Saturday, December 25, 2004

Checking it once . . .

In the spirit of the season - holiday, not football - Santa Finn has some goodies to dish out to the sports stars in our lives. Ho-ho-ho and here we go . . .

For Manny Ramirez, all the toys he asked Santa for.

For Curt Schilling, a bionic foot, which hopefully he'll keep out of his mouth.

For Kevin Millar, a filter for his thoughts and a flask for his Jack.

For David Ortiz, pride in the knowledge that he is the most important player in Red Sox history.

For Pedro Martinez, the wisdom and maturity to put what's best for him ahead of his self-destructive egomania.

For Alex Rodriguez, a new purse, filled with his trademark purple lipstick and including a brand-new vanity mirror.

For Derek Jeter, a copy of the "Last Night Of The Yankee Dynasty," so he can remember how it used to be.

For Kevin Brown, a thank-you note from the Sox . . . and a wall to punch after he receives it.

For Carlos Beltran, the strength to resist Georgie Porgie's millions and remain where he is happy.

For Randy Johnson, the ignorance of not knowing that the pain in his back and knees is pure heaven compared to the pain in the ass he's about to work for.

For Barry Bonds, a drug he hasn't tried: sodium pentathol.

For Roger Clemens, the desire to continue to pitch, for it would be a shame if he walked away with so many bullets left in his blessed right arm. (There. I said something nice about the drooling doof.)

For Wade Miller, more victories and a stronger shoulder than Pedro.

For Ellis Burks, a front-office job that is worthy of a man of his intelligence and dignity.

For Ken Griffey Jr., the return of his health, and with it, that long-absent smile.

For Fred Hickman, a hearty "Where the hell have you been, old friend?" and an extended stay on SportsCenter.

For Stuart Scott, a new profession, preferably one that does not involve appearing on my television screen.

For Paul Pierce, the joy of sport, since it seems to elude him now.

For Tony Allen, a jump shot, all that keeps him from stardom.

For Al Jefferson, a future that fulfills the promise of the present.

For Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, good health and great advice, so they can fulfill their potential and become the Michael and Magic (or Magic and Michael) of the new generation.

For Glenn Ordway, Pete Sheppard, Fred Smerlas and the rest of the smug, self-congratulatory oafs on WEEI, a reminder that their skyrocketing ratings are due not to their own talent, knowledge, or comedic genius, but to the Boston sports fan's unquenchable desire to talk about their beloved teams, even if it means talking to babbling buffoons.

For Carmelo Anthony, a duffelbag with hidden compartments, and better friends.

For Kobe Bryant, humility and humanity.

For Mrs. Kobe Bryant, a night at the rodeo with Cowboy Karl. Yee-hoo!

For Latrell Sprewell, food stamps, loose change and coupons to help can feed the family on his paltry salary.

For Ty Law, two good feet come January.

For Eugene Wilson, Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, Dan Koppen and Corey Dillon, the Hawaiian vacation that they deserve.

For Rosevelt Colvin, some hop back in that hip.

For Drew Bledsoe, redemption (but not against his former employers).

For Bill Belichick, an antidote to burnout and the lifetime supply of Friar Tuck sweatshirts.

For Tom Brady, a third ring, and whatever the hell else he doesn't have already.

For Peyton Manning, a pair of scissors, so he doesn't have to keep cutting his hair with toenail clippers.

For Eli Manning, a pair of scissors, to cut the cord.

For Ted Washington, snacks.

For Warren Sapp, a muzzle.

For Bill Parcells, a day without seeing Jerry Jones's face.

For Jerry Jones, a day without seeing Jerry Jones's face.

For T.J. Houshmandzadeh, wider shoulder pads.

For Drew Bennett, a DVD of Ed McCaffrey highlights.

For Michael Vick, touch.

For Ray Lewis, dance lessons.

For Johnny Damon, Mark Bellhorn, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, Jason Varitek, Orlando Cabrera, Trot Nixon, Bill Mueller, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Bronson Arroyo, Tim Wakefield, Keith Foulke, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Mike Myers, Curtis Leskanic, Pokey Reese, Dave Roberts, Gabe Kapler, Doug Mirabelli, Doug Mientkiewicz, Kevin Youkilis, Ellis Burks, Tito Francona, Young Theo, and any, each and all other contributors to the 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox . . . what the heck, yes, even you Nomar . . . a heartfelt thank you, a lifetime of standing ovations, and the promise that you will never have to pay for another frosty beverage at any New England establishment for the rest of your lives.

Happy holidays, peeps, and may the new year bring you as much joy as those fellas did.

Sweet embraceable you

During the long Red Sox season, it's easy to get so bogged down with the familiarities - the comebacks, heartbreakers and Todd Walker bobbles - that the quirks and subtleties can be elusive. Maybe it is true: The more we watch, the less we see.

My wife doesn't watch the Sox so much these days - one lost cause is enough for her, I suppose - but she is uncannily aware of the little things I don't pick up on. Which often brings us to exchanges such as this recent one:

Wife, straight out of left field: "Do the Red Sox hug each other a lot?"

Me: "Yes, and they like to cuddle and talk about their feelings, too."

The Red Sox? Hugging? C'mon, this is baseball. These guys don't hug. They high-five, give a pound, and pat each other on the butt.

Tradition, you know.

It was only after her words hit my eardrums that my eyes saw the truth. These Red Sox do hug each other. A lot. It's not the typical macho "Attaboy," half-hearted slap on the back, either. They hug. Like "come-here-ya-big-lug." Like long-lost friends. Like newlyweds.

Manny bashes one into the Monster Seats. Hug. Nomar wheels around from first to score on a double. Hug. Grady Little actually has a reliever warming up before seven runs have crossed the plate. Hugs all around.

How did this happen? Was there a transaction we missed? Was Dr. Phil named the bench coach? Is the bullpen on a quest to lead the league in holds? Did Bill James crunch some numbers and conclude that the most successful teams squeeze often, only to have the manager misinterpret the suggestion?

All this hugging might seem to be an unusual phenomenon for a male sports team; you probably won't see, say, the New York Giants snuggling each other after every Jeremy Shockey touchdown this season. But maybe it isn't such a revelation with these Sox. We don't have to search too far for clues that they may not meet baseball's stereotypically macho standards.

Their ace pitcher, Pedro Martinez, is intimidating on the mound to be sure. But away from his office he nurtures flowers, and he has been known to wear jeans with a picture of Linus from "Peanuts." I can't quite see Roger Clemens doing the same, although I'm sure he laughs hysterically at the comics.

And according to Dan LeBatard of ESPN The Magazine, Manny was breast fed until he was 7. Something tells me he's probably okay with hugging. Yikes.

Conversely, Trot Nixon is more of tough-love kind of guy, which was evident when he practically shook poor Bill Mueller into a coma during Mueller's three-home-run game a few weeks back. It comes as no surprise that Trot's dad used to make him run home from the ball-field after a bad game. Poor, repressed Trot still keeps his true feelings inside. They'll teach him to love yet.

The roots of the Brotherly Love Red Sox can be traced to the arrival of Carlos Baerga before the 2002 season. Baerga, the inventor of the Awkward Man Hug, was enthusiastic, supportive and darned happy to have a big-league job. In other words, a great teammate.

Baerga signed with the Diamondbacks in the offseason, but his legacy remains at Fenway. The current chief hugamaniacs are Manny, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, all of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, would join Baerga on the 40-man roster of the Red Sox's all-time All-Goofball team.

Goofy or not, there is a truth at the root of this, and it's one that takes some getting used to: The Red Sox actually like each other. Imagine that. From the "25 players, 25 cabs" clubs of the 1970s to the "Margo and Wade vs. the world" egofests in the '80s, the Red Sox are not renowned for their close-knit clubhouses. During the recent miserable Everett-Lansing-Offerman years, one was just as likely to receive a head-butt as a hug.

Those sour hours have passed, and maybe the manager deserves some credit for this. I consider Little to be a baseball version of Pete Carroll - good guy, lousy leader - but his team is remarkably resilient, and perhaps that is a byproduct of its superb clubhouse chemistry.

There is no sniping and griping when things go wrong. These Sox play as team and are quick to celebrate each other's successes. It's a big part of this immensely likable ballclub's good vibe.

Yes, you might say they're a pretty embraceable group of guys.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor, 2003)

Friday, December 24, 2004

Mr. Red Sox

Okay, go ahead. You can exhale now. Jason Varitek has decided to stay.

The eight-year Red Sox veteran signed on for four more today, at the princely sum of $40 million. It's a sweet deal for the best Boston catcher since a guy called Pudge. But no matter the price, the Red Sox profited today, for they not only retained their starting catcher and No. 7 hitter, but their heart, their guts, their soul, and their conscience.

You know it, I know it, and thank the heavens above that the good men running the Boston Red Sox know it: This simply had to be done. The Sox had to keep Varitek not only for the present and future, but to allow us to enjoy the recent past a little bit longer.

The summer was fun and the fall magical, but the winter hasn't been so kind to the World Series champions. Pedro Martinez's strikingly graceless departure was our first reminder that the 2004 season was now in the past tense. Such a realization is always sad. As a fan, you want that team that won it all - and won your heart in the process - to stay intact as long as possible.

I was bummed when fourth-outfielder/good-guy Gabe Kapler signed to play in Japan - the first 2004 Sox to say goodbye - just as I was disappointed to see the likes of mediocre nickleback Terrence Shaw depart after the Patriots' first Super Bowl. You can't help it. You're always sentimental about a champion, especially when the wait has been so long and agonizing. You want the feeling, the moment, to last forever.

Alas, the show goes on. Players file for free agency, trades are made, subtle tweaks are made to the roster. But you hope they don't change too much, especially when such change is predicated by money, and not what is best for the ballclub. Losing Varitek? It would have been the worst thing for the ballclub, simply devastating. Oh, losing Pedro hurts, sure, especially after he pissed all over his legacy on his way out the door. Losing Derek Lowe is bittersweet, albeit a foregone conclusion, and besides, half of the fan base remained tired of his high-maintenance antics even after his unprecedented postseason heroics. And losing Cabrera . . . well, Orlando, we hardly knew ya, but we sure did love what we saw. Happy trails to all.

But losing Varitek? That wouldn't have just taken the luster off the championship - it would have been akin to taking a brillo pad to the World Series trophy.

Hell, you watch the Red Sox, live them, breathe them. You know he's a good hit/good mitt catcher, one of the three or four best in the game, a rock behind the plate, a confidante for the pitchers, and a dependable if pitchable hitter who'll give you .280-20-80 numbers in an average year.

You also know statistics cannot accurately portray his value. For all of this team's stars, Varitek may have been the most indispensible player, right there with Schilling and Ortiz.

His captaincy was made official today. It was nice gesture but a mere formality, really; it's a role he has unofficially held for quite some time. No Sox player is more respected by his peers. No one ever plays harder, even when all seems lost, particularly that night's ballgame. No one is better prepared or takes his job more seriously.

And no one symbolizes more what the Red Sox just accomplished. The he proof is right there on the front page of every newspaper you tucked away during this glorious season. On one, there he is force-feeding the insufferable A-Rod a heaping helping of leather. On another, the one you will keep forever, maybe even frame and hang in the den, he's leaping into Keith Foulke's arms, a beautiful smile creasing that chiseled face.

Jason Varitek was the epitome of 2004 Red Sox. He simply could not have been permitted to depart, no matter what the price to retain.

As obvious as the decision to keep him seems to us fans, I give Theo and The Trio an infinite amount of credit for realizing this and getting the deal done, for I strongly suspect this contract went against every last one of their business sensibilities.

Logic and Bill James tell us you don't give a 33-year-old catcher a four-year deal unless you have an inkling that a broken-down 37-year-old catcher is just what your team will need in 2008. You don't give a career .271 hitter 10 million bucks a season. And most of all - this is the Sox's fiscal mantra, right here - you never pay more that what you think a player is worth.

The Red Sox broke all of their rules to retain Varitek, every last one of them. And you know why? Because they are flexible, intelligent, open-minded, and wise enough to know numbers don't entirely tell the Varitek's story.

They considered intangibles, and leadership, and sentiment, and all those immeasurable elements that are so easily dismissed . . . right up until the moment a stoic catcher leaps like a Little Leaguer, the champagne flows along with a region's joyous tears, and an 86-year burden is lifted, and suddenly, for some unexplained reason, all the numbers in your calculator can't fully explain how this wonderful whirlwind quite happened.

Four years and $40 million dollars? For Jason Varitek? It simply had to be paid. Some things, after all, are priceless.

Monday, December 20, 2004

1st and 10: Patriots-Dolphins

Danged Monday night games. While most fans are getting ready for some football, I'm here in the Globe sports department, getting ready to crank out some pages. I'll try to write about this game coherently, though my eyes will be focused more often on the page layout screen in front of me than on the television off to my left that's tuned to the game.

Yeah, that's right, we do have TVs in the office. It's funny, friends who don't make their living in this business are sometimes surprised - and little incredulous, too - that we have the game on while we are working. I usually explain that we've gotta know what's going on in order prepare the sports section appropriately, which is 100 percent true. But that doesn't stop them from looking at me with a skepticism that says, "Yeah, sure, and I bet sit your fat a$$ in a recliner and drink beer at your desk, too. Nice work if you can get it."

Not quite, but even sans Tostitos and a La-Z-Boy, yeah, it is nice work if you can get it. And it doesn't hurt to be reminded from time to time. Now, if you'll excuse me, I, uh, have to get to work.

(Wait, one thing about the game. I think the Patriots are in for a battle. Yeah, the Dolphins are 2-11 and in season-long disarray, but the Jason Taylor/Patrick Surtain-led defense remains formidable, and the Pats are historically brutal in Miami. The Pats will win, but it's not gonna be the Florida vacation most fans are banking on. Fans are waaayyy too cocky about this one.
And with that pre-game intro (8:46 eastern standard time), it's 1st and 10, Patriots:

1) Honest, I really did write that before the game. No, I am no relation to Nostradamus, or Notre Damus, who whoever that old bearded guy who saw the future and gets on the cover of the Weekly World News every other week. In case you zonked out sometime during the first 56 minutes, I should tell you that the Pats threw this one away, blowing a 28-17 lead in the final 3:59 and losing - inexplicably, shockingly, maddeningly losing - to the now 3-11-and-positively-giddy -about-it Dolphins, 29-28. Don't say I didn't warn ya.

2) Oh, and when I say they threw it away, there is no more appropriate description. For the first time in a long time - probably since the opening day 31-0 loss to Buffalo a year ago - Tom Brady was the goat. With the Pats trying to run out the clock and facing a 3rd and 9, Brady attemped a pass as he was being hauled to the ground by Jason Taylor . . .

. . . To say the offending pass (pictured in its early stages above) was a duck would be an insult to the flying skills of mallards everywhere. It eventually settled softly into the breadbasket of linebacker Brendan Ayanbadejo, who celebrated as if he'd just won the game. Soon enough, the Dolphins did just that, scoring the winning touchdown moments later when A.J. Feeley lofted a perfect pass on 4th and 10 that Darrius (a 6-foot-3 receiver) Thompson caught about three feet above Troy (a 5-foot-10 receiver masquerading as a cornerback) Brown. One more Brady pick later - his fourth of the night - and the biggest upset of the NFL season - according to the standings, anyway - was in the books.

3) Brady seems to have one clunker like this every season, doesn't he? His rookie year, it was a four-pick game in Denver that made us wonder if the kid was beginning to come back to earth. (He wasn't.) Last year, it was the opener in Buffalo, where he threw four picks again and made us wonder, in the aftermath of Lawyer Milloy's release, if we were being set up for a disappointing season. (We weren't.) Now, this. Hopefully, it can be overcome as easily as his past poor performances were. (It will be.)

4) Ron Borges described Brady's play as Bledsoesque. Just thought that needed to be noted.

5) Continuing with the Brady theme: In retrospect, that much-praised pass that Brady completed while sitting on the turf against Cincinnati - I believe history will remember it as Brady's Pass From His A$$ To Patrick Pass, which, come to think of it, doesn't quite have the same ring to it as The Catch, now, does it? - was the worst thing that could have happened. The fact that he was successful with THAT pass undoubtedly encouraged Brady to attempt last night's game-changing blockheaded throw. Much of Brady's success is due to the fact that he rarely makes a poor decision like that in crunch time - decision-making may be his greatest talent, intangible, skill, whatever you want to call it.Conversely, while Brady comes across as humble and grounded - and he is both, to a point - he is remarkably confident in his own ability, almost to the point of cockiness. Last night was a worthwhile reminder to him that he actually can do wrong when he ignores his better judgment. I'm sure Brady would be the first to admit it. The lesson will be learned.

6) If Brady was the offensive goat, then Rodney Harrison was wearing a super-sized set of horns for the defense. His blantant pass-interference penalty in the end zone set up the touchdown that cut the score to 28-23, and it was not his first bad penalty of the game. So consider this a piece of Patriots history, because I don't think you'll see Brady and Harrison teaming up to piss a game away again.

7) Matt Light is an outstanding tackle, and it's fortunate that Patriots have re-signed him for the foreseeable future. But Siamese twin Matt Lights could not have blocked Jason Taylor last night, and Daniel Graham, who attempted to help, was little more than a pylon in pads. Why anyone would overlook a defense that features such a talented and tireless player is beyond my comprehension.

8) The Patriots scored first for the 18th straight game, a streak that in its own quirky way is as impressive as their run of 21 consecutive victories. If Charlie Weis is distracted, it sure isn't showing up in his game plans, at least on the opening drive. His scripts remain brilliant.

9) I've been effusive in praise of Troy Brown's defensive contributions, but even as I lauded him, deep down I was waiting for the day where an opponent took advantage of his inexperience at cornerback. I'm waiting no longer, because Brown was exposed tonight. On the go-ahead touchdown, Feeley did not even shoot a glance at any other receiver besides Thompson, and it was not the first time in the game that Brown wore a bull's-eye. Now, Brown's effort is to be applauded, and hell, so are some of his results. But if the Patriots intend on making it 3 of 4 Super Bowls, they can't afford to have him on the field against Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb and any of the other stud quarterbacks they may face along the way. It's time for the experiment to end. Come back soon, Ty Law. You are so desperately needed.

10) I know I'll look like I'm abandoning the bandwagon just because it has a flat tire, and I really do hate to say this, but I'm beginning to doubt that this team will get out of the AFC, let alone win the Super Bowl. There's just something missing this season, with this team, at this moment, that I can't quite articulate. (Could be the three absent cornerbacks, I suppose.) They have shown little improvement in December, a month where they have traditionally hit their stride under Belichick, and even in victory, they habitually struggle to finish off their opponent. Most of all, I'm worried that this is Peyton Manning's year. Hell, I'm worried that it's Caterpillar Face Brees's year. But I will say this: If they are fortunate enough to face the strutting, smack-talking, never-won-a-damn-thing Steelers, they will stall the Bus, clock Big Ben, and leave Pittsburgh fans crying in their Terrible Towels once again. Notre Damus tells me you can take that to the bank.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

1st and 10: Patriots-Browns

Close call, dear readers. Today's edition of First-And-10 was damn near called First-And-Bed-Bath-and-Beyond. Not long after I had jumped on the couch for what I expected would be a pleasant four-hour stay, my wife revealed her intentions for the afternoon. Something about "getting a jump on the Christmas shopping."

A Christmas shopping expidition, especially on a Sunday? On my personal pleasure scale, it ranks right up there with having my toenails pulled out with tongs. Luckily, just as I was digging the batteries out of the remote control with intent of swallowing them whole, she came to the conclusion that she'd get more done without dragging my moping ass up and down the mall. Crisis averted, thank the football gods.

As for the final breakdown: She got the solo shopping trip and lots of lovely trinkets. I got a pleasant afternoon with my friends Mr. Couch and Mr. TV. You get this wonderful insight. Really, I think we're all winners in this deal.

And with that narrow escape (and pathetically lame intro), it's First-and-10, Patriots:

1) A 42-15 victory and an 11-1 record are fairly obvious signs that you have a hell of a football team. But you know things are going really well when the worst controversy the Big Show buffoons can stir up is Belichick's decision to put Corey Dillon back in the game for a carry so he could reach 100 rushing yards. These must be trying days for those who thrive on the negative and and lack the knowledge and passion to talk about sports intelligently. I imagine you know the suspects by name.

2) There may have been Patriots through the seasons who were faster than Bethel Johnson - Stanley Morgan, maybe? Raymond Clayborn? - but I've never seen anyone in full pads who accelerates like he does. When he gets a head of steam in the open field, the kick-coverage guys look like a scared pack of Garo Yepremians.

3) Another interception for Troy Brown? Is he to get to the Pro Bowl as a corner? Okay, maybe that's not happening. But if Terrell Owens were doing what Brown is doing - namely, playing defensive back like he actually plays defensive back - all those pre-game show hairdos would be drooling all over themselves in praise while skipping Hawaii honors altogether, instead verbally fitting Brown for mustard-colored blazer in Canton. But Brown? He just quietly goes about his business, which happens to be helping his team win football games, rather than promoting a book, a video game or Nicolette Sheridan's Botoxed face. Watching Brown give himself up to play defense is a recurring reminder of how lucky we are to have watched this guy all these years. What a football player.

4) With the Pats putting the game away in, oh, about the 7 seconds it took Johnson to take the opening kickoff 93 yards, we got a chance to scout some players who don't normally see the field Sunday. Rohan Davey looked better in relief of Brady than he did during his erratic preseason. The third-year quarterback's fastball is major-league level. He still needs to keep working on that change-up, but he's already better than at least a third of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL, including every overmatched member of the McCown family. Let's just hope he never gets the chance to prove so here.

5) On the other hand, Cedric Cobbs didn't show anything but rust in his first extended audition, picking up 29 yards on 16 carries. He seemed to make his cuts without regard to whether a hole was in the vicinity. Hopefully, his instincts are better than he showed today. Curiously, Gil and Gino said Cobbs he ran in a style similar to Dillon. Knowing those two, it probably was Dillon. Someone get them a decent spotter, please.

6) I have no idea if it's he actually has some real ability or he is simply the beneficiary of Belichick and Crennel's knack for masking defensive deficiencies, but I'm beginning to think Randall Gay is a keeper. The popular story with him is that he couldn't even start for LSU's co-national champs last season, but that's not entirely true, as Michael Felger pointed out this week in his entertaining "Patriots Insider" column. Gay was highly regarded while at LSU, but injuries kept knocking him off the field.

7) There is no doubt in my mind that the Brady-to-Patten 44-yard touchdown bomb that gave the Patriots a safer-than-Cheney's-bunker 42-7 lead midway through the third quarter was an emphatic "F-U" from Belichick to the city of Cleveland. Any doubt in yours?

8) Where Antowain Smith was mediocre, Corey Dillon is spectacular, and only a fool or a less-evolved specie - say, Fred Smerlas - would dispute the notion that the Patriots have made a huge upgrade at running back. (Not that Smerlas did. He just came to mind as less-evolved specie. Go figure.) But the thinking Pats fan suddenly has a growing concern about Dillon that never was an issue with Smith - costly fumbles. Dillon coughed up his third of the season today, and this time after barely being hit. Smith could be trusted with the football in those December and January games in frigid and frosty conditions, even if he didn't lug it very far. Dillon? He doesn't have a reputation as a fumbler. Hopefully, he won't gain one in the biggest moments.

9) Brady's final numbers: 11 of 20 for 157 yards, with a touchdown, a pick and a fumble in slightly less than three quarters of work. All in all, it was a relatively easy day at the office, though he did take more than a few teeth-rattling shots, especially from Kennard Lang, who beat Matt Light like he was some sissy metrosexual masquerading as a left tackle. (Ummm . . .) I'm sure Brady will take the win in any form, and of course we will too. But one of these Sundays, when Dillon is stuck running in place and the opposing offense is marching up and down the field, I want to see Brady put up some gaudy numbers, not only for the entertainment value, but as reassurance than that the increasing number of sailing passes isn't foreshadowing a slump, or something worse, such as a sore elbow.

10) CBS4 sports doof Steve Burton long ago proved he's an empty suit, even if said suit is his trademark lovely three-piece number. On "Sports Final" Sunday night, he again could not repress his instrinsic nitwit nature. When he asked the panel if Dillon is the best back in Patriots' history, Felger replied with a smirk (his trademark), "Well, except for Marion Butts." Now, anyone who's watched the Pats the last decade or two knows Marion Butts is remembered as a punchline and nothing more. This is based partly on his name (Butts - heh-heh) but mostly on his pathetic 2.8 per carry average in 1994. Apparently, Burton hasn't been paying attention, because after Felger's obvious wisecrack, Burton stared in that serious, intent, patented utterly vacant way of his and nodded, as if to say, "Yes, Marion Butts. Of course! I have no idea who the heck that is, but I'm going to pretend I do. He must have been a great one for Felgie to say that. Marion Butts. What a runner! Man, this does this suit look cool on me or what? It's a three-piece! It has a vest!"

1st and 10: Patriots-Bengals

You might recall last week's edition of First And 10, when I said I wanted to see the Patriots win one via Tom Brady's arm before dismissing the notion that he's in a slump? Well, this was the one.

On an afternoon when the defense struggled and the Patriots coaches figured the Bengals were hell-bent on stopping former teammate Corey Dillon, the Pats put the ball in Brady's right hand. And boy, did he deliver. The final numbers: 18 for 26, 260 yards, 2 touchdowns, no picks, and touchdowns on four of the Patriots' first five possessions.

Not gaudy. Just spectacular.

Today we saw Brady at his absolute best - precise passes and quick decisions mixed with an occasional shot downfield - and you got the sense that as well as he was playing, there was no way the Patriots would lose the game.

Even though we're not sure he ever really left, it's safe to proclaim that Tom Brady is back. The slump talk ceases . . . now.

Now, First-And-10, Patriots . . .

1) While Richard Seymour has taken some criticism for his decreased statistical production this season - paging Mr. Mannix - Belichick has insisted he's been doing his job and doing it well, big numbers or no big numbers. Today, Seymour's performance supported his coach's assertion. While he had three tackles, a pedestrian number by almost any measure, he also drew three holding penalties and spent much of the day making Carson Palmer run for his young life. Today, Seymour was dominant, a real beast. The lesson: the stat sheet does lie.

2) Troy Brown is now tied with Eugene Wilson for the team lead with three interceptions. Is it really possible that he is a legitimate defensive back at the NFL level? He keeps this up, he'll be taking money out of Ty Law's wallet. And no one wants that. The man's gotta eat.

3) Nice effort by Corey Dillon today, in every sense. Before the game, he approached Bengals coach Marvin Lewis - a man with whom he had some serious differences last season in Cincinnati, and whom he had infuriated just a week ago when he laughed when asked by Peter King if the Bengals will ever win - and could be see mouthing the words, "I love you, man. I'm sorry." Then, during the game, he put the Patriots' best interests ahead of his own desire to run it down his former team's throats, finishing with a workmanlike 88 yards on 22 carries while avoiding any urge to taunt or talk trash. (As far as the CBS cameras indicated, anyway). Finally, after the game, he said all the right things about wishing the Bengals well and rooting for his friends over there and hoping it all works out for the best. You're always skeptical when a guy supposedly changes after a long history of being a pain in the ass, but I'm beginning to believe the real Dillon is a decent guy who just took longer than most to grow up. He showed nothing but grace all day.

4) Speaking of Dillon, you know that ubiquitous Visa Check Card commercial, the one where Dillon is pacing the sideline like . . . well, like a bengal . . . and saying, "Not today, not tomorrow, not in my house?" while McGinest, Bruschi, Law and a few others are shown getting jacked and pumped on the sideline? Great ad, right? Right. I just have one question. Who the heck is No. 49? He looks like a player, and he growls like a player, and he even wears a football helmet like a player. But I am completely unaware of who this No. 49 might be? Kantroy Barber? Don Calhoun? Prentice McCray? Who? Who is it? Please, help me here. I get paid to know this stuff, you know.

5) Good to see Christian Fauria in on the action today, making a nice snag on Brady's final touchdown pass and helping the Pats put up 28 points on offense despite operating shorthanded. (Daniel Graham was out with a rib injury, and David Givens was last-minute scratch with what was termed in pre-game as a leg injury. For all we know at this point, he's an amputee this morning.) Fauria has become the Ted Johnson of the offense, an aging but useful player who has watched his playing time decrease and yet has remained selfless and professional, an ideal teammate. The Patriots lead the league in those types - others include McGinest, Brown, even David Patten, before his rise back up the depth chart due to injuries - and I think Belichick would tell you he can never have enough of them.

6) Then again, maybe Dillon realizes what became apparent today. These Bengals could get good in a hurry, assuming Lewis, a defensive whiz, can plug up that leaky defense. I was skeptical of the Carson Palmer hype during his golden boy days at USC, but after seeing him a few times this season, I'm clapping like a fool right there alongside Petey Carroll on the kid's bandwagon. His throwing style is remarkably similar to Peyton Manning's - flawless - and he moves around better than any 6-foot-5, 235-pounder has the right to. Plus, he has an useful cache of weapons. Rudy Johnson is good enough to have made Dillon expendable, Chad Johnson is an elite receiver - although not quite as elite as he seems to believe - and T.J. Housmazedkkhsaeh had as many catches today as he has consonants. The Patriots will be seeing them again when in matters the near future. If they're not a damn good football team now, they'll be arriving there in good time.

7) The cliche goes that the you're better off being lucky than good, and some media nitwits suggest the Patriots have been more of the former than the latter during recent seasons. (Not you this time, Mannix.) It's nonsense, of course, but those who suggest such a thing got some more evidence today. Rudi Johnson appeared to have his knee down when he fumbled the ball away on the Bengals' first drive (which nearly snapped the Patriots streak of 16 straight games of scoring first), and Dillon's knee appeared to be down at the 1 when he ran in the Patriots' first touchdown. Here's another cliche: Them's the breaks. I'm sure Belichick will take them.

8) Sure, I'm worried how offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is going to give the necessary attention to the Patriots while also moonlighting in his new job as Notre Dame's head coach. Judging by Belichick's order that his players not discuss Weis's status at all, it seems he's got his concerns too. But for us worriers and nail-biters, today was encouraging - Brady and the boys were as sharp as they have looked all season, scoring on four of its first five drives and giving us the sense that they could pretty much score at will if need be. If anything, it was reminder of how much Weis will be missed next season. While he can be too cute with the trickery, the bottom line is that he's a damn good coordinator, maybe the best they've ever had. And if you've taken him for granted, I've got two names that will make you appreciate the man immediately: Larry Kennan. Ernie Zampese. Shuddered, didn't you?

9) Rodney Harrison is the heart of it all, and Asante Samuel was the man of the moment today, picking off a Palmer pass and returning it for a crucial touchdown and a 21-7 lead. But with each passing Sunday it becomes increasingly apparent that the key to the impressive success of the depleted defensive backfield is Eugene Wilson. He hits like a safety and covers like a corner, and his versatility is covering up a lot of holes right now. A trip to Hawaii in February would be a just reward.

10) Time for what is shaping up as a weekly rant about the broadcasters. Today's topic: Dan Dierdorf. Now, he seems like a genuine and jovial guy, which makes him tolerable despite his McCarver-like propensity for making a point early in a game, then clinging to it for the rest of the game, even if evidence blantantly contradicts what he's saying. Today's point: Carson Palmer is becoming a terrific quarterback. Reasonable enough theory . . . at least until Dierdorf revealed his inner Dierdorfiness when, after Samuel's game-changing interception, all he could say was, "What a terrific throw by Carson Palmer." Uh, sure, Dan. Great pass. Hit Samuel right in the numbers. He also provided the comedic high point of the day on the same play, blurting with just a hint of desperation, "There's a flag down! A flag is on the field!" as the Patriots celebrated the score. Said flag turned out to be a yellow hot dog wrapper. But don't worry, Danno. Greater men have been fooled much the same way. Just last week, a dastardly hot dog wrapper in disguise fooled Gil and Gino, too. Keith Traylor really needs to stop leaving those things all over the field.