Sunday, January 14, 2007

TATB live: Dynasty vs. Martyball


I've got my good-luck old-school Pat Patriot shirt on, the Sam Adams is cold and plentiful, and that just-completed Bears-Seahawks game made for one hell of an opening act.

It's all good. Well, almost all of it. I've got but one minor request . . . could someone please tell mushmouth Shannon Sharpe and his CBS studio cohorts to SHUT THE $($*$* UP SO WE CAN START THE GAME!! IT'S ALREADY 4:39 AND I'VE BEEN READY FOR SOME *$#*#* FOOTBALL SINCE, OH, 4:32 P.M. LAST SUNDAY! LET'S GO ALREADY!! WHILE WE'RE YOUNG!!!

(And as if on cue, here's Jim Nantz, with his patented smarmy intro: "There are only five teams remaining in the chase for the Lombardi Trophy . . . blah blah blah Tomlinson blah blah sunny skies blah blah Belichick and Brady." I can't even focus. I'm honestly feeling the butterflies in the gut. I smell a classic.)

(And of course, my wife is jacked and pumped as well: "This is going to be a LONG night. Sigh. This had better be over in time for Desperate Housewives." Trust me, by the end of this game, she's going to be one.)

FIRST QUARTER
The Chargers get the rock first, and Tomlinson sprints left for 11 yards the first time he touches the ball. Not a good omen - the Patriots' ability to contain perhaps the best running back in NFL history is obviously of major concern today. I'm also wondering how the hell they intend to cover Antonio Gates considering Tedy Bruschi couldn't cover Hart Lee Dykes at this point. I also think Philip Rivers is going to be better than people expect. Belichick usually gets into a quarterback's head the second time he faces him rather than the first, and Rivers was the MVP of every bowl game he played in during college. This isn't indifferent Eli Manning we're talking about here. The kid is legit. (Is that Chicken Little-ish enough for you? I know, I sound like Felger.)

All right, the good ol' reverse jinx worked on the first series. The Chargers moved the ball with some success but then stalled and ended up punting to Troy Brown, who collected the fair catch inside the 9. Nantz tells us the Belichick Patriots still have never allowed a first-series score in the postseason. Amazing.

After an incompletion to The Enigmatic Ben Watson (who should have had it) and a 2-yard horseplow by Dillon, the Chargers' Clinton Hart punches a sure interception to the ground after Brady's 3rd-and-8 pass was deflected. Guess we know why Mr. Hart plays defense rather than receiver. He has Mark Blount's mitts.

Chargers get it at midfield, but Tomlinson is stuffed on his first carry, and Rivers's receivers drop two catchable balls, looking jittery in the process. Pats get it back inside the 10 again.

Man, it's surprisingly loud and raucous at Qualcomm. All the surfer dudes must have laid off the weed this morning.

We're having a delay because of play clock problems, forcing the ref (don't know who he is since it's not Guns Hochuli) to admonish the guy running it. Looks like at least someone had his weed this morning.

Third-and-3, Shawne Merriman just blew past Nick Kaczur and clocked Brady as he threw. Incomplete. Looks like at least someone had his steroids this morning.

My suspicion is that the Pats intend to use Merriman's relentless aggression against him, probably with draw plays and screen passes in his direction. But there's also a frighteningly likely chance that he'll play Reggie White to Nick Kaczur's and Matt Light's Max Lane. Someone that big has no business being that quick. It's almost like he's unnatural or something.

Is rigid old Marty Schottenheimer still coaching this team? Really? Are we sure? The Chargers are getting too cutesy. After Tomlinson (who is the most elusive back I've seen since Barry Sanders, and twice as powerful) gets the Chargers a first and 10 at the Pats 30, San Diego runs a reverse. Minus-7. Then Rivers throws deep downfield for a pair of incompletions, the second one deflected away beautifully by Ellis Hobbs. Then the Chargers go for it on fourth and 11, and Rivers is buried by Mike Vrabel. Hopefully, they'll continue to play Martz-ball rather than Marty-ball and not do the wise thing: letting LT carry them.

And the visitors take the lead. The Pats methodically advance to the San Diego 32, the key play being a third and 4 draw to Kevin Faulk (where'd he go, Merriman?) for a first down, and Stephen Gostkowski comes on to drill a 50-yarder that would have been good from another 8 yards. The kid's doing pretty good considering HE'LL NEVER BE ADAM! (Whoops, channeled Felger again. My bad. Anyway, it's 3-0, Patriots, and as the first quarter winds to a close, the apple in Schottenheimer's throat just grew larger.

SECOND QUARTER
Love those Coors Light commercials that use the old, slightly altered footage from coaches' press conferences. Think Ditka was born with a mustache?

Tomlinson seems like he's been relatively quiet , , , and then you look up from the Mac and he has over 50 yards on the ground already. Yeesh. He's come close to breaking one once or twice, but Ty Warren and Vrabel in particular have done a nice job of hemming him in along the sidelines. Have I ever mentioned that I wrote a column at the Monitor imploring the Patriots not to draft him in 2001? Wasn't too fond of Richard Seymour, either, if I recall correctly. Sometimes, I wonder why I continue to offer you further evidence of my idiocy.

Chargers and Pats swap three-and-outs. Notable is Laurence Maroney's first appearance for the Pats. I'm wondering if the strategy is to wear down the Chargers' defense with Dillon, then hit them with Maroney when they're tired. Makes sense. That's how you do it on Madden, at least.

The Chargers go for it again on fourth and 1 at the Patriots 40, and this time it pays off. Michael Turner, Tomlinson's more-than-capable backup, busts up the middle for 20 yards. Phil Simms, who I've come to appreciate after enduring too many J.C. Pearsons and Randy Crosses this season, immediately says Turner is a better inside runner than Tomlinson. I'm throwing the b.s. flag on that.

What would a playoff game be without a little controversy? We have our first debatable call when, on the play immediately following Turner's run, Rivers throws a pea to Gates at the Patriots 2. Hobbs pops the ball out while Gates is still in the air, the Patriots dive on it, and San Diego immediately challenges the call. The verdict: incomplete pass, original call overturned. I think it's the correct call, but . . . dang, that's an opportunity lost.

Rivers goes back to Gates for nine yards on the next play, sneaks on third and 1 for the first down, and then hits Lorenzo Neal out of the backfield for eight yards, taking it to the Patriots 1. Guess who gets it next? No, not Michael Turner, Phil. It's Tomlinson, who hammers in behind the left side of his line for his 32d (thirty-second! touchdown this season. It's 7-3, Chargers, and suddenly, the overturned call looms large.

Simms says the Chargers look bigger and faster than the Patriots so far. Can't argue with that - the team that is playing better is winning . . .

. . . and just as I'm writing that last sentence, Brady throws one right into Donnie Edwards's breadbasket, No. 12's first interception in 168 attempts. (Insert string of expletives here.) You know it, but I suppose I'll say it anyway: The Pats simply cannot afford turnovers in this game, against this team. Brady hasn't been bad, but he needs to be better than this.

Fortunately, the Chargers do nothing with the opportunity, as Artrell Hawkins does a fine Rodney Harrison imitation and buries Rivers on a third-down blitz.

A montage of Schottenheimer's most painful playoff losses! Hang on, this could take a while . . .

(There's Elway . . . the drive!)

(And Byner . . . the fumble!)

(And . . . that's it? What, no Chiefs lowlights? . . . No Chargers' loss to the Jets? . . . Hmm, must be saving them for later.)

Pats go three-and-out again. There is 4:34 remaining in the half, and Brady is 4 of 12, with a rating below 10.0. Forget what I said a minute ago: He has been bad.

Simms: "We're starting to see some of the reasons why the Chargers were 14-2 in the regular season." Man, are we. Tomlinson catches a screen, fakes Hawkins out of his Nikes, blows past the Patriots' calcifying-before-our-eyes linebacking corps, and zips 58 yards to the Pats 10. On the next play, Turner takes it in, and looks positively Tomlinsonesque in doing so. It's 14-3, San Diego, and I'm beginning to wonder if a postmortem will be written before the fourth quarter arrives.

On the plus side, glad to see Puddy is getting work. Too bad David Spade has to be involved. No one's liked the dirty little weasel since he skipped out on Chris Farley's funeral.

Tomlinson has 143 total yards. The Patriots have 79. Draw whatever conclusions from that you wish.

Brady, now working out of the shotgun, makes his best throw of the day, hitting Jabar Gaffney for 17.5 yards on second and 17. With 24 seconds left in the half, Brady pegs Caldwell on third and 5, getting inside the San Diego 20. A touchdown is a necessity here.

Gaffney gets out of bounds at the 11 . . . 13 seconds left . . .

Donnie Edwards, unabated to the QB, advancing the Pats to the 6 . . .

And Brady, like he's done so many times before, salvages the half and very possibly the Patriots' hopes. Rolling left while sidestepping the San Diego swarm, he caps the drive by hitting Gaffney at the back of the end zone, and the Chargers head to halftime with the lead, 14-10, but none of the momentum. It's worth noting here that Schottenheimer looks like he's passing an anvil.

Quick thoughts at halftime: Brady has attempted 19 passes without being sacked. Merriman had better be sticking a needle in his ass right now . . . Boomer Esiason said the Patriots need to keep this close just to give "the greatest clutch quarterback of his generation" a shot at winning it at the end. I'm pretty sure he didn't mean Philip Rivers . . . Have I mentioned I think Boomer is damn good at his job? I never thought an ex-Jet would be so adept at analyzing the Patriots, but he's excellent . . . I want to see more Maroney in the second half, and I want the Pats to go to the spread offense more often if No. 39 isn't involved . . . I also hope Tomlinson decides at halftime to pull a Tiki Barber and decide what he really wants to do is be the next Matt Lauer, but I suppose I shouldn't hold my breath on that one.

THIRD QUARTER
Pats start out with lousy field position, and do nothing to improve it. I was hoping Todd Sauerbrun would take the second half off, but here he is again.

Okay, sorry for the brief hiatus there - it was dinnertime, and I don't miss too many of those. The chef served a delicious paprika chicken with a side order of rice and a Sam Adams Winter Lager. Four stars. Highly recommended. Anyway, with one eye on the TV, I saw: Brady's second bad interception of the game . . . a couple of closeups of Chargers d-lineman Luis Castillo, one of three proven steroid users on their defense (backup linebacker Stephen Cooper was caught with a bag full of goodies while at UMaine - the Chargers are like the Bash Brothers of the NFL) . . . a San Diego drive that went backward after advancing deep into Patriots' territory . . . a sack by James Sanders, who I still think it Lawyer Milloy every time I see No. 36 . . . and a great goal line save by the Chargers' Kasim Osgood to pin the Pats inside the 5 . . . time for another Drive, Marty.

Troy Brown, first down. How many times has Gil Santos said that over the years?

Draw play to Faulk on third and 4. Worked once . . . didn't work twice. Where the hell is Maroney, anyway?

Sauerbrun kills one, the Chargers' punt retuner (the name escapes me . . . Little Train James, perhaps?) tries catching it like it's on fire, and David Thomas recovers. Let this be the game-changing break we've been awaiting. Pats' ball at the San Diego 30.

Brady takes an ill-advised shot at the end zone, and a double-covered Watson rescues him from another pick, ripping the ball out of Cooper's hands.

Third and 13. Brady is creamed on a blitz, loses the ball, and the Pats fall on it. Drive over? Nope, thanks to some rockheaded Charger named Drayton Florence. After the play is over, he taunts Daniel Graham, then thinks it's a really swell idea to emphasize his point by headbutting him. Personal foul, first down, Patriots. Thank you, moron in blue.

It would be really cool if the Patriots could make some forward progress here. Brady just shortarmed a wide-open Watson at the 5.

Gostkowski. Bleepin' icewater, as Don Zimmer would say. (Of course, he said it about the terrified Bobby Sprowl . . . oh, forget it.) Anyway, the rookie nails his second field goal, it's 14-13, Bolts, and Schottenheimer was last seen fashioning a noose on the sidelines.

"Tina's here, we're getting back together!"
"Give us a minute!"
(Love the Geico cavemen.)

Gostkowski. Kick out of bounds. Chargers ball at the 40. No icewater to be found.

Merriman (0 sacks today) is in the lockerroom, apparently with cramps. Doesn't he know he's supposed to drink lots of water with his anabolic lunch?

With the Chargers gradually moving the ball in Patriots' territory, Rosey Colvin (who has been in the backfield all day) makes perhaps the defensive play of the season, reaching up over his shoulder to deflect and then intercept Rivers's floater toward the flat. He gets bonus points for holding on to the ball despite being hauled down by his facemask. Stay classy, San Diego.

FOURTH QUARTER
Brady is suddenly under siege, but he finds Gaffney (7 catches) near midfield with a perfect sideline throw. They have to score here.

Brady to Caldwell, then Brady to Gaffney . . . and on 3rd and 1, Brady's pass to Gaffney is busted up by Antonio (Don't Call Me Warren) Cromartie like he knew it was coming. Fourth and 1. Cue Keanu Reeves voice: What do you do? What do YOU do?

The Pats punt. I guess Belichick has never seen "Point Break." My initial instinct is to wish they'd gone for it. With Tomlinson on the other side, you never know how many more opportunities they'll get.

Wife: "I think the Patriots are going to win." Me, weeping gently: "Have you ever heard of a jinx?" Wife: "I'm always right about these things." We shall see. I'm contacting Alan Dershowitz just in case.

Tomlinson has 19 carries for 111 yards. With little more than 11 minutes remaining, I have a hunch he's about to increase his workload dramatically.

Asante Samuel just busted up a pass on a Rivers rollout. I think that's the first time I've heard his name today, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for a DB.

Arrrgggh. On third down, Rivers (who is just 10 for 24), hits Gates on a textbook slant, and the Chargers are inside the 40. One play later, Rivers floats one to 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson (who scared the hell of me coming into this game), and he outleaps 5-foot-8 Hobbs for 31 yards. Tomlinson scoots in from the 3 on the next play, and it's 21-13, Chargers with 8:38 remaining. Oh, and they shouldn't have punted.

Brady's getting killed, and his receivers aren't getting open . . . with exception of Gaffney, who just beat Quintin Jammer for 17 yards. Brady must be an honorary Gator at this point.

Fourth and 5. Play of the season right here . . . and you would not believe how it played out if you didn't see it. Brady throws his third pick of the game, only to have intended receiver Troy Brown bust out his DB skills and poke the ball away from Chargers DB Marlon McCree. Patriots recover, Schottenheimer emerges from the fetal position long enough to challenge the call . . . and if this is overturned, I'm heaving this computer out the window.

The play stands. The computer survives. Pats ball at the San Diego 30, 6:16 remaining. Needless to say, they need 8 on this drive.

All right, I'll admit it: Ben Watson is an overrated stiff. No catches today, can't catch anything that isn't thrown perfectly, and just retreated inexplicably on a Brady pass in the flat. He's a NFL Combine warrior who looks the part but struggles to play it.

Gaffney just made his 10th catch of the day, good for a first-down. You'd have to say he's the best in-season singing since . . . well, since Artrell Hawkins last year.

Watson catches one. Stop the game, give him the ball. Second and goal at the 4 . . .

. . . and former Bolt bust Reche Caldwell hauls one in all alone in the corner, getting the Pats to within 2, 21-19. I'm sure that just thrills San Diego fans.

I was guessing they'd run the ol' direct snap to Faulk. I bet Charlie Weis was, too. Schottenheimer apparently was not, and this one is all even at 21-21 with slightly more than four minutes left. I've got goosebumps.

So who do you like, Gostkowski or Kaeding?

Third and 4, Chargers, at the Patriots 30-something. This would be a fine time for Samuel to get his weekly interception . . .

. . . almost. But that deflection is the second-best thing.

Simms and Nantz are kicking ass in this game. Just thought that needed to be said.

Faulk, taking punts? Yikes. I know he's had plenty of hero moments for the Pats through the years, but I will never, ever trust him with the game on the line. He hangs on this time, though, and it's Pats ball at their own 15. Time for Brady to do his thing . . . and no, wiseguy, that does not mean throwing a fourth pick.

Nantz, back to being smarmy: ". . . of course, that's not Vinatieri warming up over there." And with that, I hereby retract my previous praise of his call. Dink.

Third and 10 at the San Diego 31. Troy Brown, anyone? Or does Brady go to Jabar (Jerry Rice '07) Gaffney?

Wait, is that David Givens? No? Must be Deion Branch? Stanley Morgan? It can't be one of those useless receivers Felger is always yowling about . . . can it? Oh, but it is! On third and 10, Brady makes the throw of the day, finding the utterly useless, barely upright, lucky-he's-in-the-NFL Reche Caldwell for . . . well, for a lot of yards down the right sideline. (Edit: Turns out it was 49.) If not for a shove by the toasted Jammer that forced him to lose his balance and tiptoe out of bounds, Caldwell would have found his way to the end zone. As it is, the Patriots have first and 10 inside the 20. What. A. Ballsy. Play.

(Oh, and we're going to conveniently forget that I've whined about Caldwell and his no-name peers on occasion this season. Okay, on a lot of occasions. That's why Belichick's Belichick, Pioli's Pioli, and I'm an idiot blogger.)

Wow, three straight basic running plays - seems like they're content to settle for the field goal here, and to be honest, I'm not so comfortable with this strategy. Anyway, I guess we're getting our chance to see Gostkowski attempt a crucial kick now, a 31-yarder.

Good. Bless the kid. 24-21, Pats. And you know what? I guarantee you Adam Vinatieri is watching this one someplace and smiling.

Chargers have 70 seconds and no timeouts. Did I mention that I'm still scared of Vincent Jackson? He's about a foot taller than either Patriots corner.

Whew! Turner might have broken that return if not for the new sod. They really should get FieldTurf, you know.

Beautiful work by Rivers, moving the Chargers down to the Pats. The Charger QB's numbers can't be much today, but I'm impressed nonetheless. Eli Manning will never be as good. Oh, right . . . and the game: 8 seconds left, Kaeding attempting a 54-yarder, which would tie his career high.

The kick is up . . .

The kick is on the way . . .

The kick is . . .

The kick is . . .

The kick is . . .

NO GOOD!

He Norwooded it, ever so slightly wide right and short, and the Patriots have one of their most improbable, magical, unlikely wins in this entire amazing journey. And so New England rejoices. Gil and Gino holler in unison, "The Patriots win, THE PATRIOTS WIN!" Belichick hugs his kids and refrains from decking any photographers. Caldwell and the Patriots receivers silence all the banshees. Gostkowski gets a moment of his own, one his decorated predecessor surely would be proud of himself. And Brady . . . well, it wasn't his best game, but he just wins, baby. Would you want anyone else? Ever?

Oh, and Schottenheimer? He just gulped down his own tongue.

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