NEW ORLEANS – If you haven’t already absorbed the national perception of the New England Patriots, this should help.
In the Fox broadcast booth on Sunday, here’s how a typical play might go:
Pat Summerall: “Bledsoe…I mean, Brady…drops back…fires…complete…that’s number 80…um…that’s…”
John Madden: “Brown! I believe that’s Troy Brown! Hey, you know, Pat, I think he’s goin’ to the Pro Bowl!”
Summerall: “Yes, Brown, he makes the catch for a 22-yard gain!”
Madden: “You know, I like this Brown kid! He sure looks good out there! I like this kid!”
Summerall: “(Aeneas) Williams made the stop…(lapses into chapter thirteen of Williams’ childhood in New Orleans)…”
Madden: “Well, that’s why Williams made the All-Madden team! He’s still one of the very best cornermen in the league! Wow, you know, Pat, that receiver’s good…uh…Brown! Yeah, he looks good out there!”
Super Bowl XXXVI
New Orleans, La.
6:15 PM EST
WFXT Channel 25 in Boston
Rams by 14
That’s pretty much how the Super Bowl XXXI commentary went. Don’t expect much different from this venerable announcing crew, who will do their final game this Sunday after 21 years together. Summerall has always been nice to listen to, despite knowing absolutely nothing about the Patriots. As for Madden, he’ll always be nothing more than the opposing head coach when Ben Dreith and Jack Tatum dishonored the Patriot organization, and who uses blinders when he picks that silly team of his.
Once again, Super Bowl hype has come and gone, and nearly all of it has come down on the side of the Patriot opposition. The Patriots seemed destined to become the next Buffalo Bills or the next Minnesota Vikings, while the St. Louis Rams just have to avoid not being stupid in the next 48 hours. Chris Berman can say “That’s…why they play the game!” all he wants, but when it comes to the Super Bowl and its track record, you have to be well stocked in rose-colored glasses to envision any scenario which gives the Patriots a win on Sunday and the franchise’s first world championship.
You didn’t need these glasses in June of 1986. How come the Patriots can never draw the basketball equivalent of the Houston Rockets in the Super Bowl? You knew the Celtics were going to win the whole thing, and you were shocked that the series went as long as six games.
Maybe you wanted them for October 25, 1986. The Red Sox led the Mets in the World Series, 3-2, and had Roger Clemens (24-4) set to throw for the Sox. The game was at Shea Stadium, but the Sox were 2-0 at Shea up to that point. With Clemens on the mound and a one game buffer in their back pocket, Red Sox Nation had to feel comfy and cozy. Besides, John McNamara always put Dave Stapleton in for defense in the ninth. No worries.
Giving Bruin fans rose-colored glasses is a negative plea. As long as Jeremy Jacobs owns this team, forget any chance at a Cup. That’s why, in 1988 and 1990, Bruin fans had to be a bit subdued in their interest in those two Cup finals. Edmonton spanked the Bruins by a collective eight games to one in the two series. It’s understandable not to pine for someone like Wayne Gretzky, but can’t the Bruins at least hope for a Jari Kurri or a Mark Messier some day?
Since the Celtics delivered the last Boston sports championship sixteen Junes ago, Boston teams are a collective 0-5 in the finals (Super Bowl XX doesn’t count, since that happened before the Celtics won in ’86). The closest any of the teams came was the 1986 World Series. Please don’t ask us to go into how close that one was, just go read anything by Dan Shaughnessy. Most everything he writes traces its way back to Bill Buckner somehow.
So now, the Patriots present chance number six at the first Boston sports title since Larry Bird torched Robert Reid and Bill Walton treated Ralph Sampson like Gumby. On Sunday’s menu are the St. Louis Rams, a glitzy team which features the offensive equivalent of Buddy Ryan’s 1985 gang. There’s not much to dislike about this franchise, except an owner who most closely resembles that widow who inherited the Cleveland Indians in the movie Major League.
What I wouldn’t give to attend a séance and get Carroll Rosenbloom’s take on Georgia’s stewardship of his team. I’d be a fly on the wall. Whatever it took.
The Rams are as much of a fave in this game as Green Bay was five years ago. Some folks think it’s too much, but the broader perception is that another super blowout is in order. Given the Patriots’ track record in New Orleans in late January, how should they feel any different?
Oh, I forgot. It’s not late January. It’s February. Good sign?
Thanks to terrorist thugs, the Patriots will play the first game in franchise history after Punxsutawney Phil goes Andy Warhol on the world, and not before. That’s really something, in that you will know how many more weeks of winter are left, and the Patriots have not yet completed their season.
Pardon me for a second. Where are those rose-colored glasses, dear?
There, that’s better. Ahh, life is beautiful. Just took a bite of some Cajun chicken and didn’t need to run for the antacid. Some gorgeous young girl, into the Mardi Gras mood early, just lifted up her blouse, and Mrs. George’s attention was diverted. In fact, we walked up and down Rue Bourbon all night long, and not one person asked me how the Patriots will get along when Bill Belichick steps down next week.
Now, I feel better. Time now for the five keys to win this game for the Patriots.
Naturally this assumes the following: 1) The Patriots commit no turnovers (although against the Rams, winning the turnover battle means nothing), 2) The Patriots suffer no serious injuries, 3) The Patriots don’t penalize themselves to death, and 4) Bernie Kukar isn’t hell-bent on making up for Walt Coleman’s generosity.
Okay, here we go. Mission: Possible! Your mission, Mr. Belichick, should you decide to accept it, is:
#5 – Number three against the run? Bah!
As much as everyone would like to see Tom Brady air it out, the best thing for the Patriots to do is to try and get Antowain Smith involved as much as possible. The Patriots need badly to commit to the run. This is not to say that they should run most of the time, but getting rushing lanes for Smith is paramount.
To accomplish this, the Patriots might want to avoid the middle and go for the tackles. London Fletcher is Pro Bowl bound at middle linebacker. Tackles Matt Light and Greg Robinson-Randall might match up well on the outside linebackers of St. Louis, Don Davis and Tommy Polley. The Patriots have to be incredibly fired up and hit as hard as they can to pull this off. Light was slightly injured in the Pittsburgh game, but Belichick has pronounced Light ready to go for Sunday. If Grant Williams had to start at left tackle, the rushing strategy might have to veer more towards up the middle.
Establishing the run is crucial, because it segues into…
#4 – Okay, guys, if I can shut down the K-Gun, I can shut down the Rams!
One of the most masterful coaching jobs in recent memory came in Super Bowl XXV. Belichick’s game planning for the Giants against the Buffalo Bills was perfectly concocted, flawlessly executed, and hit the spot. The Giants did the precise thing the Patriots have to do on Sunday, and that is to take the Rams out of what they want to do.
The Giants did everything. They won the battle of time of possession with a 2-to-1 margin. They opened the second half with a touchdown drive that took nine minutes and 29 seconds. They opened the fourth quarter with a scoring drive that took seven minutes and 32 seconds. The Giants were so wily, that in order to prevent Buffalo from running a no-huddle offense, they would “accidentally” roll the football after the referee set it, just to slow down the pace of the game.
The Patriots have to do all they can to keep Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk on the sidelines for as long as possible. Establishing Smith will go a long way to that end. If Smith can get good yardage, Brady can then look for intermediate routes over the middle. Every pass play should emphasize the middle, and de-emphasize the sidelines. Williams will probably play Brown tight, so like the Oakland game, David Patten might be able to either break loose from Dexter McCleon or cause the error-prone Ram cornerback to make a mistake and break a long one. If Brown is smothered, look also for Jermaine Wiggins to catch a lot over the middle.
To keep running clock, it may mean that the Patriots stay away from screens and dump offs that often result in receivers ending up out of bounds. It almost behooves the Patriots to run plays that don’t end up out of bounds. Anything to keep that clock running. And Smith is the key to drives that take ten plays or more to complete.
#3 — Put a bull’s-eye on them ribs
And we don’t mean the barbecue sauce.
The Patriots need to attack Warner. Hurry him, rush him, fluster him, whatever.
And we hate to say it, but hurt him. Beat him up. Punish him. The best way to get a slick team out of their game is to brutalize them. It’s sort of how the Flyers bested the Bruins in the 1974 Cup Finals. The Bruins were tough, the Flyers were tougher.
The Patriots are obviously aware of Warner’s ribs. Well, if Pittsburgh’s Lee Flowers can spend all first half tackling Brady by falling on the back of his ankles, a well-placed hit on Warner’s rib cage could do the Patriots quite well. If someone on the Patriots does to Warner what Flowers did to Brady, their chances of winning the game increases exponentially.
Even if the hit is late and draws a flag, as long as the hit is clean, getting Warner out of the game and forcing the Rams to bring in Jamie Miller would be huge for the Patriots. The Patriots could then bring Lawyer Milloy up to play the run and shadow Faulk (he may do it anyway, but this way would take much less trepidation). Then the Patriots could dare Miller to beat them with his arm. Unless Miller has Warner’s inhuman speed at running the Rams’ offense, it would level the playing field as Ty Law and Otis Smith try to contain Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and Ricky Proehl.
Another factor to consider in this scenario is the health of the Ram tackles. Orlando Pace is listed on the injury list as “questionable”, and Mike Martz has already announced that Rod Jones will start at right tackle instead of Ryan Tucker. This might aid the Patriots in sending in blitzing linebackers from the outside, and someone like Mike Vrabel or Willie McGinest could get a few good licks in on Warner.
#2 – Me and my shadow
Whether number three works or not, someone on the Patriots has to shadow Faulk. Period.
Milloy or Tedi Bruschi figure to be the prime candidates for this job. It worked against people like Mark Brunnell, Jerome Bettis, and Ricky Williams. One of these days, it will work on Curtis Martin.
It will have to work on Faulk.
By shadowing him, it must be on both run plays and pass patterns. The problem here is whether or not Faulk will be a mismatch on Bruschi in a pass route. Unlike last week, where Ted Johnson was the popular choice to slow down Bettis, the quicker Bruschi is the better choice this week. But no matter how quick Bruschi is, chasing Faulk all over the flat zones may be asking a bit much. Bringing up a safety to help out may be too risky.
What Bruschi may have to do is to recognize the pass quickly and get to Faulk as fast as possible. If Bruschi cannot keep up with Faulk, then Milloy will have to be the shadow. If that be the case, the onus will then fall on Tebucky Jones for help in pass coverage, or the Patriots may have to bring in nickel and dime packages and sacrifice a more fierce pass rush.
#1 – This is why we gave the Jets that draft pick
Bob Kraft wasn’t joshing when he said on Sunday in Pittsburgh it was the “cheapest deal I ever made”. Getting Belichick was his most important act as owner, and look what the second-year head coach has done. It’s the Big Show, folks.
Belichick is the key man on Sunday, make no mistake. Kraft’s cheapie holds the one key to victory. He is the ace in the hole to end all aces in the hole.
Simply stated, if there is any man who can solve the great Ram offense and contain it just enough for the Patriots to squeeze by, Belichick is just the man. Look at Super Bowl XXV. Show me a 20-19 win and I’ll show you a win. Even the St. Louis Dispatch said in one of its articles this week that Martz respects Belichick, and went so far as to say that Martz is scared of Belichick.
Remember how frustrated you’d get when the Jets would shut down Drew Bledsoe with ease all those years? Belichick is your coach now, and the rest of the league is quivering. The way things have gone this year, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who can outcoach Belichick. Belichick is doing so well, that even Bill Parcells said in a Globe interview that he thinks the Patriots can win this game.
The preparation this week has been great, according to all accounts. The players are focused on the game, and not partying or doing something stupid which will turn into a distraction. Belichick has been treating this week as a “normal” week, which given the insane atmosphere of the Super Bowl can only help a team greatly.
And as far as game management, Belichick can look Martz in the eye and run a better game. Martz makes his hay against coaches who bend to the will of the Rams instead of trying to put up a fight. Simply put, Belichick will manage this game. If it means ball control, or playing a field position game, or bending between the 20s but holding the Rams to nothing but field goal attempts, or adjusting his game plan should he be leading by seven or more points, what needs to be done will be done.
As for adjustments, Martz will be in trouble if he finds that he cannot pick up Belichick’s wrinkles and surprises. If the Patriots can react, adjust and play totally smart for sixty minutes while doing everything Belichick tells them to do, the Patriots can win this game.
Unlike Super Bowl XXXI, the Patriots don’t have to worry about a coach who is more into his next team versus his current team. And unlike Super Bowl XX, the Patriots have solid veterans who, despite being blessed in much the same way the 1985 Patriots were, aren’t going into this thing with their eyes wide shut. There will be no “deer in the headlights” look on Brady’s face.
The teams are now sequestered somewhere. We won’t see them again until Sunday. It won’t be long now. The fans can keep up with their pavement pounding and wrist raising, but the players are getting down to the nitty-gritty.
As for the sports Gods, maybe this is the real deal. Maybe Calvin Schiraldi punches out Gary Carter. Maybe Adam Vinatieri outthinks his traitorous coach and squib kicks away from Desmond Howard. Maybe Lyndon Byers blasts Gretzky with a bone-shattering check, then levels Grant Fuhr with a Dave Schultz special.
Crunch this game all you want, but the Rams are tough. Just enjoy the game, and enjoy the climax to this great Patriot season.
If it’s Kraft who hoists the Vince, then go crazy. Otherwise, just feel great and look forward to the day you get to walk into that new crib for the first time.
This is your mission. Good luck, Mr. Belichick. This Ram team will hopefully self-destruct in sixty minutes.