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Monday, November 25, 2002

A Patriots fan looks at the NFL and takes stock of Week 12. The good news, the bad news, and the neutral observations.

The neutral news:

• Eagle fans smile at their good fortune as the Texans hand the Eagles some breathing room with their upset of the Giants. Even if the 49ers beat them tomorrow night, Philly will still keep the NFC East lead. And they might have Donovan McNabb back for the playoffs after all. They’ll need to go at least 3-3 in the meantime, though.

• San Fran fans have to be happy as well. All that stands between them and a three-game NFC West lead is a Philly squad deprived of their #1 weapon, McNabb. The Eagle defense is of course tough, but the Niners have so many ways to win on offense it’s scary.

• The Redskins’ win over St. Louis may have been the final nail in the coffin of the Rams, who are now two games back of the Saints in the wild card race and may fall three games (and a head-to-head loss) behind the Niners in the NFC West. They did catch a break as the Saints and Giants both stumbled. New Orleans, however, has an easy schedule remaining, which can’t give Giants, Skins, or Rams fans very much hope.
If you’re a Rams fan, your praying for Koy Detmer, and it’s never a good thing for your team to be praying for a quarterback named Detmer.

• I just noticed the Giants were 6-4 going into this week. How did this happen? This is a little like that time Bill Simmons reminded me that Richie Sexson hit 50 home runs one year. They still have a winning record despite losing to both Houston and Arizona. And scoring no touchdowns against Seattle. I think a decent coach could get eleven men off the street and score a touchdown against Seattle. I think this tells you how weak, or least how top-heavy, the NFC is right now.

• The Bears finally catch a break, in the form of Detroit handing them the ball in overtime due to the prevailing wind. But I guess all of this Chicago/Champaign bad karma was payback. Last season, they had to be the worst and luckiest 13-3 team ever; this year they’re the among the best 3-8 teams of all time.

• Why does Hank Williams Jr. annoy me so damn much?

The good news:

• It wasn’t pretty, but the Pats won. They built a 21-0 lead, which forced Minnesota to change their game plans in midstream. While the Vikings’ offensive adjustment (mostly changing to no-huddle) by and large worked, it resulted in some awkwardness when, with combined with the home crowd noise in Foxboro, forced the Vikes to burn time outs in such a way that they were without them on the final two drives when they really needed to be able to stop the clock. They forced the turnovers that were key to building a first-half lead and forced Minnesota to play catch-up the entire game, limiting their ability to exploit the New England weakness against the run. The Pats’ pressing defense blocked one field goal attempt, helped thwart another and generally did a good job of containing Randy Moss. And hey, a win is a win – there are no points for style.

• The Patriots at 6-5 have now put Jacksonville, Kansas City, and Buffalo behind them and have pulled even with Tennessee in the Wild Card race, and are now only looking up at two teams (San Diego and Oakland) in that race. (In addition, Cleveland and the Jets kept pace.)

• Though it meant staying behind the Dolphins for now, the Chargers got taken down a notch. If the Patriots are using the Wild Card route to the playoffs, at least one of the three teams ahead of them in the West is going to have to fold down the stretch. The Chargers, new to playoff contention, are probably the best candidates to do so, although an aging Raider squad and a Steve Beuerlein-led Bronco team have some collapse potential as well.

• Indianapolis pulled off the upset in Denver. This loss prevents the Broncos from running away from the conference. (If there’s anywhere I really don’t want a playoff road game, it’s Denver.) It does put the Colts as 7-4, but I’m not really worried about them. Their defense is suspect and their offense, while potentially explosive, is turnover-prone. In the last month, they got manhandled by the Titans and beaten convincingly by the Redskins. In other words, they’re good candidates to blow a game or two, even if their remaining schedule on paper looks to be largely free of big roadblocks. (They might also make a good opponent to draw in the playoffs.) Besides, even if Indy locks up the AFC South, it’s not really a central concern.

• Buffalo seems to be receding as a playoff threat. They’ve lost three in a row, and their next four opponents are all playoff contenders. They would need to beat Miami at home and the Pats in Foxboro to stay in the AFC East hunt.

• The Jets, fortunately, have a very tough schedule down the stretch, with trips to Foxboro and Oakland looming as well as home dates with Denver and Green Bay.

• The Dolphins are still in the drivers’ seat, but if things stay the same going into the final game in Foxboro, I like my odds. A Pats win there would give the Patriots the tiebreaker on divisional record, unless both the Jets and Bills beat the Patriots at home, since Miami already has two costly divisional losses.

• With Denver falling to Indianapolis, and San Diego falling to Miami, there is no team in the AFC more than one game ahead of New England. Which means the Patriots, if they win out, have at least a shot at getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. (Although given who they’ve lost to and how the tiebreakers would break, it’s not likely even if the Pats run the table.) Odd considering they’d still be on the outside looking in if the season ended today.

• The Browns are even with New England, but have a tough row to hoe with Indianapolis and Atlanta on tap along with a road game at Baltimore they can’t be looking forward to.

• Their next opponents are a weak 3-8 Detroit squad, who are just coming off their third straight defeat, a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Bears. Detroit QB Joey Harrington is even more mistake-prone than Daunte Culpepper, the Detroit defense has been mostly unimpressive, and the Lions rushing attack, the Pats’ #1 vulnerability, is nothing to write home about. Sure, the Pats have only three days rest before this game, but so do the Lions. On paper, this game looks like a mismatch.

• It looks like Green Bay, with the loss to Tampa Bay, will have something to play for down the stretch – home-field advantage. It would be a Bad Thing from a New England perspective if the Pack felt it could afford to phone in games late in the season against the Jets or Bills. While they’re not getting a challenge from the NFC North, after two losses there’s suddenly a messy struggle for home-field brewing in the NFC. If Green Bay prevails in that struggle, it’s hard to picture any of the warm-weather contenders of the NFC (Tampa, Atlanta, New Orleans, San Francisco) winning a playoff game at Lambeau.

The bad news:

• The Patriots couldn’t put a weak Vikings team away. For almost an entire half, the second-worst defense in the NFL (especially weak against the pass, which is New England’s forte on offense) managed to bottle Tom Brady and company up. Antowain Smith struggled yet again. Receivers kept dropping passes; defensive backs kept dropping interceptions in the second half. When opportunities came to seal the game arose, the Patriots by and large did not capitalize on them. The Vikings’ running backs didn’t do much damage, but Daunte Culpepper ran rampant on them. Minnesota responded to the heavy emphasis on covering Moss by using Kelly Campbell and D’Wayne Bates effectively. The Vikes were done in, in large part, by not having time outs when they needed them in the final minutes; I have to wonder if the Patriots would have prevailed were this game not played in Foxboro.

• There are six AFC teams with better records than the Patriots, and four of those teams have already beaten them. (The one team on that list the Patriots beat was Pittsburgh; the sixth team, the Colts, is not on the schedule.)

• Because there are so many playoff contenders, one loss is costly and two are fatal. While no one’s more than one game up on the Pats, only Cincy and Houston are more than one game behind them in AFC.

• The Jets’ surge is worrisome. One would have to concede they’re playing better football than the Pats right now. With that, it’s hard to feel confident about the upcoming rematch at Foxboro. (Even if there’s a decent chance of two of Denver, Oakland, or Green Bay holding them in check.)

• The Dolphins are still in the lead, have won two in a row with Ray Lucas at the helm, and are getting Jay Fielder back.

• Tennessee is also in the running for a wild card spot. They host the Pats on December 16. Their remaining schedule is three road games against the Giants, Jaguars, and Texans, and a home date with the Colts, who they’ve already beaten convincingly in Indy. With this schedule, there is at least some chance they could run the table and steal a Wild Card berth from the Pats.

• The Lions may be 3-8, but they’ve proven to be much better at home than on the road, and they are used to playing on Turkey Day. (We’d all rather forget what happened the last time the Pats played at Detroit on Thanksgiving.) The Lions beat the Saints at home, and almost beat the Packers at home. It would be a mistake to look past them.


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