Monday, December 10, 2007

First and 10: Patriots 34, Steelers 13

1. In the aftermath of Sunday's thoroughly enjoyable dissection of the Pittsburgh Steelers, an opponent that once again talked a better game than it played, I was left with one lingering question: Is it possible that the Patriots are actually better than they're currently getting credit for? Take a glance at the standings, and you'll realize that they've encountered more than their share of high-quality opponents on their way to 13-0. Consider: They've defeated two teams that already locked up their division (Dallas, Indy), clobbered two teams that current lead their division (San Diego, Pittsburgh), and beat a second-place team (Cleveland) that deserves nothing but respect. The combined record of those five teams, minus their five losses to the Patriots: 48-12. In my usual roundabout way, this is what I'm trying to say: I'm finally convinced that 19-0 is realistic, and perhaps even likely. Imagine that.

2. We won't waste much bandwidth here on Steelers safety Anthony Smith's ridiculous "guarantee"; his public humiliation at Gillette Stadium stands as the ultimate response. But I will say that I can't recall Bill Belichick ever disparaging an opposing player to the media, which made his postgame comment about Smith ("We've played against much better safeties than him") all the more telling. He clearly has exactly zero respect for the player, and I'm not sure if Smith is sharp enough to realize this, but his comments succeeded only in pinning a bull's-eye on his own uniform. Maybe next time he'll realize it's not wise to offer bulletin-board material to a team that thrives on turning even perceived slights into on-field fury.

3. Of course I realize Tom Brady is having a season for the ages, but you know what really hammered it home for me Sunday? When CBS put up a simple graphic late in the game that showed his number of touchdown passes alongside his interceptions. I mean, 45 to 5? A 9-to-1 ratio? That's just sick. The only time you ever see stats that swollen is when you play Madden in the franchise mode at the Pro level. (Not that I've ever done such a thing, of course. I'm an adult. A father. A man of responsibility. Mature. I have no time for video games. Think my wife's buying it yet?) My point: If Brady maintains this record pace and the Pats do run the table en route to a fourth championship, how can anyone make the case that there's been a better quarterback in the history of the league? I mean, I know Montana and Unitas and Elway and Marino have their admirers, and Peter King will surely tell us that Tony Romo leads the league in smiles and that no one gives a better foot massage than Brett Favre, but it terms of genuine accomplishment - statistically and in the win column - won't Brady's resume as The Greatest be undeniable?

4. I've written this before, multiple times, but after his seven-catch, 122-yard performance, I have to ask the question again: How in the hell was Jabar Gaffney out of the league for more than a month last season? You'll recall that the Pats brought him in as a street free agent Oct. 9, 36 days after he was released by the Eagles. He ended up emerging as Brady's most dependable receiver in the postseason, catching 21 passes in three games, and considering how many receivers have struggled to learn the Patriots playbook (Donald Hayes should have it solved any day now), his quick acclimation was tribute to his intelligence. He's not big, and he's not particularly fast, but he's a very good and reliable football player, and I'm coming to appreciate him more with each passing week. Why the Texans and Eagles, not to mention all the teams that passed him up on waivers, failed to recognize his attributes remains a mystery.

5. I suppose you could insert your own HGH joke here, but it must be noted that Rodney Harrison has been playing out of his mind since the beginning of the fourth quarter of the Ravens game. I was beginning to think the years and the injuries had sapped him of his Hall of Fame skills, but ol' No. 37 has looked five years younger lately, and that's a wonderful development considering safety play was one of our few legitimate concerns about this team. Now, if only the long-lost Eugene Wilson could experience a similar revival. I did see him on the field against the Steelers, which counts as progress.

6. Quick Red Sox note: I keep catching myself hoping that the Johan Santana deal happens, even though all logic tells me that the smartest decision would be to hang on to Jacoby Ellsbury and/or Jon Lester, along with the rest of the prospect ransom the Twins would require for the two-time Cy Young winner. I'm suspicious that Santana, at 28, has already peaked, especially when I hear those alarming reports that he was reluctant to throw his slider last season. But . . . there's just enough of a chance that he's capable of being baseball's premier pitcher for another three or four seasons that the thought of him pitching for the Red Sox is tantalizing, and I'll admit part of the reason I'd like to see him here is to keep him away from the Yankees, who remain so desperate for a true ace. I'm sure I'll experience some level of buyer's remorse should the deal happen, but right now I'm hoping Santana is in Boston come opening day.

7. I always think - actually, make that hope - the Patriots are going to take a linebacker high in the draft, whether it was Lofa Tatupu three seasons ago or Patrick Willis or Jon Beason this season. For a variety or reasons, they never do. But - and I know we're getting well ahead of ourselves here - I think it finally happens this season. I'm convinced that if the Patriots do end up with the No. 2 pick in the draft, they'll take Virginia's Chris Long, a defensive end who is expected to switch to outside linebacker in the pros. Everything you hear about him - he's versatile and athletic, his motor never stops, his football intelligence is off the charts - makes him sound like a Mike Vrabel clone, and his pedigree is certainly impressive: he's the son of Hall of Famer Howie Long. He sounds like just the kind of player Belichick and Scott Pioli covet, and while the common belief is that the Patriots like Arkansas running back Darren McFadden, I'm betting that Long will ultimately be their guy.

8. I've always appreciated the work Gil Santos and Gino Cappelletti do on the Patriots' broadcast. They're the voices of autumn in these parts, as familiar and comfortable as an old flannel shirt, and considering how Jonathan Kraft always comes across as an arrogant snot whenever he's interviewed (not to mention that he's responsible for the shrieking abomination that is Andy Gresh) I have no faith that he'll find worthy replacements for them when the time comes. Sad to say, I fear the time is coming. It's not an exaggeration to say it's a surprise at this point when they properly identify a pass catcher on the first try, and it was hardly unexpected that they bungled the two biggest plays of the past two weeks: Gaffney's winning catch at Baltimore (Gil originally called it incomplete, then said he couldn't see it), and the Brady-to-Moss-to-Brady-to-Gaffney flea-flicker Sunday (Gil told us Donte' Stallworth caught the TD). Maybe what they need is a competent spotter to help them quickly with player IDs and such, but right now it feels like the game has become too fast for them to keep up at a sufficient level of competence.

9. As I write this, the snow-globe scene outside the living room window has me in the holiday spirit, and having said all we have to say on the New England football juggernaut (dude, they're awesome!), well, what the heck, here are five TATB-sanctioned Christmas songs:

1. "Christmas Time Is Here," Vince Guaraldi Trio: When I was in first grade, I drew such a kick-ass, spot-on Snoopy that I was convinced I was going to grow up to work for - and eventually replace - Charles Schulz. (Actually, I can probably admit now that I often traced my Snoopy masterpieces. I was like a 7-year-old Larry Johnson, except I knew something about sports.) In all seriousness, my affection for the Peanuts is genuine to this day - this occupies a prominent spot in my home office - and it was much to my satisfaction that my 3-year-old daughter began the majority of her days this summer by insisting upon watching her "A Charlie Brown Christmas" DVD as she devoured her Cheerios. Even in July, it sure beats the hell out of watching Elmo.

2. "Blue Christmas," Elvis: A much more appropriate and appealing option than his lesser-known, late-career holiday single, "All I Want For Christmas Is A Peanut Butter-Banana-And-Quaalude Sandwich."

3. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," The Carpenters: Forget that freaky brother-sister dynamic. You know Karen had the voice of an angel. A really skinny angel, sure, but an angel nonetheless. (Too soon?)

4. "Merry Christmas, Alabama," Jimmy Buffett: The heartfelt way he sings "Merry Christmas, Tenn-uh-see" . . . well, not to get too sappy, but it just sounds so genuine and sincere. It's a wonder Kenny Chesney hasn't released a thinly disguised knockoff himself already. I'm assuming "Alabama, Have A Merry Christmas," will be ready in time for Christmas '08.

5. "Same Old Lang Syne," Dan Fogelberg: Sure, the lyrics are hackneyed ("We took her groceries to the checkout stand/
The food was totaled up and bagged" Wha?) and it's generally cheesier than Rosie O'Donnell's quads, but it still stands alone as the greatest recorded tribute to getting bleep-faced with an ex in the front seat of her car in a grocery store parking lot on Christmas Eve. So it's got that going for it, which is nice.

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

Only someone who's endured multiple concussions could find a way to rank the Steelers ahead of the Patriots today. C'mon, you can do it, Merrill. Fire off those last three working synapses and come up with some with some justification for dismissing the Patriots today.

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