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Patriots Commentary Writer Bob George
      December 16, 2002      
 
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      Turning (Back) Around the Corner
    By: Kevin Rousseau/PatsFans.com

    As I sit here past midnight on Tuesday morning, I’m struggling to come up with an original slant on the embarrassing loss to the Tennessee Titans. The easiest way for me to convey to you what happened (and get some sleep on a school night) would be to “cut and paste” my previous articles from the Miami, Denver, or Green Bay losses. Essentially, what happened on Monday night is exactly the same thing that has happened to this Patriots team every time they play an above-average team this season. In these games, they get out-muscled on both sides of the line of scrimmage; they lose all the critical battles on third down; and Charlie Weis outsmarts himself with his questionable offensive play calling. It basically comes down to this; the Patriots have to win their remaining two games against the Jets and Dolphins. If they do this, their reward will most likely be a quick exit from the AFC playoff tournament.

    The Patriots defense, who had played well in the weeks leading up to Monday’s game, just didn’t show up. It is difficult to understand how a team can suddenly lose its ability to tackle ball carriers and prevent short gains from turning into long gains. Also this season, the Patriots secondary has made a habit of trying to stop opponents by tackling them high. The results, predictably, have been disastrous. This stuff flies in the face of basic Pop Warner football fundamentals and, frankly, is shocking to see.

    The defense, as they have done in their other losses, had two costly penalties (automatic first downs, thank you very much) on the Titans’ first touchdown drive. On the next Titans’ touchdown drive, Terrell Buckley makes a beautiful interception and then tries to make Sportscenter and coughs up the ball back to the Titans. The Titans, like any good playoff team, took advantage of these second chances and marched down the field to score touchdowns.

    The last point on my warrant against the defense is its inability to get off the field on third down. As I’ve observed over the years, the victorious team usually wins the battle at the line of scrimmage and makes plays on third down on both sides of the ball. The Titans were 8-18 on third down conversions. They ran their offensive package at will and busted some big runs out of third and short situations. On the defensive side of the ball, the Titans weren’t fooled by the Patriots’ repetitive five receiver sets. They defended this and other formations well and got off the field on third down. Give the Titans credit. They do all the fundamentals that good football teams do to win games.

    As much as I have tried to give Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis the benefit of the doubt about his much-maligned play calling, I just can’t anymore. It’s always a fashionable cheap shot to bash the offensive play calling when your team loses. But frankly, the stubborn insistence on five receiver sets and the abandonment of any semblance of a running game is shocking. If you are a NFL coach worth a lick, the first formation that you are going to figure out how to defend against the Patriots is the five receiver set. This stuff isn’t fooling anybody anymore and its putting the Patriots in big holes on third downs when they can’t convert on first and second down pass plays. The most glaring example of this occurred on an early third-quarter Patriots possession when the score was only 14-7. After the Patriots had just scored, the momentum of the game was at stake. Instead of trying to establish a running game and taking the momentum back, the Patriots came out in their five receiver set. Unfortunately, what ensued was a Titans interception deep in Patriots territory and a return for a touchdown. At this point, the momentum and the game had swung to the Titans for good.

    At 8-5, this team is what it is. It’s a marginally above-average team that cannot beat the upper echelon of the league this season. The best-case scenario, as it stands now, is to win the division and be rewarded with a home, first round game. There is virtually no way this team can be in the wild card hunt given its head-to-head record against the teams they are fighting. In summary, the most frustrating part of this season has been this team’s inability to play up to its potential. This team is made up of good, solid players. In this crazy league, sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

    I am pleased to report that there is no late season slide in this space when it comes to Zingers. Rather, you can come to expect mid-season quality Zingers as the regular season wraps up…..

    What is wrong with starting east coast Monday Night games at 8 o’clock? The NFL begins these games at 9 o’clock essentially to placate the Los Angeles television market. Keep in mind this market has no teams and, anecdotally, is very fickle in its viewing habits.

    Earlier this season, Patriots second-year cornerback Leonard Myers underwent double groin surgery. I’m sure there is a reasonable, rational medical answer to the obvious question on your mind. But, suffice to say, no man should have to endure double groin surgery regardless of what it actually entails.

    Speaking of surgery, who is the brain surgeon at NFL headquarters who scheduled two December night games in Green Bay (game time temperature: 4 degrees) and New England?

    If you didn’t read it, I urge you to get your hands on last Friday’s edition of the New York Daily News. In the sports section, there’s a detailed description about the three (count ‘em three) fights that took place at Jets practice the day before. By all accounts, these weren’t your typical training camp, peeing on the hydrant turf battles. They were the “something’s been brewing for a while and let’s have at it” version. The final melee turned into an offense verse defense brawl complete with punches being thrown. Does that sound like a playoff team to you?

    Besides the Rams, the Denver Broncos could be the biggest disappointment of the second half of the season. I don’t understand how this team can slide given their running game and veteran receiving corps. Keep in mind that this is the second year in a row this has occurred. Things went from bad to worse last week as Coach Mike Shanahan called out defensive lineman Trevor Pryce for not “showing up.” I hope Shanahan knows what he’s doing because these type of psychological games can easily backfire. If it does backfire and the Broncos go in the tank, could Shanahan’s job be safe?

    Jerry Rice is 40 years old and he is as dominant as any receiver in the league right now. Period.

    This could be the closest MVP battle in NFL history. How do you choose between Michael Vick, Priest Holmes, Ricky Williams, Marvin Harrison, and Kordell Stewart? My vote goes to Priest Holmes of the Kansas City Chiefs. Going into Sunday’s game, he has 1454 yards rushing and 650 yards receiving for a total of 2104 yards with three games to play. The next closest player, San Diego’s LaDanian Thomlinsen is 297 yards behind Holmes! Essentially, Holmes has carried that team to the point where they are a team no one wants to play down the stretch. Against the Patriots, the Chiefs scored 14 points late in the fourth quarter by giving him the ball and letting him run downhill on the Patriots. Interestingly, the Patriots were close to signing him before last season. (Editor’s Note: The above reference to Kordell Stewart was, by no means, “mid-season quality” humor as advertised. We apologize.)

    ESPN’s Stuart Scott has got to tone it down a little. His whole schtick is just too much sometimes. However, on the same network, the Sunday night lineup of Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, and Paul Maguire are easily the most enjoyable TV crew in football. And who can forget their very lovely and talented sideline reporter, Suzy Kolber. Faithful Zinger readers will recall my ongoing, healthy, platonic infatuation with Ms. Kolber.

    I have no empirical evidence about this, but I think the biggest fair-weather fans in the NFL are Miami Dolphins’ fans. Only when they are winning do they show up in South Florida. Remember last year when their home playoff game was not sold out and a local blackout almost applied? But then again, if you could go to South Beach for free or bake in the sun watching a game in September, what would you choose?

    It’s happened again. This week’s victim was the New Orleans Saints. They didn’t listen to me and they foolishly wore alternative, light gold jerseys on Sunday. They then proceeded to hand the Vikings their first road win since November 2001. Given the way the Broncos and Browns played in alternate orange jerseys (these are not the throwback jerseys that I’m all for), you would think that other teams would learn that you are cursed if you succumb to the Hilfinger jersey craze this season.

    As viewed from the upper deck in Gillette Stadium: Against the Bills last Sunday, Belichick’s newest defensive scheme was lining up cornerbacks Otis Smith and Ty Law in the strong safety position and putting linebacker Roman Phifer out to cover and chip Buffalo’s receivers. Just when you think you’ve seen every possible scheme…..

    Couldn’t the Cincinnati Bengals’ Corey Dillon, Takeo Spikes, and Chad Johnson be allowed to apply to the League offices for political asylum in order that their talents could be better used by one of the other 31 teams? While we are on the subject of the Bengals, is it out of the realm of possibilities for Bengals owner Mike Brown to be approached by the other owners at a league meeting and be told “Hey, enough is enough. You’re embarrassing yourself and the league. Hire a general manager.”

    Zingers, Christmas presents, and rotten tomatoes are all being accepted at patsfansince72@yahoo.com. So long until next week



         
       

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