Saturday, December 29, 2007

First and 10: Perfection


1. So there you have it: 16-0. History. Perfection. The impossible as reality. The 2007 New England Patriots are the single greatest team in NFL history . . . during the regular season. You, me, and a certain gridiron genius in a gray hoodie realize that this team's true legacy will be determined in the next three games. The Patriots will either go down as the best team ever in professional football . . . or the best team in professional football that didn't win the Super Bowl. The difference there is bigger than Vince Wilfork's backside. But there are two weeks before that next football game, two weeks before the first chapter in Three Games To Glory, Vol. 4 is recorded, and right now is the time to savor what this impossibly brilliant team has accomplished up to this point. We'll begin with all the glittering numbers - Tom Brady's 50 touchdown passes, Randy Moss's 23 touchdown catches, the league records for points (589 . . . 589!) and touchdowns (75) - but you know what makes these Patriots truly special, and perhaps unique in the annals of professional football? An uncanny knack for always - always, always, always - making the play they need to make at the moment they need to make it; just ask the Colts, or the Ravens, or the Eagles, or the oh-so-close Giants tonight. I do not need to tell you that so much of that magic in the clutch is because of the unflappable quarterback, and while I feel obligated to attempt to say something profound about Brady right now, I'm struggling mightily to find the words to do justice to what he has accomplished so far this season. Brady finished 32 for 42 for 356 yards and two touchdowns tonight against a Giants team that made him earn every single yard (so much for resting their players). And yet, even as the Patriots fell behind by their largest deficit of the season, 12 points, there was little doubt that No. 12 would make sure his team would emerge with the victory. The best I can offer is that Brady - whom I considered on par with Joe Montana as the finest quarterback of all time even before this year's statistical explosion - has become one of those elite athletes, like Montana, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and so very few others - who can be properly described as transcendent. With three more victories, the same term will apply to his team.

2. The Giants have a well-deserved reputation as one of the most maddening teams in the NFL - one week they can look like a legitimate contender in the NFC, and the next week they'll look as hapless as the '76 Buccaneers. That said, my respect for them grew considerably tonight. Their defense came to play, outhitting the Patriots in the first half and landing good, clean shots on Prince Charles all night, and I was also impressed with running back Brandon Jacobs, whose relentless style caused the Patriots to miss countless tackles, especially in the brutally physical first half. (He left tire tracks on Rodney Harrison on more than one occasion.) And while I'm reluctant to praise the Lesser of the Mannings given that the Patriots have had their problems with the inept likes of Kyle Boller and A.J. Feeley lately, I must admit that Eli showed me something tonight. I'm not saying he'll ever escape his brother's shadow, and he may never justify being the No. 1 overall pick, but he played well enough to put up 28 offensive points on a 15-0 team tonight, and for that he deserves credit. Besides, he's not nearly as sorry as Philip Rivers, the all-talk, no-action QB he was, in effect, traded for. Of course, now that we praise them, they'll go and lose to Tampa Bay by two touchdowns next weekend. There's a reason Tom Coughlin looks so tense.

3. I was surprised to see on the stat sheet that Laurence Maroney finished with just 46 yards on 19 carries. Maybe his performance was exaggerated in my mind by the two rushing touchdowns, including the clincher in the final minutes, but I was very impressed with him tonight, and during the last couple of games, really. He's been running violently, and with perhaps as much determination as he has since the beginning of his rookie season, and while I think some of the criticism he has absorbed this season comes from people who always need something to complain about, I am convinced that someone - a coach, a teammate, one of the dudes with a musket - got to him recently and convinced him that he needs to toughen up and bring his game to the next level if this team is going to win a Super Bowl.

4. Brady's double-record-breaking touchdown pass to Moss, a 65-yard bomb with a little more than 11 minutes remaining, was just as aesthetically pleasing as we dared imagine it would be, and that it was the go-ahead score seemed appropriate. There are, of course, certain other on-field matters to be settled before we even begin to consider who will be back with this team next season and who won't be, but I have to say right now that it's absolutely imperative that the Patriots bring Moss back next year even with the higher sticker price. After watching him, I've been completely spoiled, and no other receiver can possibly compare. The circus can't leave town just yet, you know?

5. He might not be the single toughest Patriots pound-for-pound - at the moment, I think that title must go to one Wesley Welker, who finishes the regular season with 112 catches, or one for every pound he weighs - but is there any Patriots fan who isn't thoroughly impressed by Kevin Faulk right now? In his younger days he used to make you nervous because of his penchant for putting the ball on the ground at the worst times, but at this point in his career, he's become the running back version of Troy Brown, the undersized, underestimated guy who never fails to deliver a huge play when the moment demands it. Tonight he had eight catches for 64 yards, and as usual, a couple of his catch-and-run receptions gained crucial first downs. Faulk's one of those guys, like Brown or Steve Nelson or Steve Grogan or Willie McGinest, who we'll remember with increasing fondness as the years pass.

6. I'm sure we'll hear the usual vaguely insulting words associated with Bill Belichick over the next few days and weeks - humorless, bland, dour, frumpy, stoic, emotionless, unsentimental, cold, and so on - but the man sure looked pretty damn happy to me as he embraced his players as the clock wound down on history. I've said it before and I'll say it again: That Belichick is reluctant to share his human side with the media does not detract from the reality, which is this: He's might be the most compelling person in the entire league, he has more players and coaches who are immensely loyal to him than any coach I can think of with the possible exception of Bill Parcells, and to pigeonhole him as some sort of android just because he is uncooperative or wary is the act of someone who would rather settle for a cliche than put the effort in to find the complicated truth.

7. Know who led the Patriots in tackles tonight? Harrison? Always a good guess, but No. 37 (who was particularly, um, "animated" tonight) was second with six stops. Mike Vrabel? Again a good guess, but he had just two (and one huge onsides kick recovery). Ellis Hobbs? A good sleeper pick, for he always seems to be hauling down a receiver after a reception, but he also had six tackles, five solo. Ready for the answer? Brandon Meriweather, with seven, six solo. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure what that means - does Belichick trust him more in the base defense now than he did a few weeks ago, or were his stats enhanced by playing special teams? - but it's certainly encouraging that this year's first-round pick suddenly is showing signs that he will live up to his advance billing, and it couldn't happen at a better time. The more playmakers the Patriots have, the better, especially against the looming Colts.

8. I'm not saying I'm shocked that Giants punter Jeff Feagles is still employed in the NFL, but it fairly amazing that this is the same guy who impressed few while averaging a measly 38.3 yards per kick for the 1988 Patriots. Being a punter is a nice and lucrative life if you can get it. (Somewhere, Sean Landeta nods in agreement.)

9. I'm just going to assume that the new and alarming holes in the usually stellar kick coverage team were due to the absence of special teams aces Willie Andrews and Kyle Eckel, and that it's something Brad Seely will have properly repaired by the time the Patriots take the field again. (And that concludes tonight's B**** About Something Minor Minute. Thank you for joining us, and please visit us again in two weeks when we attempt to urinate on another parade.)

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



You know, I was all set revel in the fact that it's finally time for the ubiquitous Mr. Morris to shut up and go home, but after hearing his hilariously oblivious humiliation of Fred Smerlas and Steve DeOssie on WEEI this week ("Did you guys ever play football? Didya?"), the crazy old Dolphin is all right in my book. Don Shula, however . . . now there's someone who can just shut up and go home.

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