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December 22, 2008
Will 2008 Become The New 1980?
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net

NORTH POLE, Mass. -- The Patriots learned a hard lesson 28 years ago, and their current team is learning that lesson right now.

That lesson, plain and simple: Always control your own destiny and never, but never, rely on other teams for help.

While the Patriots trudged their way through a constant snowstorm at Gillette Stadium on Sunday to a resounding 47-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals, they did it buoyed with professionalism and not much playoff hope. Instead of an heroic season which was defined by the great relief job at quarterback by Matt Cassel, the Patriots are possibly headed for the wrong kind of NFL history, that being the first team since the 1985 Denver Broncos to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 record. With Dallas gagging and choking Saturday night in the Texas Stadium finale against the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriot playoff hopes are in the hands of weak teams who will be underdogs in all remaining games where the Patriot playoff contenders don't play against each other.

This year, instead of ending like 2001 where a long chain of events landed the Patriots at the two seed on their way to their first Super Bowl win, is looking more like 1980, where a 10-6 Patriot team missed the playoffs thanks to a nightmarish final weekend of the season. To quote Charles Dickens to some degree, if the current shadows remain unaltered by the future, none other of our race shall find them at the AFC playoff table. And it will leave the same rotten taste in the mouths of Patriot Nation like it did 28 years ago, when four games all went against the Patriots to block them from making the playoffs.

The Patriots of 1980 were at the end of the 1970s glory era, which featured landmark seasons of 1976 and 1978 where Ben Dreith robbed them of a berth (and likely a win) in Super Bowl XI, and Chuck Fairbanks pulled a Bill Parcells and helped cause the only home playoff loss in franchise history. They had a potent rushing attack, with Vagas Ferguson and Don Calhoun combining for just over 1,600 yards rushing. The receiving trio of Stanley Morgan, Harold Jackson and Russ Francis were formidable targets for Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh (the latter starting four games in place of Grogan). The defense still had such luminaries as Mike Haynes, Tim Fox, Steve Nelson, Raymond Hamilton, and interceptions leader Ray Clayborn. The team still had several of the pieces in place from 1976, with some new faces added to make the team stronger on paper than the previous teams which didn't live up to their fullest potential.

The team started out 6-1, but then suffered a 31-13 loss at Buffalo on October 26 to send them on a 2-5 run over their next seven games. Cavanaugh started at quarterback for the Patriots over their last three games and directed them to a 2-1 finish, losing at Miami (during the long Miami jinx), a win at home against Buffalo and a win on the road at New Orleans. The Patriots underachieved to some degree, but did well to finish at 10-6 and seemingly within grasp of a playoff berth.

But the weekend of December 21 and 22 of 1980 would be two of the darkest days in Patriot history. If they won their season finale against the Saints, they would need only one of Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston or San Diego to lose for them to make the playoffs. To again loosely quote Dickens, this fact must be clearly understood or else nothing awful can come from the story we will relate to you.

So the Patriots took care of business in the Superdome, winning 38-27 as Cavanaugh threw three touchdown passes (someone named Archie Manning threw one for the Saints), then the scoreboard watching began. One by one, the results came in, and all of them went against the Patriots. The Bills locked up the AFC East with an 18-13 win at San Francisco, who had Joe Montana but were one year away from their first Super Bowl. Cleveland was at their downstate rival, and the Bengals also were one year away from the Super Bowl, but the Browns prevailed at Riverfront Stadium, 27-24. Houston (known today as the Tennessee Titans) hosted the Minnesota Vikings, who were in decline from their Purple People Eater days. The Oilers prevailed, 20-16, and the Patriots were still on the outside looking in. Three games, and the teams the Patriots counted on to lose all won by an aggregate margin of ten points.

It all came down to a Monday night game at Jack Murphy Stadium, with the San Diego Chargers hosting the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention, had no incentive to win the game other than pride, and were missing several key players, including Franco Harris and Lynn Swann. The Steelers battled valiantly, and trailed at the half, 9-3. But the Chargers were too much for the wounded Steelers at home, and defeated the deposed champs, 26-17 to eliminate the Patriots from the playoffs.

Both the Oilers and Chargers had to win their games to secure Wild Card berths. The Oilers lost the AFC Central to Cleveland, while San Diego lost the AFC West title to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland. All five playoff teams from the AFC finished 11-5. The Patriots were the sixth best team in the AFC at 10-6, but three Wild Card teams would not come about until 1985. The end of the season was a bitter pill to swallow for the Patriots, and the season was really lost during that 2-5 stretch in the second half. But the final weekend was a hard lesson to learn about controlling your own destiny.

The Patriots of 2008 had to rely heavily on Dallas winning their stadium finale on Saturday night, but two unbelievable late long touchdown gallops by Willis McGahee and Le'Ron McClain ruined the Texas Stadium farewell party and sent the Baltimore Ravens to a 33-24 win to keep the second and last Wild Card berth in their control. Instead of a festive ceremony where the Cowboys would retain control of their playoff destiny, it turned out to be something like the Shea Stadium farewell, where the Mets lost their stadium finale and were eliminated from the NL playoffs in the process.

Sunday started out not much better for the Patriots, not counting the fans who got to throw snow in the air like the snowy Miami game of 2003. Despite annihilating the Cardinals in a steady snowstorm at home, the Cardinals making their first visit to Foxborough in 12 years and playing in their first snow game in 25 years, they finished the game in much the same shape as when they started. Kansas City put up a good fight at home at frigid Arrowhead Stadium against the Miami Dolphins, but in the end had zero defense and allowed the Dolphins to prevail, 38-31 under conditions where the Fish usually flounder. The Dolphins remained tied with the Patriots for first place, with the all-important tiebreaker all theirs.

Later on, the Patriots received a ray of hope out west. The Seattle Seahawks did the Patriots a huge favour by upending the Jets, 13-3 at Qwest Field and re-opening the playoff door for the Patriots a bit. So now, if the Patriots can win the finale next week at Buffalo, the Patriots will win the division if the Jets beat the Dolphins at home. Some cynical/paranoid Patriot fans might worry about Eric Mangini's desire to stick it to his old team to prevail over playing to win the game, but if the Jets win and the Patriots lose, the Jets win the division. The Jets really do have to play to win, and it should be a barnburner at Exit 16-W.

The Baltimore Ravens aren't likely to lose at home to Jacksonville next week, so they pretty much can count on the Wild Card and the six seed. Unfortunately for the Patriots, their season is pretty much in the hands of the New York Jets. Patriot Nation might want to hope for a close game and not blow out Buffalo early, thereby taking away whatever incentive the Jets have to win their game.

If both Miami and Baltimore win, the Patriots are not going to the playoffs. Then, if the Patriots beat the Bills, you will have the first 11-5 team in 23 years to not make the playoffs. For those who remember 1980, this will be much harder to swallow, a bigger lump of coal in your stocking than the one you got in 1980.

While the Patriots trudged their way through a constant snowstorm at Gillette Stadium on Sunday to a resounding 47-7 win over the Arizona Cardinals, they did it buoyed with professionalism and not much playoff hope. Instead of an heroic season which was defined by the great relief job at quarterback by Matt Cassel, the Patriots are possibly headed for the wrong kind of NFL history, that being the first team since the 1985 Denver Broncos to miss the playoffs with an 11-5 record. With Dallas gagging and choking Saturday night in the Texas Stadium finale against the Baltimore Ravens, the Patriot playoff hopes are in the hands of weak teams who will be underdogs in all remaining games where the Patriot playoff contenders don't play against each other.

This year, instead of ending like 2001 where a long chain of events landed the Patriots at the two seed on their way to their first Super Bowl win, is looking more like 1980, where a 10-6 Patriot team missed the playoffs thanks to a nightmarish final weekend of the season. To quote Charles Dickens to some degree, if the current shadows remain unaltered by the future, none other of our race shall find them at the AFC playoff table. And it will leave the same rotten taste in the mouths of Patriot Nation like it did 28 years ago, when four games all went against the Patriots to block them from making the playoffs.

The Patriots of 1980 were at the end of the 1970s glory era, which featured landmark seasons of 1976 and 1978 where Ben Dreith robbed them of a berth (and likely a win) in Super Bowl XI, and Chuck Fairbanks pulled a Bill Parcells and helped cause the only home playoff loss in franchise history. They had a potent rushing attack, with Vagas Ferguson and Don Calhoun combining for just over 1,600 yards rushing. The receiving trio of Stanley Morgan, Harold Jackson and Russ Francis were formidable targets for Steve Grogan and Matt Cavanaugh (the latter starting four games in place of Grogan). The defense still had such luminaries as Mike Haynes, Tim Fox, Steve Nelson, Raymond Hamilton, and interceptions leader Ray Clayborn. The team still had several of the pieces in place from 1976, with some new faces added to make the team stronger on paper than the previous teams which didn't live up to their fullest potential.

The team started out 6-1, but then suffered a 31-13 loss at Buffalo on October 26 to send them on a 2-5 run over their next seven games. Cavanaugh started at quarterback for the Patriots over their last three games and directed them to a 2-1 finish, losing at Miami (during the long Miami jinx), a win at home against Buffalo and a win on the road at New Orleans. The Patriots underachieved to some degree, but did well to finish at 10-6 and seemingly within grasp of a playoff berth.

But the weekend of December 21 and 22 of 1980 would be two of the darkest days in Patriot history. If they won their season finale against the Saints, they would need only one of Buffalo, Cleveland, Houston or San Diego to lose for them to make the playoffs. To again loosely quote Dickens, this fact must be clearly understood or else nothing awful can come from the story we will relate to you.

So the Patriots took care of business in the Superdome, winning 38-27 as Cavanaugh threw three touchdown passes (someone named Archie Manning threw one for the Saints), then the scoreboard watching began. One by one, the results came in, and all of them went against the Patriots. The Bills locked up the AFC East with an 18-13 win at San Francisco, who had Joe Montana but were one year away from their first Super Bowl. Cleveland was at their downstate rival, and the Bengals also were one year away from the Super Bowl, but the Browns prevailed at Riverfront Stadium, 27-24. Houston (known today as the Tennessee Titans) hosted the Minnesota Vikings, who were in decline from their Purple People Eater days. The Oilers prevailed, 20-16, and the Patriots were still on the outside looking in. Three games, and the teams the Patriots counted on to lose all won by an aggregate margin of ten points.

It all came down to a Monday night game at Jack Murphy Stadium, with the San Diego Chargers hosting the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers were eliminated from playoff contention, had no incentive to win the game other than pride, and were missing several key players, including Franco Harris and Lynn Swann. The Steelers battled valiantly, and trailed at the half, 9-3. But the Chargers were too much for the wounded Steelers at home, and defeated the deposed champs, 26-17 to eliminate the Patriots from the playoffs.

Both the Oilers and Chargers had to win their games to secure Wild Card berths. The Oilers lost the AFC Central to Cleveland, while San Diego lost the AFC West title to eventual Super Bowl champion Oakland. All five playoff teams from the AFC finished 11-5. The Patriots were the sixth best team in the AFC at 10-6, but three Wild Card teams would not come about until 1985. The end of the season was a bitter pill to swallow for the Patriots, and the season was really lost during that 2-5 stretch in the second half. But the final weekend was a hard lesson to learn about controlling your own destiny.

The Patriots of 2008 had to rely heavily on Dallas winning their stadium finale on Saturday night, but two unbelievable late long touchdown gallops by Willis McGahee and Le ‘Ron McClain ruined the Texas Stadium farewell party and sent the Baltimore Ravens to a 33-24 win to keep the second and last Wild Card berth in their control. Instead of a festive ceremony where the Cowboys would retain control of their playoff destiny, it turned out to be something like the Shea Stadium farewell, where the Mets lost their stadium finale and were eliminated from the NL playoffs in the process.

Sunday started out not much better for the Patriots, not counting the fans who got to throw snow in the air like the snowy Miami game of 2003. Despite annihilating the Cardinals in a steady snowstorm at home, the Cardinals making their first visit to Foxborough in 12 years and playing in their first snow game in 25 years, they finished the game in much the same shape as when they started. Kansas City put up a good fight at home at frigid Arrowhead Stadium against the Miami Dolphins, but in the end had zero defense and allowed the Dolphins to prevail, 38-31 under conditions where the Fish usually flounder. The Dolphins remained tied with the Patriots for first place, with the all-important tiebreaker all theirs.

Later on, the Patriots received a ray of hope out west. The Seattle Seahawks did the Patriots a huge favour by upending the Jets, 13-3 at Qwest Field and re-opening the playoff door for the Patriots a bit. So now, if the Patriots can win the finale next week at Buffalo, the Patriots will win the division if the Jets beat the Dolphins at home. Some cynical/paranoid Patriot fans might worry about Eric Mangini's desire to stick it to his old team to prevail over playing to win the game, but if the Jets win and the Patriots lose, the Jets win the division. The Jets really do have to play to win, and it should be a barnburner at Exit 16-W.

The Baltimore Ravens aren't likely to lose at home to Jacksonville next week, so they pretty much can count on the Wild Card and the six seed. Unfortunately for the Patriots, their season is pretty much in the hands of the New York Jets. Patriot Nation might want to hope for a close game and not blow out Buffalo early, thereby taking away whatever incentive the Jets have to win their game.

If both Miami and Baltimore win, the Patriots are not going to the playoffs. Then, if the Patriots beat the Bills, you will have the first 11-5 team in 23 years to not make the playoffs. For those who remember 1980, this will be much harder to swallow, a bigger lump of coal in your stocking than the one you got in 1980.


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