Wednesday, December 27, 2006

First and 10: Patriots 24, Jaguars 21

1. Heard Belichick's taped postgame interview on 'EEI today, and it was almost disconcerting how giddy, animated, and downright chatty he was in the immediate aftermath of the victory. Hell, he even asked Steve DeOssie and Pete Sheppard for their opinions on Jack Del Rio's decision not to go for the onside kick with a little over 2 minutes remaining, and engagingly discussed his thoughts on what to do in that situation. You got the sense that Belichick was genuinely savoring clinching the AFC East, the first real fruits of his best and most challenging coaching job since the 2001 season. Better yet, you got the sense that Belichick really likes his team at the moment . . . and if he likes his team, maybe that whole four-in-six-years thing isn't as improbable as it might sometimes seem.

2. There were a lot of encouraging developments in Sunday's victory - the success of the ol' dink-and-dunk offense, the renewed discipline in terms of protecting the ball and limiting penalties - but nothing raised a Pats fan's optimism more than this: Rodney Harrison is back, baby, and an outstanding Patriots defense just got smarter, meaner, and whole lot more fun to watch. Damn, I sure missed him.

3. When Tom Brady returned to the game one play after Jaguars linebacker Clint Ingram attempted to give him the Mo Lewis treatment, you could pretty much hear an entire six-state region exhale at once. No offense to Matt Cassel, but there is not a more horrific sight for a Pats fan than watching him jog onto the field while No. 12 is writhing in pain on the turf, gripping his right arm. I'm pretty sure I saw the last six seasons flash before my eyes in the few horrifying moments that Brady was down.

4. I want to see more of Dave Thomas even when Benjamin Watson is healthy. The rookie third-rounder out of Texas was the most impressive pass-catcher on the field Sunday, and it's pretty clear that Brady has confidence in him that he doesn't yet have with players who have seen much more playing time. (See: Jackson, Chad).

5. I know his production has tailed off even when he hasn't been injured . . . but man, Laurence Maroney makes such a difference when there's a concerted effort to involve him in the offense. His game-breaking touchdown run was simply breathtaking, and I'm keeping the faith that Belichick and Josh McDaniels intend on unleashing him in the playoffs. I'm still pissed about the whole four-touches-in-second-half thing against Indy. Give him the ball 15 times in the final two quarters, and I bet the Patriots win that game.

6. Asante Samuel is having a Pro Bowl-caliber season, but if he wants to become a legitimate No. 1 cornerback, he needs to make better judgments about the when to go for the ball and when to play it safe. Of course, his reputation has been enhanced almost solely due to his eight interceptions this season, and for the free-agent-to-be, more picks probably equals more digits in the paycheck.

7. If you didn't see it, check out Mike Reiss has an insightful piece in Wednesday's Globe on the Patriots' philosophy regarding roster construction. Belichick is particularly candid, and it really puts into perspective how wise it is to prioritize depth over a roster top-heavy in high-priced talent but with several minimum-wage players filling out the bench. The most obvious example is in the defensive backfield, where the likes of Artrell Hawkins and Chad Scott have helped the Patriots survive and even thrive despite losing Eugene Wilson and Randall Gay for the season and Harrison for a prolonged stretch.

8. While it looks like the Pats are all but locked in to hosting Denver in the first round, I find myself holding out hope for another showdown with the Jets. Eric Mangini had two weeks to prepare for the Pats last time around, and given his intimate knowledge of the Patriot Way, he made the most of it. He won't be so fortunate again. In Round 3 of the renewed "border war," the Patriots will have the prep-time advantage - I can't imagine they're wasting much thought on the Titans this week - and you know the revenge factor will give Belichick additional motive.

9. I don't know a Pats fan that wasn't pulling for Romeo Crennel to succeed in Cleveland, given that his opportunity to be an NFL head coach was long overdue. But now that the Browns are beyond hopeless and his job is in serious jeopardy, I find myself hoping that he'll make his way back to Foxboro next season. By all accounts Dean Pees has done a heck of a job with New England's defense, but Crennel is as good as it gets. Bet Mangini would love to have him in New York, too.

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

Jacksonville rookie flash Maurice Jones-Drew reminds me so much of Brooks, the former Chargers and Bengals dynamo, and if you don't remember him, trust me when I say that it's high praise. Brooks was the short, speedy type like Jones-Drew, and he had huge legs and packed the hardest per-pound wallop of any back of his time. Brooks is one of few backs to continue improving into their 30s. Not a bad back for Jones-Drew to emulate, all in all.

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