The reason why NFL teams battle so hard for home field advantage and first round byes during the regular season was plainly evident on Saturday night. The Patriots and Titans are two evenly matched teams that might split ten games against each other on a neutral field. But mix together sub-zero temperatures, an impressively loud fandom, and an Adam Vinatieri fourth-quarter kick in tough conditions and you have the formula for the Patriots reaching their third AFC Championship Game in seven years.
The fans who braved the cold to attend the game showed the rest of the nation that indeed Patriots Nation contains some of the best fans in the League. Right or wrong, since the new stadium opened, these fans have been accused of sitting on their hands. Not on Saturday night. It became so loud that a very good Titans' offensive line had numerous false start penalties and the Titans were forced to burn at least two timeouts due to the loud noise. The crowd noise and the boost it provided to the Patriots may have been the difference in such a close game.
So, was this game as good as the Snow Bowl? Just about; but not quite. As Vinatieri's game winning kick sailed towards the goal posts against the Titans, I found myself saying the exact same thing to my brother that I said to him on that night in the snow at the old stadium: "It doesn't have enough legs." Yet, amazingly, the ball took almost the same line drive trajectory as the famous snow kick and it somehow cleared the uprights. Do you ever wish that you could go back and sharpen the details of a memorable moment in your life? Well I did on Saturday night as the kick in the snow came back to life right in front of me.
The Snow Bowl will always be special because it came first. The "Frost Bowl" (if you will allow me the artistic license) was perhaps a better played game by both teams under just as trying circumstances as the Snow Bowl. The wind and extreme cold of Saturday night presented just as much of a challenge for the Patriots and Titans than the falling snow did for the Patriots and Raiders. But in many ways, both teams played a game for the NFL Films archives regardless of the weather on Saturday night. There was solid tackling, big plays on third downs, and more touchdowns (four compared to two), momentum changes, and a finish that was in doubt until the end. Put it this way; if NFL Films puts together a list of the best games of the year, expect this one to make the top five.
Tom Brady clearly didn't have his best stuff on Saturday night but once again he proved that old Bill Parcell-ian adage that "statistics are for losers" to be correct. Against the Titans, he was not nearly as accurate as we have become accustomed to seeing from him. He was also hampered by Daniel Graham's continuing dropsies. But yet all he does is win by making plays when he absolutely has to. He is the big money quarterback that knows how to play in the fourth quarter. Rarely does he make bad decisions that result in interceptions. How fortunate are we to be able to again watch Larry Bird-like late-game execution?
Three AFC Championship games in seven years. Slowly, if you listen past the whistling wind you can hear the whispers around New England: "Maybe, we could have a (Shhhhh, Be careful when you say it) dynasty on our hands." And there is no reason to believe that the Patriots should not continue to be dominant for years to come. They have four picks this year in the first two rounds of the draft. It looks like Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis will not land head coaching jobs and will be back next year. And perhaps most importantly, the continued unselfish play of this team shows no sign of stopping anytime soon. This type of continued historical success is reserved for the stalwarts of the NFL-the 49ers, Cowboys, Redskins, etc. Could it be possible that the Patriots may begin to see these great franchises on the horizon? If the 2003-4 Patriots can win just two more games, than it will okay with me to use the "D" word.
Idle Zinger thoughts while trying to un-weld my tongue from a metal railing in the upper deck on Saturday night:
News Item: ESPN analyst and former quarterback Sean Salisbury has been hired to be the Arizona Cardinals' quarterbacks coach. I was unaware that being a mediocre quarterback qualified someone to become a quarterbacks' coach. In a related story, the Patriots will fire current quarterbacks' coach John Hufnagel and replace him with Tony Eason.
Howard Balzer of USA Today's Sports Weekly had a great quote that sums up the state of coaching in the NFL. Ted Cottrell on being fired as the Jets defensive coordinator: "I was so damn close to becoming a head coach (last year), and now, all of a sudden, I'm stupid? I don't agree with that at all."
While I'm busy giving credit to other media sources, Gregg Easterbrook, NFL.com's "Tuesday Morning Quarterback", perfectly summed up my feelings on one Ray Lewis of the Ravens. "Ray, you're deep into this thug persona act, and for reasons that escape (me), the networks and the corporate marketers encourage you. But it's getting old, Ray. In his pre-game interviews, Eddie George acted like someone anyone would want as a next-door neighbor. And who won, Ray?"
Mr. Easterbrook also correctly points out in his column that all the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt has done by setting a record with 43 consecutive field goals is "…assure (himself) of honking a big kick in the playoffs." It's a law of averages thing, I suppose.
Why is it that every time I turn on a cable sports network these days, all I find is either "The World Series of Poker," "Billiard Trick Shots," or "The Best Damn Sports Show?"
For all the grief he took from all of us here in New England, Pete Carroll deserves all of our praise for winning the national championship with USC.
I am pleased to announce that the Village Soup Times out of Belfast/Camden/Rockland, Maine has, against their better judgment, decided to pick up this column for the rest of the playoffs. This new paper has made a tremendous impact in the mid-coast Maine area and I'm privileged to be associated with them. They will also be carrying this column on their website www.villagesoup.com. Please join me in welcoming this excellent publication to the Patsfans.com family.
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 (Gorham/Westbrook, ME), the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly (Windham, ME), and the Village Soup Times (Belfast/Camden/Rockland, ME) .
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