1st and 10: Colts 40, Patriots 21
1) Well, that was impressive. Tonight at Gillette Stadium, in what in recent history has been their house of horrors, the Indianapolis Colts scored on seven of nine possessions, converted 12 of 16 third-downs, and dominated the Patriots - their longtime nemesis, as I'm sure you've heard - like they haven't been dominated since . . . well, since the Chargers whupped 'em a few weeks ago. The Indy offense, led by a damn-near perfect Peyton Manning, was as unstoppable as the Air Coryell Chargers and the Vermeil/Martz Rams rolled into one. In other words, it was a performance Manning and the Colts have been dreaming about for some time, one that Manning's daddy will no doubt commemorate with a plaque or a shiny medal for his boy. After their night of sweet vindication, the Colts are 8-0, and talk of them running the table and challenging the unbeaten '72 Dolphins will commence immediately; with the Oswego School for Girls and Richard Simmons Community College coming up next two weeks on their ridiculously easy schedule, it might be possible. Meanwhile, the Pats hobble along at 4-4, a mark of mediocrity that actually seems a bit gaudy based on their performance tonight. Hey, the better team won. There's no shame in that. Of course, now we must brace ourselves for all that breathless "changing of the guard" talk this week, particularly among those who feel vindicated after picking the Colts to win the previous three or four matchups, only to look like fools in the end. The Colts will be lauded as if they are the three-time Super Bowl champions; the Patriots will be dismissed as has-beens and leftovers. But to suggest that Colts get the last word in this supposed rivalry simply because they ruled tonight is to risk looking like a fool again. While the Patriots have some major repairs to make along the way - Rodney Harrison apparently truly is irreplaceable - shouldn't we trust Bill Belichick to make them? Hasn't he earned that benefit of the doubt? Hell, as it is the Patriots remain the frontrunners in the feeble AFC East, and as an old coach named Bill Parcells once noted, all you have to do is get in the tournament, and then anyone can win. The Pats will be in the tournament, and chances are they will encounter Manning and the Colts again. And considering that the Belichick Era Patriots are traditionally better at the end of the season than at the beginning . . . and considering they started the season 5-5 the first time they won the Super Bowl . . . and considering they still own the blueprint for stopping Manning even though they lack the personnel to pull it off at the moment . . . and considering this might have been a different, shootout-style ballgame tonight if not for a crushing Corey Dillon fumble . . . and considering that Tedy Bruschi will be in shape and Richard Seymour healthy and Harrison quite possibly hobbling around the middle of the field on a peg leg and scaring the hell out of everyone . . . and considering all of that . . . well, I'm just not ready for the two-time defending champs to concede the season just yet. We'll give the Colts their due. They are better. Right now. Check back again in January for the final verdict.
2) Yeah, we all knew the Patriots would miss Harrison - I think the assumption in recent years was he was the second-most important player on the team, after the goat-cuddling metrosexual Joe Montana clone in the No. 12 jersey. But did you know they'd miss him this much, to the point where the rest of the defensive backfield has fallen to pieces? Maybe it's because they are down to the fifth-string on the depth chart (Harrison, Guss Scott, James Sanders, Arturo "Rent, Don't Buy" Freeman, and now, someone named Michael Stone) but Manning picked them apart over the middle of the field so effortlessly tonight that found myself starting to long for the stability of Victor Green. We need a solution, people. Is it possible that ex-Pat Tim Fox could ditch that silly stockbroker getup he wears on NESN, grow his '70s-style white-guy 'fro and mustache back, and come out cracking some heads next Sunday in Miami? How about Prentice McCray? What's he up to these days? Rick Sanford? You know things are bleak when Troy Brown starts looking like a reasonable alternative on defense. Unless Harrison gets a robotic knee in the next few weeks or decides to try and play on crutches (figuring he can't be any worse than Duane Starks, I imagine), I don't know how they fill this void. It might be Belichick's most difficult on-field challenge since he's coached the Patriots.
3) Which reminds me: What in the name of Fred Marion has happened to Eugene Wilson this season? The last two years, he looked like he'd become a Pro Bowl fixture, and under Belichick's tutelage, perhaps even develop into the ideal modern defensive back, one who covered like Rod Woodson and hit like Darren Woodson. Sure, that's slight hyperbole, but I think anyone who watched the Pats would agree he was a star-in-the-making, a unique talent, which makes his regression this season all the more perplexing. Is it possible that playing alongside Harrison made him look better than he was? Unless he's simply overwhelmed by the added responsibility he's taken on, that seems the logical explanation.
4) Of course, maybe the defensive backs wouldn't be charred so often if the Patriots had any semblance of a pass rush. Did Manning get even one grass stain on his jersey tonight? He usually had enough time to go through all his reads, call his daddy to ask him who he should throw the ball to, cut his hair with his toenail clippers, chant "Cut that meat!" a few times, pretend he's a mime, call his daddy again to ask him why he likes Eli better, and then throw the ball to one of his four wide-open receivers. The Pats had a built-in excuse with Seymour's injury - ever notice how much better McGinest plays when Seymour is commanding all the on-field attention? - but the results truly were pathetic. McGinest relied on his old fake-inside-run-outside-overrun-the-QB move that and Chris Slade so maddeningly patented during the Pete Carroll years. Rosevelt Colvin was active and around the ball tonight, but more so against the run than the pass, and it's sad but true that the once-fearsome pass rusher really hasn't been much more than Just A Guy since his hip injury. And as for that staunch defensive line we heard so much about early in the season, Ty Warren was invisible, Vince Wilfork is ineffective and fat, his belly practically resting on his toes, and Jarvis Green didn't play as well as his usually does when Seymour is out. The obvious solution is to get Seymour healthy and hope he makes everyone better around him. But when that will be is anyone's guess.
5) Did anyone catch the Brady interview on "60 Minutes" the other night? It was the standard fluff piece, where he gives just the answers an All-American Boy should give, and he's portrayed as some combination of Derek Jeter and Richie Cunningham. I didn't know whether to smile or groan when he said that if he could be doing anything on Earth at the moment, he'd like to be playing golf in Scotland . . . with his mom and dad. (Okay, I groaned.) Not that Brady isn't genuine - the fact that his teammates rave about his leadership while also delightfully busting his chops tells you that he's somehow managed to remain one of the guys in spite of all the fame and fortune - but his answers do sometimes seem rehashed if not rehearsed. The piece ended with a question that was as familiar as his answer. "What's your favorite Super Bowl ring." "The next one," he answered for the XXIVth time. Yawn. But at least there was one telling moment. When Brady was asked if he planned on getting married some day, he said sure, and mentioned wanting to have kids and the whole nine yards. But when the interviewer, Steve Kroft, followed up with, "To Bridget Moynahan?" the actress Brady's been linked with for some time, well, for a brief moment he looked as rattled as I've ever seen him before stammering a non-answer. "That was a look of horror," my wife said. "I don't think she'll be getting a ring anytime soon." So much for the next one being his favorite, huh?
6) Okay, time to deep-fry Duane Starks: I'm not saying Scott Pioli deserves a pay cut for the colossal blunder of trading a third-round pick to Arizona for this slow-footed shrimp masquerading as an NFL cornerback. I'm just saying that Starks is the second coming of Antonio Langham (Pats washout, Class of 2000), and the only reason I'm not comparing him to Chris Canty is because at least Starks has enough dignity to avoid breaking out his "Saturday Night Fever" moves after making a tackle. It appeared that he was finally benched in the second half tonight, which is good considering I was starting to hope one of those dudes on the sideline who play dress up in their Revolutionary War costumes and carry a musket might do us all a favor "accidentally" pick him off. And yes, that's the first time "Starks" and "pick" have been mentioned in the same sentence this season. In conclusion: Duane Starks stinks. (You know, in case you missed the point and all.)
7) Grasping for a positive here, at least rookie tackle Nick Kaczur appeared to do a commendable job on Colts pass-rush specialist Dwight Freeney, keeping Brady from getting clobbered. So he had that going for him, which is nice. Now if he can just keep Moynahan from killing Brady after she sees that interview.
8)Nothing makes me lunge for the mute button faster than the appearance of Michael Irvin on the TV screen. Why is he always yelling, why is he relentless in defending T.O. when you, me and Donovan McNabb know that T.O.'s behavior is indefensible, and what the hell is he putting in coffee that gets him so jacked and pumped? Actually, don't answer that last one. ESPN should be ashamed for employing someone so biased and unprofessional as a so-called analyst. Then again, it seems I write that last sentence fairly regularly these days. Boo-yeah, Mike! Keep up the good work!
9) Edgerrin James isn't the toughest running back in the league, but he might be the toughest to tackle. The few times the Patriots seemed to have him hemmed tonight, he'd somehow slither for three or four (or five or six) yards, and whenever they do wrap him up, he has the uncanny knack of falling forward for another yard or two. After LaDainian Tomlinson and Shaun Alexander, he's right there among the premier backs in the league, and maybe the national media can stop giving Manning verbal backrubs long enough to suffiently recognize James's immense contributions to the Colts' offensive juggernaut.
10) As for today's Completely Random Football Card:
With apologies to Ty Law, Hall of Famer Mike Haynes is the greatest defensive back in Patriots history. He's 52 years at this writing, and I'm pretty damn sure he could cover NFL receivers better right now than a couple of defensive backs who wore the Patriots jersey tonight. Turn in your playbook, Duane.