading his Seahawks to a 43-8 win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.  Carroll’s defense is now the best in the NFL, and his Seahawks are now in a position to win their second Super Bowl in a row if he can beat the team that did it last.

So here we are.  Belichick versus Carroll.  The last two Patriot head coaches will do battle in two weeks in Glendale, Arizona.  Smart alecks would refer to this as Little Bill versus Aunty Pete.  NFL experts might see this as one of the finest coaching matchups in Super Bowl history.

The Patriot perspective on Carroll is quite a bit different from USC and the Seahawks.  He is revered in the Pacific Northwest, and at Exposition Boulevard and Figueroa Street in Los Angeles, he is held in the highest regard by those who don’t hold him responsible for what the university was punished for.  It is not clear how he is regarded in the Meadowlands, given how bad Kotite was.  In Foxborough and all of New England, he was regarded as soft, not authoritative, a coach who lost control of his clubhouse, and a rah-rah guy who belonged with younger players.

Last year was one of supreme redemption for Carroll, winning last year’s Super Bowl.  What would this year be for Carroll, beating the team that fired him for Belichick?

Carroll’s reputation as a defensive master should be unchallenged.  There is no question that Carroll knows defense, and knows it well.  The Seahawks are being softly mentioned as one of the best defenses in Super Bowl history.  Everything he was supposed to have been in New England in the late 1990s, he was.

He has help in Seattle to manage things better, but there is no question that he was undercut quite a bit in Foxborough.  Players went over his head to talk to then director of personnel Bobby Grier.  Every draft pick the Patriots received for Parcells and Martin, who bolted the Patriots for the Jets after the 1997 season, turned out to be a bust, and Carroll wasn’t the one making them.  Carroll’s team got thinner and thinner as his three-year coaching stint went on, and he was made to be a scapegoat in a situation he really had no chance to succeed in.  Taking over for Parcells was hard enough, but the deck was really stacked against Carroll as Patriot head coach.

Many Seahawks will have chips on their shoulders in this Super Bowl, even though they are defending champs.  The Seattle wideouts are torqued off, Richard Sherman will make Julian Edelman the next Michael Crabtree, and Marshawn Lynch will recall his days as a Buffalo Bill when his team could never beat the Patriots.  But Carroll might have the biggest chip of them all.

Carroll will exhort his team all during these two weeks.  He might not make with the “win one for the gipper” mantra, but don’t shocked if his zeal to beat his former team dominates his preparation of his team to repeat as Super Bowl champs.  Beat the team that dumped him, beat the coach who took his place.

Little Bill.  Aunty Pete.  Wiseguys need to shut up.  This may be one of the best Super Bowl matchups in history, and it starts at the top.

Super Bowl Will Be Much Tougher For Patriots

FOXBOROUGH – The Super Bowl will be lots of things, but 45-7 won’t be one of them.

Super Bowl hype and hysteria has officially returned to the northeast corner of the USA.  The New England Patriots, once called the Patsies and formerly one of the league’s long standing doormats, are headed for their eighth Super Bowl.  The Patriots dispatched the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, in an AFC Championship Game that wasn’t even that close.  In a driving rainstorm at Gillette Stadium on Sunday night, the Patriots ran the ball down the throats of Indianapolis once again, Tom Brady overcame a few hiccups to shine once again, and Patriot Nation gets to celebrate another trip to The Show.

The eight Super Bowls for the Patriots bring them even with Dallas and Pittsburgh with the most ever in the NFL.  Tom Brady will establish a Super Bowl record with his sixth start as a quarterback, but his sixth Super Bowl ties Mike Lodish (4 with Buffalo, 2 with Denver) for the most ever by any player in NFL history.  If the Patriots win the Super Bowl, it will tie Green Bay and the Giants for third most ever; if they lose, it will tie Denver for the most ever.  Bill Belichick will tie Don (“Belicheat”) Shula for the most Super Bowls as a head coach with six; a win will tie him with Chuck Noll with the most ever with four.

This game, albeit a 38-point spread, wasn’t this close.  The Patriots simply obliterated the Colts, as some experts predicted would happen.  If not for some first half miscues which resulted in only a 10-point lead at the half for the Patriots, the blowout would have been far worse.  Brady threw a foolish interception, the Patriots had eight snaps inside the Colt 15 near the end of the first half and came away with only a field goal, and two ill advised penalties on the Patriots helped the Colts to their only scoring drive of the game, one that covered a stunning 93 yards.

But other than that, the Patriots were as dominant as they could have been.  LeGarrette Blount rushed for 148 yards and three touchdowns, one touchdown fewer than last year’s Divisional game against the Colts.  Brady was 23 of 35 for 226 yards, three touchdowns and despite a pick, a triple-digit rating of 100.6.  Andrew Luck was held to a passer rating of 23.0 and threw two interceptions.


Nate Solder caught a 16-yard touchdown pass to help the Patriots beat the Colts on Sunday night for the AFC Championship.
(USA TODAY Images)

Once again, the Patriots went with exotic offensive line combinations.  One of them resulted in a most unusual touchdown.  The first offensive drive of the second half saw the Patriots at the Colt 16-yard line, third and one.  Brady play faked to Blount, then lobbed a pass to Nate Solder, who reported in as tackle eligible yet lined up at his normal left tackle position.  Solder lumbered into the end zone to make it 24-7 Patriots and began the deflation of the Colts.

Starting with that drive, the Patriots scored touchdowns on their first four second half possessions to put the game away and punch their tickets to Glendale, Arizona.  Rob Gronkowski caught a five-yard touchdown pass one drive later to make it 31-7.  Four plays into Indianapolis’ next drive, Luck tried to hit T.Y. Hilton in the right flat, but Darrelle Revis jumped the route and made the pick.  He returned it 30 yards to the Colt 13, and on the next play Blount blountly rumbled up the middle to paydirt.  Blount capped off the next drive with a three-yard run for a touchdown to complete the scoring.

The Patriots now get the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.  All sorts of ancillary story lines will abound.  Seattle is the first team since New England to make it to a second straight Super Bowl, and can be the first team since the 2004 Patriots to win two in a row.  The Seahawks had to make an insane comeback at home against Green Bay before finally extinguishing the Packers in overtime, 28-22, and should have lost the game but for a mishandled onside kick and a misplayed two point conversion.

The biggest story line, of course, will be Pete Carroll going against his old team.  Going back to 1997, the Patriots have been coached by only Carroll and Belichick.  Carroll will be gunning for his second straight Super Bowl win, but more than that, he will be looking to stick it to his old team.  Seattle has the best defense in the league, and Carroll, then and now, has a reputation as one of the best defensive coaches in the league.

Seattle opened as three point favorites, the line has since dropped to 2.5.  This makes New England Super Bowl dogs for the first time since Super Bowl XXXVI, when they were 17-point dogs to the Rams.  The Patriots always play better when they are the underdogs, and this element will help them as they attempt to dethrone the sitting NFL champions.

Every Patriot player and fan knows full well that the Super Bowl will not be some Super blowout like last year, or like Sunday night.  Unlike Peyton Manning, Brady will not wilt against Seattle and its vaunted defense.  This Super Bowl figures to be a terrific one on paper, most likely a defensive struggle, but one that fans will love to see and fans of both teams will go through a lot of anxiety over.

For now, the Patriots will enjoy this conference championship and all that goes with it.  The history alone is well worth savoring.  The Patriots continue this long run of Boston area sports prosperity, and the Patriots literally run that entire time frame.  It has been ten years since the Patriots won a Super Bowl, and winning this one will require a supreme effort.  But the Patriots can at least look forward to the big game, and the chance to cement their legacy as one of the NFL’s greatest teams.

As Bill Parcells was given to say, the Patriots are “going to the show”.  Revis has never known what this feels like.  Brandon Browner, his cornerback partner, does; he has a chance to pull off a “take his’n and beat your’n, then take your’n and beat his’n” deal if he can beat the team he won the whole thing with last year.  Several other Patriots now get a chance to, as Joe Buck likes to say, “get in on the fun”.  It will be two tough weeks, weeks of endless hype, discussion and prognostications.  But it is a wonderful thing that the Patriots are once again at the epicenter of the NFL.

So enjoy these two weeks.  You never know when this will be it for the Brady-Belichick era.  Maybe this is the one last stand for these two football behemoths.  Drink it all in, get ready for Super Bowl XLIX, and be proud of your Patriots.  They are in rarified air by just being there.  If they win, it will be some party around here.

It’s a wonderful tradition that you should never be tired of.  And if, by chance, you weren’t moved when the Patriots won their third Super Bowl in four seasons ten years ago, hopefully you’ll be moved now.

The Patriots are going to the show.  Say it again and again and again.

Five Keys To Ensure Patriots Coronation

This may be the first time in NFL history that the words “AFC Championship” and “trap game” are used together in the same sentence.

The premise is ludicrous.  The Patriots are one win away from the Super Bowl.  And you’re talking “trap game”?

It all started last Sunday in Denver.  What seemed to be pre-ordained as Brady-Manning XVII instead will be Brady-Luck IV.  The Patriots suddenly went from a grudge match against a longtime nemesis and a revenge game against the team that sent them home for the winter last year to a team which has been literally no puzzle for the Patriots in past years.  The Indianapolis Colts come to Foxborough on Sunday for the 2014 AFC Championship, not the Denver Broncos, and most of Patriot Nation now thinks that the road to Glendale, Arizona just got far less bumpy and hilly.

Look at the record.  In the last three meetings, the Patriots have outscored the Colts by an aggregate of 144-66.  All three of those games have been with Andrew Luck at quarterback for the Colts.  The Colts haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2009, the Fourth And Two game.  On the other hand, Denver is 3-1 against the Patriots all time in the postseason, with the only win coming at home and with Tim Tebow as the Bronco quarterback.  How can’t the average Patriot fan sit there and exhale knowing that the only team between them and the eighth Super Bowl in franchise history is the Colts and not the Broncos?

Thus you have a possibility of a trap game on Sunday.  In the AFC Championship Game.  You went from Peyton Manning, the Thomases, Wes Welker, Aqib Talib, the vaunted Bronco running game and defense to a possible 40-20 cakewalk.  Even though Bill Belichick will preach the “one game at a time” mantra all week long, most everyone has to be looking more closely at the Seattle-Green Bay game on Sunday, for the purpose of who the Patriots play when they get to the Super Bowl.

So, this message is for everyone and everything Patriotic.  Stop looking ahead.  Win Sunday, then worry about the Super Bowl.

That said, here are the five keys to a Patriot AFC Championship on Sunday.


Bill Belichick has the Patriots on the doorstep of the Super Bowl once again.
(USA TODAY Images)

Remember the Wildcat?

In 2008, one season removed from a perfect regular season, the Patriots hosted the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium during Week 3.  Head coach Tony Sparano and offensive coordinator Dan Henning unleashed something on the Patriots that no one had ever seen before, something the Patriots had absolutely no answer for.  It was called the “Wildcat”.  The Dolphins won, 38-13, on their way to their last division title and playoff appearance to date.

If the Patriots bring their “A” game to the table on Sunday, it will take something like that for the Colts to win.  On paper, the Patriots are deeper than the Colts, they know how to attack them, and they know how to defend them.  Luck may still get big numbers, but the Patriots win if they do not come out stale or get caught looking ahead to the Super Bowl.  So, unless offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton thinks he can revolutionize pro football with some new offense that Belichick and Matt Patricia cannot adjust to or outmaneuver, the Patriots don’t lose.  Period.

Colts will have Gray area covered

Let Jonas Gray out of the doghouse, then unleash him.  Over-under on Gray touchdowns:  three.  Right?

Not on your Sports Illustrated cover jinxes.  In fact, don’t be shocked if Belichick and Josh McDaniels continue to favor LeGarrette Blount over Gray.  In last year’s Divisional playoff win over Indianapolis, Blount rushed for 166 yards and four touchdowns.  Ask Blount if Gray’s 201-yard outburst in November impressed him at all.  Blount might give a diplomatic answer, but privately he may be thinking something like “Yeah, dog, talk to me when you get five touchdowns!”

Of course, Gray might get fed quite a bit.  The smart thinking is that the Colts will be ready for Gray and not let him beat them.  But they will also have to deal with Blount, and don’t forget Brandon Bolden.  All three of these guys could gouge the Colt run defense, and all three could be fresh as a daisy in the fourth quarter when it’s time to run clock and book travel plans for Phoenix.

Brady cannot make any dumb throws

One thing that could swing the game the Colts’ way is a bad game by Tom Brady.  In the November meeting, he was picked off twice by Mike Adams, and both throws were hideous.  He tried to hit Bryan Tyms on a deep ball in triple coverage, then closed out the first half by lobbing a watermelon to Rob Gronkowski on play action on third and short, a play that screamed for a run.

Brady has had a penchant for picks in recent playoff games.  He has 23 career playoff interceptions, including three against the Jets in the infamous 2010 playoff loss at home when they were the one seed and expected to blow the Jets away.  Brady has to have a great game to ensure they will win and not leave the game up to the running game or the defense.  He was fortunate that Gray did so well in November such that the two picks did not hurt his team.  That cannot happen again on Sunday.

Do not forget that they still have Adam

Perish the thought that this game comes down to whomever has the ball last, and a field goal wins the game.

Yes, Stephen Gostkowski could make a game-winner in the postseason.  He did so in the last road postseason win by the Patriots, in San Diego in 2006.  But the Colt kicker is the guy whose place Gostkowski took.

Adam Vinatieri is likely heading to Canton someday.  He is carving out an even more impressive kicking legacy than the one he left behind in Foxborough.  He will own every multiple-team kicking record when he is done.  But the one thing that he will always be remembered for in Foxborough could jump up and bite the Patriots on the ankle on Sunday.

Because if the game comes down to a field goal, and if it’s the Colts who have the ball last, you might as well turn off your television.  You won’t want to watch.  Vinatieri has never lost an AFC Championship Game.  He may be 42 years old.  But he is not Gary Anderson.  He will make that kick.  He isn’t Automatic Adam for nothing.

Simply stated, put the Colts away early.  Don’t let the game stay close, especially in the fourth quarter.

Win the game, then make Super plans

The Patriots cannot lose this game.  Of course, they can.  But they just can’t.

Some talk show guests have opined that if the Patriots lose on Sunday, it will be the worst loss of the Belichick-Brady era.  Nah.  Let’s go further.

A loss Sunday would rank as maybe the worst loss in Boston sports history.  The Super Bowl XLII loss was pretty bad.  So was the 1978 playoff loss to the Yankees by the Red Sox, as well as Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS.  The Bruins and Celtics have had playoff stumbles, but none of which would equal the devastation that would ensue if the Patriots don’t at least get into Super Bowl XLIX.

This alone should motivate the Patriots to play well and avoid a trap game.  After the 1980 USA hockey team won the epic battle against the Soviets, they trailed Finland 2-1 after two periods in the Gold Medal game.  Coach Herb Brooks told his players “If you lose this game, you’ll take this game to your graves.  To your (expletive) graves.”  The team won, 4-2, to take the Gold Medal.  Brooks’ mantra would pertain to the 2014 Patriots.

The Super Bowl will be another story.  Both Green Bay and Seattle will give the AFC champ a battle.  The Patriots have to make sure that it is they who will be in that battle instead of watching with deep regret.

And then, of course, there is the proverbial “window of opportunity”.  Brady has a legit chance at special NFL history, as does Belichick.  And Brady does not have a lot of career left.  The Patriots cannot louse up at least the chance to add another chalice to the trophy case.  Sooner or later this long run of prosperity will either change or end completely.

The opening line for the Patriots had them a seven-point favorite.  It has since been lowered to 6.5 points.  Do the bettors know something Patriot Nation doesn’t?

History is at hand for the Patriots.  They have a Super Bowl bid staring them in the face.  They simply have to take advantage.  They simply have to win.

Colts Making Surprise Visit To Foxborough

Let’s give a listen to the ongoing meeting of the New England Nattering Nabobs of Negativity.

“Oh, great.  Instead of Manning coming to town and beating us, now it’ll be Vinatieri winning the game on a walkoff field goal.”

“Yep.  Finally, after all these years, he’ll get his revenge on Belichick for cheaping out on a kicker ten years ago.”

This isn’t quite like 1996, when Jacksonville went into Mile High Stadium and knocked off top seed Denver, enabling the Patriots to play for the AFC Championship at home instead of at Denver.  But it was very much unexpected nonetheless.  Instead of a long-anticipated Brady-Manning XVII, it will be the Indianapolis Colts coming to Gillette Stadium next Sunday to play the Patriots for the 2014 AFC Championship.  The Colts knocked off the second-seeded Broncos, 24-13 at Sports Authority Field on Sunday afternoon, and now the entire pro football world will be watching to see if this is the last game Manning has played in the NFL.

Manning be hanged, for the moment.  It’s time to see if the Patriots got lucky.  Or rather, Luck-y.

Bill Belichick will tell you something like “We don’t care who we play, we just know that whomever we play next weekend will be a great football team and we’ll have to play our best game of the season.”  Privately, he and the Patriot staff are probably in a state of shock, if not chaos, as they now suddenly have to get ready for the Colts when everyone along the Boston Post Road had to be convinced beyond a doubt that it would be the Broncos coming to town.

After you the Patriot fan begin to settle down and get over the utter disbelief that Denver’s season is over and it’s the Colts that are coming to town next weekend, you need to be advised of two things right off the bat.

The Patriots have handled Andrew Luck very well in the past, but that could change.

Manning historically does bad in the postseason anyway, but that was one very good looking Colt team that defeated Denver on Sunday.

So, before you go and add Jonas Gray to your fantasy team this week, let’s get rational for a second and sort out what happened on Sunday, and if it helps or hurts the Patriots’ chances to get to Super Bowl XLIX.

If history is all that matters on Sunday, the Patriots win this matchup in a slam dunk.  The Patriots have played the Colts in the postseason a total of four times, with the Patriots winning three.  The only Colt win was the 2006 AFC Championship Game in the RCA Dome, otherwise known as The Game That Begat Randy Moss And 16-0.  The other three, all at Gillette Stadium, have gone the way of the Patriots, and one of them involved Luck.

The other two, of course, involved Manning.  The 2003 AFC Championship Game was known primarily for a holding penalty that was not called on Willie McGinest, leading to Bill Polian complaining to the Rules Committee to have the rules on defensive holding changed.  Manning threw four interceptions, and the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XXXVIII with a 24-14 win.

The rules were changed, the Colts came to Gillette the following year in the Divisional round, and the Patriots still won again, 20-3.  Tedy Bruschi brashly told a radio interviewer after the game that “They can change the rules!  It doesn’t matter!”  Manning was bludgeoned worse than the year before; the raw numbers were better, but seeing his offense held to only three points was more than he could stand.

Last year, the Colts came to Foxborough for a Divisional round matchup with the Patriots, with the Patriots prevailing, 43-22.  Luck was 20 of 41 for 331 yards, was sacked three times and was picked off four times.  His passer rating for the game was 53.0.  This game will be what most every Patriot fan, media member, and pro football expert will be looking at closely as they try and figure out if the Patriots can overcome this rejuvenated Colt team and punch their ticket for Super Bowl XLIX.


Jonas Gray rushed for 201 yards against the Colts earlier this year. The Colts will be coming to Foxborough on Sunday for the AFC Championship Game.
(USA TODAY Images)

If this game won’t be scrutinized like we predict, then the regular season game from this season will be.  It was back on November 16, a Sunday night game at Lucas Oil Stadium.  The Patriots had previously lost all three games they had played in the new Colt crib (including Super Bowl XLVI).  But on this night, the Patriots gouged the Colts, 42-20, behind a now-anomalic 201 yards rushing by Gray.  The Patriots are 3-0 against Luck in his brief career, with his Colt defense surrendering 59, 43 and 42 points in the three games, all comfortable Patriot wins.

One element that should be noted about that win this year in Indianapolis is that, by the numbers, Luck bested Brady.  Luck was 23 of 39 passing for 303 yards, two touchdowns, one pick and a 90.0 passer rating.  Brady was 19 of 30 for 257 yards, two touchdowns, two picks, both by Mike Adams and both of them terrible throws, and a rating of 85.0.

Of course, as Belichick will tell you, stats are for losers.  Brady didn’t need to have a great night with Gray going off like he did.  Since that game, Gray has been invisible thanks largely to a now-famous alarm clock incident later that week which got Gray into Belichick’s doghouse.  But Gray was the majordomo in that game, not Brady.  You cannot ignore Gray’s stats, but Gray hasn’t done much of anything since that game.  Belichick brought back LeGarrette Blount later that week, and Gray has been a JAG (just another guy) since.

One might think that Belichick will open the doghouse door and let him out.  Of course, if the Colt defense plays against Gray like they did in Denver against C.J. Anderson, it won’t matter if you bring back Antowain Smith, Corey Dillon, or even Tony Collins or (gulp) Sam Bam Cunningham.  This will be a different Colt team that comes to Foxborough next week.

The Patriots will still be at home.  Belichick will have plenty of familiarity with Luck and the Colts.  He will pore through the win Saturday against Baltimore, ditto for the Colt win at Denver, and pore through every Colt game this year.  He will come up with something for Luck and the Colts, knowing full well that he has done it three times before and very well at that.

But Patriot Nation has to be astounded that Denver won’t be coming to town and Indianapolis will.  Manning may be hounded by every media type to gauge his zeal to keep playing.   Or, he may drop an atom bomb and retire.  In his postgame press conference, he said he “needed to process the game”, talk to management, and would not commit to coming back next year.  Manning is now 11-13 in his career in the postseason, and went one-and-done in the playoffs for the ninth time.

So, let the excitement begin.  It’s once again the Colts and the Patriots for the AFC Championship.  Instead of Manning, it’s Luck.  Instead of Tony Dungy, it’s Chuck Pagano, a brave cancer survivor who will not be afraid of the Patriots.  And, of course, instead of Mike VanderJagt, it’s Adam Vinatieri.  For the other guys.

Back to the NN of N meeting.  “Who cares if the Patriots lose?  What’s worse, losing the AFC Championship to Vinatieri, or losing the Super Bowl to Carroll?”  Enjoy the week, Patriot Nation, sit long and talk much.

Ravens Give Patriots A Death Struggle

FOXBOROUGH – There were experts out there that thought this most recent renewal of one of the NFL’s biggest grudge matches would be the easiest for the Patriots.

The Ravens barely made the playoffs, and would not have done so had San Diego not laid an egg at Kansas City on the final weekend.  Ben Roethlisberger riddled the Ravens defense earlier this year for six touchdown passes.  Ray Lewis, Ed Reed and Ray Rice are no longer players to concern yourselves over.

Meanwhile, the Patriots now have a shutdown defense.  Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner delivered on all their promise.  Certainly Joe Flacco wouldn’t bedevil the Patriots like he has done in several earlier playoff contests, all at Gillette Stadium.

Easy?

Much is made of this rivalry, and it turns out that it is still not enough.  The Patriots and Ravens perhaps now provide the most compelling football this league has to offer.  The Ravens got here by getting revenge on Roethlisberger last weekend at Heinz Field, while the Patriots got in as the top AFC playoff seed.  Many sectors of Patriots Nation look at Baltimore coming to Gillette Stadium and go “Oh, no.”  And they’re right.

The Patriots twice found themselves down two touchdowns, and twice they came back to tie the game.  The last score of the game gave the Patriots their first lead of the game.  And despite a late interception by Duron Harmon, it wasn’t until Devin McCourty knocked down a Hail Mary pass on the final play of the game which sealed a 35-31 Patriot win over Baltimore in the AFC Divisional Playoff game on Saturday.  The Patriots will host the winner of Indianapolis and Denver on Sunday at Sports Authority Field next weekend for the right to represent the AFC in Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona.

The two rallies from 14 points down established a postseason first in NFL history.  The Ravens scored on their first two possessions of the game, but the Patriots tied the game just before halftime.  The Ravens then ran it up to 28-14, but the Patriots were able to pull even on a gadget play.  Tom Brady hit Brandon LaFell with a 23-yard scoring pass with 5:21 left in the game to give the Patriots their only lead at 35-31.  It was Brady’s 46th career postseason touchdown pass, passing Joe Montana for tops on the all time list.

All game long, Flacco was able to riddle the Patriot defense with a solid pass attack (Flacco was 17 of 22 for 146 yards and three touchdowns and a 133.7 rating – in the first half).  In addition, Justin Forsett gouged the Patriot defense with 129 yards rushing on 29 carries for a 5.4 yards per carry average.  There were times where the Patriots looked powerless to stop the Ravens on offense.  Flacco had effortlessly had his way with the Patriots in previous postseason games, and he looked totally calm in the game and laughing on the sidelines.

What brought the Patriots back were two main elements:  Brady being vintage Brady and the defense making big plays when it had to.  Flacco did throw two interceptions, with one being inconsequential but the second literally ending the game.  With no rushing attack at all (Patriot rushers had 14 yards on 13 carries), Brady carried the Patriots on his broad shoulders, finishing 33 of 50 passing for a franchise postseason record 367 yards, three touchdowns and a 99.3 average.


Julian Edelman fired a 51-yard touchdown pass to Danny Amendola to key the Patriots winning the AFC Divisional Game on Saturday night against Baltimore.
(USA TODAY Images)

The play everyone will be talking about was not made by Brady, but rather by Julian Edelman.  The former quarterback at Kent State who was converted to a wideout by the Patriots finally got to show off his throwing arm.  With 4:28 to go in the third quarter, first and ten at the Patriot 49, Brady took the snap and threw a backwards pass to Edelman to the left side.  Edelman then looked down field and fired a strike to Danny Amendola who was wide open.  The 51-yard pass tied the game at 28.  This was perhaps the first time the Patriots tried this sort of play since a 2001 game at Indianapolis when David Patten caught, ran and threw for a touchdown pass in the same game.

Two plays later, Flacco threw his first bad pass of the night, trying to hit Torrey Smith on a crossing pattern deep in his own territory.  The overthrown ball was intercepted by Devin McCourty, and the Patriots had the ball at the Baltimore 37, seemingly in a position to take control of the game.  But Brady threw three straight incompletions, and the Patriots were forced to punt.  The Ravens made the Patriots pay for that three and out by driving from their own 20 to the Patriot 6 as the game moved into the fourth quarter.  Forsett bludgeoned the tired Patriot defense for 47 yards on eight carries on this drive.

But in what proved to be a critical moment of the game, the Patriots were able to keep Baltimore out of the end zone.  On third and goal at the six, Patrick Chung made one of his more important plays of his Patriot career by defending Owen Daniels in the end zone, forcing Flacco to throw high and out of the end zone.  The Ravens settled for a 25-yard field goal by Justin Tucker, but it allowed the Patriots to take the lead with a touchdown instead of merely tying the game.

Brady took the Patriots on a ten-play, 74-yard drive, with nine of the ten plays being passes and the only run a Brady sneak on second and one at midfield.  The Patriots found paydirt when Brady lofted a touch pass to the left sideline, and LaFell was able to haul in the pass for a 23-yard touchdown to make it 35-31 Patriots.

Baltimore had 6:41 to respond, and needed a touchdown.  Flacco was able to take the Ravens to the Patriot 36, keyed by a clutch pass to Daniels on fourth and three for 17 yards to keep the drive going.  On second and five at the 36, Flacco dropped back, avoided a sack and rolled left, then lofted a dying quail towards the end zone.  Torrey Smith was double-covered, and the floater landed in the arms of Duron Harmon in the end zone.

Baltimore had one timeout, and the Patriots went into victory formation with 1:39 left.  On fourth down, John Harbaugh used that timeout with 15 seconds left.  That call gave Baltimore one last chance at midfield with four seconds left.  Flacco heaved one towards the end zone with about 12 players waiting for the jump ball.  McCourty smartly knocked the ball away from the end zone so that anyone who might catch it would not score.  The ball fell to the ground and the Patriots will now play for the AFC Championship next weekend at home.

There is no question that Baltimore stands toe to toe with the Patriots.  Harbaugh can coach just as well as Bill Belichick in any game, big or small.  Flacco never needs to take a back seat to Brady.  This is one time that the Patriots simply made the plays.  Give the Ravens credit for playing the Patriots tough, though it is not out of the question for a six seed to go deep in the playoffs.

So, next week, Peyton Manning’s current team or old team comes to Foxborough.  Don’t lose that hypertension medication.

Staying Healthy Prevails Over Execution, Winning

FOXBOROUGH – This was sort of like the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles) winning their only pennant of their 53-year existence in 1944.

At that time, all the prime ball players were in the Armed Forces fighting World War II.  MLB was left with 4-Fs and minor league dregs.  The Browns were so woefully bad over all the years that it took this sort of personnel anomaly to get the Browns into the World Series that year.  They would lose in six games to the crosstown Cardinals.

Given recent history, how else could have the Buffalo Bills pulled off a win in Gillette Stadium on Sunday?

The Bills have been a team that is good but not great, who battles the Patriots tough every game, but can never seem to “get over the hump”.  The Bills currently own the longest playoff drought, not having been in the postseason since losing the “Music City Miracle” game to Tennessee following the 1999 season.  They had never won a game at Gillette Stadium since the Patriot Palace opened in 2002.

All that changed on Sunday.  The Bills finally won over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, 17-9 in a game which was reduced to meaningless status last weekend.  The Patriots had the top playoff seed locked up, and the Bills were eliminated from the playoffs by losing to Oakland.  Not needing to win, the Patriots looked like a shell of themselves in most every way, resting regulars, playing with zero intensity and enthusiasm, and basically conceding the Bills the game on the pretense that nobody gets injured.

Bill Belichick had a tough coaching quandary all week long.  On the one hand, he has to keep the team sharp so that they don’t look rusty and out of sync for the Divisional playoff round.  On the other hand, the last thing the Patriots need is a repeat of the devastating Wes Welker blown knee of 2009 in a meaningless season finale at Houston.  The game screamed for resting regulars, and a lot of regulars were indeed rested.

But many regulars did play, and if anything is rankling the coach right now, it is that few of the regulars did much to make the coach feel safe and secure about making it to the AFC Championship Game and beyond.  The defense made some plays to keep Buffalo under 20 points, but the offense was pretty lackluster and still showing cracks on the offensive line.  Tom Brady wound up playing the entire first half, and never got into a rhythm at all.

The best way to summarize the Patriot effort on Sunday is this:  Thank goodness the team did not suffer catastrophic injury, like Welker in 2009.  Nate Solder and Sealver Siliga did get bunged up slightly (actually, Solder’s status is still unknown at press time), but other than that, nobody of extreme consequence got injured.  The players on both sides of the ball played like they didn’t want to get hurt, rather than to try and muster the necessary effort and intensity to win the game.  It was clear from the outset that the Patriots were disinterested in this game, much more than the non-playoff-bound Bills, who could have been forgiven for being in “get on the bus” mode.


Jimmy Garoppolo played the second half of Sunday’s loss to Buffalo.(USA TODAY Images)

Jimmy Garoppolo did come in in the second half, and had a chance to show everyone that he will be ready to take over from Brady when he steps down in a few years.  Like Brady, Garoppolo had very little support from his offensive line and was running for his life for most of his time out there.

What Garoppolo did well was in two areas.  First, he showed much more mobility than Brady and had four rushes for 16 yards.  He seemed reckless at times and preferred to plow for extra yards rather than to slide and give himself up.  He had a nine-yard run on third and six in the fourth quarter while outrunning a sack by former Patriot Brandon Spikes, and drew a big roar from the crowd that was there in attendance.  He also picked up another first down on third and short in the third quarter.

The other thing Garoppolo should be praised for is that, despite being under pressure all game long, he made no foolish or stupid throws.  He was frequently presented with situations with no receiver open, a jailbreak, or both, and in all situations he did well and made the right decisions.  When he did complete passes they were mostly good to above average throws, but he needed more time and more open receivers to have produced better stats (he finished 10 of 17 passing for 90 yards and a 73.2 passer rating).

Unlike Garoppolo, who looked like a kid in a candy store for simply being in the game, Brady was disgusted for most of the first half.  All the Patriot offense could muster was three Stephen Gostkowski field goals.  Brady never got into a rhythm, and the offensive line was once again at times overmatched by the Buffalo front seven.  Granted, Brady was missing Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman and Jonas Gray, all of whom were inactive for the game.  But Brady never looked happy or enthused out there, and Belichick almost had no choice but to leave him out there for the entire first half to see if he could get something going to leave a good taste in his mouth as the bye week sets in.

Brady was 8 of 16 for 80 yards and a 64.6 passer rating.

To their credit, the Patriot defense held Buffalo scoreless for the second half, keeping the Patriots at a one-score distance for most of the third and fourth quarters.  Jamie Collins had a strip sack of Kyle Orton in the second quarter and recovered the fumble at the Buffalo 44, but all the Patriots could get out of that was a long field goal.  Orton was sacked twice, the Bills as a team averaged only 3.2 yards per carry, and Darrelle Revis for the most part did a good job on rookie Sammy Watkins.

The Patriots must now wait a week to see who they will face in the Divisional round.  Baltimore defeated Cleveland while Kansas City jolted San Diego, so the Ravens won the six seed and will likely face the champion from their division next week.  If they win, they will come to Foxborough in two weeks.  Given how dilapidated the offensive line is, you are dared to stand up and cheer if you are happy with the prospect of the Ravens coming to town.

Oh, well.  Nobody got hurt.  Belichick and the Patriots will take it.

The players will take it, too.  As in tough workouts and a lot of tongue lashings in the classroom.  One mistake – one stupid mistake – ends it for you guys.  Watch the Belichick episode of A Football Life on the NFL Network.

Just don’t tell anyone that that sentence was made prior to a home playoff game against the Ravens, and Baltimore blew the Patriots out at home.

When Patriots Are One Seed, Things Usually Get Super

If you were extra exuberant over a Cincinnati Bengals win on Monday night, you certainly had good reason.

As most of you know by now, the Patriots have clinched the top playoff seed in the AFC for the 2014 playoffs.  The road to Super Bowl XLIX runs down the Boston Post Road for the fifth time in Patriot history.  And if past history holds true when this happens, chances are pretty good that your home town boys will be making a trip to greater Phoenix towards the end of next month.

The Patriots have been the one seed in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2011 and now 2014.  In three of the previous four seasons of being the top seed, the Patriots have advanced to the Super Bowl.  Their only win came in Super Bowl XXXVIII against Carolina.  The other two Super Bowl appearances both resulted in losses to the New York Giants.

Here is a closer look at the other four seasons where the Patriots were able to secure the top playoff seed in the conference.


Bill Belichick’s Patriots are the top playoff seed for the fifth time in team history, clinching the top seed Monday night.
(USA TODAY Images)

The 2003 Patriots locked up the top playoff seed on the final weekend.  They avenged a season-opening 35-0 loss at Buffalo (the infamous Lawyer Milloy game) with an identical 35-0 win at Gillette Stadium.  Two weeks later, the Tennessee Titans came to town for the coldest home game in franchise history.  A late Adam Vinatieri field goal (sound familiar?) resulted in a 17-14 win over the tough Titans.  Peyton Manning and the Colts were next, and a 24-14 Patriot win was marked by incessant complaining by the Colts over too much defensive holding by the Patriot defenders.  They modified the rules for the 2004 season, and the Patriots defeated the Colts even more convincingly.

The Super Bowl was one of the best in history, as both New England and Carolina combined for five touchdowns and a field goal in the fourth quarter.  Vinatieri nailed a 41-yard field goal with three seconds left to give the Patriots a 32-29 win and their second Vince in three seasons.  Historians debate whether this team or the one the following season was the finest in team history.

2007 saw the Patriots finish the regular season at 16-0, still the only team in NFL history to do so.  Some of the wins were jaw-dropping.  Both Tom Brady and Randy Moss set NFL records for touchdown passes and touchdown receptions.  A late November Sunday night home win over Philadelphia was nearly a loss, and the late Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson showed the league how to attack the Patriots.

The playoff games were all difficult.  Jacksonville came to town and lost, 31-20 in a game that was much closer than the final score indicated.  In the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots beat San Diego 21-12 despite no LaDainian Tomlinson and severe injuries to Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates.  The Super Bowl against the Giants (at Glendale, Arizona, like Super Bowl XLIX) was a brutal struggle, but a miracle catch by David Tyree, a missed interception by Asante Samuel and an injured Ellis Hobbs getting burned for the final touchdown added up to a 17-14 loss to the Giants and an excruciating 18-1 final record for the season.

If the offensive line doesn’t fix what almost lost them the game this past Sunday against the Jets, you will see a repeat of 2010.  The top seeded Patriots were the shocked victims of the Jets, and the most unlikely one and done of all time happened.  Mark Sanchez threw three touchdown passes, and the Patriots never recovered from an early Brady interception.  The final score was 28-21 Jets, who lost the conference championship the following week to Pittsburgh, who lost the Super Bowl to Green Bay.  2010 remains the only season in Patriot history where they were the top seed but did not make it to the Super Bowl.

A year later, the Patriots were once again seeded tops in the conference.  The Patriots took apart Tim Tebow and sent the Denver Broncos home with their tails between their legs, 45-10.  The conference championship against Baltimore was another story.  The Ravens, who hate the Patriots more than any other species on the planet, battled the Patriots in a death struggle.  It unfortunately (for football purists, not for Patriot fans) came down to a missed field goal by Billy Cundiff which gave the Patriots a 23-20 win and a trip to Indianapolis for Super Bowl XLVI.

This game offered a rematch with the Giants, with Eli Manning playing in his brother’s new crib.  Again, the Giants were the more inspired and the more physical team.  And again, it took a miracle catch, this time by Mario Manningham, but this also featured a now legendary key dropped pass by Wes Welker, and a dropped Hail Mary by Rob Gronkowski on the final play to give the Giants a 21-17 win.

While it is now much easier for the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl, it guarantees nothing.  As previously stated, any team could come in and do what the Jets did four seasons ago.  Between Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver and either San Diego or Kansas City, any of these teams could come in and knock off the Patriots.  Only Pittsburgh would not foster a rematch, and only Kansas City would give the Patriots the revenge factor.  Give the Patriots credit for being 4-1 against these teams, but the playoffs are a different story.

With literally two weeks to get ready, Bill Belichick will know exactly what to do and how to do it.  Belichick cannot afford to get starters hurt in the meaningless finale on Sunday against Buffalo.  But he can use the game as a playoff tune-up.  The two biggest drawbacks from having the bye week is that you run the risk of getting rusty after the week off, and you don’t know your opponent for at least a week.  But you take the week off whenever you can get it, and playoff home games are among the most precious commodities in pro sports.

Most every Patriot fan who watched Cincinnati’s win Monday night over Denver had to be elated.  Being the one seed is fantastic for the Patriots, and a week early at that.

Having the home games is wonderful.  But the Patriots still need to win them.

Patriots Should Start Garoppolo Next Sunday

Christmas came a little early for the Patriots on Monday night.

The urgency to beat Buffalo in the regular season finale next Sunday at Gillette Stadium disappeared in a driving rainstorm at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.  Two late interceptions by Dre Kirkpatrick, one of which was returned for a touchdown, the other one sealing the win, were critical in the Cincinnati Bengals defeating the Denver Broncos, 37-28 on the final Monday Night Football game of the year.

The Denver loss clinched home field throughout the AFC playoffs for the Patriots.  The Cincinnati win clinched a playoff berth for the Bengals, and they can win the AFC North with a win next week at Pittsburgh.  If Cincinnati wins and Denver loses to or ties Oakland, the Bengals would be the two seed behind the Patriots.

With the Patriots having now assured themselves of the road to the Super Bowl going through Gillette Stadium, and with Buffalo having been eliminated on Sunday by losing at Oakland, Sunday’s game becomes literally an August game.  Buffalo may have a “get on the bus” mentality, as do most prohibitive road dogs who are not playoff bound in the regular season finale.  The only thing either team, especially the Patriots, have to concern themselves with is not suffering any needless or catastrophic injuries.

At the top of the list of players to protect for the Patriots is, obviously, Tom Brady.  The Patriots have been given a wonderful gift from the Bengals, allowing the Patriots literally two bye weeks to prepare for a Divisional Playoff game.  In planning for that game, especially in that you don’t know who you will be playing, player rest and protection has to be at the top of the list at this time.  Brady is the one Patriot who cannot be at risk for any sort of injury in a meaningless regular season finale.

The Patriots should treat next Sunday’s game against Buffalo as if it were the fourth preseason game.  Regulars should not get anywhere near game action unless Bill Belichick deems it absolutely necessary for them to get some game reps in.  Players like Chandler Jones, Dont’a Hightower and Julian Edelman, who have been nursing recent injuries, should see zero game action.  Not just a little, but zero.

It is therefore time for Belichick and Josh McDaniels to see what the future of the team holds.  Jimmy Garoppolo should start the game at quarterback and play the whole game.


With the Patriots having locked up the top AFC playoff seed, Jimmy Garoppolo should start and play the entire regular season finale this Sunday against Buffalo.
(USA TODAY Images)

Granted, it will be against a team all too eager to get the offseason under way.  But it will provide Garoppolo with precious game experience, in this case, an entire game with no bearing whatsoever on the regular season or the playoffs.  Belichick and McDaniels will have a chance to see what exactly they have with their second round draft pick, and perhaps the future face of the franchise.

Brady generally takes the fourth preseason game off anyway.  Even allowing him to play in one or two offensive series is far too much risk to assume.  The Patriots have a better than average chance to get to Super Bowl XLIX, and preserving Brady for the playoffs is paramount.

Meanwhile, this is the chance to see Garoppolo in a way that is not normally possible.  It is a golden opportunity for both the Patriots and Garoppolo.  Beginning right away with Wednesday practice, he should take first team reps, get into the flow of the week like Brady does, see how well he understands the game plan, and take note of how he reacts from a leadership standpoint.

Of course, Brady isn’t the only one who should rest.  The Patriots can rest other key players like Rob Gronkowski, Darrelle Revis, Brandon Browner, Vince Wilfork, Rob Ninkovich, and Devin McCourty.  None of these players needs to play on Sunday.  Let them take their reps at practice all week, but keep them out of the real thing.

In addition to Garoppolo, here are some other areas and players Belichick can examine on Sunday.

Feature Brandon Bolden at running back, Brian Tyms at wide receiver, and Michael Hoomanawanui at tight end.  Give Tyms a chance to get fully into the flow of the game, especially if wide receiver depth is needed in the postseason.  Hoomanawanui is known more for his blocking, but several targets might do him good also.

Another project for Belichick should be tinkering with the offensive line.  The O-line suffered badly against the Jets on Sunday, but that was largely borne out of Dan Connally being out with an injury.  Mixing and matching would be a nice project, as long as Garoppolo is not put in harm’s way.  Buffalo should not be hell bent on stunts and blitz packages in a game like this, so this sort of thing would work well and perhaps give Belichick some options for the postseason he might not have known he had.

If there is one starter who should play most of Sunday’s game, it might be strong safety Patrick Chung.  His play this season has been good here and there but mostly inconsistent.  He could use this game as a chance to hone his cover skills as well as his understanding of where to be at which time.

On defense, players who should get a good looking at are Allan Branch, Akeem Ayers, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon.  These players should get a lion’s share of playing time, and a chance to experience a starter’s mentality like Garoppolo.  Just the increased reps alone will help them greatly if they are needed in the postseason.

All things considered, the star of the show on Sunday has to be Garoppolo.  He is the key guy on Sunday.  He has to be Brady this week.  Not only should Belichick consider this option, it should be mandatory.  The most game action Garoppolo has seen was in Week 4 in a mopup job at Kansas City.  Garoppolo has looked mostly good in what little action he has seen both in preseason and the regular season.  Give him an entire regular season game, and the whole franchise benefits both short term and long term.

The Patriots can certainly extend holiday greetings and appropriate platitudes to Mike Brown, Marvin Lewis and the entire Cincinnati franchise for beating Denver on Monday night.  Of course, Cincinnati could return the favor by coming to Gillette Stadium in January and doing to the Patriots what the Jets did in 2010 when the Patriots were the one seed back then.  But for now, with the one seed in their back pocket, the Patriots and their fans can rest easy as the holidays envelop everyone this week.

The Patriots got their gift.  Now, Garoppolo needs to get his.