Thursday, November 30, 2006

Roster bonus

It's 10:21 p.m. on the eve of December, and at this precise moment the thermometer tells me it's sixty-three bleepin' degrees outside. Did I mention I live in Wells, Maine, where there are usually penguins waddling around in my driveway this time of year? Or that I just came inside from shooting hoops in my driveway in a t-shirt and shorts? At 10 p.m. in freakin' November? Dude, I love global warming!

Anyway, this ridiculously unseasonable weather has me thinking about when all the nights are warm (okay, most of them) and the baseball is again in the air at Fenway. It feels like there should be a game tonight . . . yet once glance at the roster jolts you back to the cold reality of the long days ahead, for the 2007 Red Sox are far from being ready to play ball.

So here's my question to you, homies: When all the transactions have been completed and all of Steve Phillips's scoops have been proven idiotic, what will the Red Sox's opening day roster look like? Here's my best guess, with this disclaimer: Don't hold it against me five months from now. I've got to believe Theo's working on some moves that none of us have considered yet. Actually, let me rephrase that: I hope he's working on some moves that none of us have considered . . . because I'm not too thrilled with the ones we know he is considering. Anyway, here's my 25 . . .

SS Julio Lugo

We saw him 19 times a year for, what, five years with the Devil Rays? And never once did I catch myself thinking, "Damn, I'd love to have that Lugo in Boston someday." Are we sure Theo isn't confusing him with Carl Crawford or something?

CF Coco Crisp
He gets a mulligan for his Boston debut - he was just never right after busting his finger. He'll be better in the No. 2 slot, and better in his second season.

DH David Ortiz
It's an insult to the hitter he's become to suggest he'll suffer without Manny. Papi will be fine - on the field and off.

RF J.D. Drew
I'm with Ryan. What's the fascination, Theo? I know the skill-set and the OPS is appealing . . . but damn, it's time to start giving consideration again to a player's mental makeup. I'm tired of watching this supposedly progressive front office throw multimillion contracts to well-known Cowardly Lions who will shrivel under the scrutiny.

LF Wily Mo Pena
His numbers were impressive (.301, 11 homers in 276 at-bats). His power is astounding. So why does he seem like such an easy out?

1B Adrian Gonzalez
Sox have always coveted the former overall No. 1 pick - they nearly plucked him from Texas two years ago - and he'll arrive in the swap for Manny. Quietly had a heck of a breakout season at age 24, particularly given his home park, and is an excellent first baseman. I like him, despite the price.

3B Mike Lowell
I'm skeptical that he'll replicate his bounce-back season at the plate, but the Sox have never had a third baseman with better hands. He'll be an asset again.

C Jason Varitek
It'd be nice if they could sign a backup competent enough to reduce the aging captain's workload to 125-130 games. (Gregg Zaun would have been ideal.) That way, his bat might not be dead by August.

2B Dustin Pedroia
I'm not seeing what they see. Me, I'm seeing Brent Abernathy.

Daisuke Matsuzaka

They'll get the deal with devil (Boras) done, though Lucchino wouldn't be my first choice as designated diplomat. And I can't wait to watch him pitch.

Jonathan Papelbon
Please let his shoulder be healthy . . . please let his shoulder be healthy . . .

Josh Beckett
I trust he's matured after taking so many lumps last season. He'll win 17, minimum, with a sub-4.00 ERA . . . and even on his best days, I'll still catch myself wishing Hanley Ramirez were still one of ours.

Curt Schilling
Considering he famously stirred the *&$* and urged Philly fans to boo J.D. Drew years ago, it's pretty damn hypocritical of him to call out Ryan for wondering why the Sox would be interested in the wildly unpopular outfielder. Schilling will always have a place in my heart for 2004, but I think I'd like him even more if he were born mute.

Tim Wakefield
Can you believe he's going to be 41 this season? Oh, to have mastery of a knuckleball.

Scott Linebrink

While I really hope my man Edes is onto something with tonight's Jake Peavy-for-Manny rumor, I fret that Linebrink is the pitcher they'll get instead. While his numbers the last three years are excellent, I'm skeptical of any twice-discarded relief pitcher who rejuvenates his career in San Diego.

Mike Timlin
Even after his collapse last season - check out that alarmingly miniscule K-rate - he's worth a flyer. Have you looked at the pathetic list of free-agent relievers?

Manny Delcarmen
He needs to take the next step, or the pride of Hyde Park may find himself in another organization soon. Here's hoping he gets command of that great stuff and becomes the power arm in the setup role the Sox desperately need.

Hideki Okajima
The Japanese Mike Myers? I can live with that.

Julian Tavarez
Well, at least he makes it interesting, and he's not a bad option as a swingman. Wonder who he'll sucker punch this year.

The Reliever For Whom Kevin Youkilis Is Traded
Just a wild hunch here. Theo has to be up to something off the radar, right? And I think it's possible that Youkilis (whose OPS was .001 lower than some dude named Millar's) will be dealt before he's exposed as Just Another Guy. Think Billy Beane still has his "Moneyball" man-crush? I'd gladly accept Justin Duchscherer in return.

Alex Cora

Not much of a stick, but his versatility and smarts make him the best utility player the Sox have had in my lifetime. (What, you prefer Jack Brohamer?)

Eric Hinske
Should be a more than serviceable bat off the bench, though he showed nothing after coming over from Toronto.

David Murphy
Fifth outfielder, setting the stage for a 10-year career as the next Ricky Ledee.

Trot Nixon
Yeah, like he's not going to accept arbitration. I cannot believe Dirty Helmet is going to be here and Manny is not. Sometimes I hate sports.

Mike Lieberthal
Wishful thinking? You try finding a decent backup catcher on this list. Heaven help us, there's a chance Mirabelli might be back, isn't there?

Bryce Cox, RP

I'm convinced he'll contribute before Craig Hansen will - in fact, I think he's going to be a huge factor this year.

Devern Hansack, RP
Really knows how to pitch, and has better stuff than a lot of established arms. I'm a believer.

Craig Hansen, RP
I think he'll be fine with time . . . but where's that electric slider we heard so much about coming out of St. John's?

* * *

Well, whaddaya say? Agree with all 25? Think I'm getting dumber by the day? Will they sign Eric Gagne? Trade for Andruw Jones? Have at it in the comments, dopes. If you need me, I'll be at the beach.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Say hello, wave goodbye

This time, I'm afraid, all the experts, insiders, and rumor pushers are right. Like one of his legendary moonshots toward the Mass Pike, Manny Ramirez is going, going, gone.

Now, unless this is your first visit to this warped corner of cyberspace, you're surely aware that TATB is unabashed Manny Territory. We admit it upfront. We're awed by the player (should Albert Pujols fail to keep up the pace, Manny's Hall of Fame plaque will refer to him as the greatest righthanded hitter of his era) and amused by the man-child antics (though admittedly not so much come last September, when his season was aborted due to some combination of injury and indifference). Other than Butch Hobson, the wild-eyed idol of our childhood, we have never enjoyed watching a Red Sox player more. You could say every blast has been a blast.

Yet we're resigned to the sad fact that he'll be an ex-Red Sox shortly, just as soon as Theo Epstein receives the appropriate handful of shiny rocks and magic beans in return. Manny's going to be a Dodger, or an Angel, or a Padre, and one of the most fun, productive, and successful eras in Red Sox history will officially be in the past tense. Pardon me while I cue up Faith Rewarded and wonder why it feels so long ago.

It's not like I don't understand why the Sox would consider shopping him. He's going to be 35 next season; the decline has to begin sometime, and his aching knees may already be a harbinger. And if you believe the whispers - certain to be a full-fledged smear campaign once the deal is consummated - the home clubhouse may not be such a welcoming place for him anymore. I find no fault with Buster Olney's clear-eyed assessment of the situation today:

"Here's the thing: It seems evident that the Red Sox have determined internally that they are better off without Ramirez, a talented slugger who is nonetheless an enormous distraction, and may or may not have quit on the team in the last five weeks of the regular season. And if that's what club officials believe -- if they believe that having Manny Being Manny is a serious problem -- they should make the best deal possible for Ramirez ASAP and move on."

Well-said, but here's the quandary: The words that spring off the screen in that paragraph are "best deal possible," and of all the rumors floating around out there right now, not one of them strikes me as particularly beneficial to the 2007 Red Sox. Scot Shields and a prospect from the Angels? Throw in Brandon Wood and Howie Kendrick and we'll talk. James Loney and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers? Intriguing, especially if Theo's goal is to bolster the Pawtucket roster for the summer. Scott Linebrink from the Padres? C'mon, Theo, don't get pantsed by Kevin Towers again.

There's one question that every Red Sox fan should be pondering right now: How in the hell does trading Manny make the Red Sox better?

Will they get an equal talent in return? Highly unlikely, unless Albert Pujols should suddenly get caught looting Tony La Russa's office or Texas foolishly parts with Mark Teixeira after a down year.

Does trading him allow them the financial flexibility to fill other holes? Sure. But if you give me the choice of Manny Ramirez and two replacement-level players or no Manny, but with the immensely unlikeable Julio Lugo and J.D. Drew, I'll take the former option and kick the latter's butt all season long. And frankly, I'm so sure I trust them to spend Manny's millions wisely. In Theo we trust? Yeah, not so much these days.

I'd feel better about this if only they were doing it for baseball reasons. Instead, they seem intent on trading a diamond for three cubic zirconiums, just to rid themselves of the Manny Melodrama. Heck, noted baseball historian Hazel Mae attempted to sum up that mind-set tonight on NESN: "Getting rid of Manny might not be as great as it sounds," she bleated. I don't even know what the hell that means. It's like she was channeling McCarver.

Unfortunately, her silly comment speaks to the common perception we're dealing with at the moment: trading Manny is a good thing, no matter what the return. It seems most of the Trade Manny advocates blame him solely for the gruesome demise of the 2006 Sox, ignoring the indisputable fact that virtually everyone else on the roster either got hurt or, pardon my French, royally sucked down the stretch. Oh, the anti-Manny brigade will yelp and yowl and wait on hold for 45 minutes just to agree with that third-rate lounge act Mike Adams that they deserve someone reliable, a DIRT DAWGGG, A GAME-AH, not a QUITTAH like Manny.

Well, guess what, ya basement-dwelling dope? He's one of the most reliable players in the history of the sport. During his six seasons with the Red Sox, he's batted .316, with an average of 39 homers and 116 RBIs. He has been the Gehrig to Papi's Babe, or vice versa, and you can check the numbers, adjust them for their era, and you'll realize that's not at all hyperbolic. Even with the headaches and midsummer vacations, he's been worth every single Benjamin of his $160 million contract. You want reliable? Despite missing 42 games with a busted finger in 2001, he's averaged 142 games per season with the Sox, a number his supposed successor in the cleanup spot, the infamously indifferent Drew, has surpassed twice in his nine-year career.

Trade him? Sad to say, I'm afraid the banshees will win this round, people. I'm afraid the Sox front office will be unburdened from the contract they've always abhorred, even now, ironically, as it's become a downright bargain. Manny's a goner. This time, it's inevitable.

Too bad. In a time when one-tool players (Juan Pierre) and one-year flashes (Gary Matthews Jr.) are getting PowerBall deals, you bet it's time the Sox do something with Manny Ramirez.

Me, I'd start by picking up his option.

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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

First and 10: Patriots 17, Bears 13

1. It was a far cry from flawless, what with the nine combined turnovers, including five by the Patriots, three in the red zone. But you know what? Our Guys won, and if there's anything we've learned during the Belichick/Dynasty Era, it's that a W is a W is a W, not matter how aesthetically unpleasant it may be. Besides, we tend to agree with Ron Borges's take this morning - there is something intrinsically appealing in watching two violent and relentless defenses do their thing. It was a fun and ultimately rewarding game to watch, mistakes, blunders, terrible calls, deflected passes and all. Best of all, the Patriots took the Bears' best shot, and for the first time this season against an elite foe, they didn't prove to have a glass chin; finally, they earned a notable victory against a team with a winning record, and if the season progresses in the manner we expect it to, it's entirely possible that the rematch of these two heavyweights will be scheduled Feb. 4 in Miami.

2. Farewell, Junior Seau. I admit I was a skeptic when you deferred your "graduation" to answer Bill Belichick's call - aging former superstars with a reputation for freelancing aren't often willing accomplices to the Patriot Way. Yet you played so remarkably well and fit in so seamlessly in your 11 games as a Patriot, damned if it didn't feel like you had been one of ours all along. Here's hoping that raucous, appreciative salute the Gillette Stadium crowd gave you as you departed gave you a measure of pride and joy to combat the agony of the moment.

3. Wow, was that Asante Samuel out there, or was it Ty Law in a braided wig? No. 22's performance Sunday was right out of ol' No. 24's highlight reel - three interceptions that showed off hands Chad Jackson would kill for, a surprisingly steady and stout presence in the running game (nine tackles), and an occasional, forgivable gamble that doesn't pay off. Samuel is a free agent after this season, and while he strikes me as a solid No. 2 cornerback rather than a legit No. 1, I hope the Patriots pay him, even as the price keeps rising. Quality corners are rare gems, and Samuel has proven to be at least that.

4. Brady's Vick-in-super-slo-mo fakeout of Brian Urlacher has to be one of my favorite random Patriots plays of all-time, and it was enhanced by the players' reaction to it: Brady busted out the completely out-of-character, animated "First Downnnn!" signal, while Urlacher's sheepish smile revealed his embarrassment beneath his facemask. And for what it's worth, after watching him brawl with my favorite team, I admire Urlacher even more now than I did before. Not only is he a force of nature on the field - no one that big should be that fast - but, at the risk of sounding like one of those Favre suck-ups, he's clearly enjoying himself out there. The guy is a joy to watch, for both talent and temperament.

5. He's still something of an enigma - how could he allow two sure receptions to ricochet skyward and become interceptions? - but it's worth noting that Ben Watson is quietly having a stellar statistical season. He's fourth among tight ends in receiving yards (599, ahead of such notables as Todd Heap and Alge Crumpler) and fifth in receptions (45). And best of all, he seems to be getting better and gaining more of Brady's trust with each passing week. He's becoming exactly what we hoped he'd be, even if he's not quite there yet.

6. Dr. Z has long been my second-favorite football-loving curmudgeon (after my dad), but I really lost a heap of respect for him after this irresponsible item in a recent column:

Let's take a look at all-pro DE/DT Richard Seymour. . . . I watched Seymour when the Pats lost to the Jets. Biggest dog you've ever seen on the field. No effort, no technique, I mean tight ends were steering him around like a VW. OK, maybe he was hurt. You never know with this club.

C'mon, now, what the hell is that? A vicious attack ("biggest dog you've ever seen") followed quickly by a half-assed concession that he "might" be hurt? Pathetic. Seymour, his elbow and leg injuries apparently healing, was again his havoc-wreaking self against the Bears. I hope Dr. Z took notice, though I suspect he was too busy watching Matlock re-runs and worrying about making it to the early-bird special in time to pay much attention.

7. I've got "Monday Night Football" on in the background here at the TATB home office (a.k.a. the couch). And while I might be mistaken, apparently Joe Theismann stopped admiring his reflection in his always-handy pocket mirror long enough to pay attention to tonight's game, because I swear I just heard him blabber these well-worn words: "That's just Brett trying to make a play there. You've really got to admire his competitiveness." So what gridiron miracle did Funny-Bone Favre pull off this time? Hail Mary touchdown pass to Driver, perhaps? C'mon, you know better than that . . . try and ill-advised, who-gives-$*&#& heave, followed by an interception, followed by the requisite excuse-making from the color commentator. I've really got no problem with Favre, who's likeable enough even as he fades into mediocrity. But I've gotta say, the incessant verbal backrubs really make me root for him to suck.

8. Hmmm . . . looks like Giants fans are starting to suspect that Eli Manning isn't and never will be the quarterbacking equal of his big brother. How soon before Stage Father Archie demands the Giants trade his Youngest Doofus Spawn to a more accommodating place . . . you know, such as sunny San Diego? Man, karma is a . . .

9. Other scattered thoughts from Week 12: Joey Harrington has a whole hell of a lot more class than Matt Millen and his bush-league Lions. How does that proven dope keep his job, anyway? . . . For all the hubbub surrounding his comments, Jim Mora Sr. was spot-on: Michael (Dirty Bird) Vick is a coach-killer . . . A buddy of mine who's a Cowboys fan to the point of raging insanity (he sucker-punched a sliding-glass door when Vinatieri flagged down Herschel) says Tony Romo's quarterbacking style reminds him of Jeff Garcia during his peak years in San Francisco. Um, lets hope T.O. doesn't find out about this comparison . . . Did you catch Marvin Harrison's little hissy fit against the Eagles? Looks like Ty Law's old punching bag is having a tough time coming to grips with being Reggie Wayne's caddy in Indy . . . Martin Gramatica in, Drunken Idiot Kicker out in Dallas. I still don't understand why the Tuna didn't ante up for Vinatieri . . . The six best teams at the moment: 1. San Diego (but Marty Schottenheimer, the Tom O'Brien of the NFL, will screw it up on the big stage.) 2. Baltimore (until McNair's inevitable injury) 3. Indy (Joseph Addai looks like an upgrade over Edgerrin James) 4. New England (and you know I'd bet on them to beat the three teams ahead of them when it matters) 5. Dallas (Romo has cured everything!) 6. Chicago (if only they had a better QB than Rex the Blunder Dog).

10. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Kevin Faulk broke Collins's team record for career receptions by a running back Sunday with his 262d, and I'm not going to tell you how old it made me feel to realize that my memories of Collins's rookie season are 25 freakin' years old. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go funnel some Metamucil with Dr. Z.

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Sunday, November 26, 2006

And don't forget John Lowenstein

Whoa, check it out! It's a weekend edition of the long-lost Random Lists of Five . .

The five leading rushers on the record-setting 1978 Patriots:
1. Sam Bam Cunningham: 199 carries, 768 yards, 3.9 average, 8 TDs
2. Andy Johnson: 147-675-4.6-3
3. Horace Ivory: 141-693-4.9-11
4. Steve Grogan: 81-539-6.7-5
5. Don Calhoun: 76-391-5.1-1

Five receivers chosen in the second round by the Patriots.
1. Bethel Johnson, '03 (fast and clueless)
2. Tony Simmons, '99 (fast and clueless)
3. Kevin Lee, '94 (busted his jaw in preseason and is still on IR as far as I know.)
4. Deion Branch, '02 (fast, smart, fearless, clutch . . . and rich.)
5. Chad Jackson, '06 (fast and clueless so far . . . but there's hope)

Five players drafted ahead of Kalamazoo's own Derek Jeter and his barely pubescent intangibles in the 1992 MLB draft. (Cap'n' Jetes went sixth, to Team Beelzebub.)
1. Phil Nevin, 3b, Houston Astros (Astros scout Hal Newhouser quit after his pleas to pick Jeter were ignored)
2. Paul Shuey, RHP, Cleveland Indians (whatever happened to him, anyway?)
3. B.J. Wallace, LHP, Montreal Expos (never made the majors)
4. Jeffrey Hammonds, OF, Baltimore Orioles (Charismatic underachiever, he was compared to Rickey Henderson while at Stanford. Turned out he wasn't even Steve Henderson)
5. Chad Mottola, OF, Cincinnati Reds (Quadruple-A lifer who had a cup of coffee with the Jays this season at age 34.)

Five best episodes of The Office:
1. Casino Night (Watch it again. There is not a wasted word or moment in the seamless, Steve Carell-penned script. I dream of writing something that good someday. Once.)
2. Booze Cruise (Krasinski deserved an Emmy nod alone for his performance during the famous deck scene that featured 30-something seconds of silence.)
3. Diversity Day
4. Boys and Girls (You know how we feel about Jenna Fischer - Hi there! Meow! - but even someone who doesn't find her as lovely as TATB does must admit that she never fails to capture Pam's anguish/vulnerability with subtle brilliance.)
5. The Merger (Best line of many: "Wow, you're exotic-looking. Was your dad a G.I.?" Also: "Hi, I'm Jim." Perfectly in character for the situation.)

Five Maine Guides only me and Steve Buckley have heard of:
1. Steve Marsden
2. Doug Simunic
3. George Cecchetti
4. Barry Brunenkant
5. Wil Culmer (the original Pedro Cerrano)

Five wild 'n' crazy characters on the otherwise forgettable 1975 Cleveland Indians:
1. Oscar Gamble and his kick-ass 'Fro
2. The Eck
3. Boog Powell
4. Blue Moon Odom
5. Gaylord Perry

Five favorite sports talk radio shows (in no particular order):
1. The V Show, late-night weekends, ESPN (Bob Valvano is affable and reasonable)
2. Mike Felger Show, ESPN 890, Boston (Felger makes fun of himself enough to make up for the Corey Dillon-is-mean-to-me melodrama; a hell of an alternative to the Big Blow on 'EEI)
*3. The Home Team, WGAM 900, Nashua, N.H.
*4. The Shootaround, WZON 620, Bangor, Me.
*5. The Sports Zone, WTPL 107.7, Concord, N.H.
* - Blatantly sucking up because TATB is/has been a regular guest. And we're always looking for more . . .

Five best NFL teams I've ever seen:
1. 1994 San Francisco 49ers (So ridiculously stacked, Ed McCaffrey and Wesley Walls were scrubs.)
2. 1985 Chicago Bears (Lose points here for stiffing Payton in the Super Bowl.)
3. 1992 Dallas Cowboys (Back when Emmitt could really dance.)
4. 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers
5. 2004 New England Patriots (Will history give them their due?)

Five best NBA teams I've ever seen:
1. 1985-86 Boston Celtics (Walton hitting Bird on a backdoor cut. Basketball poetry.)
2. 1986-87 L.A. Lakers (Magic's best all-around season, and Worthy and Byron Scott were in their prime.)
3. 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers (If you never saw Andrew Toney before he got hurt, you missed out.)
4. 1984-85 L.A. Lakers. (Gotta give 'em credit for getting over the hump and taking the Celtics out in 6.)
5. 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (72 wins? Ah, I say the '86 Celts beat 'em in 5.)

Five defensive backs Belichick and Pioli were brutally wrong about:
1. Brock Williams (waste of a third-rounder in '01)
2. Dexter Reid
3. Guss Scott (though injuries have robbed him of a legitimate chance)
4. Antonio Langham (God, was he terrible)
5. Tommy Knight (a first-round pick of the Cardinals in the '90s . . . in other words, he had no chance.)

Five players the Sox should pursue instead of Lugo and Drew:
1. Eric Gagne (isn't anyone going to close next year?)
2. Dave Dellucci (ideal 350-at bat stick off the bench)
3. Mark Teixeira (among all the Manny rumors, this is the most intriguing)
4. Brad Lidge (but not as a closer - he's too jittery post-Pujols - and certainly not in a deal for Manny)
5. Some anonymous middle reliever who will work cheap and deliver a sub-3.50 ERA. (Ah, those guys don't exist, do they?)

Five coolest members of Phi Slamma Jamma:
1. Benny Anders (he's the Jheri-curled flash who misses a steal by thismuch right before Lorenzo Charles's famous dunk, and one of basketball's all-time enigmas. )
2. Larry "Mr. Mean" Micheaux
3. Akeem Olajuwon (pre-H)
4. Michael Young (Celtics first-rounder who was beaten out as a rookie by Rick Carlisle)
5. Alvin Franklin (much was made about the revelation that he didn't know where the library was on the Houston campus. Not sure that would be news nowadays.)

Five favorite Bruins (and remember, we're too young for Orr):
1. Cam Neely (the ideal Bruin and a better man whose lasting legacy has nothing to do with hockey)
2. Terry O'Reilly (he shoulda been from Southie)
3. Stan Jonathan (all-time favorite goon, though John Wensink is a close second)
4. Adam Oates (there's always room for a natural passer on our team)
5. Bob Beers (Mighty UMaine's own, and let's just say he had the reputation of living up to his last name)

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Saturday, November 25, 2006

A boy named Nancy

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free pea-brained ideas for you . . .

1. Just when I was talking myself into thinking J.D. Drew would be a good fit in the No. 5 slot for the Sox, Gordon Edes reveals that the injury-prone and indifferent Drew's nickname within the Dodgers clubhouse was "Nancy Drew." Good lord, and I thought calling him D.L. Drew was an insult. Suddenly, I'm thinking Trot Nixon on a one-year deal to platoon with Wily Mo isn't the worst idea. And Dave Dellucci wouldn't be a bad Plan D. At least they want to play.

2. Gary Matthews Jr. was a .249 hitter coming into this season. He's 32 years old. He's been claimed on waivers three times and outright released once. He was nearly traded straight-up for Tony Graffanino last spring. And he gets five years and $55 million from the Angels? How long until the buyer's remorse sets in? April? Then again, I'd rather have Matthews than Juan Pierre, who has no power, no arm, and makes more outs than just about any player in baseball. I'm not one to get worked up about contracts . . . but damn, some of these deals are just inexplicable.

3. The only chance the Bears have of beating the Patriots Sunday is if they can make Tom Brady play like his name is Rex Grossman. I can't see the Chicago offense making much headway (even if Willie Clay and Prentice McCray end up starting in the Pats' depleted defensive backfield), and I can see Brady, Laurence Maroney and the Pats solving Urlacher and his fearsome friends just enough to win. Prediction: Patriots 17, Ditka 9.

4. Okay, after that football interlude, I gotta go back to my rant about all of these ridiculous baseball contracts. If Alfonso Soriano is worth $138 million, and Carlos Lee gets a nice, even $100 mil, what would a 34-year-old Manny Ramirez get on the open market right now? One-twenty? One-fifty? Or would his age and spaciness work against him? I never for a moment thought Manny's 8-year, $160-million contract was an albatross for the Sox - I've certainly got my money's worth watching him through the seasons, and he never failed to produce - and now, with two years and $34 million remaining, it's a downright bargain.

5. Ken Walter? Really? That's the best they can do? Again? Was Brooks Barnard unavailable? OH, I suppose Josh Miller was struggling this season, and he's older than you think, but make no mistake, he'll be missed. He was the unsung hero of the Patriots' Super Bowl victory over the Eagles, and he's about the steadiest punter the Patriots had since Rich Camarillo called Foxboro home. Yeah, Miller's just the lonesome punter, but this a major loss.

6. Gotta love the New York tabloids, which were predictably outraged when the Twins' Justin Morneau edged the sweetest-smelling shortstop in all the land for the AL MVP award. George King, the dishonest and slimy Yankees beat writer for the NY Post, went so far as to suggest it was an anti-Yankee bias that cost Captain Intangibles his rightful honor. Funny, but I didn't hear anyone spouting such a theory when A-Rod beat out Papi for the award last year.

7. Brian Scalabrine has no business being inside an NBA arena without paying for a ticket. Why Doc Rivers continues to give him any minutes at the expense of Gerald Green, Leon Powe, Ryan Gomes, Terry Duerod, anyone, remains a damning indictment of Doc's abilities as an NBA coach and talent evaluator.

8. Tony Romo reminds me of Jake Plummer . . . except, you know, good. Forget what I said last week - you bet I'm buying the hype now, to the point that I'm daydreaming of a Pats-Cowboys Super Bowl and wondering how Belichick would defend Dallas.

9. Hard to believe his fumble against the Jets is the lone transgression that has Doug Gabriel buried deep in the Belichick doghouse. Among the new receivers, he seemed to adapt the quickest to the Patriots offense, and until two weeks ago I had more faith in him than I did Reche Caldwell or Jabar Gaffney. There's gotta be something we don't know.

10. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

What's that you say? It was Pat Dobson? The ex-Oriole? Whoops, never mind then.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

First and 10: Patriots 35, Packers 0

1. Well, that sure was a reassuring win. In many ways, the 35-0 beat-down of Brett Fav-rah and the Packers was a classic Belichick-era Patriots victory. Whenever their backs have been up against the wall and they face a must-win situation, that's when they've tended to play their very best games. Talk about an immensely valuable characteristic to have. Of course, questions still remain: Why have they been so much better on the road than at the Razor? Are they capable of playing this way against a playoff-caliber team? Is there enough depth in the defensive backfield to shut down a quarterback better than the disinterested Favre? I suppose we'll get all the answers in the coming weeks. But after Sunday, you have to feel encouraged that we're going to like what we learn about this still-resilient team.

2. Tom Brady? Injured? (Scoffs.) That's crazy talk. Man, you must have read that somewhere else. What idiot would suggest such a thing? Oh, all right, to be completely honest, I remain skeptical that he is as healthy as he claims to be. I just can't comprehend that his uncharacteristically inconsistent passing this season is simply the result of a suddenly scattershot arm. He's been so consistent for so long that you have to believe something is wrong when his radar inexplicably goes on the fritz. But if he's going to keep playing as efficiently and effectively as he did this week - now that was the Brady we've been waiting to see - I'll be glad to be proven wrong each and every Sunday, all the way to Miami.

3. It looks like the Patriots don't have much intention of signing him after the season, and he probably hasn't produced enough to justify being a first-round pick in 2002, but I think the Patriots are a better football team when Daniel Graham is healthy and involved. He remains a devastating blocker - ask Julius Peppers about the whupping Graham put on him in the Super Bowl XXXVIII - and while he seems to juggle every catch he makes, he's an effective receiver despite his limited use. Maybe if he can stay healthy for the rest of the season, they'll give more consideration to keeping him around. He's no star, but his value can't be denied.

4. So what was the most ridiculous aspect of the Brett Favre "He'd Play The Game For Free!" experience Sunday? How the NFL's most accomplished drama queen needed a friggin' medical cart to get to the locker room after suffering an owie to his funny bone? How said medical cart/motorcade nearly turned a Patriots player (Ellis Hobbs, I believe) into roadkill as the teams left the field for halftime? Or how CBS - and the affably oblivious Dan Dierdorf in particular - acted as if Favre's absence was some devastating loss to the Packers, when in fact he was an abysmal 5 for 15 for 73 yards and looked as if he couldn't wait for the damn hopeless cause to get over with? He's playing for the streak now (250 and counting), and little else. Back in the day - you know, when he was actually good - I admired Favre for his obvious talent and joy as much as anyone. But those days are long gone, and the he-can-do-no-wrong Jeterification of his accomplishments is little more than a misleading annoyance at this point.

5. We interrupt this football programming to bring you this special report: THE CUBS PAID $136 MILLION FOR ALFONSO (SLIDER IN THE DIRT, STRIKE THREE) SORIANO? HOLY *#*#*!!! YOU HAVE GOT TO BE *$&%&#*&#& KIDDING ME!!! THAT'S INSANITY!!!! We now return to your regularly scheduled programming.

6. Gotta admit, I'm coming around on Reche Caldwell. Sure, I had my gripes about his seemingly slippery hands and inability to get separation, and the dude's Chris Tucker eyes still freak me out. But he deserves nothing but plaudits for his recent steady and reliable play, and of all the new additions to the receiving corps, he seems to have done the most to earn Brady's trust. I'd still rather have David Givens, but Caldwell's doing his best to make the Patriots look good for taking a flyer on him.

7. Among the birthday loot I received today from Mrs. TATB (I'm 29 for the ninth straight year, if you were wondering) was a requested copy of Charlie Pierce's best-seller-to-be on Ol' No. 12 In Your Program, No. 1 In Patriots Fans' Hearts. I have this suspense-killing habit of skimming a book before I actually read it, and during tonight's speed read, the most interesting revelation I found was this: Damon Huard, the third-string quarterback during the 2001 season, earned that Super Bowl ring in far more ways than we ever realized. A close friend of Bledsoe's who shared an insatiable work-ethic with Brady, his deftness at diffusing the tension between his quarterbacking peers proved crucial in keeping the team together. I always thought Huard was a better quarterback than he got credit for - the consensus in Miami was that he should have gotten the job over Jay Fiedler after Dan Marino retired, and he's certainly rescued the Chiefs this season - but I had no idea he was such a good teammate, too.

8. The Tony Romo man-love from the Peter Kings of the world is getting to be a bit much. While the kid is a blast to watch, brought energy to the stagnant offense, and has even helped put some color back in the Tuna's alarmingly pallid face, he's become the recipient of verbal backrubs from the media usually reserved for quarterbacks with the surname Manning. (Or Favre.) What is it Parcells himself once said way back when after one of his young Patriots was the object of the media's overwrought platitudes? Ah, yes: "Let's not put the kid in Canton just yet, fellas." Then again, he was talking about Curtis Martin if I recall correctly, and it's a foregone conclusion that there is a mustard-colored jacked in his future. I'm pretty sure I just contradicted my own point there, so let me reiterate the so-called point: Romo is capable, an upgrade on the calcified Bledsoe for sure, and he's making it fun for Dallas fans again. But the fawning could make this fun story annoying pretty quickly for those who don't sleep beneath a Cowboys blankie at night.

9. As if you need more proof that I fall somewhere between "Damn Fool" and "Tony Kornheiser" in terms of football insight, I have to admit that I wrote a column back in 2001 imploring the Patriots to avoid drafting a certain undersized running back from Texas Christian in the first round. Yeah, I thought LaDainian Tomlinson was a stiff. (And I won't even mention that I wanted them to draft David Terrell or Koren Robinson with that No. 6 pick that was eventually used on Richard Seymour. Hey, I wasn't the only one.) Tomlinson, as he's proved with his record-setting sprint to 102 touchdowns in 89 career games, is of course anything but a stiff. At age 27, he's already among the all-time greats, entirely worthy of the LT nickname, and he's made that shrewd Chargers front office look all the more clever: That vaunted Vick-for-LT-and-Brees blockbuster looks more and more like a heist each time Tomlinson crosses the goal line.

10. As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Huh. I guess I just assumed football broadcasting's answer to Tim McCarver has had that goofy-ass mustache since birth.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006

November rain

Why the title? Four reasons, really: 1) It's November. 2) It's raining out. 3) I heard the G 'N' R's bombastic epic on my drive home tonight and realized their catalogue is aging remarkably well even if Axl isn't. 4) It jogged my memory about a column I wrote in my Maine Campus days in which I weaved the lyrics of "November Rain" into a column about . . . wait for it . . . Magic Johnson and AIDS. Sound like it sucked? Yeah, it was actually worse than you think. Just abysmal. There's a better chance of me admitting Fillipelli is hotter than Beesley than of you ever seeing that thing posted here.

Anyway, a few scattered thoughts while we wait for kickoff . . .

• Sure, it could have been easy to overlook Bill Mueller. With his all-substance, little-style approach to the game and an understated Everyman persona that was contrasted by a clubhouse stocked with charismatic Idiots, it was easy to lose him in the shadows. Often it seemed he preferred it that way . But even as his arrival in and departure from Boston both were afterthoughts - he quietly slipped out as a free agent during all the Theo tumult last winter - I believe it's accurate to say he was one of the most universally admired players the Sox ever had. No matter whether you were a Trot-lovin' Dirt Dog or someone who reveled in the Manny moments, you appreciated all that Mueller brought to the team: excellent defense, a quality bat (.329 in '03), and genuine professionalism, every single day. You might recall he was pretty damn clutch, too. It's fair to say that among the handful of greatest highlights in recent Red Sox history, Mueller is at least the Best Supporting Actor in two of them, and I'm guessing the highlight reel in your mind is already playing them as you read this: There is, of course, the walkoff homer off Mariano Rivera that capped the comeback in the "Smell The Glove, A-Rod" game, and Dave Roberts will be the first to tell you that he wouldn't be a folk hero in these parts if Mueller hadn't whacked a single past Rivera's glove, scoring Roberts after legendary steal in Game 4 of the '04 ALCS. I bring all of this up because Mueller was forced to retire from the LA Dodgers this week, his famously creaky knees now "crumbling" and an active lifestyle an impossibility at the moment. While I'm sure he will be successful in his new role as a front-office consultant to Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, it's sad to see such an admirable athlete's career end prematurely. So I just wanted to say farewell - and thank you - to one ex-Red Sox everyone could agree was worthy of our cheers. It'd be a shame for him to be overlooked now.

• Three years and $14 million for Alex Gonzalez? First reaction: You gotta love the glove, but for that money, the Reds can have him and his noodle bat. Of course, this opinion is liable to be reversed come May, when the Sox are paying the unlikeable and uninspiring Julio Lugo $8 million a year to sling errant throws into the rich-guy seats.

• If the Red Sox are going to win the J.D. Drew sweepstakes, you bet I'd prefer the winning bid be the 2-year, $30-million deal the Rocky Mountain News reported this week rather than the 4-year, $56-million future albatross that Drew is supposedly coveting. I'm not as down on Drew as some people - there's no question he is a highly productive hitter when healthy, and he'd fit nicely into the five spot behind Papi and Manny. But when you hear about the famously passive L.A. fans growing frustrated with his nonchalant attitude, that's a clue he's probably not the kind of guy you want to reward with long-term security. I'm guessing he wouldn't be so injury-prone on a short contract.

Manny for Aaron Heilman and Lastings Milledge, eh, Buster? I'd like to believe there's at least one key name omitted from this rumor - hell, I'm pretending it's Carlos Beltran's, if only for my mental health. Unfortunately, that nagging suspicion can't be denied: If Omar Minaya is willing to give up Heilman (a journeyman waiting to happen) and Milledge (whose star fell farther with every overmatched at-bat last season), I think Theo gives serious consideration to moving Manny to the Mets. And just so you know, that's when I start breaking things.

• Two weeks ago, we never would have thunk it, but suddenly the course of the Patriots' season depends heavily on the outcome of today's business trip to Lambeau . . . and suddenly, it doesn't look so much like a sure 'W' as it did the first time we smugly eyeballed the schedule. If the Pats lose to Brett (He's Having Fun Out There! He's Like A Little Kid! He'd Play For Free! He's Swallowing Vicodin By The Fistful!) Favre and the Packers today, they're looking at a 6-4 record, a three-game losing streak, and the looming specter of a bloodbath with the Bears next Sunday. In other words: This is what you call a must-win. So . . . will they? Common sense says yes, that Brady will snap out of this funk, Maroney will get the ball more than 12 damn times, and the defense will be fierce and opportunistic . . . but I'd feel a whole lot better about if 3/4ths of the starting defensive backfield wasn't watching from afar. The prediction: New England 27, Green Bay 20, and it won't be pretty.

• Broncos linebacker Al Wilson was just quoted on SportsCenter as saying the Chargers' Philip Rivers is the second-best quarterback in the NFL after Archie's Older Doofus Spawn. I'd like to think our Mr. Brady was watching ESPN tonight and would find some motivation in this, but the truth is, the way No. 12 has played against the Broncos recently, I can see why Wilson would consider him just another quarterbacking mortal.

• As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Three Lombardi Trophies later, and I can still see Hason Graham whiffing on the tackle like it was last Sunday.

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

18 questions

(Because I'm too freakin' tired to attempt 20 . . .)

1. So now that we've had a couple of days to wrap our heads around this Daisuke Matsuzaka story, let's start with this: What's the best part about the whole delightfully mind-boggling development?

You mean other than imagining the look on Brian Cashman's hangdog face when he realized the Sox had won the bidding? How about this: That despite the shock and incredulity from certain corners regarding the $51.1 million posting price, no one is even hinting it's a bad investment, because no one is even remotely skeptical about his ability to be an ace in the major leagues. It's not by accident that the Red Sox, Yankees, Mets and Rangers all greatly exceeded the predicted posting price of $20 million - this kid gets nothing but rave reviews, everyone is smitten with his ability, and they were all desperate to obtain him. Also, it's pretty cool that his wife is nicknamed "Rockets." If I'm not mistaken, Johnny Damon's wife's nickname was "Zeppelins."

2. So, doofus, do you want to take a moment to apologize to Buster Olney, who proved correct with his scoop that the Sox won the Matsuzaka sweepstakes, despite your assertion that he bats "somewhere around the Mendoza Line" when he tries to break a story?

Yup. My bad . . . and you bet I'm glad he was right. Hey, I like and respect Olney . . . and I like and respect him even more now that I know he's the Dexter Manley of sports writing. (Whaddaya mean the Onion is satirical?)

3. Why did the Patriots sign the mummified remains of Vinny Testaverde?

Because Tom Brady is physically hurting. Oh, I suppose there's some truth to the theory that Testaverde, who broke into the league when Brady was 10, will act as a sounding board and another set of eyes. After all, Brady, whose chief confidants are a 30-year-old offensive coordinator and backup who was a backup in college, probably relies on his own knowledge more than any QB in the league. But I'm convinced - and I know I'll take some crap for this - that Brady is playing through an injury, one that just might be affecting his play. C'mon, it's okay to admit it: With the exception of the first Buffalo game and the Minnesota victory, he hasn't been himself all season, particularly in terms of his accuracy. He's been . . . decent. Nothing more, and certainly not the steady stalwart we've come to expect. There's something going on here . . . and remember, Brady had hernia surgery shortly after last season ended, so it's not like playing through an undisclosed injury is unprecedented. I think Belichick is concerned about his condition, watched him take that violent beating against the Jets, and realized it was foolish to proceed with just one backup to his aching and possibly ailing franchise quarterback. So the bat signal went out for ol' reliable Vinny. You bet I hope I'm wrong about this, and Brady drops 400 yards and four TDs on the Lambeau loyalists this Sunday. But I've seen enough this season to know better than to expect it.

4. Why are the Sox willing to pay Julio Lugo $8 million per season?

Because they didn't learn a goddamn thing from the Edgar Renteria disaster - namely, that if you have a perfectly capable, defensively stellar shortstop, there's no need to replace him with someone more expensive who might be marginally better. Cripes, I wish they'd just kept Orlando Cabrera and saved us from this annual charade.

5. Will Manny Ramirez be batting cleanup for the Sox come Opening Day?

God, I hope so. Hell, you guys know how I feel about Manny by now. I consider myself fortunate to be able to watch one of the greatest righthanded hitters of all-time swing the bat for the Sox, and while I felt increasing frustration with his barely excused absence down the stretch last season, I still find the brunt of his quirks more charming than maddening. I love watching the guy play, and at this point in his historically consistent career, the two years and 30-something million dollars remaining on his contract are nothing less than a bargain, particularly in a market where a severely flawed fantasy league hero like Alfonso Soriano is going to get $120 million. Further, I can't imagine they'd get equal value in a trade; if Theo Epstein ended up accepting the likes of slopballer Aaron Heilman and the vastly overrated Lastings Milledge for him, as Olney suggests, the next time you'll hear from me is when the SWAT team has me surrounded somewhere in the vicinity of Fenway.

6. Which big-ticket free-agent will be the biggest bust?

I hate to say this because I enjoy watching him pitch . . . but someone is going to have serious buyer's remorse a year or two after giving Barry Zito a nine-figure deal. Think about it: He walks a ton of batters, his K-rate is shriveling, he's spent his whole career in a pitcher's park, he struggles against Boston and New York, his velocity has decreased to the mid-80s . . . at this point, he's a No. 2 starter at best, and simply no longer resembles the Cy Young Award winner of four seasons ago. I think he'd make a fine Met. (And if you think I'm being harsh, check out Keith Law's top 40 free agents on He has him rated behind Ted Lilly and Gil Meche.)

7. What's one warped stat you can come up with regarding the Patriots' receivers?

How about this: Reche Caldwell had more catches Sunday (9) than David Givens had during his entire aborted first season in Tennessee (8). It goes without saying that I'd trade Paper Reche for a one-legged Givens right now.

8. Why don't the Patriots give Laurence Maroney more carries and responsibility?

Josh McDaniels, the floor is yours. Honestly, I have no idea why the Patriots have been so reluctant to put the ball in Maroney's hands more often. I still haven't heard an adequate explanation for why he had just four touches in the second half against the Colts, and he was again woefully underutilized against the Jets' porous run defense Sunday. And if there's anything we learned from the Cincinnati victory - other than that the Bengals are a fraud - it's that Maroney, with his violent, relentless running style, is more effective as the game goes on. And yet in the fourth quarter lately he's been a decoy, an observer, and too often, a role player jogging off the field after ceding his position to the untrustworthy Kevin Faulk. It makes zero sense. Maroney is a weapon, as talented a running back as I've ever seen in a Patriots uniform, and why they hesitate to use him to their full advantage is befuddling. You have to wonder if maybe they don't know how.

9. Why does Bill Belichick hold such a grudge against Eric Mangini?

He caught him trying to pilfer his favorite hoodie? Seriously, I don't know, but Belichick seems hell-bent on continuing this whole You're-Dead-To-Me routine, so it must have been something egregious. One theory: Mangini was trying to lure Patriots staffers to join him with the Jets while he was still on the New England payroll - and while Belichick was still under the impression that he was remaining with the Patriots. I guess that makes as much sense as anything I've heard, but this much we do know: That old Border War? It's back on, baby.

10. Why did the Patriots wait until midseason to install FieldTurf?

Because it took Belichick's kid this long to smoke all the real grass.

11. Is there one image that sums up the way Mangini and the Jets treated Belichick and the Patriots last Sunday?


That's right, Leon. You're No. 1. Stay classy.

12. Thoughts on the Celtics?

Doc Rivers is such an inept coach is so many different ways, I'd get carpal tunnel if I tried to elaborate in detail . . . I'd say fire him, but if he can mismanage his way into getting Greg Oden to Boston, well, keep up the good work, M.L. . . . er, Doc . . . Rajon Rondo must get Bassy's minutes, pronto . . . I know he can't guard his scrawny shadow, but Gerald Green needs to play. He could score 10 a night on athleticism alone . . . Wally Szczerbiak is nothing but a one-legged jump shooter at this point. Quick, trade him to a contender before he needs surgery. (Sure was fun watching him light up a defenseless Adam Morrison, though.) . . . The Celtics will never fully commit to the running game as long as Paul Pierce is around. He's too set in his ways, which usually includes grabbing a rebound and immediately putting it on the floor rather than getting it to the point guard . . . For all of the ugliness of this early season, I still think Green, Rondo, Al Jefferson, and Kendrick Perkins are a fine young core who deserve a chance to grow together, and the Celtics are better off now than they were the day Danny Ainge took over. Small consolation, right?

13. We know they'll gag in the playoffs, but is anyone going to beat the Colts during the regular season?

If T.O. can hold onto two-thirds of the passes that hit his hands, I like Dallas's chances Sunday. And count me as a Tony Romo believer - his arm is strong enough, he's poised, and brings an unmistakable jolt of energy to an offense that was lacking in urgency during the Bledsoe era. Where have we heard that before? (By the way, we don't condone clicking this link. But it's pretty funny if you imagine Drew's monotone voice while reading it.)

14. What is the most annoying commercial on television at the moment, Non-John Cougar Mellancamp Sellout Division?

Three words: ALARM CLOCK CATASTROPHE!!! Seriously, whoever came up with this ad campaign, which features people you want to slap singing non-sensical, catchy-to-the-point-you-want-to-poke-your-eardrums-out jingles, should be subjected to listen to their own horrific aural creations on repeat from now until their last tortured days. Come to think of it, it might have been those commercials that subconsciously convinced me to stop giving Dunkin' Transfats my daily allowance.)

15. Thoughts on "The Office" merger?

I'd say it was good but not great, which more or less sums up my take on this entire uneven season. The "Lazy Scranton" bit was inspired, at least to the 12 people who are still watching SNL and got the reference. Michael and Dwight forcing the David Wells-sized guy to climb up on the table was over the top and awkward even for them, and really not all that funny. The Staples product placement was ridiculously blatant to the point of annoyance - do we really need commercials in the midst of a show that seems too short as it is? And I imagine I'm in the minority in believing Dwight is better in small doses. And . . . hmm, feel like I'm forgetting something . . . let's see, what was it . . . key plot point . . . a Phyllis nude scene? . . . nope . . . oh, right . . . the long-awaited Jim and Pam reunion. What can I say? It was both sweet and agonizing, still the most realistic and best-written unrequited relationship since the early flirtations of Sam and Diane, and it's clear Fancy New Beesley is going to have to put her heart out there just as Jim did last season. Their relationship remains the best part of the show, and the more Pam and Jim (and Karen, it seems) are involved, the more likely the end of this season will approach the heartbreaking brilliance of last year's finale.

16. I hope this isn't a violation of your restraining order, but has Jenna Fischer, per chance, ever appeared on the Tony Danza Show?

Why, yes. Yes, she has. And you'd better believe the only time I'd watch that Yankee-fan, meatpuppet Danza's blockheadathon of a show is when the Official Muse of TATB is a guest. (And if you're a straight American male - not so fast, Doogie - and don't think she looks off-the-charts hot in that clip, I'm guessing you took Bob Barker's advice and got yourself both spayed and neutered. Yeah, I'm still fighting this battle, punks.)

17. Of all of Derek Jeter's undeserved trophies, what one is the most galling? The Hank Aaron Award? The first Gold Glove? Gonzo's Gold Glove?

Easy. Jessica Biel. And all of a sudden, I'm thinking the "Jeter Drinks Wine Coolers" t-shirt I'm wearing at the moment probably isn't that effective.

18. As for today's Completely Random Football Card? (Yes, Alex, it's in the form of a question.)

Three things you may or may not have known about Joe Namath: 1) He completed just 50 percent of his passes in his career, and threw more interceptions (220) than TD (173) passes. 2. He didn't throw a touchdown pass in Super Bowl III but was named the game's MVP. 3. He wantsth to kissth you. YAHHHH!

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Nine innings: 11.13.06

Woo-hoo! At last, we've got ourselves some legitimate hot stove chatter. (Jeter-style fist pump for joy!) . . .

1. If Buster Olney is correct and the Sox are shelling out 30-something million just for the posting rights to 26-year-old Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka, well, I guess Sox fans have at least temporarily lost their right to yelp about the Yankees' massive financial advantage. And you know what? Go ahead and call me greedy - I'm giddy about the possibility of Matsuzaka, the MVP of the World Baseball Classic, doing his mysterious gyroball thing from the Fenway mound. You bet I believe the hype about this guy. Chris Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus broke down Matsuzaka's stats, translating them to what they might look like had he been pitching in the majors rather than Japan . . . and damned if he doesn't fall into some extremely elite company. Of course, this is no done deal. As we await the verdict on who the high bidder is, the lingering question is this: Is Olney right? While ESPN's ace baseball blogger is a terrific writer and more often than not a voice of reason, his batting average on scoops is somewhere near the Mendoza Line; I'd hardly be shocked to see Matsuzaka grinning and wearing an Angels hat at a press conference three days from now. My hunch? I do think the Sox are the winner, with a bid around $30 million, trumping the Yankees' pretentious $27 million bid. (Consider the significance of the number 27 to them for a minute, then commence gagging.) I can see the Sox doing this for a handful of reasons: 1. Theo has long said the Sox's mission is to add premier players heading into their primes, and by all accounts Matsuzaka qualifies. 2. The posting money doesn't count toward the luxury tax, a huge benefit to the Sox. 3. It opens up lucrative Far East possibilities - and don't think Matsuzaka won't be shilling Red Sox Nation membership cards in the Japanese market. 4. The Sox are desperate to improve their ballclub this offseason, but with few upper-minors propects to trade and an underwhelming free agent class, it's one way to get a coveted player without terribly overspending or trading away the farm. 5. It sticks it to the Yankees. Can you tell I really hope this happens?

2. So if this Matsuzaka thing does pan out, the Sox are set with a rotation of him, Schilling, Beckett, Papelbon, and Wakefield. There's not a Kevin Jarvis in the bunch. Better yet, it means we can put a long overdue halt to the incessant pining for Roger Clemens in certain corners . . . at least until midseason, when he'll so subtly drop hints through his agents that he might be willing to come out of his latest semi-retirement and pitch for a mere $10 million per month. Just go away, phony.

3. Unless the Sox cough up the big bucks for the one reliable middle reliever on the market - come on down, Justin Speier! - much of their Extreme Bullpen Makeover is probably going to have to come from within the organization. That's a frightening thought upon first consideration, but I think at least these two sleepers are poised to help the Sox next season. 1. Bryce Cox. The '06 draft pick from Rice has a sick slider to go with his high-'90s heat . . . in other words, he sounds like the pitcher Craig Hansen was supposed to be. 2. Devern Hansack. I know, he doesn't have the pedigree . . . but I was extremely impressed with his poise and stuff as he pitched Portland to the Eastern League title last season, and he wasn't too shabby in his season-finale no-hitter* either.

4. After devouring Gordon Edes's insightful and whimsical lists of five players who might be in the mix at each position for the Sox, I offer my list of five players I hope they pursue: 1. Speier (though the fact that he's 17 for 37 in save opportunities in his career might be hint that he's not cut out for the pressure of Boston. 2. Eric Gagne (someone's got to close, and while I'm suspicious of his mysteriously shrunken physique, he's still mighty effective when healthy). 3. Aubrey Huff (love the thought of him as a 400-at-bat bench player, though Eric Hinske is basically the same guy). 4. Octavio Dotel (once a dominant setup guy, he should be better in '07 now that he's a over year removed from his Tommy John surgery). 5. Kerry Wood. (Sleeper closer candidate. What, he reupped with the Cubs? Drat.)

5. And five I don't want. 1. Julio Lugo (seriously, what is the front office's fascination with this erratic mediocrity?) 2. Joe Borowski (journeyman benefited from Florida's spacious park) 3. Ray Durham (plays for the Giants . . . stunning power surge at age 35 . . . hmmm . . .) 4. Doug Mirabelli (one lousy Dr. Charles-produced sequel was enough). 5. Barry Zito (cool dude and fun to watch, but he's a Yankee batting practice pitcher and is not worth the cash he's going to get).

6. As far as that J.D. Drew-to-the-Sox rumor goes . . . I suppose I could be talked into thinking it's a good idea, but I sure ain't sold right now. While he played 146 games this season and led the Dodgers in OPS, homers, and RBIs, he has some well-established characteristics that might not go over so well in Boston. For one, he's injury-prone, and while he's had only one significant ailment in the last three seasons (a broken wrist), he's got a reputation as someone who is reluctant to play through a particularly sore hangnail. Those who look at him from a distance and see a young Trot Nixon will be sorely disappointed when they watch Drew up close - this is no Dirt Dog by any stretch. He plays the game with a casualness that borders on indifference - he's the reincarnation of Fragile Fred Lynn, minus the willingness to challenge a wall - and something tells me that's not going to go over well with the Dirty Cap Admiration Society once they realize what he's all about. Drew's talented, all right, but that's the extent of his appeal.

7. With the announcement this week by the Yankees that Jason Giambi will be a full-time DH next season (assuming his pharmaceuticals remain effective), and assuming Brian Cashman finds the list of free-agent first baseman as uninspiring as everyone else does (Kevin Millar, anyone?), here's some conjecture that might just become reality: Nomar Garciaparra, first base, New York Yankees. I'd like to think he has too much soul to ever wear the pinstripes, but they did covet him last offseason, and you know Georgie Porgie is always in favor of luring iconic ex-Red Sox to the Dark Side.

8. Okay, so maybe he was mean to Michael Holley, and maybe it wasn't wise to say he didn't like watching baseball as a fan (funny how that one word is always omitted in most criticisms). Still, I remain convinced that the cause of Keith Foulke's injury problems in his final two seasons in Boston can be found in the physical sacrifices he made during the '04 postseason, particularly in the midst of the ALCS comeback when he threw 100 pitches in three days. Foulke traded two seasons, if not the rest of his career, to do his damndest to make Johnny From Burger King's baseball dreams come true that October, and for that you must be forever grateful. We should, and will, remember him for this first and foremost: Foulke to the set, the 1-0 pitch . . . here it is. Swing, and a ground ball stabbed by Foulke! He has it, he underhands to first . . . and the Boston Red Sox are the World Champions. For the first time in 86 years, the Red Sox have won baseball's World Championship. Can you believe it?" Yeah, you bet I'll remember him well.

9. As for today's Completely Random Baseball Card:

Mark Littell's small claim to baseball fame comes from serving up the series-winning home run to the Yankees' Chris Chambliss in the 1976 ALCS . . . that is, until now.

(Click the "watch video" link, and prepare to cringe, fellas.)

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Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Remnants from Sunday night . . .

The Patriots can claim all they want that the Colts, with their strategy of perching head-cracking safety Bob Sanders near the line of scrimmage, were inviting them to pass. But there is simply no excuse for Laurence Maroney having just four second half carries, including but one (for 17 yards) in the fourth quarter. The Patriots ditched the obvious strategy of running the ball down the Colts throats much too soon, particularly considering Tom Brady obviously didn't have his best stuff. And I still don't understand why Josh McDaniels insisted on running those cutesy receiver screens when they played into the one strength of the Indy D: outside speed. Frankly, the play calling was often inexplicable. I never thought there'd come a day where the main culprits in a loss to the Colts would be the coaching staff and the quarterback, but fingers have to be pointed in their direction after this one.

I hate saying this for obvious reasons, but the thought's been rattling around in my head for a few Sundays now: Tedy Bruschi just does not look like his old self on the field. It's one thing to have trouble covering the Colts' plethora of quality receivers and tight ends, but it just seemed like he was a step behind on everything after the coin flip Sunday night. I hope I'm wrong about this, that someone who has been breaking down film of the last few games has spotted subtle contributions from No. 54 that have eluded me . . . but right now it sure looks to me like he's getting outplayed by Junior Seau, and you know those are words I never thought I'd write.

Though the Patriots have been their typically forthcoming selves about Rodney Harrison's injury and future playing status - Andrea "Scoop" Kremer is now reporting he's "kinda sore" and "might have an owie" - it sure sounds like he has a torn rotator cuff. While I guess that means he won't be pitching out of the Red Sox bullpen anytime soon, does it necessarily mean he'll be out of the Patriots' lineup for an extended period . . . or even at all? I suppose it would be pretty painful to tackle with a shoulder injury, but we all know about Harrison's ridiculously high pain threshold; this is the same guy who stayed in the game for a play after breaking his arm in Super Bowl XXXVIII. I guess what I'm saying is, please let this be something he can play with. The Patriots simply cannot afford to lose the brains and brawn of their defense for long.

Marvin Harrison's catch was one of the best I've ever seen, and I trust I don't need to describe it in detail for you to know exactly the one I'm talking about. It was right out of a Lynn Swann/J.J. Jefferson highlight reel. I must admit I tend to demean Harrison because of his reluctance to take a hit, but there's no denying he's had a hell of a career, one that someday will be celebrated in Canton; if he were completely insane, maybe then he'd get the some of the credit that too often goes to inferior contemporaries such as Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. Hard to believe the Colts took him a handful of picks after the Patriots took Terry Glenn in the '96 draft - the whole She Era seems so long ago - but with that kind of staying power and productivity, maybe there's something to be said for running out of bounds.

Here's a scary thought: I think Peyton Manning is actually improving. His performance in shredding Denver's touted defense two weeks ago might have been the best pure passing display I've seen since that Isotoner guy was throwing lasers to Duper and Clayton. And while his numbers weren't quite as impressive last night, his performance was, particularly in terms of feeling the rush and making pinpoint downfield throws under heavy pressure. Maybe his old negative mannerisms will resurface should the Colts rumble with the Patriots again - man, I really missed seeing his patented yank-off-the-chinstrap-after-a-boneheaded-pick move last night - but for the moment Manning finally appears to have developed the poise to accompany his ability.

I don't doubt that Stephen Gostkowski has the leg to be a quality NFL kicker, but if he, A) doesn't start cranking out the touchbacks on his kickoffs again and, B) immediately stop pulling a Vanderjagt on every few midrange field goals, I have to wonder if Belichick will have open auditions for his job in the not-so-distant future. Then again, he made two and missed one Sunday night . . . one fewer miss than the future Hall of Famer he's trying to replace, so maybe we're overreacting. He's hardly in Missin' Sisson territory, but he needs to be better as the second half progresses. Would you trust him in the playoffs at this point?

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

TATB Live: Colts at Patriots

Yup, TATB is in the house, glued to the couch for the next four hours in the name of blogging duty, and let me tell you, I'm jacked and pumped like Pete Carroll at a Trojan pep rally. I haven't anticipated a regular season game like this since . . . well, since the Colts-Pats game last year. And I like their chances a whole lot better this time around against Peyton and the Ponies. Having Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour in the lineup tends to swell your confidence.

So how's it gonna go? Let me put it this way - the '72 Dolphins will be popping some champagne corks around midnight tonight. I think the Patriots' obvious plan of attack will be the reality - they'll pound Laurence Maroney and Corey Dillon (both of whom basically enjoyed a bye week against Minnesota) 40-something times against the porous Indy run defense, which is allowing 5.4 yards per carry. I think Ben Watson will build on last week's breakout performance, and I think at least one Manning pass will find it's way into the hands of Asante Samuel (playing the Ty Law role), and I think Adam Vinatieri's return will be little more than a footnote. The pick: Patriots, 34-17.

Some quickie pregame notes/observations:

• NBC just showed Marvin Harrison running various patterns, including a couple of slants over the middle. It's worth noting that he does not practice turtleing like a frightened schoolgirl during warmups. It just comes naturally.

• On the ESPN pregame show, Jaws and The Players Hate Their Coach took the Colts, while Ditka, You're With Me Leather, and It Was My Buddy's Crackpipe, Officer took the Pats. All in all, I'd rather have Jaworski on our side. He's the best, and it makes me slightly nervous that he's not in the Pats' corner.

• Eugene Wilson, Stephen Neal, and Daniel Graham are among the Patriots' inactives, while safety Bob Sanders is apparently playing for the Colts. Not bad considering each team had 53 players listed as questionable midweek, but I really wish Graham was playing - he makes such a difference in the running game.

• Pink looks like she's auditioning for the Tim Curry role in "Rocky Horror Picture Show 2006." Let's play the game already . . .

Pats start with the ball . . . and it looks like they're planning on keeping it for a while. After Dillon was stopped for a two-yard loss on the first play from scrimmage, the Pats have methodically advanced to midfield, with three strong runs from Dillon and two from Maroney . . .

. . . and just as I write that last sentence, Brady throws an ill-advised pick on deep pass into the end zone, and the drive stalls. Crap, I should have known I'd jinx 'em. It really would have been nice to get some points on that first drive.

John Mellancamp is doing a very effective job of convincing me to never plant my ass in a Chevy ever again. Who knew Mr. Farm Aid was such a sellout? Looks like they've changed the visual from the unbelievably tasteless Hurricane Katrina/Vietnam footage to some shots of pickup trucks and wheat fields and other tame Midwestern Americana. Good call there. Whoever came up with that original commercial should have been reassigned to the mailroom.

The Colts come out in a no-huddle, and after Manning tosses a pair of incompletions, he makes perhaps the first improvised play of his career, rolling out to the left and, just as he's clobbered by Rosey Colvin, unleashing a 44-yard bomb down the middle to Harrison. Worse, Rodney Harrison stays on the ground when everyone else gets up. Looks like a shoulder injury. So much for overconfidence.

And after one more first down, Manning hits Harrison for an eight-yard TD on a slant pattern, and as Al Michaels puts it, "First blood drawn by the Colts." It's 7-0, Indy, and while my confidence remains intact, I wish Indy's had been taken down a few notches with a stalled first drive.

The bleepin' Mellancamp is airing during every commercial break - I think it's four and counting. I might end up buying a Ford truck out of spite before the first half is over.

Troy Brown catches a short pass inside the Patriots 40, flips the ball to the official . . . and is called for taunting, a 15-yard penalty. I can say with a great degree of confidence that in, what, the 14 years we've been watching Brown, we've never seen him taunt anyone. In a related note, the official looks suspiciously like Archie Manning.

Reche Caldwell with a drop on 2d and 8. He's also already got an offensive pass interference penalty tonight. Someone needs to tell him to get his damn skeeter eyeballs back into their sockets and relax.

On the positive side, it seems the Patriots will be able to move the ball at will. Maroney and Dillon have Wilfork-sized holes to run through and Doug Gabriel already has one nice catch and run, getting a first down on 3rd and 20. Even on 4th and 3 inside the Colts 20, the Pats have the confidence/wisdom to go for it and gain the first down on a Brady to Kevin Faulk pass. It's 1st and goal at the 5 as the first quarter passes in a blur.

Two Dillon carries and five yards later, and it's all tied at 7. It's worth noting that much of Dillon's yardage is coming over the right guard. I'm not sure who's filling in for Steve Neal (perhaps it's Billy Yates, previously known as the World's Highest-Paid Practice Squad Player) but he's kicking some Colt butt.

Uh-oh. Chad Scott has moved to safety, Ellis Hobbs is in at corner, and Rodney Harrison is in the locker room. Andrea Kremer tells us that Harrison has a right arm injury and that his return is probable. Could be worse, I suppose, but I'm pretty sure this secretive Patriots regime would tell us Hart Lee Dykes's return is probable at this point.

Manning is under siege and handling it with poise, throwing over the top of the rush to find Reggie Wayne for 16 yards and Dallas Clark down the middle for another decent gain . . . and then, under no rush, he rolls left and hits Wayne for 44 yards to the Patriots 1. Joseph Addai takes it into the end zone on the next play, and the Colts go up, 14-7. Can you say shootout?

Here's our second Manning commercial of the night - the one where he's disguised as Fred Smerlas and pimping cell phones. I'll admit that he's pretty good in most of his 18,839 commercials, particularly the MasterCard ones. I still think he looks like the spawn of Beavis and Butthead, though.

John Madden just compared Maroney to Clinton Portis. Pretty good company there, though I think Our Guy is a little bigger and runs a little tougher and is considerably less insane. I always tell people he reminds me of Fred Taylor back when he broke in with the Jaguars, you know, before he was so tragically stricken with leprosy. Just an ideal combination of speed and power. Maroney's had at least five carries in a row by the way, all for nice chunks of yardage, and the Pats are closing in on the Indy 20.

Third and 4, Brady hits Troy Brown on a quick out pattern for a first down, and I cannot think of a more appropriate way for him to become the all-time leading receiver in Patriots history, besting the great Stanley Morgan's record. Brown might be the greatest role player in the history of Boston sports, and I feel privilege to have watched him all these years.

Dillon, looking refreshed after his vacation in Minnesota last weekend, plows in from the 4, and we're tied again, 14-14. A three-and-out by Indy would be wonderful right about now . . .

. . . especially since Indy gets the ball at the Pats 40, thanks to a streak up the right sideline by Terrence Wilkins, who ran over Stephen Gostkowski (he ain't the tackler he predecessor was, apparently) and would have had a touchdown if not for the remarkable hustle of defensive tackle Mike Wright, who somehow gained ground on him and tripped him from behind.

Still no Rodney Harrison, and apparently Manning has noticed - on the first play after the kickoff, he launches a missile toward Marvin Harrison inside the Pats 10. Chad Scott, who is struggling at safety after playing so well at corner, obliges with a pass interference penalty, and Indy is on the verge again. Harrison must be having his arm amputated to keep him out of this game.

The Pats back Indy into a 3rd and 17 thanks to a sack by the rejuvenated Junior Seau, but Samuel is called for holding on a floater toward Harrison in the end zone, and the Colts get a second life as the 2 minute warning arrives. I'm feeling queasy . . .

. . . but somehow Indy is held to a Vinatieri field goal, and at this point a 17-14 deficit feels like a moral victory.

I'm thinking this might be the play that your buddies are rehashing at the office tomorrow: Fourth and 1 at midfield, 1:02 remaining, and the Patriots go for it . . . and on a quarterback sneak in which Brady appears to be stopped, one official comes charging in and immediately signals first down. Upon first glance, it appears to be a blantantly bad call, and because it's within 2 minutes, the booth reviews it. It might not be an exaggeration to suggest the game's outcome could hang in the balance of this review.

Whew. The play stands. Curiously, the official looks quite a bit like Jonathan Kraft. The Pats can't afford to waste this gift.

Brady threads a beauty through three defenders to Ben Watson at the 30. Unfortunately, he's borrowing Mark Blount's hands for the evening, and it drops harmlessly to the ground. Big Ben 2K6, still the enigma.

Third and 6 at the Indy 48, Dwight Freeney has Brady in his mitts, but apparently having to forgot how to sack a quarterback this season (he has 1/2 sack, and that is not a typo), he lets him slip away. Brady promptly hits Brown for the first down.

Consider that gift wasted. Brady goes deep to a triple-teamed and well-covered Watson, the oh-so-slightly overthrown pass deflects off his aluminum left hand, and Bob Sanders comes away with it at the 3. Looks like we'll be going into the break with a three-point deficit. Taking inventory: Thus far, their stud QB is outplaying our stud QB, Rodney Harrison is down to three limbs, and the Pats' hopes hinge on Belichick making his usual shrewd halftime adjustments. Yeah, I'd say it's living up to the hype so far.

(This is coming down to Vinatieri, isn't it? Damn, I'd hate for the jackals to be right.)

Andrea Kremer just reported that Tony Dungy said the Patriots know they need to score a lot and because of that, Tom Brady is pressing. I'd be pissed if it didn't look like he was correct.

Do the Colts even carry a punter? Is it still Rohn Stark? I thought we were about to find out, but after Ellis Hobbs makes a spectacular leap to bust up a deep pass in the end zone on 3rd and 8, Mike Vrabel is called for a phantom hands to the face call, and Indy gets five yards and a first down. I suppose it's not good form to bitch about the refs, but that was a bad call. Friggin' Indy pansy receivers.

The Pats somehow hold 'em again, and Vinatieri trots out to kick a 37-yarder. Automatic, right? Nope, wide right. Told ya the guy was nothing but a dome kicker. It goes without saying that the Pats need to take advantage of this.

And here we are, at another crossroads: On the first play, Dillon coughs up the ball as he hits the ground, Raheem Brock falls on it, Matt Light falls on him, and Brock gets up and runs the ball into the end zone anyway. Can you say replay? After a Patriots challenge and the official's extended stint under the replay hood, the call is fumble, Indy's ball at the Pats 31. The Patriots have turned the ball over three times to Indy's zero. They're not going to win if they don't improve the turnover margin soon.

Shockingly, Indy goes three and out. Hunter Smith is the name of the Colts punter, and it's a pretty good gig if you can get it.

Kremer just reported that Rodney Harrison still hasn't come out of the locker room, and yet the Patriots are still calling his return probable. I wouldn't be shocked if he'd had an autopsy by now.

Brady bounces a screen pass, and Madden says, "The Patriots don't need this. Just run Maroney, run Dillon, because they haven't been able to stop it. This is the one think the Colts can defend . . . I don't know why they think they need to trick this defense." It's a great point - they're getting way too cute. I have to say, Madden is on his game tonight. There must not be a terducken in the booth to distract him.

NBC just showed Manning playing football in the yard as an 11-year-old. He had a head like a cereal box even then. I'm guessing little Eli was inside playing with his Malibu Barbie when the footage was shot.

Dammit, I hate all of Manning's annoying histrionics on the line. Just run the damn play. And it's even worse on Madden '06 - turns out video game Peyton is as annoying as the real thing. Um, not that I still play Madden or anything. Have I mentioned I'll be 37 this month?

On 3d and 7 inside the 20, Harrison runs a fade, catches Manning's pass with his outside hand, drags both feet just before he falls out of bounds, and in an act entirely out of character, spikes the ball in Ellis Hobbs's face, drawing a 15-yard taunting penalty. Something tells me Hobbs, whose mouth has run a whole lot faster than his legs this season, has been jabbering smack all game. Either way, it's 24-14, Indy, and the Patriots offense needs to cut out the cutesy *$&# and get its act together, pronto.

After another good Maroney return and a first down on a pass interference call, Brady's suddenly looking scatterarmed, missing Gabriel open over the middle and Bledsoeing a 3rd-and-10 pass in the flat to Watson. I miss the Minnesota defense. Fortunately, Gostkowski drills a 49-yarder, and the Pats are back within a score . . .

. . . and here's the turnover we were pleading for. Wilkins, who apparently has found a soft spot along the ride side of the Pats' kick coverage, looks on the verge of breaking one when Artrell Hawkins arrives via the blind side, pokes the ball loose, and makes the recovery at the Indy 47. "This could be the play that turns things around for the Patriots," Madden says. Ya think?

Dillon plows for nine on the first play. The fumble has made him angry, and an angry Corey Dillon is an effective Corey Dillon. Knock off the dink-and-dunk stuff and give Dillon and Maroney the damn ball already . . .

. . . or I suppose Brady could underthrow a third-down pass to Dave Thomas, then watch as Gostkowski pulls a Vanderjagt on a 36-yarder. File under: Botched opportunity. The way they're playing, it's a wonder they're only down a touchdown.

So it's gotten to the point here that ol' No. 80, the all-time leading receiver in Patriots' history, is on the field as an extra defensive back. Hmm, wonder if Manning will notice.

Brown gets called for hands to the face on an incomplete pass on 3rd and 7. Where's Hank Poteat when you need him?

. . . and here's the second turnover we were pleading for. Manning hits Chad Scott right between the 3 and 0 on his jersey, and Scott zig-zags to the Indy 45. Nice pick, nice return, right out of the Ty Law playbook.

A receiver screen. Brady gets creamed. Caldwell wisely covers the ball. CAN WE KNOCK OFF THIS CUTESY CRAP PLEASE, JOSH McDANIELS? Um . . . nope. Brady passes on the next down, Robert Mathis deflects it, and Indy intercepts. I feel like I'm watching Rex Grossman. That's three picks, seven penalties, and a missed field goal for the Pats tonight. They're playing like they got into Belichick's kid's stash at halftime.

A 3rd and 10 jump-pass from Manning to some tight end I've never heard of nets a first down, and on the next play, Rosey Colvin, auditioning to be the new Chris Slade, cheap-shots a Colt, giving Indy their fifth first down by way of a penalty. This is shameful.

Indy can't punch it in from the 12, thanks to Jarvis Green getting into Manning's mutated grill, but the Colts get a crucial 3 when Vinatieri slips a 31-yarder inside the right goal post, and it's 27-17, Indy. Not. Looking. Good.

Nine minutes left, down 10 points, and Madden is still pushing the Pats to run the ball. I'm not sure they have enough time, but as I type this, Maroney busts off a 17-yarder, and they're in Colts' territory again . . .

. . . and inside the 15 (Troy Brown catch) . . .

. . . and inside the 10 (pass interference against Watson) . . .

Words I've written 33,000 times: I do not trust Kevin Faulk to handle the ball in tight situations. Give it to Maroney. Give it Dillon. Give it to Vagas Friggin' Ferguson. But a draw play to shrimpy, fumble-prone Faulk? Not a good idea.

. . . and as if on cue, Faulk, drops a pass two yards from the goal line on 3rd and 7. (Somewhere, J.R. Redmond mutters to himself, "I'd have caught that.") At least it wasn't a fumble. Gostkowski drills the short 3, and the Pats are back within a touchdown, 27-20.

Indy starts at their own 39, 5:42 remaining. It's fair to say that this series is the ballgame.

Harrison catches a slant on 2d and 7, converting the first down before diving to the turf. He has 8 catches for 145 yards and 2 TDs tonight. Something tells me he'd be much warier (and less effective) had Rodney Harrison not gotten hurt. I do hear he's probable to return, though. Keep your fingers crossed.

Three minutes remaining, and another Indy first down. Belichick calls timeout with 2:37 left. The fat lady is warming up her voice. Whoops, my bad. That was Booger McFarland.

Third and 5, Indy runs a draw, and the Pats stuff it . . . and now Vinatieri gets a chance to stick a dagger in his former team, just as he did to so many other teams when he called Foxboro home. What drama. Here's the truly fascinating part - the kick is a 45-yarder, and it was pretty obvious in recent seasons that Belichick thought Vinatieri's range was declining. One of them is going to come out of this looking good, and one of them isn't.

And with chants of "Trait-or, trait-or" filling the air, Vinatieri misses wide right. Point, Belichick. Man, I remember when Vinatieri could make a 45-yarder in a blizzard. (Cue Streisand yowling "The Way We Were").

Well, so much for that comeback. After a long completion to Watson, a Brady pass clangs off Faulk's hands, Cato June catches the rebound, Manning ambles out to take a knee . . . and that's all, folks. Indianapolis 27, New England 20. As far as an immediate postmortem, well, what can you say? Manning thoroughly outplayed Brady, Harrison's absence was crushing, and the Pats played from behind all night and, perhaps relatedly, didn't commit to the run nearly as much as they should have. While it's a discouraging loss - it's always a shock when the Pats don't play well in the biggest games - I remain convinced that the Patriots will beat the Colts when it matters. Maybe that's blind faith - after all, Indy now has a 2-game winning streak in the rivalry - but it seems to me their poor play tonight was self-inflicted more than anything, they lost by only 7 despite a string of blunders, and you have to figure Brady is too proud to play this poorly should they meet again. In the meantime, here's hoping Bob Griese and friends didn't prematurely pop the corks. The unbeaten Indy machine rolls on.

Oh, an in case you were still wondering, Andrea Kremer is reporting that Rodney Harrison has an arm injury. His return tonight? Probable. Someone please tell her she can go home now.

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