Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Ty and a loss

Ty Law is done for the season. Sooner rather than later, I fear, the same will be said for the Patriots.

The news, devastating if not totally surprising, came today. Law, the Patriots' four-time Pro Bowl cornerback, will miss the entire postseason with a broken foot he suffered on Halloween in a loss to Pittsburgh.

For Patriots fans, the word that Law had been placed on injured reserve felt very much like getting punted in the family jewels. While Law had missed the final nine games of the regular season with the injury, he had been progressing toward a comeback in recent weeks, even going so far as to make the trip to New Jersey in hopes of picking off a Chad Pennington duck or two in Week 15.

He was so close. Instead, he is done. Dammit.

The importance of Law to this team - and the significance of his absence in the week ahead - cannot be overstated. After the kicker, the quarterback, and the coach - I believe you know them by name - he has been the most crucial cog during the franchise's recent and unprecedented stretch of postseason success. If there is such a thing as a clutch cornerback, it is Law.

He was the thinking fan's MVP in the Super Bowl upset (or so it was thought to be at the time) of the Rams, returning an interception for the Patriots' first touchdown and pummeling the Rams' fragile receivers into the fetal position.

In last year's AFC Championship Game, he submitted the best-single game performance this fan has ever witnessed from a cornerback. He single-handedly humiliated NFL golden boy Peyton Manning, intercepting the Colts quarterback three times in New England's victory, while limiting All-Pro receiver Marvin Harrison to 3 catches for 19 yards.

Law at is best is a dominating defender. Even at a percentage of his normal self - really, we couldn't have expected him to be rust-free after such a layoff - Law still would have been the Patriots' most capable cover man, based on wisdom and experience alone. He was a hell of a postseason trump card. We were counting on him for that, at least. It crushing to learn he'll be a spectator.

I imagine the reaction was somewhat different in Indiana. Upon hearing today's news, Manning, Harrison and the rest of th Colts' offensive stars must have begun salivating at the thought of sweet revenge and the suddenly very real chance of exacting it. The Patriots will encounter the more-electic-than-ever Colts offense next Sunday not only without Law, but fellow starting cornerback Ty Poole, who survived just four games before going on IR himself. Facing the Colts in their depleted state is a daunting task, and one that even they may not be able to overcome.

While the Patriots have dominated Manning in recent meetings - he's 0-5 against Brady-led Patriots squads, including this season's loss in the opener - there is a prevailing sense among football fanatics that this season belongs to Manning, that it is his time, his turn to officially rise to true greatness. He broke Dan Marino's 20-year old single-season touchdown record, throwing an astounding 49 thanks in part to the NFL's crackdown on that scourge of the league, pass coverage, and now Law's inability to return from injury might be the fortuitous break he needs to get that elusive Super Bowl ring.

As I hunt and peck here, I realize it almost sounds as if I'm conceding victory to Indy next week. I do not mean to present such a notion as a certainty, as dire as some circumstances may seem. If there is anything we have learned during the Belichick reign of supremacy, it's that only an idiot or a more vile creature, such as Paul Maguire, underestimates this team. The Patriots did not win eight of nine games in Law's absence solely by using a Smoke and Mirrors defense. Greatness, and a third Lombardi Trophy in four years, can still be theirs.

But in pursuing such greatness, Belichick faces his most difficult challenge since resurrecting this franchise from the Carroll/Grier Ruins. A season ago, pass defense was this team's strength. Now, with Law and Poole in street clothes, rookie free-agent Randall Gay starting at one corner and veteran receiver Troy Brown playing the role of willing but often overwhelmed nickel back, that strength has become a weakness, and it's weakness that their next opponent is perfectly capable of exposing. To put it another way, I seriously doubt even Belichick believes he can win a Super Bowl with Earthwind Moreland playing a significant role on his football team.

Despite the efforts of stalwart safeties Rodney Harrison and Eugene Wilson, both of whom have helped disguise many of the defensive backfield's deficiencies with their remarkable skill and smarts, they've had trouble fencing in far lesser quarterbacks than Manning. Carson Palmer and Jon Kitna combined to put up 328 yards and three passing touchdowns against the Patriots on Dec. 12, and even A.J. Feeley - a borderline NFL starter at best - looked more than capable in the Dolphins' stunning 29-28 victory Dec. 20, throwing the game-winning touchdown pass in final minutes.

A week from today, Manning gets another crack at the Patriots, and a chance to do what he does best: Put up some gaudy statistics. Whether or not he finally gets a victory to go with his pretty numbers is another matter entirely. Perhaps the Patriots' best hope is to outgun him in a shootout, the Colts defense being among the most porous in the game.

But there is no disputing that Manning's chances got a whole lot better today. This year, the Law is no longer on the other side.