America, Meet The New England Patriots
FOXBOROUGH – I think it’s time to give Aretha Franklin and Rodney Dangerfield a call.
Let’s bring on the queen of soul to sing the Star Spangled Banner, and get her to toss in a God Bless America for good measure. And when she’s done, then make her give with the “What you want…baby I got it!” routine. That’ll get the Fox rockin’ for starters.
Then you bring out Mr. I Don’t Get No Respect to do the coin flip (Rodney really is the best choice to do this, though Patrick Sullivan was this writer’s initial choice). After the flip, Rodney should borrow the referee’s mike and say to the crowd something like “This Patriot fan went to visit his doctor who was a Raider fan. He says ‘Doc, every morning I look at myself in the mirror and throw up. What’s wrong with me?’ And the Raider fan doctor answers ‘I don’t know, but your eyesight’s perfect!’ Then the Patriot fan patient says ‘If you don’t mind, I’d like a second opinion!’ The Raider fan doctor says ‘Okay, you’re ugly, too!’”
|What:||AFC Divisional Playoff Game|
8:00 PM EST
WBZ Channel 4 in Boston
|Team Records:||Patriots 11-5
|Latest Line:||Patriots by 3|
Then you bring on the Oakland Raiders and get down to business.
And introduce to the nation – and to the Silver and Black – the team that won the 2001 AFC East title.
It’s fairly obvious that the nation knows absolutely nothing about the Patriots. We’d like to say that the Raiders have a good idea, but we’re not sure on that count either. One unnamed Raider player was giddy over the fact that the Raiders don’t have to face Terry Glenn. The Raider players, as well as the entire nation, are in dire need of a quick crash course on the Patriots.
On most every national sports website poll that broached the subject of the NFL playoffs, the Patriots were dissed at every turn. Questions like “Which road team will likely win this weekend?” or “Which home team will likely be upset this weekend?” were always answered favoring the Raiders by the biggest margin. For example, 45% of ESPN.com visitors picked the Raiders to win Saturday night. It’s been like this all week long.
Many of you might know that this writer (a Massachusetts native) hangs his hat in California. Just this afternoon, as I left work with my Drew Bledsoe jersey on, someone walks up to me and says “Hey, the Raiders are gonna beat the…the…the…whatever team that is you’re wearing!” From right smack dab in the middle of Raider country, the complete and utter lack of knowledge of the Patriots is astonishing.
Yes, folks, a crash course on the Patriots is badly needed. And we dearly hope that “crash” is the operative word here.
The Patriots have been idle for two weeks, and have played only one football game since Christmas. The local boys are chomping at the bit, ready to go out and kick the tar out of someone. The team is rested, healed, well schooled on the opponent, and ready to go out and advance to the AFC title game.
With the game being played in Foxborough rather than the Bay Area, the Raiders are driving right smack dab into just the very cold snap Patriot Nation could have hoped for. The latest weather forecasts call for temperatures in the high teens to low 20s, and the most delicious word this weekend other than “victory”: snow. Possibly two to four inches of the white stuff Saturday night.
Teens. Snow. 60,000 Raider haters in attendance. Bring it on.
It won’t be long now. The entire nation will get to see firsthand what we in the northeast have joyfully been a party to since September. As good as the Raiders have been this year, it is about time that the rest of the country wake up and see how good the Patriots are.
The Patriots have a potential problem with rust due to lack of recent live game activity. They also have a quarterback playing in his first postseason game in his career. On those two counts, the Raiders can feel like they have a legitimate chance to steal a win here. Those are two major issues that could bring the Patriots down, and many experts feel unilaterally that the Patriots must avoid any scenario where Tom Brady alone has to win the game.
But most every other aspect of this game favors the Patriots. Winning the game is not a given, but the Patriots aren’t favored for nothing. There are lots more factors that work against the Raiders than against the Patriots. The weather is a great place to start, and it definitely will work in the favor of the Patriots. But there are lots of other issues which favor the home team.
The Patriots have momentum on their side. They finished the year with a six-game win streak. The Raiders finished the year with a three-game losing streak before winning in the Wild Card round last weekend. When we last checked the team records, the Raiders were 10-6 (11-6 counting the playoffs), the Patriots 11-5. The Raiders were flat as a pancake until their win over a tired and flu-ridden Jet team. The Patriots brought their “D” game to Carolina and still won by 32 points.
Jon Gruden, the youthful Raider coach, has a Patriot connection, sort of. When Pete Carroll was hired as Patriot head coach in 1997, his first choice to be offensive coordinator was Gruden, who at that time was in the same position with the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles denied Carroll permission to talk to Gruden since the move was lateral, and Carroll settled on Larry Kennan. Kennan, by the way, was the Raiders quarterback coach when the Patriots came out to Los Angeles in 1985 and snitched a 27-20 win in the playoffs.
Gruden is being hailed as the offensive equivalent of Bill Belichick. But it isn’t clear that Gruden really knows the Patriots that well, nor can Gruden learn the Patriots in just five or six days. Belichick had more time to prepare for Oakland thanks to the week off, and the possibility that Belichick will outcoach Gruden is a fairly good bet. Gruden will pose a challenge to Belichick, but the thinking here is that Belichick will out-adjust Gruden, simply due to the fact that Belichick got the jump on Gruden in game planning.
There can be no denying the talents of Jerry Rice. He is simply the greatest receiver in the history of the game. Last week against the Jets, he invoked wistful memories of his immortal career, catching nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown. Any Patriot fan ought to be wary of Rice, and expect that he can deliver in a playoff game like anyone of his ilk can do.
But Rice is 39 years old. Rich Gannon is 36. Tim Brown is 35. Add to this the presumptive weather conditions, and this does not bode well for the Raiders. Rice can be as well conditioned as it gets for someone his age, but to expect that he will have a night against the Patriots like he had against the Jets (it can be reasoned that Ty Law will be a little more refreshed versus Marcus Coleman and Aaron Glenn) is foolhardy. Gannon, a former Patriot draftee, will find it rougher to get a passing game going than Brady will, despite Brady’s youth and inexperience. Add to that Charlie Garner (age 30)’s sore foot, and the Raiders’ prospects for a wide-open offense are rather icy cold.
The key to winning this game is which team can establish the run. Again, that favors the Patriots. Antowain Smith has been nursing an injury like Garner, but has had time to rest. Smith, who came to New England via Buffalo, ought to have no trouble with the cold weather. Plus, the Raiders have been poor at run defense this year (22nd in the league against the run), and Smith could look forward to a big game unless he gets hurt.
Conversely, the Patriots cannot treat Garner like they did Carolina’s Richard Huntley. Allowing a Carolina back to gain 168 yards rushing is very troubling to the Patriots. But they were playing a base 3-4 in that game, and would be expected to play a 4-3 against the Raiders. Stopping the Raider running game (which also includes Tyrone Wheatley and Zack Crockett) is a top priority for the Patriots, in that if the Raiders can run the ball effectively, the cold weather won’t mean a darn for the home team.
If the Raiders as a whole think they’ve caught a break in not having to face Glenn, then a key man for the Patriots could be David Patten. Assuming the Raiders will not ignore Troy Brown (who now will be heading to Honolulu), Patten might be an inviting target. Raider opponents have seemingly been picking on Eric Allen, and Allen will likely draw Patten. Both Allen and Charles Woodson have been nursing minor injuries, but the Raiders are likely to key on stopping Brown. Patten could find some holes, and Brady ought to be looking for Patten if he can get the time.
If the game comes down to kicking, it will be interesting. Adam Vinatieri is healthier and well suited to cold weather. Sebastian Janikowski has a more powerful leg, but has been suffering from cellulitis and might falter in the freezing cold. The fact that the Raider kicker hails from Poland will help, but the Raider equivalent of Glenn cannot be absolutely counted upon to kick a 45-yard field goal with the game on the line.
Whatever the case, the Patriots have a chance to put themselves on the national map. The Brady story has been in the headlines all year long, but this week has shown that the national sports public doesn’t really know what the Patriots have in Brady. If the Raiders underestimate Brady, it will be a deadly blunder.
But the Patriots may also be wondering what they have in Brady. Patriot Nation must be wondering when the Brady dreamcloud ride will come crashing to earth. Maybe it never will. Maybe. But as long as you put the word “maybe” next to Brady, it will always cloud your thinking when assessing the Patriots’ chances in any game. Brady has passed every test thus far this season, but a playoff game will be unlike any other test thus far.
In any case, the Patriots need to prove all the pundits wrong. They need to use their edge in rest, weather and team momentum and make it turn into a victory. They need to show the sports public that they are for real, and that they are legitimate AFC champ material.
Unfortunately, that’s why Aretha and Rodney need to be brought in for the game. Just a little bit. Just a little bit. It’s a losin’ fight. Boy, life’s tough.
Perhaps only for one more day.
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