Boring weekend, you say?
Not on your two seeds. All you have to do is think of the 1996 Fog Bowl, the glorious 28-3 win over Pittsburgh in the Divisional Playoffs, and think about the good old days. Think harder, and you remember that the Patriots had the week off prior to that game, and earned the right to host the Steelers because they were the two seed.
It is nice during this idle week to sit back and reflect upon a banner Patriot season that will somehow include playoffs. Thanks to a rude schedule maker who thought that the Patriots would be Panther-esque in ’01, the Patriots were given a Week 17 bye. With the hope that a contending team would not be given a bye during the final week (technically, this was supposed to be the final week of the season but for September 11th), the Patriots thumbed their noses at the NFL and are sitting at home during a very key weekend with playoff implications all over the place.
What the Patriots have to do themselves is simple. They need to beat a 1-13 team next Sunday. In doing so, they have to recognize that it is a road game, the Panthers are still a team of proud veterans (golf clubs or no golf clubs), and that the Patriots can just as easily mess this game up as they can win in a walk.
Outside of winning the finale to go to 11-5, tying the franchise record for wins in a season, everything else is left to everyone else. The Patriots clinch a home playoff game with a win. That’s about it. As for winning the division and getting a two seed, well, that’s where the other folks come in.
All Bill Belichick cares about is George Seifert and his squad. They handled Carolina quite well in the preseason, but August only matters if you still like Michael Bishop. This is the final game of the season, and the Patriots face a team that has had a lousy year and not a thing to play for.
If the Patriots strike early, they can put the Panthers in the “get on the bus” mode. Letting the Panthers hang around for a while could prove lethal. Belichick is already preaching the “be careful” dictum, and well he should.
As for us? Let’s assume the Patriots don’t choke and win a game they should most definitely win. The coach and team get a big leap of faith here.
That means that two games this weekend are huge where the Patriots are concerned. They are both on Sunday, one early, one late. While there’s still time, you might go out and invest in a couple of jerseys. You can find Terrell Davis jerseys most anywhere, but as for the Buffalo Bills, you may have to settle for a generic brand unless you’ve got a Doug Flutie special lying around the house.
That said, let’s delve into the two big games, and how the Patriots will be helped by the outcome.
Big Game #1 – Bills at Jets
E. Rutherford, N.J.
1:00 PM EST
|Jets by 7
You look at this game and say “Damn you, Colts, for giving up that late touchdown!” The next Jet loss clinches the division for the Patriots if they win next Sunday. Of course, the Jets can lose next Sunday at Oakland and all will be okay. Or will it?
The big issue with this game is not the AFC East, but the two seed for the Patriots. If the Jets win this game, Oakland will then need to win their game with the Jets next week for the Patriots to still have a shot at the division. In other words, what Oakland does this weekend won’t matter if the Jets win. The Patriots will be eliminated from two seed contention, and Patriot Nation will be forced to root for Oakland to beat the Jets at home next weekend, which they in all likelihood should.
On paper, this looks like a slam-dunk for the Jets. At home against a 2-12 team. Las Vegas has the Jets a touchdown favorite.
The Patriots know that the Bills aren’t a 2-12 team. That’s just what the record says. And if the Bills can somehow play the Jets as tough as they play the Patriots, you might just have the seeds for an upset.
The Bills have cornerbacks that can check Wayne Chrebet, Laveranues Coles and Santana Moss. Aaron Schobel and Phil Hansen might be able to give Vinny Testaverde some fits. What the game may come down to is the Bills’ ability to deal with Curtis Martin, and the absence of Sam Cowart plus the departure of Ted Washington hurts badly here.
Another oddity about this game is the Jets’ home record. The Jets are 3-4 at home, but 6-1 on the road. If that is the ingredient for a loss this week and a win next week at Oakland, that is exactly what the Patriots want.
This game is one that could go to the Bills. It might come down to the Bills hanging tough with the Jets, and they win because they have the ball last. They won’t kick the Jets around. If they win, they win a very low scoring affair. They have a much better defense than Indianapolis, and Alex Van Pelt has some very effective offensive weapons in Jay Riemersma, Eric Moulds and Peerless Price.
Hey, it could happen. If not, ignore the next game, it won’t matter. But if the Bills win, scream for 15 minutes, then go to the next game.
Big Game #2 – Raiders at Broncos
|Invesco Field at Mile High
4:15 PM EST
If this game still means anything to the Patriots, they need to root like crazy for the Broncos. The Patriots would then have to turn around and root for the Jets to win their battle with Oakland the next week, and the two seed is theirs with a win at Carolina.
As long as Oakland has problems stopping the run, they will have problems beating Denver. It doesn’t matter how well Davis is feeling, in that Mike Shanahan has Olandis Gary and Mike Anderson at his disposal. Denver can pound away at the Raider defense and make some good hay.
The quarterback situation for Denver does play into this game quite a bit. Brian Griese has been hurt for much of the year, but will be healthy and ready to go. A key matchup in this game likely will be Charles Woodson on Rod Smith. With Ed McCaffrey out for the season and Eddie Kennison disgracefully sent packing, the Broncos are left with a bunch of unproven wideouts in Kevin Kasper, Chris Cole and Scottie Montgomery.
Rich Gannon may be the highest rated passer in the conference, but in the Mile High air of Denver it may not matter. His prime wideouts, Jerry Rice and Tim Brown, will be tested by the altitude as always. The Bronco pass rushing linebacker duo of John Mobley and Bill Romanowski will be key factors in whether or not Gannon can find these two star wideouts.
Another key intangible factor is Shanahan going against his former team. Shanahan delights most in beating the team he went 8-12 with in 1988-89. Shanahan thinks Al Davis gave up on him way too soon, and his record with Denver bears that out. A game against Oakland is a personal grudge match for Shanahan.
Finally, that dastardly altitude. Denver remains the worst place to win on the road in the NFL. The new palace they have there, Invesco Field at Mile High, isn’t as imposing as the old Mile High Stadium is, but the air is still just as thin. NFL players have tried to downplay the altitude factor (the Patriots, among others), but you can’t operate at maximum capacity if you are constantly huffing and puffing for air.
Disagree? The base of Vail, Colorado is some 8,000 feet above sea level, about 3,000 feet higher than Denver. You can sit on a sofa and converse with a friend, and find yourself sighing and taking in deep breaths every five minutes or so. The same goes for Flagstaff, Arizona, some 6,000 feet above sea level and at the base of Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in the state. Elevation most definitely does matter.
This game is a tossup in Vegas. Bet the farm on the Broncos.
Despite Denver’s advantage, this game will mean nothing to Patriot Nation if Buffalo cannot beat the Jets in the earlier Big Game.
As always, Patriot fortunes come down to the Jets.
You laughed when the Patriots ran and threw silly through the Colt defense. But on Sunday night, you cursed them for not slowing the Jets down, either. That 29-28 win by the Jets might come back to bite the Patriots somehow.
Or, maybe all this talk doesn’t matter. The old NFL adage of “get into the playoffs any way you can” really applies here. The Patriots are definitely in.
And judging by the way they’re playing, it may not matter who they play, or where. A recent ESPN.com article portrays the Patriots as the only team that the Steelers might be afraid to play in the postseason. Maybe you think we should not expend all this energy on winning the division or the two seed, and just get to 11-5 and nobody gets hurt while doing so.
But the Patriots have come this far. They can’t do all this and still have to watch the Jets win the division.
Hang adages. Go Bills. Go Broncos.
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