Sunday, January 15, 2006

Turnovers 27, Champs 13

(Editor's note: These rants were pecked out in the wee hours after arriving home from Boston, and without the usual chemical boost from a Dunkin' Donuts large iced coffee regular. So please, pardon us if we're even more incoherent than usual. Thanks much. - TATB Management)

1) I guess there's really no gentler way to put it: The champs gave their crown away. When you cough up five turnovers, four of which lead directly to 24 points, you are simply not going to win a football game, no matter how smart your coach, how poised your quarterback, or how many rings you have tucked away in the safety deposit box from your previous conquests. The two-time defending champion Patriots played their most mistake-prone game in recent memory, and the resourceful Denver Broncos were good enough to take advantage of their opponent's generosity with the football. And that's that. Over and out. Yup, it's really that simple.

2) So there we all were, poised and cocky and waiting for Jake Plummer to make that fatal mistake, and what happens? Tom Brady - he of the three puny interceptions in his 10 previous playoff games - chucks a spirit-crushing, game-changing, positively Plummer-esque interception on the goal line that Champ Bailey returns all the way to the Patriots' 1-yard line. A potential 13-10 lead - or a 10-9 deficit at worst - is now suddenly a 17-6 ditch, and we were so stunned as we watched Bailey make a beeline down the left sideline that it almost didn't seem real, like all of a sudden we were watching our buddies play a game of Madden or someone had just slipped in a DVD of "Bledsoe's Biggest Big-Game Blunders." I imagine we all shared the same thought: C'mon, these things don't happen to the Patriots. Tom Brady doesn't make those mistakes. Yet tonight, they did, and he did, and who the hell saw that coming? In the aftermath of the game-changing blunder and ultimate defeat, Patriots trudge toward the long offseason feeling a dull sadness and having learned a cruel truth: In the biggest moments, Tom Brady isn't infallible after all.

3) Thinking happy thoughts here . . . happy thoughts. Well, let's see, Asante Samuel played his best game of the season by far. And yes, I say this while fully cognizant of his costly pass interference penalty. Seems to me he played the ball in precisely the manner a cornerback is taught, and the referee, perhaps mistakenly thinking the Colts were playing and remembering that their receivers aren't allowed to be touched under any circumstances, got a little too flag-happy. To put it another way: There's nothing Samuel should have done differently, on that particular play or in his overall performance tonight. His Law-like effort gives me hope that he, Ellis Hobbs, and perhaps even the brittle Randall Gay, can hold down those hard-to-fill cornerback slots for the next five or so years.

4) Now that we know Ben Watson has the determination to match his freakish physical ability, I'm giddy just thinking about the unstoppable force he is poised to become. His 100-yard, across-the-field, outta-my-way-ref sprint to chase down Bailey deserves to be more than a footnote in this game. It was one of the great hustle plays I've ever seen, even if it didn't bring its just reward.

5) With its stellar performance tonight, Eric Mangini's defense proved that its late-season resurgence was legitimate, and not a mirage created by facing inferior competition. The rookie defensive coordinator deserves praise for the job he did in replacing Romeo Crennel during an often tumultuous season. And while I'll be pissed if it's later revealed that he pulled a Parcells and ran up a monster phone bill to Hempstead, N.Y., this week, it's apparent that the Jets have the right idea in pursuing this guy to be their next head coach. Mangini's got the goods.

6) Watching the selfless, affable Christian Fauria hugging everyone he could get his arms around on the sideline as the clock wound down, you couldn't help but believe he was saying goodbye for the final time as a teammate. And he won't be the only one. Bethel Johnson seems hell-bent on wasting his ability, and his ticket out of town is probably already punched. Steve Neal, a masher of a run blocker, is an unrestricted free agent. Doug Flutie might grab his baseball glove and take up permanent residence in the Monster seats, calling an end to his truly unique career. And I'm pretty sure we've seen the last of Duane (Toast) Starks as well. As for one they must keep: David Givens. While the fourth-year receiver battled the dropsies late in the season, he's tough and steady, the embodiment of the Patriot Ideal in many ways, and his name should be atop Scott Pioli's To-Do list if the sticker price is reasonable.

7) . . . And even if it's revealed that Corey Dillon never quite recovered from his early season foot injury, it's apparent that his days as a feature back are drawing to a close. The burst and ferocity that helped him set the franchise single-season rushing mark last season was absent for just about all but a few flashbacks this season. It may not be time for the Patriots to replace him, but it is time to find his successor.

8) Please, please, please, I beg of you, don't let the Chicken Littles, 'EEI banshees and various other miserable, basement-dwelling mouthbreathers convince you otherwise: The Patriots, with much of their core still in its prime and this season of countless obstacles behind them, will be back. This is not the end of an era, the downfall of a dynasty, or any other such overwrought obituary. Belichick isn't going anywhere. Neither is Brady. The core remains. Again: They will be back. And four out of six sounds plenty reasonable to me.

9) And so we put away the football until the leaves begin to fall, and go reluctantly into that annual dead-zone of the sports calendar, when we pretend to give a flying damn about the Celtics and Bruins. (Oh, right - Turin. Yawnnnn.) Thank goodness that we have these magic words to get us through the rest of winter: Pitchers and catchers report in a month. Center fielders and shortstops . . . well, that's still to be determined.

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

When Troy Brown - ol' reliable himself - fumbles a punt in a crucial situation, well, I can't think of a clearer sign that maybe it's not gonna be your night - or your year. (All right, a Brady interception falls into the same category . . . yes, and a Vinatieri missed field goal . . . and . . . man, it really wasn't their night, was it?)