Sunday, December 12, 2004

1st and 10: Patriots-Bengals

You might recall last week's edition of First And 10, when I said I wanted to see the Patriots win one via Tom Brady's arm before dismissing the notion that he's in a slump? Well, this was the one.

On an afternoon when the defense struggled and the Patriots coaches figured the Bengals were hell-bent on stopping former teammate Corey Dillon, the Pats put the ball in Brady's right hand. And boy, did he deliver. The final numbers: 18 for 26, 260 yards, 2 touchdowns, no picks, and touchdowns on four of the Patriots' first five possessions.

Not gaudy. Just spectacular.

Today we saw Brady at his absolute best - precise passes and quick decisions mixed with an occasional shot downfield - and you got the sense that as well as he was playing, there was no way the Patriots would lose the game.

Even though we're not sure he ever really left, it's safe to proclaim that Tom Brady is back. The slump talk ceases . . . now.

Now, First-And-10, Patriots . . .

1) While Richard Seymour has taken some criticism for his decreased statistical production this season - paging Mr. Mannix - Belichick has insisted he's been doing his job and doing it well, big numbers or no big numbers. Today, Seymour's performance supported his coach's assertion. While he had three tackles, a pedestrian number by almost any measure, he also drew three holding penalties and spent much of the day making Carson Palmer run for his young life. Today, Seymour was dominant, a real beast. The lesson: the stat sheet does lie.

2) Troy Brown is now tied with Eugene Wilson for the team lead with three interceptions. Is it really possible that he is a legitimate defensive back at the NFL level? He keeps this up, he'll be taking money out of Ty Law's wallet. And no one wants that. The man's gotta eat.

3) Nice effort by Corey Dillon today, in every sense. Before the game, he approached Bengals coach Marvin Lewis - a man with whom he had some serious differences last season in Cincinnati, and whom he had infuriated just a week ago when he laughed when asked by Peter King if the Bengals will ever win - and could be see mouthing the words, "I love you, man. I'm sorry." Then, during the game, he put the Patriots' best interests ahead of his own desire to run it down his former team's throats, finishing with a workmanlike 88 yards on 22 carries while avoiding any urge to taunt or talk trash. (As far as the CBS cameras indicated, anyway). Finally, after the game, he said all the right things about wishing the Bengals well and rooting for his friends over there and hoping it all works out for the best. You're always skeptical when a guy supposedly changes after a long history of being a pain in the ass, but I'm beginning to believe the real Dillon is a decent guy who just took longer than most to grow up. He showed nothing but grace all day.

4) Speaking of Dillon, you know that ubiquitous Visa Check Card commercial, the one where Dillon is pacing the sideline like . . . well, like a bengal . . . and saying, "Not today, not tomorrow, not in my house?" while McGinest, Bruschi, Law and a few others are shown getting jacked and pumped on the sideline? Great ad, right? Right. I just have one question. Who the heck is No. 49? He looks like a player, and he growls like a player, and he even wears a football helmet like a player. But I am completely unaware of who this No. 49 might be? Kantroy Barber? Don Calhoun? Prentice McCray? Who? Who is it? Please, help me here. I get paid to know this stuff, you know.

5) Good to see Christian Fauria in on the action today, making a nice snag on Brady's final touchdown pass and helping the Pats put up 28 points on offense despite operating shorthanded. (Daniel Graham was out with a rib injury, and David Givens was last-minute scratch with what was termed in pre-game as a leg injury. For all we know at this point, he's an amputee this morning.) Fauria has become the Ted Johnson of the offense, an aging but useful player who has watched his playing time decrease and yet has remained selfless and professional, an ideal teammate. The Patriots lead the league in those types - others include McGinest, Brown, even David Patten, before his rise back up the depth chart due to injuries - and I think Belichick would tell you he can never have enough of them.

6) Then again, maybe Dillon realizes what became apparent today. These Bengals could get good in a hurry, assuming Lewis, a defensive whiz, can plug up that leaky defense. I was skeptical of the Carson Palmer hype during his golden boy days at USC, but after seeing him a few times this season, I'm clapping like a fool right there alongside Petey Carroll on the kid's bandwagon. His throwing style is remarkably similar to Peyton Manning's - flawless - and he moves around better than any 6-foot-5, 235-pounder has the right to. Plus, he has an useful cache of weapons. Rudy Johnson is good enough to have made Dillon expendable, Chad Johnson is an elite receiver - although not quite as elite as he seems to believe - and T.J. Housmazedkkhsaeh had as many catches today as he has consonants. The Patriots will be seeing them again when in matters the near future. If they're not a damn good football team now, they'll be arriving there in good time.

7) The cliche goes that the you're better off being lucky than good, and some media nitwits suggest the Patriots have been more of the former than the latter during recent seasons. (Not you this time, Mannix.) It's nonsense, of course, but those who suggest such a thing got some more evidence today. Rudi Johnson appeared to have his knee down when he fumbled the ball away on the Bengals' first drive (which nearly snapped the Patriots streak of 16 straight games of scoring first), and Dillon's knee appeared to be down at the 1 when he ran in the Patriots' first touchdown. Here's another cliche: Them's the breaks. I'm sure Belichick will take them.

8) Sure, I'm worried how offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is going to give the necessary attention to the Patriots while also moonlighting in his new job as Notre Dame's head coach. Judging by Belichick's order that his players not discuss Weis's status at all, it seems he's got his concerns too. But for us worriers and nail-biters, today was encouraging - Brady and the boys were as sharp as they have looked all season, scoring on four of its first five drives and giving us the sense that they could pretty much score at will if need be. If anything, it was reminder of how much Weis will be missed next season. While he can be too cute with the trickery, the bottom line is that he's a damn good coordinator, maybe the best they've ever had. And if you've taken him for granted, I've got two names that will make you appreciate the man immediately: Larry Kennan. Ernie Zampese. Shuddered, didn't you?

9) Rodney Harrison is the heart of it all, and Asante Samuel was the man of the moment today, picking off a Palmer pass and returning it for a crucial touchdown and a 21-7 lead. But with each passing Sunday it becomes increasingly apparent that the key to the impressive success of the depleted defensive backfield is Eugene Wilson. He hits like a safety and covers like a corner, and his versatility is covering up a lot of holes right now. A trip to Hawaii in February would be a just reward.

10) Time for what is shaping up as a weekly rant about the broadcasters. Today's topic: Dan Dierdorf. Now, he seems like a genuine and jovial guy, which makes him tolerable despite his McCarver-like propensity for making a point early in a game, then clinging to it for the rest of the game, even if evidence blantantly contradicts what he's saying. Today's point: Carson Palmer is becoming a terrific quarterback. Reasonable enough theory . . . at least until Dierdorf revealed his inner Dierdorfiness when, after Samuel's game-changing interception, all he could say was, "What a terrific throw by Carson Palmer." Uh, sure, Dan. Great pass. Hit Samuel right in the numbers. He also provided the comedic high point of the day on the same play, blurting with just a hint of desperation, "There's a flag down! A flag is on the field!" as the Patriots celebrated the score. Said flag turned out to be a yellow hot dog wrapper. But don't worry, Danno. Greater men have been fooled much the same way. Just last week, a dastardly hot dog wrapper in disguise fooled Gil and Gino, too. Keith Traylor really needs to stop leaving those things all over the field.