Monday, November 21, 2005

1st and 10: Patriots 24, Saints 17

1) Well, it ain't 21 straight, but two in a row is still a winning streak, right? The Pats are 6-4 now after putting together back-to-back wins for the first time this season with today's tougher-than-it-should-have-been victory over the vagabond Saints, and despite their injury-ravaged roster and the mountain of issues they have had to overcome this season, they're now two games ahead of the field in the AFC East. And so, in this moment of shiny optimism, I must ask: Is it possible that their Super Bowl dreams still are based in a little bit of reality? Is their still some hope of that historical threepeat? No? Are you sure? What if . . . Richard Seymour stays healthy and dominates and Tedy Bruschi finds his maniacal All-Pro form, making a suspect defense a stellar one again . . . what if the gifted Ellis Hobbs is the corner they've been searching for all along and the defensive backfield finally gets synchronized . . . what if Corey Dillon's calf injury is a blessing, for it allows his foot to heal in time for the crucial final weeks . . . what if Matt Light and the essential Kevin Faulk return soon from injury . . . what if Daniel Graham/Ben Watson tight end tandem continues to blossom into the Todd Christensen/Raymond Chester of their era . . . what if Todd Brady remains Tom Brady . . . and what if the Patriots continue to get better and better, a trademark of a Bill Belichick team, and suddenly, they're playing their best football of the season when they encounter Peyton Manning (or if the football gods have a cruel sense of humor, Jim Sorgi) in the AFC playoffs? What if? I'm not saying this creaky little two-game winning streak has me thinking the Patriots will win the Super Bowl again. But as I take a glance around the rest of this mediocre league, and as I remember what the Patriots were and what they very well could be again, well, I'm just not ready to say a trip to Detroit is out of the question.

2) And while we're at it, two reasons why I'm convinced the 10-0 Colts will not win the Super Bowl this season. 1) The Bengals exposed their supposedly improved defense yesterday as about as tough to cut through as sherbet. 2) I keep thinking about the one time - the one time - during the Pats/Colts game that the New England got any pressure at all on Peyton Manning. What happened? He panicked, pulled a Bledsoe, and hit a wide-open Mike Vrabel across the middle of the field. He's the same old Peyton. If these were the same old Pats, I'd be planning on the same old postseason outcome.

3) Anyone notice that Willie McGinest's inspired play the past two weeks has coincided with the return of Seymour? Coincidence? I think we know better. Seymour makes life easier for all of his teammates, drawing a double team on virtually every down. It's why we can't give much credence to the stat line when Seymour has, say, two tackles and a half a sack. His impact extends far beyond the raw numbers, and his return to dominance is one reason why I hold out hope that the Patriots defense will be much better at the end of the season that it is at the moment.

4) Man, the Patriots postgame show on WBCN is an absolute trainwreck. Host Gary Tanguay transparently tries to stir up controversy WEEI-style, never failing to search out and dwell on a negative talking point even after a victory. And co-host Andy Gresh comes across as the grating fat kid in the back of the class who seems to think the louder he gets, the funnier he is - he's Eric Cartman all grown up. Why the Kraft family forced these two All-Pro nitwits (along with Scott Zolak, who is about as nondescript at this job as he was previous one) on a listening audience that was just fine with the previous crew of Bill Abbate, Pete Brock and Tim Fox is something I'd really like explained. I've had to turn to Pete Sheppard and Fred Smerlas on 'EEI for my postgame Pats fix. In the past, I thought they were insufferable, but Smerlas has improved at articulating his tactical knowledge, and at this point they're sweet music to my eardrums compared to the shrill, contrived alternative.

5) Words to mark: Ben Watson is thisclose to pulling an Antonio Gates on the league - all he needs is a commitment to keeping him involved in the offense.

6) Scott Pioli has done a better job of bringing in reinforcements during the season than he did during the offseason. While only Tim Dwight has distinguished himself among the Pats' free-agent class of 2005, two players Pioli has added in recent weeks look like they could be assets even when the roster is at full strength. Safety Mike Stone, a one-time second-round pick of the Cardinals, has made an impression with willingness to hit, and Belichick has praised him several times over for his football intelligence. The Patriots' safety position has become the doomed equivalent of being the drummer in "Spinal Tap," - Stone is their sixth different starter at the position this season - and while he's hardly reminiscent of Ty Law in coverage, he's done more to warrant a secure spot than, say, Guss Scott.

7) . . . and as far as running back Heath Evans is concerned, what can you say? That he saved the Pats season last week in Miami? That he's plowed forward with the will of Mike Alstott '01 during his two games with New England? That he has a chance to join Andy Johnson and Craig James as the most popular Pasty White Dude running backs in franchise history? Yeah, yeah . . . we're not only jumping the gun here, we're sprinting laps around the track and yelling "Wheeeeeee! Run like the wind!" But the guy has proven he can plow out the tough yards, he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and his reputation was already made as a blocker. Maybe Evans isn't as good as his early returns have suggested, but he's still damned useful for a second- or third- or fourth-team running back, and if his presence prevents us from ever having to see Seymour at fullback again, there's one more excellent reason for him to remain a Patriot this season and beyond.

8) As usual, ESPN Classic is on in the background, and at the moment of those mesmerizing old "This Week In the NFL" shows is airing. For the football fan who grew up in the era before "NFL Prime Time" and DirecTV, this weekly highlight show hosted by Tom Brookshier, Pat Summerall (and, apparently, a couple of bottles of Dewar's just out of camera range) was must-see TV in its day. This particular episode, from 1972, featured a showdown between Joe Namath's Jets and Johnny Unitas's Colts, which in my usual roundabout way, brings me to my point: Johnny U's success was amazing considering he was, you know, a hunchback. Quarterbacks nowadays are slightly more graceful than they were then, wouldn't you say? Watching him drop back and throw, all herky-jerky and awkward and Zolak-like, I'm pretty confident in saying that his passing form was the inspiration for Uncle Rico in "Napoleon Dynamite."

9) We can only imagine how proud the old coach must have been of his son.

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

All right, I see a lot of Eli Manning in Young Archie, the Saints' legend and currently the NFL's most prominent stage mom. But I see no resemblance whatsoever to Peyton, which leads me toward one of two assumptions: 1) The Mannings' mailman was making some, uh, special deliveries while the Saints were on the road, or 2) Momma Manning must be one goofy looking woman.