First and 10: Bring on the Broncos
1) Five reasons why I'm confident the Patriots are going to march into Mile High and leave the Broncos gasping for air:
• Richard Seymour didn't play in the season's previous meeting, a 28-20 Denver victory, and you, me, and all-time playoff sacks leader Willie McGinest know how much of an impact Seymour's presence has on the rest of the defense. He commands the attention of the offense - he simply cannot be blocked one-on-one - which eases the burden on those around him. It is not a coincidence that McGinest and Rosey Colvin have raised hell like LT and Carl Banks since Seymour's return from a knee injury.
• Rookie Ellis Hobbs has emerged as a top-flight cornerback. Frankly, even if he were merely a Poteat-caliber corner, he'd be an upgrade on the departed Duane Starks, the charbroiled goat of the early season loss. Not to get all analytical and Jaworski on you, but man, that guy sucked.
• Tedy Bruschi is back, and barring setback to his injured calf during practice this week, is as damn near as good as ever. I trust that no further explanation of that man's importance is necessary.
• Despite receiving repeated shocks from Mike Shanahan's handy tranquilizer gun every time he throws an interception, Jake Plummer is still Jake Plummer, a gambler at heart, and we're betting he's incapable of countering a Bill Belichick scheme twice in the same season without coughing up a couple crucial turnovers. Have we mentioned that the Patriots' defense is healthy this time around?
• The cool cat in the No. 12 road jersey. After the Jacksonville game, we were pretty much thinking what Peter King wrote in his Monday Morning Quarterback column:
"So I'm leaving Gillette Stadium early Sunday morning, thinking, God, Tom Brady was pretty blah tonight. I get back to my hotel, open up the stat sheet and see: 15-of-27, 201 yards, three touchdowns, no picks, 116.4 rating. Then I think: That's when you know a guy's going to Canton -- he plays blah (for him) and his numbers are Player of the Week worthy."
Brady, as I'm sure you know, is 10-0 in the playoffs. That first blemish in the loss column has to come sometime, I suppose. It just won't be this week.
2) Apparently, the people of Denver are spending less time focusing on this game and more time feeding their collective facial hair fetish. Not that the fate of Jake Plummer's John Holmes Tribute 'Stache isn't a worthy cause, of course.
3) Despite my belief that Troy Polamalu is the most overrated defender in the NFL - his awesome mane and knack for the occasional knockout blow distract all those experts who voted him All-Pro from noticing that he's just about Starks-esque in coverage - I am convinced that the Steelers will be coming to New England for a rematch of last season's AFC Championship Game next weekend. The Steelers will grind it out with the rejuvenated Bus on offense and keep Peyton and Co. off the field, and defensively, they'll inflict enough pain on Marvin Harrison and the rest of the lightweight, contact-averse receivers that they'll again shrink when the season hangs in the balance. The pick: Pittsburgh, 21-17. Oh, yeah - the Pats win, too, 28-17.
4) Words we never thought we'd write: Monty Beisel has become a useful part of the Patriots' defense. While we slashed Beisel along with everyone else during his - and there's no kinder way of saying this - brutal stint as Tedy Bruschi's stand-in, we always understood why Scott Pioli and Belichick liked him enough sign him away from the Chiefs in the offseason. Beisel has tremendous speed and a motor that never stalls. Unfortunately, that speed and desire often led to him overrunning a play, leaving the defense susceptible to cutback runners such as Tatum Bell, and that's in the off chance he was in the right position to begin with. But to his credit, he's continued to work hard, learn and gain comfort in the Patriots system, and against Jacksonville Saturday night, he made a couple of point-of-attack plays that even Bruschi would be proud of. I'm not saying I won't be queasy if he's on the field in place of Bruschi Saturday night. But I'm not saying he wouldn't come through, either.
5) And while I'm confessing my past sportswriting sins regarding current Patriots, I might as well admit that I wrote a column sometime in the 2002 season demanding that Belichick release Kevin Faulk. Yeah, that Kevin Faulk . . . the one who has become a steady, invaluable and underrated stalwart in the Patriots' passing game, a player whom every team in the NFL would be pleased to have. (Conveniently, I was unable to find any trace of the ridiculous article on Google.) If I recall, the venom toward Faulk flowed through my keyboard after he dropped a lateraled screen pass against Green Bay, then failed to pick up the ball as the Packers took it in for a touchdown on the way to an easy win. At the time, the play epitomized what was wrong with the Pats - indifference, namely - and it was not the first instance of the then-fumble-prone Faulk making a boneheaded play at the most inopportune time. Needless to say, it would have been foolish to dump such a versatile and intelligent player, one who, in retrospect, just needed time to grow. Faulk has matured and improved at his job since then. Come to think of it, I hope I have too.
6) It's going to be fascinating to see how the Jets' pursuit of defensive coordinator Eric Mangini plays out. Mangini, 34 and with one season as a coordinator on his resume, seems like an obvious head coaching candidate . . . in 2008. From what I've seen and how Bill Belichick interacts with him, I'm hard-pressed to believe he's ready to take over an NFL team on his own, even if that NFL was team previously run by the comically inept Herman Edwards. I suspect the Jets' interest has as much to do with his link to the lamented former HC-of-the-NYJ-For-A-Day and the perceived damage it might do to the Patriots as it does with any strong belief in his particular coaching talents. Yet if Mangini turns down the Jets - and by all accounts he is their first choice - does that mean Belichick has promised that he'd someday be his successor here in New England? More to the point, just when might that "someday" be? Because when it comes to the length of Belichick's tenure here in New England, anything less than forever would be a disappointment.
7) Let's see. Andre' Davis is a speeding bullet as a gunner on the special teams, averages over 20 yards a catch as the Pats' designated deep threat, made perhaps the play of the Jags game with his heads-up recovery of Ben Watson's fumble, and has the beep-beep! speed to pull a Rick Upchurch every time he returns a kick. Yup, I'd say Bethel Johnson's days as a Patriot are just about numbered.
8) It's worth recalling, in the aftermath of Seattle's Shaun Alexander running away with the NFL MVP award, that the former Alabama star very likely would have been the Patriots' No. 1 pick in 2000 had they not had to give the choice to the Jets as compensation for Belichick. While the thought of Alexander as a Patriot is intriguing - hmmm, he is a free agent, isn't he? - I can't imagine there's anyone in New England who wouldn't much rather have Belichick. It just goes to prove yet again that a game-changing coach is worth more than a game-changing player. (And with that in mind, I still say the Chiefs' swap of a fourth-rounder to New York for the rights to hire coach Herm Edwards is a damn steal for the J-E-T-S. On the NFL level, he's Pete Carroll with a slightly better tan.)
9) Remember before you mock him, people: Chuck Norris invented the Internet, and with one roundhouse kick, he and his almighty beard can take it away.
10) As for today's Completely Random football card:
Everyone always makes such a big deal about Jerry West being the model for the NBA logo. Ask me, the Broncos' decision to pay homage to Shannon Sharpe by putting his face on their helmet is a far greater tribute.
(Cool thing is, you substitute "John Elway" for "Shannon Sharpe," and this lame-o joke still works. Give those men a sugar cube!)