Sunday, January 16, 2005

1st and 10: Pats-Colts

Should the doubt ever again creep into your mind about this Patriots team's chances on a particular day, go to your TiVO, your DVD player, or the library in your mind, and remember this game.

Remember how every "expert" at ESPN picked the Colts to win in a blowout. (Except for the one dissenter, Joe Theismann, whom, frankly, you don't want on your side.)

Remember how the newspapers and sportscasts were filled with stories about record-setting golden boy Peyton Manning and his inevitable and overdue victory over the Patriots.

Remember how the shorthanded Patriots defense, missing stalwarts Richard Seymour, Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, took command mere moments after the coin flip and reminded Peyton that Archie isn't his only daddy.

Remember how the game wasn't nearly as close as the 20-3 final score would suggest.

Remember how happy you felt knowing the game was over long before it was over, how vindicated you felt watching those "experts" desperately try to reverse field during their contentious postgame show, how superior you felt watching Manning mumble and mope on his way to the sideline, how proud you felt watching Bruschi and Harrison and Brady and Dillon conquer their supposed conquerors with brute force and a warrior's will.

Remember it as the greatest Patriots victory that didn't end with the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy.

Remember it. Savor it. This victory. And this team.

Remember it. As if you will ever forget.

And with that, it's first-and-10, Patriots . . .

1) Typical big-game performance by Tom Brady: Decent stats (18 for 27, 144 yards, 1 TD, 0 INTs), which don't even come close to suggesting how well he played. Brady was under siege in the first half - Matt Light had his usual issues trying to contain speed-rusher Dwight Freeney - yet he continued to demonstrate an uncanny knack for feeling the rush, taking a step forward or sliding sideways, and getting rid of the ball right before impact. Naturally, almost all of his throws were right on the bull's-eye, especially on the three clock-killing drives. No, the numbers won't tell you as much. But today, Tom Brady played the quarterback position as well as it can be played.

2) Typical big-game performance by Peyton Manning: Decent stats (27 of 42, 238 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT), which don't even come close to suggesting how poorly he played. Manning, who looks like a cross between Haley Joel Osment and Beavis on his handsomer days, was one long-faced Colt early in this one; he started hanging his head right around the time Marcus Pollard dropped a sinker on the Colts' first drive. For a quarterback who we are told is a great leader, his body language is atrocious. When a drive stalls, you can count on a four-pronged reaction from Manning: He'll shake his head, mumble something, glance sideways at the receiver who just let him down, and - this is my favorite part for some reason - tear off his chin strap in a huff. Manning, with all of his audibles and animated antics before the snap, acts as if he is control of the game. Manning really is the Marino of this generation. All he needs is some Isotoners and a burning hatred for Boomer Esiason.

3) Tedy Bruschi, that Tasmanian Devil of the Patriots' defense, was at his excitable best today, tearing the ball out of Dominic Rhodes's hands for a fumble ("That wasn't a giveaway," Bruschi said, "it was a takeaway") and recovering a Reggie Wayne fumble later on. But it was a play that didn't mount to anything tangible that symbolized the unity and brutality of the Pats' defense. Late in the fourth quarter, with the Colts trying to march for meaningless, stats-padding touchdown, Bruschi chased down Colts running back Edgerrin James near the sideline. But instead of trying to tackle James, Bruschi slapped at the ball while keeping him in bounds, holding him up just enough to allow Rodney Harrison to drill James all the way back to Terre Haute. It was intelligent, cruel, and so very typical of Bruschi and this defense. As Chris Farley would say: That was awesome!

4) Interesting note about Bruschi: The PTI guys (Wilbon and Kornholio, I believe their names are) were talking about the unsung stars on the Patriots, and suggested that Bruschi, along with Belichick, Vinatieri and Brady, will be the eventual Hall of Famers from this team. It was an interesting debate, in part because it's the first time I've heard Bruschi's name mentioned as a candidate for Canton (at least by someone who doesn't own a No. 54 Pats jersey). The more I consider it, the more I think he may have a shot. History may remember him as the epitome of this budding dynasty's defense, in the same sense that Jack Lambert epitomizes the Pittsburgh's Steel Curtain of the '70s.

5) Troy (Just Call Me A Football Player) Brown worked a triple-shift today, catching two passes at receiver, returning punts flawlessly, and capably shadowing Colts slot receiver Brandon Stokley as the nickelback. Sometimes it seemed as if he never left the field - and maybe he didn't. My point, as always: Troy Brown's number should be retired the day he takes off No. 80 for the final time.

6) I know his hands sometimes seem to be made out of formica, but there are very few tight ends in the NFL I'd rather have than Daniel Graham. He hurts people as a blocker, he runs faster than any man his size has the right to, and his mitts seem to be getting softer by the game. (He made a tough over the shoulder catch on one of the extended drives in the second half.) Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez are elite players, and I'm sure Brady could find a use for them, but I'm not sure they'd bring more to the Patriots than this guy does.

7) So I was off a little on my predicition that Deion Branch (1 catch, 15 yards) would be the surprise hero. Turns out that role was played by Kevin Faulk, who ran for 56 yards on 11 carries and caught a crucial 11-yard pass on 3rd-and-6 from the Patriots' 6-yard line in the fourth quarter, a drive that resulted with a Brady one-yard run for a 20-3 lead. My suspicion was that Faulk, who hadn't played in two weeks with a knee injury that the Pats were typically cryptic about, was finished for the season. Instead, we've rarely seen him in better form. Who knew?

8) Didn't think it was possible, but I believe Marvin Harrison just claimed Torry Holt's title as the Receiver Who Dives To The Ground The Fastest Immediately After A Reception (acronym: RWDTTGTFIAAR). Harrison was practically looking for a shovel out there once he caught the ball, and Reggie Wayne isn't exactly a bastion of toughness, either. These guys, as George Costanza might have said, shrivel up like a frightened turtle. Just call 'em the Fraidy Colts.

9) Talk to the hand . . .

One of the real joys this afternoon was watching Corey Dillon - who ran for 144 spectacular yards in his postseason debut, having spent first seven years of his career in Cincinnati purgatory - standing on the sidelines in the closing moments, nodding his head and looking around at the panorama of fans, absorbing every cheer and savoring every second. For a guy who was malcontent at the University of Washington and with the Bengals - and if you've seen his rap sheet, you know his miscreant reputation was well-deserved - he has fit seamlessly into the Patriots' selfless way of going about their business. Check out this classic anecdote from an feature on Dillon from earlier this week:

Coming in, (Dillon) worried his reputation would precede him, but what mattered more was (his) work ethic - "Hotdogs get weeded out here," Rodney Harrison says - and whether the new guy could take a joke. You need a sense of humor to mesh with the Pats, and Harrison and Willie McGinest tested Dillon early by walking by him one day and saying, "Man, we should've gotten Eddie George." Dillon laughed, and when he later saw Harrison eating dessert, he said, "Ronnie Lott wouldn't have eaten cookies." He could dish it out, too? He was in.

Great story. Great player. And at this point in his life, maybe a great guy, too.

10) During the postgame cheer, Belichick was talking about Bruschi's 15-yard return of a pitiful Mike Vanderjagt kickoff, which fell to its death on the 30-yard line, giving the Pats great field position at the 45 to start the second half. Belichick could barely hide his disdain for player - whoops, I mean kicker - who'd called the Pats "ripe for the picking" earlier in the week. Said the coach with a smirk, "I could have kicked it farther than Vanderjagt."
Hey, for Belichick, that passes for a colorful quote. He may have had a point, too, although it's easy to understand why Vanderjagt botched the kick. It's damn tough to kick a football with your foot stuck in your mouth.

"No, Vanderjagt, you drunken idiot kicker, Mr. Belichick is not signaling that your field goal was good. They just scored a touchdown. Now put down the wine cooler, will you? We're still playing the damn game here."