All right, as promised, TATB is in the house, and hell yeah, we're ready for some football. We're stuffed full of pesto pizza, are well-stocked with the appropriate football-watchin' beverages (no daiquiris in this house, Jeter!), and as my wife likes to remind me, I'm in the ideal physical condition to be planted on the couch for the next three hours. Now if I can just forget the frightening image of that she-male singer Pink warbling from my TV, I'll be all set.
Prediction? Well, I always have faith in the Belichick Pats . . . but Denver, 5-1 in their last six against New England, always scare the hell out of me, and Mike Shanahan might be the second-best coach in the league. Rod Smith usually has something like 17 catches for 287 yards against the Pats, Champ Bailey should be avoided at all costs, and Denver's D as a whole is fast and mean - they made the Patriots look positively old in the regular season last year. But if Tom Brady plays like Tom Brady, Jake Plummer plays like Jake Plummer, and the Maroney/Dillon duo gains enough ground to keep the Broncos honest, I say the Pats eke it out, 21-17.
Let's do it:
• Sez Al Michaels per his pregame introduction: "With the Red Sox off the radar, it is officially and exclusively football season in New England." All right, I guess I'll buy that . . . at least until Manny's next trade demand or some other news of significance emanates from Yawkey Way, and then the Sox will bounce the Pats back down to the bottom of the sports page again. I'm not saying that's how it should be. That's just the way it is.
• The Broncos' offensive lineman don't talk to the media and thus don't cooperate with the familiar Name/College personal introduction. Rather, they are introduced by Michaels as still headshots appear on the screen. So, yeah, they are exactly the kind of jerks you'd think a jacked-up pack of cheap-shot artists would be.
• Denver takes it at the 20 after Stephen Gostkowski clobbers the opening kickoff into the end zone. Even the most ardent Adam Vinatieri fan has to admit the rookie is an upgrade there. Denver gets one first down, Plummer completes a couple of crossing patterns (they killed the Pats with crossing routes last year during the Duane Starks debacle), but they end up having to punt after two series, pinning the Patriots at the 1.
• No one is doing much of anything early . . . and yet John Madden is not yet audibly snoring, despite inhaling three whole turkeys during the pregame. I think I heard his stomach growling, though.
• The Charlotte Observer erroneously reported that Bucs quarterback Chris Simms is hospitalized in critical condition after taking several hard hits in today's loss to the Panthers. Peter King sets the record straight, saying Simms is in the hospital but is not in critical condition. King resists the temptation to tell us to trade Carson Palmer for Simms in our fantasy league, since Simms has "miraculous healing powers."
• Andrea Kremer checks in with some inane report from the sideline. Gotta say, I lost some respect for her when I saw her standing on a milk crate to look taller while interviewing Drew Bledsoe a few years ago. She's like Shelley Smith's Mini-Me.
• At 5:08 of the first quarter, we get our first mentions of Deion Branch and David Givens. I thought it would be sooner. Props to NBC for avoiding the beaten-to-death storyline. Or maybe Madden and Michaels thought they were still around until now.
• No Chad Jackson tonight. Geez, did this kid get his hamstrings transplanted from the cadaver of Vincent Brisby?
• John Lynch nearly picks off a Brady wobbler near midfield. The Pats came thisclose to signing Lynch after the 2003 season when he was let go by Tampa, but the Pats reportedly backed off due to concerns regarding his history of neck problems. Bet Belichick wishes they'd taken the chance. Not only would Lynch and Rodney Harrison have made a deadly pair of safeties, but he'd have made Harrison's injury last season much easier to overcome.
• My wife is being quiet. Too quiet. Whoops, she speaks: "Can I change it? I'm kidding. We need another TV in this house. This is boring. Have you published yet? You should hit publish."
• (Hitting publish while gently weeping . . .)
• Third and 9, Denver, from their own 2. Plummer dodges Mike Vrabel in the end zone, then slithers around Junior Seau for the first down. Very, very impressive improvisation, the type of play Plummer does so well. Have to admit, I'm a longtime fan dating back to his Arizona St. days, and with his job in jeopardy after a shaky start to the season, I expect him to play well tonight. He might not be that reliable, but the dude is resilient.
• My wife, scanning through the TV listings menu: " 'Misery' is on. We saw that on our first date." Me: "Damn, that couldn't have been more appropr . . ." WHACK!!.
• Score after the first quarter: New England 0, Denver 0, but the Pats are moving the ball . . .
. . . until Maroney is stuffed on fourth and 1 from the Denver 36. Have to admit, I was giddy to hear Shanahan say the Pats got a steal in Maroney and that Denver would have taken him had Jay Cutler (supposedly No. 1 on their draft board) not been available. I mean, you gotta respect the Broncos' acumen with running backs. Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Tatum Bell . . . when was they last time they missed on one?
Oh . . . right.
• Plummer is 0 for his last 7 pass attempts. Shanahan, who in his sunnier moods looks like Norman Bates, appears to be ready to wallop him to the ground with his clipboard, choke him with his headset, then repeatedly stab him with his pencil. Hey, how do you think he got rid of Danny Kanell?
• . . . and then in his typically schizophrenic manner, Plummer suddenly finds a rhythm, hitting someone named David Kirkus twice, eventually getting all the way down to the New England 9. Then Rod Smith (who else?) gets seven on third and 6 to set up first and goal at the 2.
• The Pats hold 'em to 3, thanks to a holding penalty, Ty Warren's continued spot-on impersonation of Richard Seymour, and a blind-side blitz by Rosey Colvin that forced an incompletion. Not a bad way to salvage things, and with 7:20 left in the half, it's Denver 3, New England 0.
• That ubiquitous but heartwarming Dwyane Wade commercial just came on for the 20th time . . . you know, the one where he gives all the stuff to the youth program. I say to my wife, "That's Dwyane Wade. He's one of the best basketball players I've ever seen." Her reply: "From 'A Different World'?" You know, I bet Shaq would like that joke.
• Not sure I heard correctly, but I think Al Michaels just said Chris Simms had a blood transfusion. Yikes. We'll put a moratorium on the jokes. [Turns out it was a ruptured spleen, and his season is likely over. The truly frightening/astounding thing is that after feeling extremely ill during the game, he returned to lead a fourth-quarter drive. We sure can't question this kid's toughness again.]
• Denver hasn't given up a touchdown this season, but the Pats are making a bid thanks to Maroney, who blew up for 31 yards on a screen pass to get to the Broncos 19. The Pats haven't had a back who can move like this kid since Curtis Martin was winning over Bill Parcells.
• Andrea Kremer climbs back up on her trusty Oakhurst crate and tells us Dillon has returned to the locker room with an "arm" injury. That could be anything from a scratch to amputation at the shoulder in Pats-speak, but she says he's probable to return. Either way, looks like it's on Maroney for now.
• Three straight incompletions, and Sisson . . er, Gostkowski comes out and promptly gets his second consecutive field-goal attempt blocked. Madden immediately blames the poor field conditions, but man, that's tough to excuse considering the field is always in lousy shape. Whoever's fault it is, I know this much to be true: Somewhere, Glenn Ordway is chortling through a mouth stuffed full of Cheez Balls.
• Third and 8, Denver, from their own 48. You know what comes next: Rod Smith, 18 yards, first down. I swear, if this guy gets to Canton someday, his personal highlight film will come entirely from games against the Patriots.
• At the 2-minute warning, NBC just showed Brady's stats: 10 for 15, 115 yards. Not. Good. Enough.
• On third and 1 with 50 seconds left in the half, Javon Walker gets a step on Ellis Hobbs in single coverage, and Plummer makes the kind of throw we've come to expect from Brady. The result: Touchdown, Denver. Gutsy call, and the visitors lead, 10-0. Suddenly it's mighty quiet in Foxboro.
• The Pats' 2-minute drill stalls at midfield, Brady rips off his chinstrap Peyton-style and absolutely looks like he's moping, and home team trots off the field to scattered boos. I'm guessing this isn't quite the way Belichick drew it up.
Score at halftime: Denver 10, New England 0
• Maroney takes the kickoff back to the 23. I HATE having him taking kickoffs. He's too valuable, especially now that Dillon has been downgraded to questionable. Put Faulk back there.
• Pats go three-and-out, and John "I'd Take A Knee Here" Madden, just jostled from his halftime nap, is writing the team's eulogy already: "The Patriots just can't get anything going. Cris Collinsworth was just talking about it at halftime, the whole body-language of Brady and their offensive players and their sideline . . . they just don't look like the champion Patriots we're used to seeing." Now, normally I'd rip him for this sort of thing . . . but I think I wrote about it myself three paragraphs ago, so I've gotta agree with him here, if only to avoid being a hypocrite. Truth is, Brady looks like he's thinking about Deion Branch with every incomplete pass. And as great as Brady is, don't you dare suggest that he doesn't have horrible body language sometimes - slumping his shoulders, staring at the ground, looking like he'd just lost his beloved Fido. Hell, the coaches supposedly talked to him about it last week.
• Uh-oh. Rodney Harrison leaves with an injury. Great. Next play, Plummer targets his replacement, James Sanders, and Sanders obliges, interfering with Kirkus for a 30-yard penalty. That's smart football on Denver's part, and horrible coverage by Sanders. I'm pissed.
• Chad Scott makes a big hit to bust up a pass to Walker on third-and-7, preventing a first down. Shockingly, Rod Smith did not drop out of the heavens to catch ball milliseconds before it hit the ground. He's slipping in his old age.
• Three and out again, with Brady overthrowing a slightly open Troy Brown on a flea-flicker. Say this for the Broncos' defense: They know how to defend a team with no wide receivers.
• How's this for a horrifying thought: What if Brady's weekly listing on the injury report (probable, arm) actually isn't a superstition or an attempt to tweak the NFL rulesmakers, but a clue that maybe a physical problem is the reason for his subpar play? I tell you, the way he's throwing the ball, it's time to consider it.
• Denver is pinned at the 2 when Darrent Williams pulls a Deltha O'Neal on the punt and barely avoids a safety. Says Madden: "This is where Bill Belichick needs to be a defensive genius." Plummer promptly hits Rod Goddamn Smith for 10 yards, thanks to a Chris Canty-like 11-yard cushion by the maddening Asante Samuel.
• [begin whine] Samuel is hit with a phantom pass interference call, and I just had a flashback to last season's playoff game, when the refs sometimes seemed hellbent on making the Pats play 11 men against 13. Is Shanahan the head of officiating or something? Cripes, it would be really swell if the Patriots got a call against Denver one of these seasons. [end whine]
• 5:16 remaining in the third quarter, and Brady's deep post to Reche Caldwell is tipped away at the last second to stall another series. Yup, at this point I'm left to report near-misses, almost-completions and Reche Friggin Caldwell sightings. This is going fantastically well!
• Did Ben Watson dress for this game? He did? Really? You'd think someone being hailed as Antonio Gates + Ben Coates + the Elder Kellen Winslow would be, you know, noticeable.
• Harrison is back, and Tedy Bruschi has been all over the place. So they've got that going for them, which is nice.
• They just showed the replay of Watson running down Bailey in last season's playoff game. Astounding, astounding hustle and athleticism. One of the most impressive plays I've ever seen, even if it was ultimately meaningless. I hereby apologize for bitching about him a minute ago.
• Brady, incomplete deep to Doug Gabriel. Good to know he's active. I honestly wasn't sure. [Edit: Turns out he didn't play in the first half.] Anyway, another three-and-out. None of the quick-slant, timing stuff is working. (Where have you gone, David Givens?) Josh Miller is their best offensive weapon. I wonder if Pink can play receiver. Or linebacker.
• Madden, who's surprisingly insightful tonight: "The Patriot offense just looks like they're frustrated. They're having trouble getting anything going, and it looks like it's affecting them. Watch their body language - they're all just kind of hunched over and walking off the field. Football is a game of passion and emotion, and when you lose that, you don't have anything . . . I hate to use the word sleepwalking, but they're sleepwalking out there." Gotta say, the Human Turducken is absolutely correct here. I thought the long faces were supposed to be limited to the Broncos' helmets. Not so far. After three quarters, it's 10-0, ElwayFaces.
• The Broncos are starting inside their own 5 for the third time tonight. Doesn't logic suggest Plummer should throw a stupid-ass pick one of these times? He's playing with the poise of a quarterback who's very secure in his job. Quick, put a shot of Cutler on the JumboTron.
• And this one's over. Plummer, a split second before he's turned into snakeskin by Richard Seymour, hits Walker down the left sideline on third and 6, and the ex-Packer who nearly became a Patriot in the offseason splits the useless Sanders (in for a cramping Eugene Wilson) and the overmatched Samuel, and goes 82 yards for the backbreaker. Denver goes 97 yards in five plays, it's 17-0, and the camera catches Belichick expressing the sentiments of New England fans everywhere: "You've gotta be ------- kidding me."
• WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED? I SWITCH CHANNELS, COME BACK, AND THE PATS HAVE 7 POINTS? COULD THERE BE HOPE? SHOULD I STOP WATCHING AS NOT TO JINX THEM? AND WHY THE $*$**@ AM I WRITING IN ALL CAPS?
• (Oh, it was because I was behind on my DVR . . . and it was a long drive to boot. I'm ashamed. Leave it to me to miss their only touchdown. Have I mentioned I love Doug Gabriel?)
• Pats get the ball back, but go three-and-out. Arggh. I'd like to witness one highlight tonight. Five minutes left and they need two scores. Not looking good.
• The Pats' dink-and-dunk down the field, but on fourth and 1 from the 20 with 1:07 remaining, Brady's 55th pass of the night falls to the sod, and the suspenseless defeat is complete. Final score: Denver 17, New England 7. Good think the AFC East stinks, or it might be time to worry why the Patriots quarterback has had three subpar games in a row and looks like he's trying to throw the damn deep ball all the way to Seattle.
• So what are our instant conclusions from this? Well, obviously, that Denver is, at the moment, a superior football team. They've beaten the Pats, the closest thing to a dynasty in the modern NFL, six times in their last seven meetings, and Denver very well could have won the lone game they lost. They should be the favorite every time they play the Patriots from here on out, and their Genius Coach is one step ahead of our Genius Coach. Maybe by the time the playoffs roll around New England will be a worthy (and even superior) opponent, but right now they have a long way to go to even pretend to be a Super Bowl contender. The wide receivers and the quarterback look like they are working from different playbooks, the defensive backs are tripping all over each other, and the big names on defense aren't making big plays - or even stopping the Tatum Bells of the world - when the situation pleads for it. I trust that, given good health, the Patriots will be a better team at the end of the season than they are right now; that's usually the case with a Belichick team, and hey, they are 2-1. But three games into the season, they hardly look like the team we hoped they'd be, and they've got some long yardage to go to get there.