Sunday, December 10, 2006

First and 10: Dolphins 21, Patriots 0

1. In the immediate aftermath of Sunday's debacle, I was annoyed (okay, pissed) at what I'd witnessed. I was convinced the Patriots were setting us up for a one-and-done cameo in the playoffs, and I had the urge to write a dynasty's obituary. Instead, I chose not to write at all, giving myself a few days to sort it all out and try to put the franchise's current state in proper perspective. Well, those days have obviously passed, and so here's where I think they stand: The Patriots, thinner depth-wise than in most years and crippled by more injuries than Colonel Potter's 4077th, are not an elite team anymore, just one of a number of good but flawed teams trying to prove it's more contender than pretender - just like everyone other than San Diego, in other words. The days of expecting every Sunday to bring certain victory are gone, and to be honest, I'm okay with that: a sports fan with a sense of entitlement is an unbecoming sight, and anyone who survive Rod Rust and Victor Kiam, among other eras and errors, knows a Patriots team with a 9-4 record is something not to be taken for granted. And yet, there's no denying that recent history has heightened our hopes, and in that regard it's disheartening to realize that a team that has so exceeded even our wildest expectations the last five seasons is suddenly trending in the wrong direction. Consider this: We like to hang our hats on the fact that the Belichick Patriots are traditionally beasts in December, that they always improve this time of year. But now we're looking at three straight weeks and four out of five in which they've played like a bumbling, second-tier NFC team. They're committing penalties like they're the Oakland Raiders in disguise, and they turn the ball over way too often for a team with grand aspirations. I hate to say it, but it seems they're getting worse, and I can't believe I'm saying that at this point in the season. Sure, maybe they'll find their mojo against lowly Houston, and maybe they'll pin down Jacksonville and Tennessee just the way the Jaguars and Titans did to the Colts, and maybe they'll enter the postseason with a little bit of momentum, the confidence of knowing they can beat anyone on a given Sunday, and wisdom of a three-time former champion. But right now, any dreams of a return trip to Miami in February have to be tempered by the reality of this gruesome first visit. The Patriots have a long way to go to get there again.

2. Yes, Deion Branch shot his way out of town, but only an idiot or Fred Smerlas (synonymous, I know) would dispute the fact that the Patriots would be a much better team at this hour had the Patriots found a way to satisfy dependable ol' No. 83. He's dearly missed, for unlike every receiver on this current roster, he could get open against quality cornerbacks and tight coverage consistently, and anyone who denies that isn't being honest.

3. Ellis Hobbs is so far in Belichick's doghouse, not even Doug Gabriel can see him. I'm curious what his transgression was, other than jumping around like a Chris Canty-esque fool every time he makes a marginally good play.

4. If Vince Wilfork is down for any significant length of time - and apparently, he was hobbling around on his redwood legs with a pronounced limp Monday - I fear the Patriots' run defense will begin to resemble that of 2002, when legendary windbag Steve Martin spent his Sundays flailing around and planning his next interview as ballcarrier after ballcarrier whizzed on by.

5. I refuse to believe the Patriots could do no better for a Josh Miller replacement at punter than Ken (But I'm A Magnificent Holder!) Walter. He's horrible, he was horrible the last time he was here, and there simply has to be a better alternative out there. His return makes no sense except from the perspective that they wanted a reliable holder for Stephen Gostkowski. Which, frankly, is an ass-backward way to choose a punter.

6. The more footage I saw of Maurice Jones-Drew, Fred Taylor and the rest of the Jaguars stampeding of the fraudulent Colts, the more annoyed I became that Laurence Maroney didn't get 25 carries, minimum, against Indy earlier this season. Ask me, Josh McDaniels has a long way to go to prove he's worthy of his OC title.

7. Matt Light is to Jason Taylor as Max Lane was to Reggie White. A human turnstile, a minor nuisance, a speed bump on the way to the quarterback. Man, what a whuppin'. Belichick wasn't exaggerating - Taylor might be the most dominating defender in the NFL this season. He was reminiscent of another Taylor, one who used to wear No. 56 for the Giants.

8. Speaking of Taylor, the Dolphins swiped him in the third round of the 1997 NFL Draft, 73d overall. The Patriots' picks up until that point: Canty, Brandon Mitchell, and Sedrick Shaw. Bust, journeyman, bust. Bobby Grier was something, wasn't he? (One more note: Mike Vrabel went later in that third round, to Pittsburgh . . . two picks after the Pats selected the long-forgotten Chris Carter.)

9. I miss the days when Tedy Bruschi made game-changing plays.

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

Hey, look - it's a Patriots tight end who actually held onto the ball once in a while!

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