By Ryan McGowan
As surely as the calendar changes from oh-nine to oh-ten, I’m back with my annual homerific justification and rationalization as to why the Patriots will solidify their Team of the Decade standing with a Super Bowl title. (Or, in the case of last year, why the Super Bowl XLIII champion will always have an asterisk because the Patriots were shut out of the playoffs.) So, let’s get right to it—here’s five reasons why Bob Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady could be hoisting their fourth Lombardi Trophy in Miami in February:
1. Randy Moss is back. A few weeks ago, most NFL fans were prepared to dismiss Moss, and were content to assume that this season he would turn into the same diva malcontent that he has always been (unfairly, in my opinion) accused of being. Come on, people, this isn’t T.O. we’re talking about! Randy is a true professional. Is he a bit of a head case? Yes, that may be an understatement. But after having a semi-meltdown against the Dolphins and Panthers, Moss has performed admirably in the past two weeks.
While his number of catches will always pale in comparison to Wes Welker’s, the threat of Randy catching more deep touchdowns is again putting enough fear into defensive backs to open up space for Welker and Ben Watson. More importantly, Randy is mentally recharged as well—the fun, spontaneous moment with the fan in the Moss mask on the Gillette Stadium JumboTron in the Jaguars game and Randy’s subsequent reaction should have given notice to all that New England’s most dangerous and explosive cog is ready to roll into January. With a fully engaged Moss and an offensive line that hasn’t given up a meaningful sack since before anyone had ever heard of Rachel Uchitel, Tom Brady and the offense will be almost impossible to stop come playoff time. The Patriots already have the league’s second-ranked offense, only 14 YPG behind the vaunted Saints’ “Showtime”-style attack. With the Saints floundering and the Colts perhaps mentally in the tank, the Pats’ offense might be the best in the league, right there with the Chargers.
2. The defense is maturing. The knock on the Patriots the past couple of years has been that the defense was too old. Ironically, this year the knock was that they were too young and inexperienced. Certainly the now-infamous 4th and 2 in Indianapolis was motivated in part by a lack of trust on the part of Belichick in his young, gassed defense.
But even with that 35-34 debacle at Lucas Oil Stadium and the whoring that was the Saints dismantling (38-17), the defense has performed rather well this season. Ranked fourth in the league with 16.7 PPG, the Pats have surrendered merely 27 points in the past three weeks. Jerod Mayo, who hasn’t been the same player since perhaps coming back early from a Week 1 injury, is starting to regain some of the form of his rookie year. The secondary is stabilizing with Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, and Brandon Meriwether. Ty Warren is back healthy and the great Vince Wilfork will be healthy for the playoffs, solidifying the defensive line. Tully Banta-Cain is finally giving the kind of pass rush that he was brought back to provide. Even though the offense is still this team’s meal ticket, the defense is certainly going to keep them in playoff games long enough for Brady and the offense to pile on points.
3. “Fourth-and-two-gate.” The haters love the Patriots. In 2002 all the talk was about how the SB win over the Rams was a fluke and that the Pats were frauds. Even subsequent titles in 2003 and 2004 didn’t stop a large chunk of the football cognoscenti from refusing to believe the Patriots were any good, choosing instead to insist that each championship was smoke-and-mirrors sleight-of-hand involving some devious, un-American “spying.” (Which, last I checked, “spying” by definition could not be done in an open arena, watching hand signals which are clearly visible by 65,000 fans in person and millions more on their TV sets. I don’t think I’ll ever get over the pathetic Loserdom mentality that was perpetuated by the whole SpyGate fiasco. ) Egad! They were running up the score over these poor unfortunate Washington Redskins! Boo-freaking-hoo.
Either way, 2009 brought us the aforementioned failed fourth down conversion against the Colts and the ensuing unleashing of the hounds onto the now-stupid Bill Belichick. You can read my take on the hoopla here. But an interesting thing happened in the wake of this manufactured controversy: Belichick took back control of his team. Team sources indicated that some players were bitching about having to come into work on Monday, Adalius Thomas chirped to the media about Bill’s “kindergarten” motivation techniques of sending players home for being late for an 8 AM team meeting (Randy Moss included), and grumblings were heard throughout the underbelly of the organization.
But Belichick (and by extension, his mouthpiece, Tom Brady) would not have any of it. Thomas has been either inactive or benched since his disruptive comments. Everyone else has fallen in line with Bill’s philosophy. Every team goes through a storming phase—group development is never all roses. But since the rock-bottom of the Saints/Dolphins back-to-back losses, the attitude of the team has totally changed. They went back to being the same grind-it-out, win-ugly-but-tough team that they were in the 14-2 seasons of 03 and 04, which lacked the artistic majesty of the 2007 blowouts but regained the toughness of their title runs. It culminated last week in a dominating, wire-to-wire, 35-7 total domination of Jacksonville, an up-and-coming team with a great rushing attack that pushed the supposedly invincible Colts to the wire the previous week. Somewhere, Belichick is twisting his moustache and smiling at the direction this team is now going.
4. Their road to the Super Bowl. Speaking of the Colts, their inexplicable lay-down to the Jets last week will turn out to be the Howard Dean Scream of their season, the one moment that everyone can point to as the beginning of the end of the magic. As a Patriots fan, it can only make me smile. Bill Polian, besides being a totally arrogant, Machiavellian, pompous douche, is also an insecure prick who is so obsessed with this Patriots inferiority complex that he denied his players a chance to go 19-0. No one is saying it would have happened—but to take from his players the mere chance to attain 19 victories for history is completely and utterly inexcusable.
While on the subject, I’m always flabbergasted that people insist that the Patriots’ pursuit of 19-0 was a monkey on their back that was ultimately the cause of their loss in Super Bowl XLII. This is of course the common-sense angle, but let’s not forget that a “common sense approach” is also championed by such bastions of intellectualism as the great Sarah Palin.
While the pursuit of an undefeated season was indeed stressful to the Patriots, that was not why they lost the game. The Pats came from behind in the last two minutes of the game, executing a flawless hurry-up offense behind their supremely talented and confident quarterback, and it took a botched interception, absolute miracle pass-and-catch from Eli Manning to David Tyree and a missed bomb to Randy Moss to defeat them. The Patriots did NOT choke from the pressure; they just got beat. It happens. Bill Polian’s decision to tank the Jets game will go down in history as one of the biggest, douchiest gaffes in sports history.
So assuming the Patriots rest their starters on Sunday vs. Houston (and the Bengals do the same and lose to the Jets, giving the Jets a playoff berth), they should open up at home against their division rivals from New York. (Channeling Bill Simmons: Man, I can’t wait to bet against rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez on the road in a playoff game.) In the divisional round, the Patriots get to go to San Diego and pit postseason genius Belichick against deer-in-the-headlights Norv Turner. I almost can’t wait for the Chargers’ players excuses as to how the better team didn’t win. And after the Colts squeak by the Bengals, the Patriots get to go back to Indianapolis and finish the job that they left on the field in November. Hello, Lamar Hunt Trophy, and I hope the Indianapolis fans enjoy their off-season of obsessing over Week 16’s Planned Sodomy.
5. NFC contenders are dropping like flies. So when the Patriots get to Miami, who will they play? The conventional wisdom all season long was that the road to the Super Bowl in the NFC would be a matchup of the Vikings and the Saints in New Orleans. Well, right now the Vikings are not only losing games, they are on the verge of being BrettFavred right out of the playoffs through dissension in the ranks and Favre’s open challenge to his head coach’s authority. Meanwhile the Saints’ vaunted defense now can’t stop anybody and their explosive offense can’t even score against the Buccaneers.
The Eagles and the Cowboys are playing great football, but both Donovan McNabb/Andy Reid and Tony Romo/Wade Phillips have their own January demons to confront, not to mention big holes in their own teams which might be exposed this Sunday in Dallas. The Packers have a great defense and a multi-dimensional offense, but they have to play all their playoff games on the road. The Cardinals are the defending champs, but Kurt Warner’s concussion uncertainty and the franchise’s general lack of consistency and dependability always leave them in doubt.
So the most likely candidate to emerge from the NFC is probably Philadelphia, and we all know how the last Eagles-Pats Super Bowl turned out. Another one would be a great story as well, as a Super Bowl title would validate an otherwise solid but underachieving decade by McNabb and Reid and crew. But McNabb would always have that haunting memory in the back of his mind of dry-heaving and mentally collapsing in the fourth quarter in Jacksonville in SB XXXIX. A better scenario could not play itself out for Patriots fans.
Disclaimer: I am not predicting the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. Yet. But it certainly looks promising.