Sunday, January 28, 2007

And yet Aaron Sele is nowhere to be found

For no other reason than because we're seriously jonesing for some baseball right about now, we offer you this: a vaguely defined, completely subjective, semi-Rotisserie-oriented list of . . .


Coco Crisp, OF, Red Sox: Coming off excellent back-to-back seasons in Cleveland, he got off to a fast start in his first season with the Sox . . . then busted his finger, came back too soon, tried to do too much, struggled mightily, then busted the danged digit again. He's entering his prime at age 27, and with less pressure (Johnny who?) and less responsibility (he'll likely bat 7th or 8th), we're expecting Year 2 to be his Boston breakthrough.

Gary Sheffield, OF, Tigers: He's playing for a manager he respects, he's got a fat new contract, and he's motivated to stick it to a former employer, in this case Joe Torre and the Yankees. Ask me, that's long been the recipe for a monster season from Chris House's sparring partner.

Ryan Shealy, 1B-DH, Royals: There's a reason the Red Sox have always coveted him - he can rake. He'll club 30 homers if the Royals give him 500 at-bats.

Felix Hernandez, SP, Mariners: The phenom known as King Felix seemed weighed down with all the Doc Gooden-in-'84 comparisons entering last season . . . and he was weighed down further, so to speak, by a conditioning regimen that consisted of sleeping, engulfing Doritos, and watching TV. But he reportedly will report to spring training in fantastic shape, and if you've seen him pitch, you know he has the best stuff of any big-league pitcher not currently employed by the Minnesota Twins. And he's only 20. The sky remains the limit.

Jhonny Peralta, SS, Indians: He's 24 and stacked up .292-24-78 numbers in '05. So Omar Vizquel's successor can't possibly be as bad as he looked at the plate (.257-13-68) and the field (16 errors, Merloni-like range) last season . . . can he?

Ian Kinsler, 2B, Rangers: While your fantasy league homies slobber (justifiably) over future batting champion Howie Kendrick, it's this young, offensively gifted AL second baseman who might wind up being the draft-day bargain at second base.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Yankees: Call it hyperbole, but after watching him hit .342 with 15 homers at age 23 - and scaring the hell out of me every time he came up in a key situation against the Sox - I'm convinced he's going to be a lefthanded-hitting Paul Molitor. He may want to reconsider his wardrobe choices, however. Jeter sure does make his double-play partners wear some curious outfits.

Brad Hawpe, OF, Rockies: Given the unlikely ascension to fantasy superstardom of Matt Holliday and Garrett Atkins the past two seasons, we feel obligated to have at least one Coors Field hitter on this list, and the 26-year-old quietly put up .293-22-84 numbers last season.

Josh Beckett, SP, Red Sox: Provided new pitching coach John Farrell can drill through the sediment around his thick skull.

Aaron Harang, SP, Reds: Okay, so he was really a sleeper last year . . . but man, did anyone realize that the 28-year-old Oakland discard led the National League in strikeouts, and tied Derek Lowe among others for the league lead in wins? Talk about a quietly brilliant season.


Trot Nixon, OF/Gimp, Cleveland: Nick Cafardo tells us Captain Dirty Cap "worked out harder this offseason that he has in many years." Well then, I'm convinced. Ol' No. 7 is absolutely poised for a monster comeba . . . whoa, wait a minute. Pardon my naivete, but I was under the impression real Dirt Dogs always kept in shape. You mean the back injury he got while driving was the result of him having a midsection that looked more like a keg than a six-pack? On second thought, good riddance, slug.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

First and 10: Sunset on a season

1. It was natural, in the mournful aftermath of the Patriots' loss to the Colts, to be tempted to put the franchise's days as an NFL power in the past tense. We longed for the not-so-long-ago days when Tom Brady was infallible and Peyton Manning could be counted on to swallow his chin strap in the clutch. We lamented a lost opportunity, and wondered, with a supersized dose of self-pity, if it would ever be so good again. Hey, it was devastating loss. We were appropriately devastated. But now that the defeat has had a week to fade farther away in the rear-view mirror, our perspective is again one of logic more than emotion. And while we still ache from a game that was two minutes too long, we can't help but feel optimistic about the Patriots and the direction in which they are headed. Oh, sure, some are eager to declare the dynasty dead, and while two years without a Super Bowl is absolutely a step back given what they accomplished in previous seasons, I believe with some minor tinkering this team will rise again before they fall. Think about it: Belichick is still here and still hungry. Brady is in his prime. Laurence Maroney looks like a dynamic ballcarrier. They are strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball and deep in the defensive backfield. We all know they need an impact linebacker and a wide receiver or two, but with two first-round picks and a few dollars to spend, those holes can and will be plugged. Further, we must applaud them for doing what was thought to be impossible during this salary cap era - they have replenished their talent base without sliding down the standings. The Patriots are a younger team now than they were in 2001, and if you take a look at some of the names on the roster that humbled The Greatest Show On Turf that glorious night, you'll realize they're a far more skilled team too. Contrary to current public opinion, they are not going the way of their closest peers in NFL history, the dynastic Cowboys of the '90s, who failed to surround its Hall of Fame core with a quality supporting cast once free agency took its toll. (And we won't even get into the impact of Barry Switzer's involvement.) The Patriots are not beginning a slow descent into mediocrity; they went 12-4 and lost in the conference championship game undergoing personnel transitions that would constitute a full-fledged rebuilding job for most franchises. That is an astonishing feat, and even with the abrupt ending, it was a hell of a season. Good health willing, there are even better seasons ahead.

2. It's trendy, particularly among the suddenly giddy Belichick Bashers, to say that Tony Dungy outcoached the Hoodied One in the second half, and maybe there's some truth there; even the likes of Andy Reid and Herm Edwards must be tempted to question the inept way the Patriots (mis)managed their timeouts in the final two minutes. But to say the Colts made a shrewd adjustment when they decided to stop throwing deep to Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison and instead started targeting the tight ends and running backs over the middle is to ignore the fact that everyone who watched the Patriots this season wondered why the Colts didn't do this sooner. Even a know-nothing bagpipe like Glenn Ordway knew Dallas Clark would be a tough cover for the Patriots' linebackers, who developed a collective case of rigamortis (oh, right . . . cramps) as the season progressed. The second half certainly was hideous for the Patriots; I shudder to think how many points Peyton and the Ponies might have produced had they been shrewd enough to attack the Patriots' glaring weakness from the start.

3. Obviously, an agile linebacker or two should be atop Belichick's grocery list in the offseason. Chicago's Lance Briggs and Baltimore's Adalius Thomas are the notable names in free agency, and while both are accomplished players (Thomas strikes me as a Willie McGinest clone), I'm not going to pretend to know how either would fit into the Patriots' complex scheme. Another intriguing possibility is Buffalo's London Fletcher-Baker, a fireplug whom Belichick has gone out of his way to compliment this season. I wonder if he's setting the stage to try to acquire him; it reminds me of the praise Belichick heaped on Rosey Colvin the season before he lured him to New England. I'd also like to believe the mock drafts are on the money and the Patriots will spend one of their first-round picks on Ole Miss's Patrick Willis. He can run, played his heart out for a hopeless team, says he's more suited to playing the 4-3, and has the maturity Belichick desires. In other words, he just what they need . . . presuming he fits their system, of course.

4. It's all well and good that the NFL kinda-sorta admitted it's mistake on the phantom Ellis Hobbs "face-guarding" call, but I'm still waiting for an explanation why no flag was thrown when Reche Caldwell was fondled, mugged, and mutilated in the end zone on a crucial fourth-quarter fade pattern. Had that happened to one of the Colts' delicate flowers, that nut Bill Polian would have stormed the NFL offices in a tank.

5. All right, Asante Samuel, I'm a believer. After the Law-like job you did on Marvin (Please Don't Touch Me!) Harrison, you deserve the title of Shutdown Corner, and the appropriate eight-figure signing bonus that comes with it. Here's hoping you're all right with becoming acquainted with another title: Franchise Player.

6. Samuel is obviously the priority among the free agents, but I do hope the Patriots find a way to retain Daniel Graham. Not only is he a devastating blocker and a respected voice in the locker room, but in my opinion he's the best all-around tight end on the roster by a Wilfork-wide margin. Ben Watson had a decent season numbers-wise, but the inconsistency of his hands and route-running was maddening, and I got the sense Brady's faith in him shriveled as the season progressed. Graham, meanwhile, made crucial catches in both the San Diego and Indy games, receptions I'm not sure Watson would have made since he struggles to hang on to any throw that doesn't hit him between the 8 and the 4 on his jersey.

7. So, has anyone heard from all the would-be personnel wizards who claimed the loss of Adam Vinatieri would cost the Patriots at least one game, if not two? The reality is that the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history was not missed for one moment this season, and for that it's time to give Stephen Gostkowski his due: after some early hiccups, the kid ultimately handled every challenge during a fine rookie season. Like his decorated predecessor, he saved his best moments for the playoffs, hitting all eight of his field goal attempts, including a 43-yarder that gave the Patriots a short-lived 34-31 lead against the Colts. And his final kickoff was a bomb - had the Colts not marched 80 yards down the field for the victory, he'd be getting his just due as an unsung hero.

8. That certain whinnying talk-radio metrosexual who claims that Rashad Baker's walk-on role in the Indy game is proof that the Patriots lacked roster depth? He's a lotion-slathered idiot. Anyone with a shred of perspective realizes Baker wouldn't be anywhere near the field if Harrison, Wilson, Artrell Hawkins, Tebucky Jones, Don Davis, and perhaps even Mel Mitchell hadn't been hurt. Including James Sanders and versatile Chad Scott, Baker is the Patriots' sixth-string safety at best. Quick, tell me one other team that is even four-deep at the position. Hell, the Colts' season-long defensive problems were in large part due to injuries to starting safeties Bob Sanders and Mike Doss - they simply had no one capable of replacing their best two guys. If anything, it's a nod to the Belichick and Scott Pioli's roster-building skills that they had one of the elite defenses in the league while playing without Harrison and Wilson almost the entire season.

9. Because we're shaking off our Patriots hangover and slowly transitioning back into baseball mode here at TATB headquarters, I suppose we should weigh in on the rumor of the day, that the Sox are in "high-level" negotiations with the Rockies to acquire first baseman Todd Helton. Our take: Good god, please let this be fiction. Helton is 33, has a bad back, is coming off a season in which he hit 15 homers with a career-low .476 slugging percentage playing half his games at Coors Field, and is due $90.1 million over the next six seasons. Even if the Rockies pick up half of the contract and take Matt Clement off the Sox's hands, I fail to see what the appeal is. Sure, he was a premier hitter not so long ago, but at this point, Helton's a line-drive hitter who sees a lot of pitches and plays a fine first base. Sounds like John Olerud circa 2005 to me. Pass, Theo.

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

Gee, think the Fridge will be the subject of any "Where Are They Now?" stories the next two weeks?

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

TATB live: Dynasty vs. Laser-Rocket Arm

So I'm upstairs with my 2-year-old daughter a few minutes ago, rocking out to the iPod shuffle and trying to get her to burn off that one last energy burst before bedtime, and what's the final song that comes randomly through our speakers? Cue Bono:

The heart is a bloom
Shoots up through the stony ground
There's no room
No space to rent in this town . . .

I trust Patriots fans don't need to be told what a good omen "Beautiful Day" is. But just in case, I've got the same superstitions going as last week, and the week before that: the old-school Pat Patriots long-sleeved T, the mangy old UMaine wool hat, the usual six-pack of Sam Adams Winter Lager . . . heck, I haven't even showered since the San Diego game. I smell like Booger McFarland's game socks. (Okay, kidding there.) But I'm ready for this. Now let's see if Peyton Manning is too.

We get our first of what is sure to be roughly 4,000 Adam Vinatieri sightings a few minutes before he boots the opening kickoff. Ask me, he looks terrified.

Three plays in, and I'm convinced the Patriots are sure they can run it down Indy's throats. On third and 7, Kevin Faulk gets 8 on a draw, and Corey Dillon could have had a lot more than 3 yards on second and 10 had he been able to make one more cut.

On the downside, Brady has bounced two of his first three throws, and Faulk let another doink off his hands on a screen that looked like it could have gone for big yardage. The drive stalls around the 35, and so Indy gets the ball and a chance to score first, something the Patriots really would like to avoid.

Indy's first play is a sweep to Tully Banta-Cain's side, a call the LaDainian Tomlinson and the Chargers got great results from a week ago. Of course, Joseph Addai isn't LT, but it bears watching, because it might be the main weakness of the Pats' D.

Richard Seymour hobbles off after the first play, clutching his ankle. Though it doesn't look serious, I'm having flashbacks to Rodney Harrison's injury early in the teams' previous meeting this season. Cross your fingers.

Colts go three-and-out. Manning has the Bledsoe Happy Feet going. Then again, he always seems to be jumping around back there even when he's on a roll, but I'll for now I'll take his jittery first series as a good sign.

The Pats get a first down on a Brady pitch to Reche Caldwell for about 12 yards, and Dwight Freeney hobbles off. Then, Laurence Maroney (who hasn't been hitting the holes nearly as hard since his rib injury) loses 2 yards, and linebacker Gary Brackett looks like he's down for the count. At the rate we're going injury-wise, this one could end up being a one-on-one game between Kelvin Kight and Aaron Moorehead at the end.

Another third and 8 draw to Faulk, and Jim Nantz isn't exaggerating when he says it's a "chain-link short." At midfield, the Pats take the first real gamble of the game and go for it . . .

. . . and 35 yards later, Dillon has the first down at the Indy 20, and the dome suddenly sounds like a mortuary. Major stones, Belichick. Major stones.

And if you had Logan Mankins in the "Who scores the first touchdown pool?", well, you must be a descendant of Nostradamus or something. How it came to be: On third and inches inside the 10, Maroney just plain drops Brady's handoff, the ball takes an odd bounce forward, somehow squirts away from a pair of Colts, and winds up in the end zone, where Mankins smothers it with every one of his 295 pounds. It's 7-0, Patriots, and you bet those are the kind of breaks that make people hate them.

Manning completes one to Harrison, then chucks one in the same direction incomplete, and he seems to be taking aim at Asante Samuel's side. I'm okay with that considering I don't trust Ellis Hobbs in anything but a dance contest.

On second and 6, Manning goes deep to Harrison . . . and Samuel tips it away with perfect coverage . . .

. . . but Indy is moving it, as Manning converts the third and 6 to Dallas Clark near the 40. He's covered by Eric Alexander, whom the Patriots have been using more and more during passing situations. Given the struggles by Mike Vrabel and Tedy Bruschi in coverage this season, I can't say I'm surprised, though you wish there were a more experienced alternative.

Seymour's back. Exhale.

First down, Indy, at the New England 26. Hold your breath again.

Right tackle Ryan Diem gets called for holding, negating a nice run by Addai. And somewhere, Bill Polian sucker punches an intern.

On first and 20, Hobbs punches away a perfect deep throw to Reggie Wayne in the end zone. If he's going to keep making plays like that, I might just be able to tolerate his Canty-like antics.

Hey, look! It's Adam Vinatieri! Geez, when did the Colts get him? He's pretty good! (He bangs it through - barely - from 42 yards, and it's 7-3, Patriots. For the record, I'm cool with keeping them to field goals all night, if that's how they want to play it.)

Brady completes one to Ben Watson, the first quarter speeds to an end, and I'm off to correct my posting issues. Be right back . . .

. . . and we're back. The Pats have marched into Indy territory. Maroney gets two productive carries in a row, then Freeney let's us know he's back by zipping past Matt Light and drilling Brady, forcing an incompletion. The dude is quick.

Fourth and 6 from the Indy 35 . . . and the Patriots appear to be going for it. A 52-yarder for Gostkowski seems makeable from this vantage point, but I think they know they need to be greedy about points against Manning and Co.

Troy Brown. You know the rest. Is it okay to feel love for another man?

. . . and Dillon takes the draw, plods past the over-accelerated Colts defense, and walks into the end zone, making it 14-3, Patriots. So far, so very good . . .

Our first Manning commercial of the evening. Nice timing. For the record, we think he's great in just about every one of his ads, though it's probably not much of a thespian stretch for him to play an affable doofus . . .

. . . and our favorite 6-5, 230-pound, laser-rocket armed pitchman comes back and promptly turns Asante Samuel into Ty Law 2007, hitting the Patriots corner in stride for a 40-something yard touchdown and a 21-3 New England lead. There's no way I'm buying a Sprint phone now if I'm a Colts fan.

Three and out for the Colts again, with Samuel blanketing Harrison on a deep pass Manning heaved in desperation from the end zone. The way No. 22 is playing, he might get a $10 million a year offer from Scott Pioli at halftime.

The only pressure the Colts are getting on Brady is coming when they blitz - which, prior to today, I can't recall them doing all that often. Did I mention that I think Dwight Freeney is overrated and his stupid Yankees hat at yesterday's press conference was hideous?

First penalty against the Patriots, taking them back to the Indy 38 and setting up a third and 16. Somewhere, Bill Polian just released his chokehold on the chief of officiating.

. . . and make it back-to-back penalties, followed by a Freeney sack (what a wonderful player!), thereby stalling the drive and bringing on Todd (Thank God He's Not Ken Walter) Sauerbrun for the first time tonight. Our all-time favorite jacked-and-pumped punter pins Indy at its own 11.

And we arrive at the 2-minute warning with Indy at its own 30. The Patriots simply cannot let them march down and get a touchdown here - it's imperative to send them into halftime miserable, not with momentum.

Manning suddenly finds his rhythm . . . 10 yards to Moorehead . . . 13 yards to Clark . . .and Indy is inside the Patriots 30 with slightly less than a minute left.

First and goal, inside the Patriots 10, 23 seconds left. Time for someone to make a play. How about Bruschi? He's overdue. Hell, he's been overdue all season.

Addai goes nowhere . . . James Sanders ruins Clark's end-zone plans . . . and it's third and 10 . . .

And we have our first real controversy: Hobbs gets tangled with Wayne on a fade pattern, Wayne bites the dust, and the official on the other side of the field throws the flag. Pass interference? Nope. After a zebra conference, the official says there's no penalty, which shockingly, doesn't go over that well with Indy fans. As Vinatieri bangs a chip shot through to make it 21-6, Pats, an enraged Bill Polian kills a hobo.

So what's the take at the half? Well, a 21-6 lead is certainly the preferable side of things, but it's hardly enough against Indy (even though Phil Simms just noted that the Colts haven't scored a touchdown in their last 20 postseason possessions, which is downright stunning.) A three-and-out on the first drive would be reassuring to say the least. Offensively, the Pats ran for 85 yards in the first half, so apparently Bob Sanders is not the second coming of Ronnie Lott. I'd imagine we'll be seeing a lot more of Dillon and Maroney in the second half.

Sideline reporter Solomon Wilcots just said the "information was flowing" from Belichick during their obligatory chat at the break. I think he was being sarcastic.

Unfortunately, Indy comes out moving it, mostly via sideline patterns to Harrison (the chemistry between him and Manning really is something to behold) or runs by Dominic Rhodes, who's in for Addai.

Indy is inside the Pats 20, gaining a first down on a slant to Wayne despite Simms's assertion that the Patriots called "the perfect defense" to stop it. A touchdown here seems inevitable the way Manning is rolling in the hurry-up . . .

. . . and Manning sneaks (okay, lumbers) in from the 1, and it's a one-possession game, 21-13. Gulp. Time for Brady to answer.

On the kick return, Maroney gets blown up at the 15 by someone named Darryl Reed. "The momentum is shifting," says Nantz. No *&$#, Chief.

Brady chucks it away on first down after struggling to change the play. Not what we had in mind there, Mr. Bundchen.

Crap, three and out. Just what the doctor ordered. Why does it suddenly feel like they're down by 8?

I'm not worrying that it will come down to Vinatieri . . . I'm not worrying that it will come down to Vinatieri . . . I'm not worrying . . .

First play of Indy's possession, Manning hits Clark for 25 to midfield, then Rhodes busts for 19 more up the middle. I'm going to start using real swear words pretty soon.

Rashad Baker is in for Artrell Hawkins. I wouldn't know Rashad Baker if he walked through my living room right now.

Seymour gives Indy a first down on third and 5 with a neutral zone infraction. Inexcusable, particularly for a player of his ability and experience, but the defense is justifiably exhausted right now. Actually, I take that back. It is inexcusable, and Seymour has been a major disappointment this season.

Pass interference on Hobbs in the end zone. Couldn't have been more obvious - looked like he was defending a backdoor pass against Princeton. Even Chris Canty thought it was a stupid play.

The Patriots are getting a taste of their own medicine right now, as Dan Klecko (yeah, him) does a nice Vrabel imitation, getting wide-open on a swing pass for the touchdown, then Harrison makes a nice grab to convert the 2. It's 21-21, and this sucks.

New ballgame. Time for Brady and Co. to wake the hell up, put together an extended drive that results in a touchdown, and get the defense some friggin' rest.

I'm sure you heard Nantz tell us Indy has put up 18 points in the last 11 minutes of game clock. Simply amazing.

Well, this might be one way to answer. Hobbs takes Vinatieri's short kick all the way to the Indy 20 with a smart and dazzling return (Vinatieri, who's apparently slowed since his Herschel Walker-catching years, whiffed on the tackle), and you know the importance of getting 7 out of this.

Reche Caldwell, meet Jackie Smith. Jackie Smith, meet Reche Caldwell. Goddammit.

Jabar Gaffney, who somehow doesn't have his usual 10 catches tonight, hauls in Brady's third-and-10 wobbler at the back of the end zone and gets one foot down before he's cranked past the end line. The Colts wisely challenge . . . and still, it's for naught. Touchdown, Patriots, and it's 28-21, Pats. What's the over-under in this one, anyway?

Someone named Ben Utecht is down for Indy. Nice of him to help the Pats' D rest up.

Rhodes is murdering the Pats on short passes out the backfield. I'm fairly sure Manning is aware that the Pats linebackers couldn't cover Ben Utecht right now.

I'm done with the play-by-play of the Indy Offensive Machine. Let's just say it sure as hell looks like they're going to tie it after a sick pitch-and-catch by Manning and Clark.

. . . and they do, appropriately freakishly, with Jeff Saturday recovering Rhodes's fumble in the end zone, an almost identical play to Mankins's TD to start this game. It's 28-28, and this is going to be one messed-up box score.

Simms: "New England needs first downs, to give their defense a chance to rest on the sidelines." Nice thought, but suddenly it's third and 8, and Maroney does his Savion Glover routine and can't pick up the first down on a short pass. The kid hasn't exactly shown up tonight.

Now would be a nice time for the Patriots' so-called pass rush to show up. As it is, the Patriots have Indy in a crucial third-and-17 after an incompletion and a Manning stumble for a 7-yard loss . . . and they hold 'em. Thank god, they finally bleepin' hold 'em.

Finally, one former Patriots does something nice for his former teammates tonight: Dexter Reid, who was a poor man's Guss Scott, gets called for a 15-yard facemask penalty on the punt, giving the Pats the ball near midfield. It goes without saying that you don't look a gift horse in the mouth, so to speak.

Manning's getting his thumb on his throwing hand checked out. Just rub some dirt on it, you doofus. (And in case you still have some optimism left, the Colts' backup quarterback is named Jim Sorgi. I'm pretty sure he's not one of the Manning brothers.)

Brady, with back to back lasers to Caldwell and Gaffney, taking the Pats to the Indy 14. Now this is what we've been waiting for . . .

. . . but not this, dammit. Caldwell just boxed another one to the ground after Brady finally realized there was no Colt within 15 yards of the receiver after the snap. Talk about a lost opportunity.

Gostkowski bangs through a short 3 after Caldwell gets slapped around without drawing a flag on a fade pattern, and it's 31-28, Pats, with slightly more than 7 minutes remaining. Here's hoping Manning's laser-rocket thumb has already been amputated.

Dallas Clark, for 52 yards to the Pats 20. Ordway is going to be insufferable . . . well, moreso than usual. The Patriots are going to need a touchdown to win this thing.

On third and 5, the Colts . . . run. Two yards later, Vinatieri jogs onto the field with a chance to tie it . . . and he does, barely. It's 31-31, with 5:31 remaining. This one's up to you, No. 12.

Hobbs takes it back to the New England 46. I take back all of the mean things I said - he's been huge, particularly on special teams.

First play, Brady hits Daniel Graham for 25. Would it be greedy of me to suggest a slightly better throw might have led to another 20 yards? I still think we find out a Brady arm injury in the immediate days after the season's end. He's thrown more inexplicably inaccurate passes this season than he had in the previous five years combined. Something's just not right.

Third and 10 at the Indy 32. How many times have I said the season hangs in the balance the last two weeks? And what's the play-call? A DRAW TO HEATH EVANS! WHAT THE $&%&#& IS THAT??? Josh McDaniels can take the Raiders' job right now as far as I'm concerned. (Curiously, Simms is okay with it, and I feel a little better after Gostkowski drills a 43-yard to make it 34-31, Pats.)

All right, Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm. A little more than three minutes remain. You're down three. You've got the ball. You've got two timeouts, plus the 2-minute warning. I guess we're going to find out if it really is "your time" after all.

Ray Mickens, you just earned your entire salary on one play. On third and 10, after two shaky Manning throws, the longtime Jet and midseason free-agent pickup springs in front of Moorehead and bats away the pass at the last instant. The Pats have it back, 3:22 left. Thank you, Ray Mickens.

Five yard penalty for too many men in the huddle, first and 15 . . .

Seven-yard out to Caldwell, second and 7 . . .

Four-yard out to Watson (a "dangerous, dangerous pass," Simms says, and a hell of a catch), third and 3 (and it'd be a first down if not for that dumbass penalty) . . .

How about a little Troy Brown action right now?

And damned if Bob Sanders wasn't thinking the same thing. Indy will get it back, and Brady's lucky that wasn't seven points the other way.

All right, Mr. Laser-Rocket Arm. A little more than two minutes remain. You're down three. You've got the ball. You've got one timeout, plus the 2-minute warning. I guess we're going to find out if it really is "your time" after all. (Man, that sounds so familiar.)

After Manning completes a pass to someone named Fletcher for a healthy gain, Tully Banta-Cain is nailed for roughing the passer after hitting Manning in the helmet. Half the distance to the goal, 1:53 remain. Very Charger-like, Tully. (And we won't even mention Wayne reeling in his own fumble after the catch.)

Third and 2, Indy at the Pats 3, 1:02 left. Season hangs in the balance, yada yada yada. Paging Mr. Willie McGinest . . . Mr. Willie McGinest, please report to the goal line.

Addai up the gut. 38-34. My stomach is in my throat.

Be a hero, Hobbs.

Eighty yards in 54 seconds. Is that even possible?

Sadly, no. Marlin Jackson is now officially a cursed name throughout New England. The Colts' cornerback catches Brady's final throw of the season, clinching the greatest comeback (from 18 points down) ever in a league championship game, and like that, we're just one of the 30 fan bases who'll could give a flying #*$*$ about the Super Bowl.

As for parting words . . . well, what can you say? I'm pissed that the Pats let it get away - it was so unlike them it's disconcerting. I'm having a hard time comprehending that this just happened. But there's no denying that Indy deserves to play on. They could have quit after Samuel's interception return made it 21-3, but unlike Indy teams of the past, they didn't. They sucked it up, Manning found his groove, the Pats' defense came down with one massive leg cramp, the team that had the momentum for the majority of the game finally took the lead in the final moment, and Bill Polian gave his manservant a big, sloppy kiss. Sure, this feeling sucks, and the thought that the dynasty might be in its final, wheezing hours is a depressing one, but I just can't find any shame in this defeat.

I just wish the game was two minutes shorter.

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Pregame notes . . . and a programming note

Quick notes on The Showdown while wondering which rules Bill Polian will want changed should the Colts lose . . .

Can't wait to see how the Patriots will attack the Colts' defense on the first series. Will they come out five-wide with Tom Brady in the shotgun? Will Dillon and Maroney (who apparently had a bye last week) test that previously porous Indy run defense with four or five consecutive carries? Or will the approach be something that will come as a surprise to you, me, and Tony Dungy? Probably the best thing about the Patriots' offense is how malleable it is. The offense has an uncanny knack of morphing into exactly what it needs to be to defeat a specific opponent. So what is it that they need to be today?

And in case you can't tell, I am not buying this whole "rejuvenated Colts defense" nonsense one bit. Oh, I know Bob Sanders is a fine player, the closest thing the Colts have to Rodney Harrison, and he certainly makes a tangible difference when he's healthy. But a team that allows 178 rushing yards per game over the course of the 16-game regular season, then has the good fortune of playing A) the Chiefs, coached by the comically inept and stunningly unprepared Herm Edwards in the first round and B) the Ravens, who relied on the mummified remains of Steve McNair and Jamal Lewis at its two most important skill positions . . . well, that's a defense that strikes me as having a whole lot left to prove, particularly against a balanced offense.

Is there any way the Patriots can make sure Ty Law is in the building today? Maybe give him a fake beard and mustache, put him in a No. 31 Pats jersey, and tell him his name is "Antwain Spann" until further notice? You know Manning would throw two interceptions his way just out of habit; Law has to be among Manning's leading receivers in the postseason. As it is, I suppose we have to hope Asante Samuel has a Law-type game today. The Pats' chances would be greatly enhanced by a Manning mistake early, just to plant the seed in his skull that while he's beaten the Pats twice in a row in the regular season, things haven't changed when it's all on the line. I want to see him rip off that chin strap in disgust at least twice in the first quarter.

Tully Banta-Cain, 2006: 5.5 sacks, 43 tackles. Dwight Freeney, 2006: 5.5 sacks, 29 tackles. Just thought that needed to be pointed out.

A Pats fan has to take some comfort in the fact that Ricky Proehl now plays for the Colts, having been signed to replace the injured Brandon Stokely during the season. Proehl's presence has been something of a good luck omen for the Patriots during this six-year run of excellence. He was on the losing side in the Patriots' first two Super Bowl victories, and every Pats fan I know still gets a good snicker out the video of Proehl's "Tonight, a dynasty is born," proclamation in the moments before the Pats-Rams Super Bowl. The damn fool didn't know how right he was. I wonder if anyone has asked him about that this week.

It's not difficult to find legitimate football reasons why Manning can lead the Colts to victory today. He's beaten the Patriots twice in a row . . . he believes he's solved the puzzle of the Belichick defense, to the point that he actually claimed Chad Scott was out of position on an interception in the previous game this season, the suggestion being that Manning knew where Scott was supposed to be . . . he throws on the run better than he has in any previous season . . . he has a cadre of offensive weapons . . . what the heck is a cadre, anyway? . . . he's 6-5, 230 pounds, with a laser-rocket arm, if you like that sort of thing . . . my point here, is this: so many alleged experts have picked the Colts to win this week for no other reason than "it's Manning's time." Really? That's the best analysis you can come up with? Talk about hackneyed reasoning - that's the pinnacle of laziness. And besides, wasn't last year supposed to be Manning's time . . . and the year before . . . and the year before Tee Martin won it all at Tennessee . . . and . . .

Of course, 9 of ESPN's 10 "experts" picked the Chargers to beat the Pats, and according to Boston Sports Media Watch, 19 of 26 national "experts" are taking the Colts this week. We all know the "they disrespected us" angle is a tiresome device, but if the Patriots want to use it as motivation again this week, there's certainly enough evidence for them to make their case.

As for my pick, it's an easy one: Saints 34, Bears 20. Deuce gets loose on the Bears' no-longer-dominant run defense. (Oh, right . . . as for that other game, if you know anything about my track record with Patriots predictions this year, you know I'm damn sure not about to take a shot at this one. Let's just say I'm very nervous and even a little bit worried, and as we've learned over the course of the season, my paranoia usually ends up being a good thing.)

Finally, be sure to pop back in around 6:30ish - the odds are we'll be blogging this one live from the Official TATB Couch. I'm not on the desk at the Globe tonight, and I was going to head up to Portland to watch the game with a couple of buddies, but then my little boy came down with a bug and I figure I should be a decent husband and dad and stay home and . . , um, ignore the family for four hours while I watch football, eat, drink, and peck away furiously on the computer. Yup, it's January, and damned if I don't have the Father of the Year trophy locked up already.

As for today's Completely Random Football Card:

Bert Jones. Now there's a Colts quarterback we could dig. Injuries altered his career, but at his best he might have had better all-around ability than Manning. Know what's weird about this, though? Belichick was on the Colts' staff in '75, right around the time this photo was likely taken. You kind of forget he's been around so long.

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Thursday, January 18, 2007

That's the best Aquafina I've ever had, bro

Ten free minutes for me, 10 free goodies from Michael Vick's hidden compartment for you . . .

1. We'd be remiss if we didn't offer a tip of the dirty cap to Trot Nixon, whose 14-season tenure with the Red Sox organization officially came to an end today when he signed a one-year, $3 million deal with Cleveland. Trot was never one of our personal favorites - we thought his Dirt Dog persona allowed him to get away with certain flaws and blunders that other, less-gritty types were incessantly harangued for - but we have always respected him for how much he genuinely appreciated playing for the Red Sox. And as Roger Clemens, Jason Marquis, or Rich Harden can tell you, he's had his share of unforgettable moments. We're not disappointed he's gone, but given that he was one of The 25 (only eight remain, sadly), the least we can do is wish him well.

2. It's not only "SportsCenter" that gives an inordinate amount of air and space to sports' most prolific idiots - apparently, the Forum-For-Morons philosophy in Bristol also applies to ESPN The Magazine, which managed to cram features about Albert Haynesworth, Ron Artest, and Bode Miller into it's last edition. (What, was T.O. unavailable?) The biggest upset of all wasn't that all three are (sob) misunderstood, but that Haynesworth (a divorce-bound psycho) receives some words of encouragement during a random encounter with a Lamborghini-driving Rodney Harrison at a Waffle House in Atlanta. Read that last sentence again, and I'll bet you find yourself asking the same three questions I did: 1) Rodney Harrison drives a Lamborghini? 2) Rodney Harrison hangs out at Waffle House? 3) Why the hell was Rodney Harrison doing driving his Lamborghini to a Waffle House in Atlanta during the middle of the season? It's almost too much for my pea brain to comprehend.

3. We tend to avoid linking to You Tube videos around here, mostly because we tend to skip them without a second thought when we see them on other sites. But because I'm running low on time and topics tonight, I figured I'd imbed a couple on here that readers have sent me in recent days, with the seal of approval that they are worth your time. Hey, we never said we were consistent.

The first was sent along a couple days ago from one of my old cohorts at the Concord Monitor, and let's just say it's the most damning evidence yet that the Chargers have no business yelping about another team's lack of class:

The second video here is to the trailer for the upcoming Will Ferrell movie "Blades of Glory," which looks from this angle to be the figure skating version of "Talledega Nights" - in other words, it can't miss. This clip was sent along by one of the film's marketing people, and I'm putting it on here even though he couldn't deliver on my offer to run it only if he introduced me to a certain one of the film's co-stars. Hmm, I guess we don't have as much clout in Hollywood as we thought:

4. I'm only about three-quarters through it after opening the cover yesterday, but I can say without hesitation that Jack McCallum's ":07 Seconds Or Less," an insider's account of the 2005-'06 Phoenix Suns, is the most enjoyable and insightful NBA book I've read since first devouring David Halberstam's timeless "The Breaks of the Game" 20-something years ago. I'm an NBA guy, but this book has confirmed my suspicion that the league would be infinitely more entertaining and aesthetically pleasing if there were, oh, 25 more coaches like Mike D'Antoni. (Cloning Steve Nash wouldn't be a bad idea, either.) Seriously, check it out, and while you're at it, pick up "Unfinished Business," McCallum's first foray into the season-with-a-team genre about the 1990-'91 Celtics. It's worth it for the Bird and McHale anecdotes alone.

5. Color us mildly intrigued by the Sox's signing of journeyman outfielder Alex Ochoa. I know that's not exactly a ringing endorsement, but I was surprised to learn upon checking out his numbers on that he was a .279 hitter overall in his eight big-league seasons, and he hit lefties at a .287 clip. Factor in that he has one of the best outfield arms in the game, and I'm wondering if his arrival suggests that Wily Mo Pena isn't long for Boston.

6. Greg Oden looks so old, I'm pretty sure he played alongside Dr, J on the Virginia Squires . . . Greg Oden looks so old, he could play LeBron's gramps in those Nike ads . . . Greg Oden looks so old, I'm wondering if he and Clifford Ray have ever been seen in the same room together . . . all right, I think I've got a season's worth of lame Oden's Age jokes out of my system now . . .

7. . . . in a related note, the Celtics have 12 wins at the moment. Doing some quick math here on my abacus, that means I hope they finish with no fewer than 70 losses. Paul Pierce can take the rest of the season off for all I care. The best thing to happen to the franchise would be to tank this season, cross their fingers for a little luck with the ping-pong balls, and land a true franchise player such as Oden (who's no sure thing to leave Ohio State) or Texas's phenomenal freshman Kevin Durant. We might as well face it - getting a certified future superstar on draft night is their only chance to escape from this dull cycle of mediocrity.

8. Can't say I blame Notre Dame wide receiver Jeff Samardzija for choosing his burgeoning pitching career with the Cubs over the chance to be a first-round pick in this year's NFL - it's hard to fault anyone for wanting to walk at age 50. But Samardzija, who drew comparisons to ex-Bronco Ed McCaffrey because . . . well, because he's tall, white, and pretty damn good, is a player the Kipers of the world had pegged going to the Patriots late in the first round. And considering the kid's Charlie Weis endorsement, that might have made some sense. I am curious if he will be selected at all - who knows, by the time the draft rolls around in April, he might be done with baseball after Lou Piniella blows his arm out in spring training.

9. All right, people, convince me it's not going to come down to Vinatieri. Because right now I just can't shake the feeling that ol' No. 4 is destined to decide this thing.

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

Should the Colts and Saints prevail this Sunday, Peyton's Stage Daddy will be more ubiquitous than Rachael Ray over the next two weeks. And no one wants that.

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Monday, January 15, 2007

Things I should have mentioned

I still have no idea how Antonio Gates was limited to six catches for 61 yards? I heard Artrell Hawkins say "We accounted for him at all times," but that explanation is hardly revealing any tactics or strategy. Who's the unsung hero here?

And in what is probably a related note, you can't help but be completely impressed with Hawkins and James Sanders, who came into this season as the No. 3 and No. 4 safeties on the depth chart. If I'm Eugene Wilson, I'm nervous about my status on this team at the moment.

So let's get this straight: LaDainian Tomlinson is pissed off and offended because the Patriots acted like . . . the Chargers? That moron Merriman's ridiculous dance: acceptable form of celebration. Mocking it after he talked smack all week and didn't back it up: unacceptable form of celebration. Hmmm, interesting way of looking at it. I'm sorry to say this because he's just about the best running back I've ever seen, but in Sunday's postgame, L.T. put the "ass" in "class."

Matt Light earned every last dollar of his contract in this one. Given his troubles against a certain All-World end from Miami this season, it's easy to pigeonhole him as a plodding, mid-level tackle who has trouble with speedrushers. But the reality is he's had his moments against Jason Taylor and Dwight Freeney through the years, and he handled Merriman solo more often than not Sunday. Hey, you don't win three Super Bowls with a stiff at left tackle.

How do you know when a team is truly well-coached? Well, one telling sign is when the 53d man on the roster has the good sense to avoid trying to dive on a botched punt and instead has the presence of mind to annihilate the return man, thus allowing the oncoming swarm to have a clean shot at the loose ball. That's exactly what punt-team gunners are taught to do, and apparently Antwain Spann is a pretty decent student.

I was under the impression the Chargers were the best team the Pats have played during this six-year run, but Belichick said today during his WEEI appearance that the '01 Rams were far and away the most talented opponent. I guess you kind of forget that Marshall Faulk was more or less the Tomlinson of his time.

Man, I had the same feeling after yesterday's win that I had after the first Super Bowl: total elation. It's okay to still be savoring this, right? So before we move on to the Colts, one final question: Where does this victory rank in your mind? Is it bigger than any of the postseason wins over Pittsburgh or Indy? Is it - dare I suggest? - more enjoyable than any of the Super Bowl wins? Let me know your take. As you can tell, I'm still trying to put the game into perspective.

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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.)

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.

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.

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.

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 . . .


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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Thursday, January 11, 2007

San Diego Super Chargers!

Yup, that's me. Dike-Newell School, Bath, Maine. Fifth grade. American badass.

I could tell you I was wearing that dopey grin because I was proud that I convinced my mom to let me wear my Sears-bought Dan Fouts No. 14 Chargers jersey for picture day. But the truth is, well, that's how I always looked in fifth grade: like a sports-obsessed, girl-repelling doofus with too few branches on his family tree. Of course, pictures can be deceiving - this is right about the time the Coastal Maine Crips and the Bloods both were heavily recruiting me. True story.

Anyway, about the shirt. This probably isn't the best time to get nostalgic about all this, given that the Chargers are intent on ending our dynastic Patriots' season Sunday, but I'll offer the confession nonetheless: I loved the Chargers as a kid. Worshipped them, from John Jefferson to Charlie Joiner, from Gary "Big Hands" Johnson to Louie Kelcher, from Rolf Benirschke (who later became the worst game-show host of all-time) to Dan Fouts. Yes, I admit it: I dug them more than I did the Patriots.

Hey, cut me some slack - kids are fickle like that. They're attracted to shiny objects, and the Chargers couldn't help but catch your eye. They lit up the scoreboard with the flashiest offense of their and perhaps any other era, the famed "Air Coryell" attack, named for their innovative head coach, Don Coryell. They always seemed to be playing on NBC at 4 p.m. Sunday, with Dick Enberg (he was ancient even then) and Merlin Olsen calling the game. (The Patriots, meanwhile, suffered through a two atrocious seasons in three years during this period and were often blacked out on local TV.) The field at Jack Murphy Stadium was sun-drenched, such a stark, intriguing contrast to grey, frigid winter lurking outside my window. And though they never made a Super Bowl - their defense always failed to hold up its end of the bargain, much like Indy's nowadays - they were involved in two of the most memorable playoff games in league history. Oh, and the lightening bolts on the helmets? Those clinched the deal. Too cool.

Eventually, time, geography, peer pressure, and the fancy footwork of one Tony Collins properly realigned my allegiances toward Foxboro. That came as much relief to my dad, an exasperated Pats fan who somehow resisted stuffing me in a box and mailing me to the San Diego Chicken whenever I'd argue that Kellen Winslow was a much better tight end than Russ Francis, or that Stanley Morgan had nothing on J.J. With the benefit of wisdom and hindsight, I long ago conceded my old man's arguments to be true . . . well, at least in Morgan's case.

But now and again, I still think about those golden afternoons watching the Chargers - when Kellen Winslow Jr. makes "SportsCenter" for catching a touchdown or popping a wheelie, or when I catch Fouts calling a college football game, when I see that famous J.J. Jefferson Sports Illustrated cover, or when I run across some ridiculous 25-year-old picture of myself. And wouldn't you know it, all these years later, that same dopey grin creases my face again.

So then, here are a couple of anecdotes and characters from my youthful Chargers fixation, as well as a wish from the long-since converted: Once the Patriots get done shattering their Super Bowl dreams Sunday, San Diego fans will have no choice but to still remember the Air Coryell years as the best they ever had. And that's really not so bad.

Powerful yet remarkably fluid, Muncie was one of the most talented all-around running backs of his time - and undoubtedly the most talented among those who wore thick black-rimmed glasses on game day. In 1981, he ran for 1,144 yards and 19 touchdowns while averaging a stellar 4.6 yards per carry, and also caught 43 passes out of the backfield. Yet three years later, at age 31 and in good health, he was gone from the league for good. The reason: cocaine, which history has revealed to be a particularly common weakness of those Chargers. Muncie's affinity for the drug was made public in a Sports Illustrated cover story in which teammate Don Reese exposed the shocking depths of the NFL's drug problem in a first-person account. That considered, I suppose it's probably not good form to find the following quote from Tales From The Saints' Sideline downright hilarious:

Muncie remembers freebasing cocaine during training camp with Reese when the straight-laced [Archie] Manning popped in. They bluffed their way out of the spot, Muncie recalls, by telling Manning they were cooking soul food.

Oh, those naive Mannings. Somehow, I could see Peyton doing exactly the same thing. Chip off the ol' rube, that kid.

If you're an NFL fan of an age close to mine, you surely need no introduction to John "J.J." Jefferson. From 1978 to '80, he was very possibly the finest receiver in the NFL, and he was undoubtedly the flashiest. Nicknamed the "Space-Age Receiver" for the goggles that gave him a distinctively futuristic look, he made more acrobatic, did-you-just-see-that? catches than any receiver I have ever seen, Lynn Swann included. He was great, and you're damned right that's the appropriate word. Jefferson became the first receiver in league history to surpass 1,000 receiving yards in each of his first three seasons, and he looked like he was on his way to becoming a genuine legend. But after a contract dispute in '81 - Chargers owner Alex Spanos was notoriously cheap - he was dealt to Green Bay, and after a couple quality seasons playing opposite James Lofton, his ability abandoned him so swiftly that he found himself out of the league in 1985 at age 29. With no telltale scars on his body and no ominous rumors about his off-the-field habits, his decline was such a mystery that SI ran a small story titled "What happened to J.J. Jefferson?" after the Cleveland Browns let him go. SI didn't reveal a conclusion, other than insinuating that maybe he didn't work hard enough in his heyday. Jefferson has done very well for himself after his playing career ended - he held a prominent position in the University of Kansas athletic department, and at last check, he was the director of player development for the Washington Redskins - but those who remember him from his glorious seasons in San Diego can't help but wonder why the sunset came so soon.

I know, I know, his name sounds like he should be sharing billing with Jenna Jameson. But trust me, "Big Hands' had other claims to fame besides his mammoth mitts. Check out the man's resume: He led the NFL in sacks (17.5) in 1980. He was a first-team All-Pro in '80 and '81. He made the Pro Bowl from 1981-'83. He collected 67 sacks in 10 seasons (1975-84) in San Diego. After he struggled to adjust to playing nose tackle in the Chargers' new 3-4 defense in '84, he was dealt to the Niners and sacked Dan Marino during San Francisco's Super Bowl XIX victory. And, most notably (or maybe not), he was yours truly's favorite Charger of them all. Why? The whims of an 11-year-old, mostly. I remember getting the pictured football card - a coveted AFC All-Pro! - and instantly deciding that he'd be one of my favorites. I thought it was cool that he appeared to have no front teeth. And the clincher came when I read a story in my dad's "Inside Sports" (or maybe it was "Sport") about how he pulled himself out of a game because teammate Wilbur Young had a hellacious case of gas and he couldn't take the stink. "I might be 'Big Hands,' " Johnson said, gasping for fresh air, "but right now I wish I was "Small Nostrils.' "

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Monday, January 08, 2007

First and 10: Michael 37, Fredo 16

1. I suppose we could talk about the wacky tempo of this game, the closer-than-the-final-score tension, the compelling moves and countermoves by a pair of coaches that know each other's tactics and strategies and tics and quirks so well. And I suppose we could talk about the return of the Patriots' duende, that old tough-guy swagger, and the growing belief that this team has picked the perfect time to play it's best football of the season. I suppose we could talk about all those things . . . and we will, right after we get to the obligatory storyline of the day: Belichick hugged him! He hugged Mangini! He did! And he cold-cocked cameraman to do it! Stop the presses! STOP THE PRESSES, I SAY!!!, (Can we let this stupid melodrama die now? Please? We can? Oh, thank God. Now let's talk some football . . . )

2. So much for longing for the departed, huh? Jabar Gaffney (8 catches, 104 yards) comes through with a performance right out of the Deion Branch postseason highlight reel. Stephen Gostkowski boots three field goals, including a 40-yarder, thus silencing the "They should have paid Adam!" banshees for at least one day. And the emerging Tully Banta-Cain does a more than passable Willie McGinest imitation, delivering two sacks. Nope, not a bad day for the replacements at all.

3. His final stats (22-of-34, 212 yards, 2 TDs) aren't all that extraordinary, but anyone who watched the game knows that Tom Brady was masterful today, in particular on the crucial 1-yard touchdown pass to Daniel Graham. Not only did he have the presence of mind to realize the Jets defender had his back to the play, but he made an absolutely perfect throw to the one spot where Graham could get it. You simply cannot throw a better pass than Brady did on that play. I was so impressed, I ended up rewinding the DVR and watching it three times immediately after it happened. What a throw, what a performance, what a quarterback. (Can I fawn anymore here? I know, I sound like Theismann.)

4. Pete Carroll to the Dolphins? It's the hot rumor of the day, and you know I'm jacked and pumped just thinking about it. Carroll is an idiot if he leaves USC - his rah-rah enthusiasm is perfect for the college game, and as we learned the hard way in New England, not so perfect for the NFL. It sure would be fun having him back in the division, though.

5. Talk about coming up big in your walk year. He's coming off like the defensive version of Rod Tidwell at the moment, but I'm starting to think Asante Samuel is going to be worth the ridiculous money some team is going to throw at him next year. (And for the record, I'd wager a Freeman McNeil rookie card that said team will be the J-E-T-S, Jets-Jets-Jets. It makes too much sense not to happen.)

(This here is Freeman McNeil, in case you have no freakin' idea who I was just talking about.)

6. I don't know about you, but this Pats fan has immense respect for the Jets right now. They're obviously well-coached, showed signs of maturity by refusing to make excuses in defeat, and should they add talent to the Vilmas and Rhodeses and Cotcherys, they're going to be a formidable foe for the Patriots for years to come. And count me in as a Chad Pennington fan. He's what Brady would be after a half-dozen Tommy John surgeries. The arm is feeble, but he knows what to do with the football.

7. Okay, so Vince Wilfork doesn't quite have breakaway speed, and if he's actually within 20 pounds of his listed 325, then I'm Nicole Richie. But man, was he immense in every sense today. Not only did he have the presence of mind to pick up the grounded lateral when everyone else was standing around and looking at the pretty lighthouse, but he routinely swallowed up Jets running backs who dared plunge into the line of scrimmage as the Pats limited the Jets to 76 yards on the ground. Wilfork's return to health gives me a shred of faith that L.T. might just be containable.

8. Vinny Testaverde is quickly turning into this team's Human Victory Cigar. I'm sure Jets fans were just thrilled to see a ghost from disappointments past out there putting the finishing touches on the end of their season.

9. Did you catch Shawne Merriman's interview at halftime with the CBS studio crew? The Chargers' All-Pro meathead actually claimed the Jets were outplaying the Pats and would win the game. Wishful thinking there, pal. And what the hell was he wearing? Something from the Kmart "Flashdance" collection? A onesie from Baby Gap? His favorite muscle shirt to show off his 'roided-up guns? Nope, it's not going to be too hard to work up vitriol for this joker this week. Not hard at all.

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

Yep, Jabar's old man wore the green and white. Must have been just delightful for Jets fans, getting tormented by a name from their past repeatedly today.

(Thanks to reader TMurph for the suggestion.)

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Kick me


Nothing tells me it's playoff season like a Ty Law interception of a Peyton Manning pass. Or two. Man, I do wish sly ol' No. 24 was still a Patriot . . . I give Manning credit for saying afterward that he told Law he'd gladly introduce him at his Hall of Fame speech (and make no mistake, Law belongs in Canton), but Archie's Doofus Spawn has never had a hard time being a gracious winner. It's when he loses that he's all too eager to help identify the other culprits . . . He could kick for them for the next decade, and I will never get used to seeing Adam Vinatieri in a Colts uniform . . . Jets fans had to be snickering at Herm Edwards's completely inept coaching job in the Chiefs' shameful 23-8 loss to Indy. Must have looked pretty familiar, right down to the botched clock management at the end of the first half. Going from Herm to Eric Mangini is like going from Rosie O'Donnell to, well, just about any other female mammal on earth. The upgrade is off the charts . . . When it was clear Indy had made the necessary tactical adjustments to at least contain the Chiefs' running game - as Pats fans learned earlier this season, Bob Sanders is a run-stopping defense all by himself - Edwards's Plan B was to stare blankly and scratch his head . . . What should he have done? For starters, he should have benched Trent Green for Damon Huard once it was apparent that Green couldn't find an open receiver with a GPS system . . . Huard is one of the best backups in football, he has the reputation as always being prepared, he was terrific when Green was injured early in the season, and besides, he could not have been worse . . . Of course, it wasn't all Green's fault: How many catches did Eddie Kennison and the Chiefs' receivers collect: Try zero-zip-nada. Maybe Reche Caldwell and his merry band of misfits isn't the worst receiving crew in the playoffs after all . . . As for that other game today: Holy *#$&# . . . Tony Romo, meet Leon Lett. Leon Lett, say hello to Tony Romo . . . You have to feel bad for the kid, his fairy tale season ending with his pumpkin smashed to bits, though I think it became apparent a few weeks ago that he's much more similar to Jake Plummer than he is to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning . . . For what it's worth, Terry Glenn barely budged as Romo's hail mary fell five feet in front of him. Friggin' she. Phelan would've had it . . . Boy, Bill Parcells looks like a tired old man. I think he'll come back - coaches coach, he might say - but I can't imagine he's looking forward to another year of T.O. and Jerry Jones . . . Was it wrong of me to root for some Seahawk to roll up Romo's leg, just so we could find out once and for all if Drew Bledsoe does indeed still attend the games? Until I see definitive proof that he was on the sideline today, I'm convinced he watched this one from the barcalounger at his Montana compound . . . Guess Martin Gramatica isn't as tough as he looks, huh? . . . Somewhere, a certain drunken idiot kicker was 18 Bud Lights into a case and muttering to himself, "Dude, I'd have made that block." . . . I feel bad for a good buddy of mine who's a loyal (if demented) Cowboys fan, but I couldn't bring myself to root for them today for one reason: Terrell Owens is the most despicable athlete of my lifetime, at least among those who haven't committed felonies. He can't go away fast enough . . . No knock on Logan Mankins, but I still wish the Patriots had taken Lofa Tatupu in Rd. 1 a year ago . . . I think I understand why Bill Belichick put so much stock in Ken Walter's holding abilities now . . . And in a completely unrelated note, I do hate it when Pam cries.


Upon first consideration of this Patriots-Jets matchup, I was extremely confident that it would be a blowout, perhaps something of the 41-10 variety. But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the Jets have a vibe similar to the 2001 Pats, and the more concerned I've become . . . and I think that's a good thing. As you likely know if you visit here with any regularity, my crystal ball has been on the fritz regarding Patriots predictions this season. (For a flashback to its more effective days, click here.) Most of the time, I've been made to look a fool (or if you prefer a harsher term, a Salisbury) when I've fretted that the Patriots might find themselves in a nailbiter with an inferior opponent (see: Packers, Texans) only to have New England cruise to a lopsided victory. To be honest, I'm cool with playing the town boob so long as it means the Patriots live to play another week. So here's hoping the trend continues, and my nagging concerns are revealed, again, to be more proof that I should never, ever bet on football . . . Given the damage that Pacman Jones did to the Patriots' coverage teams last week, we should be sufficiently concerned about the impact Justin Miller could have on today's game. Miller averaged 28.3 yards per return this season, and the Patriots simply cannot allow him to approach that gaudy number . . . I know his rookie season was remarkably similar to his legendary predecessor's, but I still get Wilfork-sized butterflies in my stomach whenever Stephen Gostkowski has to attempt a meaningful kick - and frankly, he really hasn't been tested by too many crucial situations. In retrospect, I wish he'd gotten a game-winning attempt or two out of the way during the regular season . . . The Jets blitzed the Patriots 28 times during their 17-14 victory the last time the teams' met, with impressive young safety Kerry Rhodes involved it what seemed like 27 of them. If they do it again today, I have a feeling Tom Brady will have an answer for it, and that answer likely will include throwing the ball toward the receiver who is matched up with Hank Poteat . . . Chad Pennington has my respect. How he so methodically lofts those helium balloons over a defender and into his receiver's arms is one of the great mysteries of the NFL. Talk about a touch passer - there's no margin for error with him. If he's off just a little bit, those pinpoint passes turn into interceptions. He's the Jamie Moyer of the NFL . . . Who the hell is Matt Chatham to be talking trash? The best thing he ever did as a Patriot was knock the stuffing out of that streaker during the second Super Bowl win . . . Wouldn't it be nice if certain storyline-driven media folks spent less time wondering in print whether Bill Belichick would say Mangini's name and more time trying to find out just what happened that made Belichick so vengeful toward his former protege in the first place? Peter King tonight mentioned a couple of rumors that we've been hearing for a while - namely, that Mangini tampered with Patriots' free agents, Chatham included, before officially departing for the Jets, and that he also told Deion Branch they'd rip up the final year of his contract should he become a Jet, a promise that may have helped encourage Branch to stand his ground in his holdout. If any of this is true, isn't Belichick justified in his anger at the blatant betrayal? I guess it's just easier to paint him as the bad guy, the petty one, than to find out once and for all what really happened . . . I was hoping to live blog the game, but I got called to duty at work, where I'll be attempting the tricky feat of putting together a SportsLog with one eye on the television. Sounds painful, doesn't it? I'm hoping to get a chance to pop into the comments section once or twice, though, so be sure to stop in during the game. Here's hoping we get to do this again next week.

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