January 06, 2005
AFC PLAYOFF GLANCE: A Look at Potential Patriots' Opponents
BY: Ian Logue/PatsFans.com
Players hop a flight to watch “Wild-Card Weekend” with friends and family members, and Patriots fans try and get through a week without football.
So goes yet another bye week here in New England.
Fans should be getting used to the annual week off. After all, this is the third time in four seasons that the Patriots are back in the postseason, and each time they’ve earned a first-round bye. Players spent the early portion of this week getting an overview of their next potential opponents before heading off for a short break before they have to return to work on Monday. They'll likely spend the weekend watching on television to find out whether they'll face the New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts, or the San Diego Chargers, who all have a shot to come to Foxboro in just over a week.
Each game certainly has its own storyline. With the Jets, the question would be will New England be able to beat New York three times in one season, against head coach Herm Edwards who for some strange reason always seems to find a way to frustrate Bill Belichick’s team. New York isn’t exactly on a roll after their unimpressive finish (back-to-back losses) to their 10-6 season, but nevertheless could certainly still be dangerous.
Then again there’s the Indianapolis Colts, with a quarterback that spent this season breaking the all-time single season touchdown pass record held by Dan Marino. Even if you take an objective look at the game you have to be concerned. There’s no question that Bill Belichick knows how to coach against Peyton Manning and company, but the reason for this success has been the execution of his game plan by his experienced and athletic personnel. With a depleted secondary, they don’t exactly have that this time around.
Should a game against an explosive Colts team come to pass, a big question will be Ty Law’s health and New England’s ability to score on Indianapolis’ 29th ranked defense. The good news is the Patriots are pretty good themselves on offense (4th in the AFC) and will likely put some points up and force the Colts to play from behind. You can bet that will be a point of emphasis for New England if Denver doesn’t upset Indianapolis this weekend.
In the event Denver does beat Indianapolis this weekend, then it will be either the Jets or their opponent, the San Diego Chargers, who visit Foxboro. San Diego is certainly the surprise of the season with their 12-4 finish, along with quarterback Drew Brees earning the “Comeback Player of the Year” honor. Brees threw 27 touchdowns and just 7 interceptions after he threw 11 TDs and 15 picks last year. Head coach Marty Schottenheimer has the stigma of being known for not being able to win in the postseason, and has made it clear he’s looking to change that this time around.
Looking at the numbers, the Chargers have every bit as good a chance as the defending world champs. The Chargers are right behind the Patriots at 5th in the AFC on offense, and 10th in the conference on defense (New England is 7th). In the running game New England’s Corey Dillon is second in the conference in rushing, while San Diego’s LaDainian Tomlinson is 5th in the AFC and has 17-rushing touchdowns (Dillon has 12). Tom Brady is 4th in the AFC in passing yards, while Drew Brees is 7th. Should Denver beat the Colts and the Chargers defeat the Jets, there would be plenty to talk about in this match-up, although the Belichick vs. Schottenheimer angle would likely dominate this one.
At a glance each team provides an interesting match-up, but digging deeper into what’s going on inside each city both in the locker room and with what’s being written only makes each club more interesting:
In Indianapolis according to their fans and some media members their upcoming match-up against the Broncos only seems to be a preliminary challenge before they get another shot at beating New England. The Colts blew out Denver at the RCA Dome last year 41-10 in the Wild Card round and sent the Broncos packing.
However New England fans know how hard the Patriots players took it in 2001 when few people expected them to get to the Superbowl that year and let alone win it all, but the feelings are even harder in Denver they’ve spent this week listening to how great the Colts are and how tough it’s going to be to win.
As a matter of fact, all that talk finally even pushed one Broncos’ coach over the edge.. Imagine Charlie Weis or Romeo Crennel going off on the media about an opponent during a press conference, because it happened in Denver when defensive coordinator Larry Coyer had apparently finally heard enough of how great the Colts were and being questioned about the blowout playoff loss last season.
"One more time -- they've got great players! Now listen, we're going to tee it up and raise hell. And all the other stuff is bull (expletive), and I won't listen to it," Coyer told the Daily Camera in Denver. "We're going to tee it up and raise hell and we'll see what happens. We'll see. Let's wait for the game, then make our comments."
"Now we have to go raise hell and see who wins. And we're going to raise mortal hell, OK? And we'll find out. That's all I know to say."
Meanwhile head coach Mike Shanahan was a little more reserved.
"You've always got pride. Hopefully we'll play a lot better than we did a year ago," Shanahan told the newspaper. "We've been playing extremely well. We've just played one of our better games and played a little bit better the game before. They played exceptionally well in the playoff game. That's history, that's the past. What you do in the present is really what separates yourself."
Apparently Denver plans on being physical with the Colts receivers this week, likely taking a page out of how the Patriots stopped the Rams a couple of years ago when it looked like St. Louis’ offense would overpower them. Safeties Kenoy Kennedy and John Lynch (who broke his left thumb during Sunday’s win and will wear a cast this weekend) reportedly said they looked to use last week’s regular season 33-14 win over Indianapolis to “send a message”. It lead to a couple of Colts receivers going on the offensive including Reggie Wayne who told the Rocky Mountain News that both he and his team aren’t planning on backing down.
"People try to make a statement every week," receiver Reggie Wayne told the newspaper. "Football is a physical game. I've been playing this game since I was 7 years old and there is no coward in my blood. I'll be there Sunday. I'm not going to stay home. Our team will be there Sunday."
For Colts head coach Tony Dungy’s team to have a shot at a playoff “rematch” against the Patriots, they’ll need to win the one they’ll play this weekend. Unfortunately if they’re not careful it could be the Broncos who advance, and Denver seems to be up for this one.
In San Diego Marty Schottenheimer has spent the week hearing about his past problems in the postseason. His 5-11 mark in the postseason and zero Super Bowl appearances has given the San Diego media plenty to talk about, and his stance is commendable. He won’t hide from it, but he’s feeling pretty confident about his current team’s chances heading into Sunday’s game against the Jets.
"My approach to it is that you can't hide from it. It is what it is," Schottenheimer said. "We have not been nearly as effective in the playoffs as I would like to have been. But again, there are no redos. We lost some tough ones, some close ones.”
"I take a lot of pride in the fact that, for the most part, we've been very consistent in what we've done, and it's been reasonably solid. I certainly would like to think this football team this year gives us a chance."
His players certainly believe in him. LaDainian Tomlinson had no idea about his coach’s previous postseason record. Last year’s Red Sox team spent plenty of time telling the media that the last 86 years had nothing to do with whether or not they could win a World Series last season, and needless to say the Chargers aren’t interested in hearing about their coach’s past problems.
"I didn't know it was 5-11. That lets you know how much I've paid attention to his playoff past," Tomlinson told the North County Times when asked about his thoughts on his coach’s playoff record. "It really doesn't mean anything. He's coaching us, and we're a different team than he's had in the past. We're going to leave it in the past."
The media in San Diego apparently has written that Schottenheimer’s problems have stemmed from the fact they feel he wears out his players by pushing his teams too hard during the regular season, and then becomes too conservative on the playoff stage. His quarterback thinks that talk is foolish.
"These are probably the same people who were saying a year ago that Peyton Manning wasn't a playoff quarterback," Brees told the newspaper. "I mean, come on. People are always going to come up with reasons to criticize.
"There's no doubt that Marty and all of us have the ability to go out and win a championship."
Unfortunately Brees may be causing some problems of his own after his comments to the New York media this week about his current contract situation. Brees is in the least year of his contract and the speculation over his future has already started. Will the Chargers designate him as their franchise player which basically means he’ll get a one-year deal worth around $9-million, or will he get a long term-deal to keep him around? Apparently unless the latter happens Brees isn’t going to be too happy.
"I want a long-term commitment from the Chargers or from somebody," he said. "That's why I'm not too worried about it right now. Because I know there are all kinds of possibilities."
His coach didn’t exactly offer too much when asked about what the future of his quarterback would be.
"Those are decisions that are going to be made after we conclude this season," Schottenheimer told the newspaper.
Brees knows the deal. Had it not been for his Pro Bowl season (which lead to him awarding his offensive linemen with Rolex Watches) the team likely would have handed the offense to Philip Rivers after giving him a $40-million deal before this season. Now knowing how the NFL can be he plans on making sure he has a secure future, whether it’s with his current team or elsewhere.
“What I've understood, especially after last year, is that this whole thing is a business," Brees said. "Everybody is trying to figure out how they can save money, keep the guys they want and be under the (salary) cap. There are so many possibilities, that's why I really don't worry about it now.
"Once the offseason comes around, I'm kind of waiting to see what's going to happen. But like I said, I want a long-term commitment from the Chargers. If not from the Chargers, then from someone else.”
Rather than say, “I’m not too worried about that right now, the most important thing to me right now is getting ready for the Jets,” he may have taken the wrong road. Some coaches will say something controversial to the media during the playoffs to take the heat off his players and put it on them instead. Apparently Brees looks like he may help people forget about his coach’s playoff problems for a little while anyway.
Meanwhile in New York the overall consensus seems to be they have plenty of faith in the Jets, but they’re not ready to let quarterback Chad Pennington off the hook. Pennington’s rant against the media a couple of weeks ago has put the pressure on, and anything less than a Super Bowl could be a disaster. To make matters worse, he’s not a 100-percent, although he told ESPN radio he’s not going to make any excuses.
"I feel like as far as throwing the ball and the strength in my shoulder, I've been fine," said on his weekly segment on ESPN Radio. "Everything's fine. Obviously, I'm not like I was in training camp, but I feel like I can play winning football. No excuses, no explanations on that one."
He had his problems, including when TV cameras caught him in a heated exchange with his center after the Jets went three and out in the fourth quarter. He was seen approaching Kevin Mawae who apparently said some choice words before gesturing for him to get away while he was seated on the bench. While the two apparently reconciled it’s clear there’s some frustration in the Jets locker room.
But lost in the nonsense that has been created by Pennington has been the performance of running back Curtis Martin, who won his first NFL rushing title of his 10-year career this season. If you dig through the media links Martin’s name isn’t mentioned in the headlines, but his performance is going to be the difference in the Jets’ postseason success. Fans in New England have already seen the difference Corey Dillon has made for Tom Brady, and against the Chargers the Jets will be looking for the same from Martin after Pennington was sacked six times last weekend.
But on defense the Jets have their problems. They have no idea if they’ll have John Abraham in the line-up Saturday night in San Diego. Abraham has missed the past four games with a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his right knee and was listed as probable on the team’s injury report. Edwards said he expected Abraham to play and assume a limited role, and according to the Star-Ledger practiced this week.
But Abraham doesn’t sound too confident, and generally that’s not a good sign heading into a big game. To make matters worse, he’s a free agent next season and may be thinking about his future. If he sacrifices his body to help his team win, it could cost him his future at the age of 26. Coming off a Pro Bowl season he’s in a good position, but it will be tough to cash in if he suffers a serious injury to his knee and ends up needing surgery. Needless to say it’s doubtful he’ll be in the right state of mind.
"I don't think they can make me go out there,” Abraham told the newspaper. “I'm not trying to say that in a bad way. ... Everybody wants me to play. I just don't want to go out there and seriously injure myself any more than I already have."
"I want to be out on the field but I also have to be smart," Abraham said. "I have a long career ahead of me and I can't go out there and hurt my knee again. Right now, I'm not planning on having surgery so I don't want to run back out there too soon and get another injury to this knee and have to get surgery."
Some interesting stuff from around the conference in a week where Pats fans have plenty of free time. Now all that's left to wait for would be for snow to fall in Foxboro next week.
If history is any indication, it certainly looks like fans should break out the shovels next Sunday.
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