Patriots To Partake In Postseason Party

Bob George
December 24, 2001 at 8:23 am ET

Cinderella almost didn’t get to go to that grand ball where her handsome prince/future husband needed to find a bride amongst the single girls in the kingdom.

She was a lovely woman relegated to grueling housekeeping duties by her wicked stepmother upon the death of her father. It took a little bibbity-bobbity-boo to turn that slave girl into a beautiful princess-in-waiting. That fairy godmother who came to Cinderella’s aid gave her all she needed to attend that ball, get noticed by the prince, dance with him, cause him to fall in love with her, and she with him.

The only thing the fairy godmother didn’t give her was a lot of time. She only had until the stroke of midnight, then she returned to her former self. Sparing you all the rest of this time-honored classic, she got the prince in the end thanks to a glass slipper, and they lived happily ever after.

September 23, 2001. We’ve never said anything about this until now, but that’s when Bill Belichick’s fairy godmother descended upon him.

He needed one. A 5-11 campaign in 2000. A 23-16 loss to Cincinnati to open the 2001 season. And on this day, following the darkest day in USA history, with all the splendor and tributes to the survivors and the cleanup crews of September 11th, with a team from the city that took the big hit on that horrid day on the opposite sideline, Belichick’s team loses 10-3. To make matters worse, his franchise quarterback, Drew Bledsoe, gets knocked silly by Mo Lewis and nearly dies from a punctured lung and massive internal bleeding.

And so, Belichick sits down on the evening of September 23rd. He’s 5-13 as Patriot head coach, and may have lost Bledsoe for the year. He sits and wonders about his fate. If a man ever needed some bibbity-bobbity-boo, here he is.

Exactly four months later, on December 23rd, Belichick sits down and wonders about his fate. But on his mind aren’t things like “We ought to draft well at the four position” or “At least we have the new stadium next year”, or “Jeez, I might be fired!” Instead, he has to worry about things like “Division title or Wild Card, what is it?” Or “Wonder if we’ve really seen the last of that stupid old stadium after all?”

Belichick got his coach, footman, team of four horses, driver and tuxedo. He’s going to the ball. It took exactly four months instead of four minutes (like Cinderella), but Belichick has to start compiling a dance card and go see Arthur Murray. Belichick got his invitation today.

The term “Cinderella” is thrown around sports so much these days. Does it apply to the 2001 Patriots? Are they the real “surprise” team of the NFL right now? You’d have to say yes, and that is a main reason why Belichick is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year honors.

With the Giants beating Seattle 27-24 Sunday at Exit 16-W, the Patriots clinched their first playoff berth since 1998. They have a shot at their first division title since 1997, and their first two-seed since 1996 is still out there for the taking, with help.

The Patriots have next week off, then travel to Charlotte for a ridiculously easy-on-paper finale with the 1-13 Carolina Panthers, a team they saw in the preseason. This Panther team is just awful, losing 38-32 today to the Rams. Unless the Patriots absolutely cannot get themselves up for this game, the Panthers will be thinking “on the bus” all game long, and the Patriots should have this game in their back pocket. It will get them to an unthinkable 11-5 record, tying the record for most wins in franchise history.

A playoff berth this year, done mostly with Tom Brady at quarterback, is nothing short of phenomenal. Brady has all but driven Bledsoe, who got a thunderous ovation at halftime on Saturday during the stadium’s closing ceremony, out of town. Brady is sitting back and letting his defense and Antowain Smith do their thing, and it’s working pretty good right now.

However, as Cinderella had her midnight deadline, the Patriots face a similar problem. The Patriots could nail down their 11-5 record, yet get no better than a four seed. And the team that stands in their way of greater postseason glory right now is…doggone it, the Jets.

Ostensibly, the season could end up with the Patriots, Miami, the Jets, Baltimore and Oakland all finishing 11-5. The Patriots win tiebreakers with Miami (division record) and Baltimore (common opponents, 3-2 to 3-3), but lose tiebreakers to the Jets (conference record) and Oakland (common opponents 5-2 to 5-3 assuming the teams tie at 11-5 and not 10-6).

The Patriots would really have loved the Jets to lose to Indianapolis Sunday night, but a late rally gave the Jets a narrow 29-28 win. The Jets remain in the driver’s seat for the division title, but have two tough games standing in their way. Thanks to Oakland losing Saturday to Tennessee, a shot at a two seed was rekindled, but with the Jets winning Sunday, the Patriots must hope that the Raiders win their season finale against the Jets unless Buffalo upsets the Jets next weekend at Exit 16-W.

Simplified, here is basically what can and might happen to the Patriots.

If the Patriots do beat Carolina, they will get no worse than a four seed and guarantee a home playoff date in the first round. If they lose, they likely get a six seed unless Miami, Baltimore or the Jets suffer huge upsets along the way. If the Patriots beat Carolina, they win the division with a Jet loss in either of their final two games, the game at Oakland being the more difficult of the two remaining.

For the Patriots to get a two seed, they need to win their finale, Buffalo needs to beat the Jets (this is why the Colts needed to come through tonight), Oakland needs to lose next week at Denver, then the Jets need to beat Oakland in their finale. That would get both Oakland and the Jets at 10-6, the two teams that beat New England in tiebreakers. Only Pittsburgh would have a better record than the Patriots, and is in a strong position to lock up home field throughout the AFC playoffs.

Both Miami and Baltimore should finish 11-5, the two teams that the Patriots hold tiebreaker edges over. Miami finishes at home with Atlanta and Buffalo, while Baltimore closes out at Tampa Bay and home against the woebegone Vikings. The Ravens have a short week to prepare for the Buccaneers, but even though the Bucs are undefeated in Raymond James Stadium in the month of December, the stifling Raven defense should put a stiff clamp on Brad Johnson to the point that Baltimore could come out with a win.

Here is a look at how other contending clubs fare on tiebreakers (based on all contenders finishing 11-5):

The Jets would own the tiebreaker over Miami (head to head), Baltimore (conference record) and Oakland (head to head, 11-5 means they win the season finale at Oakland). Miami would have an edge on Baltimore (conference record) and Oakland (conference record). Oakland would edge out Baltimore (conference record), but this comparison is moot since Pittsburgh has clinched the AFC Central and Oakland the AFC West. Both Miami and the Jets are currently still alive in the hunt for the AFC East.

Looking at the big picture, here is what likely will unfold:

Miami and New England should win out and finish 11-5. The Jets are likely to lose one of their last two games to finish at 10-6. Oakland should split their last two and finish 11-5, and Baltimore likely wins out and comes home at 11-5. You then have seeds in this order: Pittsburgh, Oakland, New England, Miami, Baltimore, Jets.

And round one of the playoffs? Jets at Foxborough.

Start writing all the folk tales. Start all the flashbacks to September 23rd. Rev the border war back up again. If this is the last game ever in Foxborough Stadium, the football Gods didn’t think much of Saturday’s affair, and a more skull-imploding finale is in order here.

And you can bet that Bill Parcells would come back for that one.

For the time being, the Patriots need to relax and gear up for Andy Griffith country. The Patriots need to be like Griffith, or else the team will come up flat and walk out of Ericsson Stadium sounding like a bunch of Barney Fifes.

Savor the playoff berth for a few days. That is definitely in order.

Because midnight will be here before you know it. The killjoys will always be the Jets. That seems like the way things will be for quite some time.

And the Patriots had better bring a glass slipper with them wherever they go from here on out.

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