CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Lose to Carolina? No way. It’s just not possible.
In 1976, the 10-3 New England Patriots headed into the Big Sombrero to play the 0-13 Tampa Bay Buccaneers in that season’s finale. This was the putrid first season of this expansion franchise, the only year it played in the AFC (they switched conferences with Seattle the following year), and long before they had Warren Sapp and Mike Alstott. These were the Bucs by which, when coach John McKay was asked about the execution of the Tampa Bay offense, replied, “I’m all for it!”
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Patriots by 6 1/2
Anyway, the Patriots had just clinched their first NFL playoff berth the week before, with a 27-6 win over New Orleans at Foxborough. This game was to try and win the division if the Baltimore Colts would somehow lose. The Patriots had at least a Wild Card clinched going into the game, but Baltimore held the tiebreaker against the Patriots. The Patriots had to try and win.
The Bucs, meanwhile, were striving to not become the first 0-14 team in NFL history. The Dallas Cowboys had gone 0-11-1 in 1960, which like Tampa Bay in 1976 was their inaugural campaign. The only other comparable seasons in NFL history took place during World War II (0-10 by Brooklyn and the merged Cardinals/Steelers squad in 1944, 0-10 by the Cardinals in 1943, 0-11 by Detroit in 1942). But 0-14 was staring these sad Bucs right in the face, and McKay had to be wondering why in the world he ever left Exposition Boulevard for this.
The game turned out to be as predicted. The Patriots romped to an easy 31-14 win. Steve Grogan scored a touchdown in that game and set the NFL record for most touchdowns scored by a quarterback in a single season. The Colts won also (a 58-20 squeaker over Buffalo), and the two teams tied for the division lead at 11-3. Baltimore went on to host Pittsburgh in the playoffs (the Steelers won, 40-14), the Patriots headed out to Oakland (let’s not go there today, folks), and Tampa Bay gained instant NFL infamy by completing a 0-14 schnide of a season.
The 2001 Patriots find themselves in a slightly similar situation at the end of this campaign. You have a lousy opponent on the road trying to avert a negative NFL record involving wins, or lack thereof. You have a Patriot team that is trying to win its 11th game. You have a Patriot team that can win the division with a win, but unlike 1976, they win the tiebreaker with its closest pursuer (Miami) and clinch the division outright by winning. Like 1976, a Patriot win could give the team a two seed, with help (yes, the ’76 Patriots would have hosted a playoff home game had Baltimore lost, as Pittsburgh had a 10-4 record).
The Patriots have had a week to heal up. Bill Belichick lists nobody on the injury list (okay, Antowain Smith is “probable”, but he’ll play). The Patriots sat at home last weekend and watched every game that meant something to them break their way. The team remains focused, not for one second taking the Panthers for granted.
Meanwhile, the big buzz in Carolina all week is the fate of head coach George Seifert, who boasts two Super Bowl wins as a head coach. Receivers Mohsin Muhammad and Isaac Byrd, All-Pro tight end Wesley Walls and DT Sean Gilbert are all listed as “out” for Sunday. The Panthers are last in the league in total defense and run defense, and 27th in pass defense. They are last in total offense and rushing offense, and 25th in passing offense. To make matters worse, it has snowed all week in the Charlotte area, impairing this team’s ability to prepare for a team that has won nine more games than they.
As a Patriot fan, need you worry at all over this game?
Well, ask a Jet fan (if you’re on speaking terms with them) if they thought their team had their game last week against the Bills won by just showing up. Ask a Miami fan how, after just squeaking by Atlanta thanks to lousy officiating, and watching how Buffalo took it to the Jets on the road, they feel about their game on Sunday.
You have a right to feel cozy about Sunday. We just don’t recommend it.
Las Vegas has the Patriots only a 6˝-point favorite. The Panthers remain the only team in the entire NFL whom the Patriots have never beaten in the regular season in history (they lost at home to Carolina in OT, 20-17 during the inaugural year for the Panthers). The Panthers have a guy on defense that knows a bit about the opposition named Chris Slade. Plus, even though Tampa Bay wilted in their attempt to not go 0-14, the Panthers have motivation to not lose what would be an NFL-record 15th straight game. After winning the opener at Minnesota, 24-13, the Panthers have lost every game since.
And few of these games have been blowouts. Nine of their fourteen losses have been by less than 10 points. Six of those nine losses were by three or fewer points. Whereas Seifert may be staring a dismissal in his face, and despite the dismal picture the raw stats portray, you can’t sit there and say that the Panthers are total, utter pushovers.
Chris Weinke went from the oldest Heisman Trophy winner to one of the oldest NFL rookies ever. He is about the same age as Drew Bledsoe, and isn’t likely to be rattled by the Patriot defense. While his top receiving threats have gone down with injuries, you cannot discount Weinke in a game like this with a great deal of pride at stake for his team.
And don’t discount the impact of Slade or fellow former Patriot Jimmy Hitchcock on the game. Slade doesn’t normally start for the Panthers, but in this game he could be a difference maker. Hitchcock lacks the familiarity Slade has, in that Hitchcock has been gone since the Super Bowl season. But always beware of an opponent bearing a grudge against a former team.
There really isn’t that much to say. The Patriots should win this game. It’s just that you’d be foolish to bet your entire life savings on a win, point spread notwithstanding.
There are two things that can do in the Patriots on Sunday. The first thing is Patriot laziness and complacency. The second thing is a Panther squad which gets so fired up that it will take a Herculean effort to beat them. At least one of those things is within the control of the Patriots.
Belichick will not allow the Patriots to play flat. That has been the recurring theme around camp during the past two weeks. The players have been saying the right things. Nobody has given the Panthers any locker room fodder thus far.
But this is no guarantee. You’ll see signs of danger when no holes open up for Smith, Tom Brady can’t find the range, crazy turnovers abound, and stupid penalties like too many men on the field, personal fouls and false starts ring out all over the place. If the Patriots bring their “C” game to Charlotte, Patriot Nation may be on suicide watch. Their “B” game may get them by. Their “A” game will do the job.
Maybe you’re more concerned about the Oakland Raiders and the Seattle Seahawks. Shame on you. Worry about them only until after the Patriots are over.
Job #1 for the Patriots is here at Ericsson Stadium. Take care of the Panthers. All signs indicate that it will be Foxborough weather. That can only help the Patriots, as Carolina is considered a “southern” team that hates snow and cold. This kind of weather will in effect kill off any chance the home crowd has to impact the game, not that they would in nice weather anyway.
Assume the Panthers are 14-1, and go from there.
Win the game, win the division, and think nothing else.
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