Ho, hum. Another year of sitting around on Wild Card Weekend and watching other teams battle it out for the right to come to Foxboro and face your New England Patriots. Frankly, we are getting accustomed to this style of living in these parts. However, it wasn't too long ago when admitting you were a Patriots fan was akin to professing allegiance to the Arizona Cardinals.
But no more. Being a Patriots fan is cool, stylish, and almost a requirement of citizenship now in the six New England states. Walk into a bar and start talking about Mack Herron, Julius Adams, and Bill Lenkaitis and someone might actually now know who you are talking about. Everybody loves a winner.
And that's just the trouble that we face as we head into the 2004 AFC Divisional playoffs this Saturday night. So excuse me for asking the question but will you still love this Patriots team if they lose on Saturday, or a week from Sunday, or on February 1st in Houston? Well, will you? The reason I'm asking is that I'm not so sure of the answer myself.
Exhibit A in this discussion is, of course, the 2003 Boston Red Sox. Do you remember Nomar's game winning home run on Easter Sunday? Or that improbable comeback against Philadelphia on Labor Day when Manny refused to play? Or what about Trot Nixon's Bernie Carbo-esque home run to win Game 3 against Oakland? The trouble is, the only thing I remember about last season was how distraught I was when I saw Aaron Boone deposit a home run into the left field bleachers to end Game 7 of the ALCS. Of course, time has a way of healing this wound. I suppose the healing process started for me a few weeks ago as I convinced myself to part with $300 in order to go to five games next summer. Hope springs eternal, I suppose.
This year's Patriots edition has perhaps given us the most exciting regular season in their forty-four year history. Before this year, the most games this franchise had ever won was eleven. Fourteen win regular seasons, like the one we enjoyed, are normally reserved for franchises like the 49ers or the Cowboys-not our Charlie Brown-like local eleven. Suddenly, they are the consensus pick to win it all. In each of their three Super Bowl appearances, the Patriots have snuck up on the national scene. Not this time around.
The season started out with so much promise as a solid training camp and a 4-0 preseason raised expectations about a possible return to the playoffs. And then, "it" happened. "It" was what appeared at the time to be a Haywood Sullivan-like release of Lawyer Milloy five days before the season began. All of Patriots Nation started marching towards the Tobin Bridge for an early season plunge after the 31-0 opening day pasting courtesy of Milloy and his new team, the Bills. Then, "it" happened again.
The Patriots surprised us the next week by blowing out the Eagles on the road. That was followed by a close game against a mediocre Jets team. The injuries started to pile up. Rookies were plugged in as emergency measures. Yet somehow, the team didn't panic and began to build some confidence.
This confidence manifested itself in a win at home against the Titans in week five. The lasting memory of this game is a limping Ty Law taking an interception return for a touchdown. Suddenly, this team felt it could play with anyone and the train started to roll. The win against the Giants the following week. The Brady-to-Brown overtime touchdown that set off a Mary Tyler Moore-like celebration from Bill Belichick in Miami. The intentional safety and David Givens' last-second touchdown catch to win in another traditional house of horrors-Denver. Stopping the Tuna Express on Sunday night. The best goal-line stand in franchise history at the end of the Indianapolis game. What about Tedy Bruschi setting off the snow fireworks when his touchdown sealed the Division crown? And how could you forget the symmetrical, satisfying 31-0 thrashing of the Bills?
These (and other) memories will make this a fantastic season that we will cherish for a long time. If the Patriots stumble this January, will we forget the good times? I hope not. I hope we would look forward to four draft picks in the first two rounds, a decent salary cap situation, and a solid nucleus for next year. As Red Sox Nation has proved by buying 2004 tickets at a record pace and being consumed with A-Rod, Boston sports fans are some of the most loyal and passionate fans anywhere. Enjoy the ride through the playoffs. Just don't forget how much fun it was to get to here. I hope I heed my own advice.
Idle Zinger thoughts while asking myself "Where have you gone, Bananarama?"
In case you missed it, beside the normal home-and-home games against the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets, the Patriots will play Baltimore, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Indianapolis at home next year. They will be on the road at Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Arizona, St.Louis, and Kansas City. The Seattle game will mark the first time the teams have met since 1993.
The NFL schedule is pretty much set until 2009. I suppose you could start planning now for that getaway weekend to see the Pats in either New Orleans or Tampa Bay in 2009.
I like to think that three days of intense interviews by five teams will not distract Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel from game planning for Saturday night.
Is Fox NFL color analyst Bill Maas a little too over the top for you as well? Some of these ex-players try to be too "jock macho" instead of just providing analysis on the game at hand. If you compare Maas to Troy Aikman, Dan Fouts, or Phil Simms, you start to see my point.
Can we stop throwing the word "genius" around when describing coaches? Can we save it for the important people in life, like the scientists working to cure cancer. Or the people that brought us fat-free Twinkies or teriyaki beef jerky?
Sports Illustrated Peter King had Dan Koppen, Richard Seymour, Tedy Bruschi, and Rodney Harrison on his ballot for the AP All-Pro Team. Koppen has been a quiet star in his rookie season.
Given last year's draft and the stockpile of picks that the Patriots have for April's draft, I don't think I have ever looked more forward to the NFL's annual version of reading a telephone book.
That's it for this week. Feel free to drop me a line. I can be reached at [email protected].
Don't forget to check me out at 8:20 on Monday mornings on Bangor, Maine's sports radio leader, WZON 620 "The Zone." You can listen over the internet at www.zoneradio.com This column also appears in the Waterboro (ME) Reporter, the Maine Standard Times (Lewiston/Auburn, ME), the American Journal (Westbrook, ME), and the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly (Windham, ME).
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