Patriot fans have a major problem coming up this Sunday.
Hopefully, that problem won’t include things like “What went wrong?”, “Didn’t the players show up to play today?” or “How embarrassing to have to lose to a 1-14 team with the division on the line!”
Without being presumptuous or cocky, the Patriots have a rather easy finale on hand at Charlotte this weekend. The Carolina Panther players aren’t looking forward to playing the Patriots, and the Charlotte papers are already just about conceding the game to the Patriots. The Charlotte Observer said, to paraphrase, that it’s unfortunate for the Panthers to try and avoid an NFL record 15th straight loss against the Patriots, “given their (Patriots’) position”.
That “position” is simple, and enough to make the Panthers wish that the season were over right now. If the Patriots win, they clinch their first division title since 1997, Pete Carroll’s first year. The Patriot players are absolutely focused on Carolina right now, a reflection of the preparation by Bill Belichick. If the Patriots come out with their “A” game, they should win this game easily. Will they is another story, but all indications are that the team will be ready to grab that division title.
The AFC East crown is all that is directly within their grasp right now. Neither the players nor Belichick care about anything else that might be out there.
Included in that list of “what’s out there” is the two seed and a playoff bye. The Patriots last got a two seed in 1996, and it got them a home AFC Championship Game and a berth in Super Bowl XXXI. The Patriots are still very much alive for a two seed, and clinch at least a three seed with a win at Carolina.
For the Patriots to get the two seed, they need to beat Carolina, and then the Jets have to beat the Raiders later Sunday afternoon out in Oakland. That would leave the Patriots at 11-5, and the Jets and Raiders at 10-6. What Miami does is moot to New England if they beat the Panthers, as the Patriots hold the tiebreaker edge over Miami. It would give the Patriots the two seed, and would force them to go on the road in the playoffs to Pittsburgh only.
As fate would have it, this “other game” that the Patriots have interest in pits perhaps the two most sworn enemies of the Patriots in their 41-year history. Patriot Nation has to root for one of them, and it likely will be the Jets.
Root for the Jets? Are you kidding?
This game, if the Patriots win their game, is actually good for the Patriots no matter what. If the Jets win, the Patriots get the two seed. But if the Raiders win, assuming Seattle knocks off Kansas City at home, the Jets would be eliminated from the playoffs. Either way, that game comes up aces for the Patriots.
Some fans hate the Jets so much that they’d rather see the Patriots get the three seed so long as the Jets get booted from the playoffs.
And many other fans hate the Raiders so much that a two seed would be the ultimate Patriot moment, no matter who beats them to get it done.
Jets versus Raiders. What an absolutely ironic matchup for the end of the year.
The only real way around this is to root against one of the teams, instead of rooting for one. While one of the two teams will still win (don’t ruin everyone’s new year and throw out this “what if they tie” garbage; if they tie, the Pats win the two seed and the Jets toss Seattle from the playoffs), not rooting for one of these hated teams will at least make you feel better in that you got the result you wanted by not rooting for that team, but against the other.
Okay, so you buy all this. Now, which team do you pick?
To help you with this, let’s see why each team is so hated. We’ll begin with the Raiders, and a little history lesson since the roots of hatred go back into the 1970s.
Al Davis is one of the most despicable owners in NFL history. His dalliances with the cities of Oakland and Los Angeles are bad enough. His lawsuits against the NFL, many claim, are what drove former commissioner Pete Rozelle to an early grave. But his moniker of “Raider Football” is a symbol of lots of very bad and evil qualities of the NFL.
What is “Raider Football”? Raider Football is Darryl Stingley lying paralyzed on the Oakland Coliseum floor. It is Lynn Swann getting cheap-shotted by George Atkinson. It is John Matuszak and Lyle Alzado as poster boys for the organization. It is forcing the city of Oakland to sue for eminent domain. It is this proposed new stadium in Irwindale and that proposed new stadium in Hollywood Park. It is this ugly addition to the Oakland Coliseum, taking away the outfield mountain vista, the only redeeming quality of this otherwise bland stadium. It is Steve Wisniewski getting voted the dirtiest player in the NFL a few years back.
The loss of Stingley still hurts Patriot Nation, and it always will. Whether it hurts worse than the “penalty from Hell” in 1976 is a matter of opinion. Nothing compares to human life, or the quality of human life. But what Ben Dreith perpetrated on the Patriots two years prior to Stingley’s paralysis cost the Patriots a win in Super Bowl XI.
Leading 21-17 late in the AFC Divisional game of 1976, the Raiders drove to the Patriot 27, facing third and 18. Ken Stabler threw an incomplete pass to former Patriot Carl Garrett, but Dreith flagged Raymond Hamilton for roughing the passer. Hamilton hit Stabler as he released the pass, not after he released it. Today, Hamilton would have been flagged for a blow to the head, but back in 1976 it was a clean, legal hit.
Instead of fourth and 18, it was first and ten at the Patriot 12. Stabler eventually scored the winning touchdown on a one-yard run and the Raiders won, 24-21. Next on the playoff schedule was a Steelers team decimated by injuries and a Vikings team who couldn’t win a Super Bowl if their opponent was the 1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Had Dreith not made that call, the Patriots would have won that Super Bowl instead of the Raiders. The only Raider loss of 1976 was a 48-17 butt whipping – at Schaefer Stadium.
The Patriots eventually got back at the Raiders, winning a 1985 playoff game at Los Angeles, 27-20 in a year where the Raiders were the one seed. The Patriots used that game as a springboard to Super Bowl XX. Lately, the Raiders have been a shell of their 1970s roughnecks, winning here and there but not showing anywhere near the consistency of thirty years ago. Rich Gannon is the best Raider quarterback since former Patriot Jim Plunkett, but in reality the Raiders haven’t had a real quarterback since Stabler.
Not too many Patriot fans of today remember Dreith, Jack Tatum, Atkinson, Phil Villapiano, or even perhaps Stingley. But they know all about the dastardly New York Jets. If Tatum’s book They Call Me Assassin made your blood boil thirty years ago, that book would be hard pressed to match the traitorous acts of Bill Parcells and Curtis Martin in and around 1997.
Think this over carefully. Prior to 1997, what, if anything, would cause a Patriot fan to hate the Jets with every bone in their body?
Down and through the years, the Jets were next door neighbors, by and large. And basically, they were nice to play against. Between the 1970 merger and 1996, the Patriots held a 27-25 edge against the Jets in the many games played. Included in that was a 1985 Wild Card playoff win at Exit 16-W, 26-14, a week before the aforementioned clash against the Raiders. Also included in that are back-to-back clobberings of the Jets, a 55-21 win in 1978, followed by the epic 56-3 demolition in 1979, still the franchise record for most points in a game.
Despite the close record, the Jets were never really despised. When the Jets laid a 45-3 pasting on the Patriots in the early days of the Parcells tenure, or a 1990 42-3 whipping during the glory days of Sam Jankovich, the thoughts were more with how bad the Patriots were, rather than how mean the Jets were. The Jets hadn’t done much since their Super Bowl III win, save for a few glory years with the New York Sack Exchange.
All that changed in late 1996. Parcells, still under contract as head coach of the Patriots, became disenchanted with the job thanks to the drafting of Terry Glenn, against the coach/GM’s wishes. Rumours began to fly when the 1-15 Jets fired their head coach, Rich Kotite, but seemed in no hurry to fill the position.
During Super Bowl week, a story leaked that Parcells would leave the Patriots at year’s end and take the vacant Jets job. Parcells led the Patriots to a 35-21 loss to Green Bay in Super Bowl XXXI, then resigned as Patriots coach two days later. He signed on with the Jets as a “consultant” while still under contract with the Patriots. The Patriots complained to the league, and Paul Tagliabue brokered a deal where Parcells was released from his Patriot contract and became head coach of the Jets. The Patriots received four draft picks in return.
This was bad enough. Parcells immediately restored the Jets to glory not seen since 1969. Carroll took over the Patriots and turned them into basically a soft team. The Patriots spent the draft picks for Parcells on a bunch of busts (though the jury is still out on Andy Katzenmoyer). But the extraction of Martin from the Patriots may have turned out to be more costly and dastardly than Parcells’ exit.
Martin suffered through an injury plagued 1997 season, his only Patriot season without Parcells. He watched his Patriot team play two playoff games with him on the sidelines, looking on glumly. In the offseason, the Patriots tried desperately to lock Martin down for the long term, but no deal could be reached with his agent, Gus Sunseri.
Martin fired Sunseri, and Patriot Nation viewed that as a positive. But a week later, the Jets signed Martin to an offer sheet. That sheet had “poison pills” that are illegal today but back then made it impossible for the Patriots to match. The Patriots, not wanting their salary cap to be devastated, nor wanting to risk losing Martin a year later with no compensation, and figuring that he would be easily replaced, let him go (after another complaint to the league, which was turned down). The Patriots received two more Jet draft picks, both of which were used on running backs.
While Martin inches closer and closer to a bust in Canton, the Patriots were busted by both picks. Chris Floyd was cut by the Patriots two years later, and Robert Edwards did provide the Patriots with an adequate replacement for Martin until suffering a career-ending knee injury in a pick-up football game in Honolulu.
Parcells is now retired, but rumours fly about his re-surfacing in Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, Martin leads the NFL in rushing, and lashed out against the Patriot organization after the 17-16 Patriot win a month ago. He talked about how it is so “personal” for him to play the Patriots, and how he never wants to lose to them ever again. His disparaging remarks are not a welcome sound for a fan base that still hungers for his talents, and hates the fact in how Martin was allowed to become a Jet.
Combine this with the fact that the Jets are in New York, and you have the basis for some real hatred. Since the Parcells exodus, the Jets are 7-3 against the Patriots.
So, you have this Jet hatred against the Raider hatred. On the surface, sentiment might favor the Raiders. Many folks might just concede the two seed to the Raiders just to boot those dastardly Jets out of the playoffs. Having the Patriots play in the first round of the playoffs is not such a bad thing, given that they’ve had this last week off, and they’d wind up with two out of three bye weeks. They’d be rested, all right, but maybe too rusty to keep up with their level of efficiency which has helped them pull off five straight wins.
On the other hand, getting the two seed would be a tremendous psychological boost for the Patriots. Yes, it would guarantee a Jet playoff berth. But it would get the Patriots a home game after a week off, and the two seed in 1996 got the team a Super Bowl berth. And if somehow someone can go into Pittsburgh and knock off the Steelers, the Patriots would be the heirs presumptive to host the AFC Championship Game, which would be the definitive farewell for Foxborough Stadium.
If you’re torn between who to root against (Jets or Raiders), here’s a simple solution.
Refer to the movie Family Man and say to yourself, “I choose us.” In this case,”us” means the Patriots. The two seed is better than the three seed. Simple. The Raiders need to lose. Leave it at that.
Don’t root for the Jets. Root against the Raiders. Let the Jets have the playoff berth, and watch someone knock them off along the way. If the Jets somehow wind up with the six seed, they would have to play out at Oakland for a second consecutive week if the Patriots get the two seed. Think the Jets would win two in a row at Oakland?
That’s why the players concern themselves only with Carolina. Let the fans and the media run through all these delicious permutations.
But there is nothing delicious between the Jets and Raiders. It will be a filthy, dirty game between the two most wicked teams in the NFL.
May the worse team lose.