First things first: your New England Patriots are the 2005 AFC East champs. Or, as Matt Light put it on the radio this morning, "It was free hat and t-shirt day in the locker room."
They clinched this title Saturday by pancaking Tampa Bay in a game that, I cannot tell a lie, I thought they would lose. Of course, I made that prediction more than three weeks ago, and three weeks ago was about when the Patriots began to play like their asses were on fire.
In my early-season moping, I commented numerous times on how mysterious the origins of the Patriots' misery were: nothing, from the injuries to the schedule, was a problem they hadn't encountered before, and managed to rise above. Now that the Patriots are tearing it up, the scary fact may be that despite the strength of the system, it can only survive the loss of so many of its key players. The difference, with the return of Corey Dillon, Richard Seymour, David Givens and Tom Ashworth, has been too obvious to ignore.
It's also helped that they have what my dad refers to as a "regular team" now. The secondary is never going to be All-Pro, but at least it's been the same guys out there together for a couple of weeks (knock on wood).
Still, the Ya-Buts were out in force before this past weekend, and they included me. Yeah, the Patriots had cream-pied the opposition, but think about the opposition for a second. The Buffalo Bills, for example: if such a thing is possible, they are even more of a complete joke this season than they were last season.
For example, check out TMQ's brilliant synopsis of their game against Miami:
It's hard to blow a 20-point fourth-quarter lead -- awful tactics are required on defense as well as offense! Score Buffalo 23, Miami 17 -- the Marine Mammals faced third-and-10 on their 27 with 1:41 remaining, Miami out of timeouts. Now class, where might the pass go? Maybe up the field! Yet Chris Chambers got behind the Bills defense for a 57-yard reception that made possible Miami's fantastic finish. When this play started, Chambers already had 12 receptions for 169 yards -- yet he was covered by third-string cornerback Jabari Greer. Buffalo's starting corners weren't hurt, just nowhere to be seen. Worse, Greer got no safety help; no safety was even in the deep center. Replays show three Buffalo defensive backs standing like topiary in the short slant zones, covering no one at all. The sole Buffalo player who went to the deep center was middle linebacker London Fletcher. Every week there is one play yours truly watches over and over again in rapt fascination, and this week, this was it. Buffalo knows the game is on the line and knows Miami must throw deep; Chambers is having a career day; yet Buffalo has a third-stringer guarding Chambers and a middle linebacker is the only deep help. On the winning touchdown with six seconds remaining, the Bills dropped seven into coverage against four Miami receivers. Yet with seven to guard four, Chambers -- who to that point had 14 receptions for 234 yards -- again was single-covered by Greer. Three Bills starting defensive backs stood around like topiary, covering no one as the third-stringer battles to save the day. On the final Miami drive, either Buffalo defensive coaches made awful calls or the Bills' starting defensive backs turned into high-school players. Ye gods.
Yes, kind of tough to boast about beating topiary.
But something happened in the past two to three weeks, including the Buffalo game, that culminated in the shutout performance against Tampa Bay this past Saturday, one in which the Gillette crowd responded to Richard Seymour's taunts of the previous week with pandemonium, the Patriots linebackers turned Cadillac Williams into Yugo Williams, and Chris Simms was continually reminded by Richard Seymour, Rosie Colvin, et al, that he has a ways to go before anyone confuses him with dear old dad.
It reminded me of a story my former college roomate, Heather, told me about her husband's family during an important rugby tournament several years ago (husband and family are Welsh). Of course I don't remember which tournament it was, or exactly what happened, but I do remember Heather telling me about her father-in-law's tearful--yes, tearful--message on the answering machine after Wales crushed England in a key match. "It was a bloody walkover," he blubbered over and over, incoherent with joy. "A bloody walkover!"
That's how Saturday's game was. A bloody walkover. Against a team that, this season at least, hasn't always been a door mat.
Somehow, the Patriots have gone from "Well, they can't win 'em all," to, "Holy shit, maybe they can." Seemingly the entire region is now geared up for another Indianapolis--New England playoff matchup, this time with the stakes so high between Indy's immensely successful regular season and New England's perceived vulnerabilities, and the added twist of going to the dome instead of playing in the Gillette snow. Such a thing might bore most of the national audience to tears (after all, if you believe The Boston Globe Magazine, the rest of the nation despises us as it is), but I daresay it would be a prime example of Apocalyptic Football, that cousin to Red Sox-Yankees Apocalyptic Baseball. In fact, were this to happen, we might have the makings of a true football rivalry between Indianapolis and New England. Like the Patriots' multiple championships, in the free-agency era, such a thing is a throwback, unheard-of. Screw the national audience--I say bring it on.
Meanwhile, the weekend only grew more satisfying, as yesterday I watched the San Diego Chargers complete an improbable comeback to ruin Indy's perfect season, including an 83-yard sprint by running back Michael Turner to seal the Chargers' victory while a crushed Peyton Manning stood on the sidelines in the all-but-silent dome and stared at his shoes.
Ah, Peyton Manning, I drink in your anguish like a fine wine.