It’s never fun seeing players get carted off the football field in the middle of a game. It’s part of the violent game we love so much, but it’s one of the least enjoyable parts. In their Friday night preseason game in Detroit, the New England Patriots saw one of their franchise stars, wide receiver Julian Edelman, carted off the field with a potentially season ending injury. Mike Reiss of ESPN reported the Patriots suspect Edelman tore his ACL, which is certainly the worst case scenario for this situation.
In a night where the Red Sox lost 16-3 to the Orioles, and Eduardo Nunez got hurt in the process, and the president decided to pardon a racist sheriff, and this same president decided to ban transgender troops, and all this happened as a hurricane was about to hit Texas, Edelman’s injury was just one of many terrible things that made me forgo my initial plans to watch a movie and half-watch episodes of That 70’s Show I’ve already seen to follow the news on Twitter. Apparently Friday nights aren’t allowed to be fun anymore unless you go out, and keep your phone in your pocket the whole time.
Normally, I would write today to complain that the NFL preseason is too long, and how the injuries are the hardest thing to reconcile as a football fan who also possesses empathy for other human beings. Normally, I would write today to point out that the NFL does not have guaranteed contracts for it’s players, and even though the National Hockey League does many things wrong as a business model, at least their players are guaranteed to get their money when their careers in their violent sport are cut short. Normally, I would write today about how Roger Goodell and the NFL owners are running their league and the game of football into the ground, because parents are seeing how players are treated, and America’s best young athletes will be steered more and more towards soccer, basketball, and baseball, and a four game preseason is just one of the many greedy flaws that will be the league’s undoing if things don’t change. Normally, I would write today about how ridiculous it is that the Patriots chances of repeating as Super Bowl champions are seriously compromised by the loss of their star wide receiver, but I have also watched enough Patriots football over the years not to overreact to one injury.
As unfortunate as it is, the Pats are built to survive the loss of Edelman, and they have proven it time and again. Tom Brady tore his ACL in 2008, and they still went 11-5. Last year, Rob Gronkowski was taken out in the middle of the season, and they went undefeated without him, including the Super Bowl. Edelman is a great player, and has been such a great Patriot that #11 is now “his number” and not Drew Bledsoe’s number in my mind. But they still have Danny Amendola and Chris Hogan, and they traded for Brandin Cooks from the New Orleans Saints in the offseason. They bolstered the backfield by adding Mike Gillislee from the Buffalo Bills, a move that both weakened a divisional opponent and made it so Brady would not have to lean as heavily on the passing game as he had to in the playoffs.
Bill Belichick values depth and versatility when building their roster, and that philosophy is abundantly clear with the collection of offensive skill players they have. The defensive unit is a different story, and I would be writing a much different post if Alan Branch suffered a season ending injury last night, but I’ll cross that bridge when depth in the defensive front-seven becomes an issue during the season. For now, the Patriots and their fans can wait for the MRI and hope for the best, but even if their worst fears are confirmed, the offense is in a good position to make the best of a bad situation.
The whole evening put things in perspective. I would normally be more upset about this injury, but it was the fourth worst thing to happen that night and only impacts the Patriots and their fans. I don’t like getting political in my writing or in my social interactions but these last several months have made it tough to compartmentalize. Why am I spending time writing and worrying about things that ultimately do not matter? What’s even the point? I have been wrestling with this question since the election, and I still don’t know the answer. At least football season is around the corner to provide the escape I need from the weekly weekend madness of reality.
With the news coming that Rob Ninkovich plans to retire after 11 NFL seasons, my immediate reaction was “will the defense be alright without him?” He was been a mainstay of the New England Patriots defense this decade, a decade in which they have reached three Super Bowls. But my secondary reaction falls more along the lines of “in Bill we trust” as much of a homer and a brainwashed, used to winning fanboy as that makes me sound. Patriots fans have this inherent belief in the organization and the head coach because of guys like Rob Ninkovich.
Ninkovich played at Joliet Junior College before transferring to Purdue University, and was picked in the 5th round of the 2006 NFL Draft. He bounced back and forth between the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins, and even attempted to convert to the long snapper position as a means of football survival before being released by the Saints in 2009. He did not record his first NFL sack until he was with New England.
Ninkovich was one of those pleasant surprise Patriots. I knew nothing about him before he was here, and my first reaction to him was “Who is this white guy who kinda looks like Mike Vrabel wearing Vrabel’s old number? He’s pretty good.” Vrabel was a favorite of mine and many from the run of Super Bowls in the early 2000s, and was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs following the 2008 Bradyless Except For One Quarter Of One Game season. Ninkovich embodied Do Your Job.
Out of nowhere, Bill Belichick found a useful player where other teams could not, and found a younger, cheaper option to turn over an aging defensive unit. Rob Ninkovich is what the Patriots do, and moves like that are what has made them so consistently successful. For every Willie McGinest, Vince Wilfork, Dont’a Hightower, or Rob Gronkowski (who only fell to the second round because of very real injury concerns), there are a dozen humble beginnings guy, lower level prospects, and castoffs from lesser teams who find important roles with the Patriots from Tom Brady to Ninkovich to Wes Welker to Julian Edelman to Malcolm Butler to LeGarrette Blount to Alan Branch to Kyle Van Noy. Belichick is the master of filling out roster depth with competence at every position, and occasionally, that competence gets developed into greatness. Until he stops being able to do this, I have faith Bill Belichick can continue to do that. Call me a homer.
I can understand why Ninkovich would want to retire, even if I didn’t see it coming. He’s 33 years old, has injuries in his history, and plays a sport that maims everyone who plays it long enough. He can walk away now now with two Super Bowl rings and his head held high. Football is important, especially for guys who can play it at the highest level, but that it hardly the only important thing in life.
Unfortunately for Ninkovich, his second career as a rapper might already be over. He participated last week in Toucher & Rich’s Celebrity 98 Mile rap battle tournament, and got his butt kicked by Pete Frates in the court of online fan voting. Nobody can be good at everything.
I was prepared to write about the New England Patriots’ disappointing seventh trip to the Super Bowl in the Belichick and Brady Era. I was prepared to apologize to Patriots fans for the blog post I wrote about Matt Ryan a few weeks ago, when the not yet crowned MVP was going to face off against Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship game, and I used this opportunity to take some less than subtle jabs against Boston College football, New England’s most prominent college football program that nobody cares about unless they went there. I was prepared to write about how the Atlanta Falcons not only deserved to win because they played against the Patriots the way the Patriots normally play against everyone else, not making mistakes and making their opponent pay for any mistake they might make, but also because it was the will of the country, as comedians and fans all across social media framed this games as “Trump’s America vs. Black America.” The angle in which I was mentally approaching writing about Super Bowl LI changed more dramatically and more times than any other game I have ever written about including the Bruins thrilling Game 7 comeback against the Maple Leafs in 2013. The second half of this game threw superstition out the window, and it took a few days to fully process what happened.
I watched the game with my dad and my brother, and by the middle of the third quarter, the hope was that they could just make the score respectable, as it was 28-3 with the Patriots slowly driving down the field. This part of the game was not even tense anymore. That’s how far out of it the Patriots seemed to be. We instead turned to the 2017 season, talking about key free agents: Dont’a Hightower, Martellus Bennett, Logan Ryan, and Malcolm Butler topping that list. We talked about the possibility of trading backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, to load up on draft picks for Brady’s final years and focus on coaching up Jacoby Brissett.
I floated out the idea that Bill Simmons mentioned in a column a couple weeks ago about the possibility of Belichick trading Rob Gronkowski before Gronk’s body breaks down for good, and about the Belichick dream scenario of sending Gronk and Jimmy G both to the Cleveland Browns for the 2017 #1, #2, and a boatload of 3rd and 4th round picks. My dad had not heard that theory before, and said throughout the rest of the game and (spoiler alert) trophy presentation that he really hopes they keep Gronk. As someone who has spent money on exactly one athlete’s jersey for himself, and that athlete is Rob Gronkowski, I agreed, but am also well aware of Belichick’s history or trading or cutting star players a year too early rather than a year too late from Drew Bledsoe to Lawyer Milloy to Willie McGinest to Mike Vrablel to Richard Seymour to Randy Moss to Logan Mankins to Vince Wilfork. That strategy, while painful in the short term for sentimental fans like us, is undeniably a key part of why the Patriots have been so consistently competitive this century, so you take the good with the bad.
Next thing we knew, the Patriots were right back in it. Hightower had a key strip sack, the Patriots made up for a missed extra point and a botched onside kick by scoring two more touchdowns and making two straight two-point conversions. The Falcons defense was gassed, and their offense was cold, with the exception of Julio Jones, who was inexplicably only targeted four times in the games, catching it all four times, each time more impressive than the one before. Atlanta’s aggressive offensive strategy, allowing Ryan to get sacked for big losses without eating away enough at the play clock or the game clock certainly played into their demise, but when the narrative becomes solely that the Falcons choked, the level at which the Patriots executed gets lost.
On Hightower’s strip sack, for instance, he was able to get to Ryan because Atlanta running back Devonta Freeman blew his blocking assignment. On any given play in a football game there are 22 players with an assignment, and success or failure is determined not only by the obvious variables like the quality of the quarterback’s throw or the hand and footwork of the intended receiver, but also the defensive coverage assignments and offensive blocking assignments. In the second half down by a lot, the Patriots were still playing like they thought they could win, and Hightower, who is older than me by a month and has two BCS National Championship rings with Alabama and two Super Bowl rings with New England to show off as he heads into free agency, executed on every play waiting for someone on Atlanta to slip up, and capitalized when Freeman did.
It really was a tale of two halves, because in the first half, the Falcons were the ones taking advantage when the Patriots slipped up. The first quarter ended scoreless, but New England’s offense seemed to be moving the ball better than Atlanta’s, and were marching toward what looked like the first score of the game early in the second quarter when LeGarrette Blount fumbled the football, and the Falcons recovered, and quickly marched the other way to score. It was Atlanta that recorded a pick-six on Brady, and went up 21-3 at the half. The Falcons had adopted the DNA of the Patriots, which made sense considering the presence of longtime Belichick underlings Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli in their front office. This was a new kind of Super Bowl experience for a Patriots fan who has seen his team play in the Super Bowl eight times since first grade. I had seen thrilling victories and devastating defeats, but never a blowout. I was not born yet when the Pats got destroyed by the iconic 1985 Chicago Bears team in Super Bowl XX, and every Patriots Super Bowl since had been at least competitive at the half, regardless of the eventual outcome. I honestly had not even considered the possibility of getting blown out by Atlanta, but could not help but respect the way they were doing it, as I would have been rooting for the Falcons in the Super Bowl against any other AFC team this year.
After trading possessions to start the third quarter, the Falcons scored another TD, making it 28-3, and I Facebook messaged my friend “At least Gaga was good” as if Lady Gaga’s halftime performance would be the only redeeming thing about this Super Bowl. It would be a solid hour before Hightower’s strip sack, and a little longer before it really felt like the Patriots were actually back in it, but that whole time, the Patriots were still executing like they had a chance to win, which is a credit to the players and the coaching staff. Peyton Manning would not have orchestrated a comeback like this, and I can say that with confidence because of the way he folded in 2014 in the Super Bowl against the Seahawks. Moments like this are what have always separated Tom Brady from his peers, and put him alone with Joe Montana in the GOAT discussion.
By the time the game made it to overtime, there was no way the Patriots would lose. Special teams captain called “heads” for the coin toss, as he always does, but unless Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan (who has since been hired as the new head coach of the San Francisco 49ers) finally figured out to just feed the ball to Julio Jones like he’s LeBron in crunch time, which he did not do all game, the Patriots would have stopped a cold, suddenly not ready for the moment offense and gotten the ball back and scored. Even if the Falcons managed to stop the Pats on 4th and Goal, they would have had to take the ball out from the one, and the Pats defense would have gotten the ball back and only needed a field goal to win.
For years, I have been saying that I would love to see a Super Bowl go into overtime, just not in a year when the Patriots are in it for stress management purposes. But when it got to the point that my team was in the first ever overtime Super Bowl, all the stress was gone. They had all the momentum, and they were the team that had been there before. Instead it became a question of who would be the one to make the Super Bowl ending score. It was almost Martellus Bennett, who got interfered with near the goal line on one play and was targeted with a end zone throw that could have been Atlanta’s version of the Malcolm Butler interception at the end of Super Bowl XLIX. Instead it was James White, who did not have a rushing touchdown in the regular season, and who was inactive for the Super Bowl against Seattle two years ago who punched it in, breaking the plane of the end zone just enough to end the game, putting the Patriots ahead in a game they never led.
This game also proved the validity of some of the other football philosophies Bill Belichick & Co. have employed for years. The Falcons had greater elite, high-end talent, while the Patriots place a greater value on depth. While both teams have elite QBs, Matt Ryan has more elite weapons at his disposal in Jones, Freeman, Taylor Gabriel and Mohamed Sanu. Brady has Rob Gronkowski, the greatest player in the history of the tight end position, but did not have him most of the season, including the playoffs, and the Patriots went undefeated without him because Brady makes guys like Julian Edelman (whose insane late-game catch was indefensibly not mentioned until now), Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, and Martellus Bennett. Patriots players are notoriously frustrating to use in fantasy football because you never know, for example, which running back will be getting the bulk of the carries. If LeGarrette Blount struggles early (as he did), then Dion Lewis or James White could have a big game, and game to game, that is tough to predict. The same is true on defense, where Belichick traded Chandler Jones to the Cardinals in the offseason and Jamie Collins to the Browns during the season, and got better. Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia would rather have a deep rotation of guys who can play than a small handful of elite players, who could just as easily get hurt or get tired (the way Atlanta’s defense had to play twice as many snaps as their offense did in the Super Bowl) and not be there for them when they are needed most. It’s frustrating to watch your team consistently trade down at the draft, going for quantity over quality, but it is hard to argue with that method when they are in seven of the last 16 Super Bowls.
Ultimately, coming back from 28-3, and winning the first OT Super Bowl was the perfect way to end the nonsense of the last two years with Deflategate. The thing I am most excited about is that the Patriots were accused of a stupid thing that should not have been a big deal at all, and they reacted by winning two of the last three Super Bowls, the commissioner tried to bury them like he did the New Orleans Saints by fining the team, taking away draft picks, and suspending the greatest player of this generation for twice as many games as he suspended a guy who knocked his fiance unconscious on camera, and the team responded by winning everything anyway. There is nothing better than that. Nothing.
Rex Ryan is probably going to get fired by the Buffalo Bills this season. As of 8:25 AM Eastern on December 26, 2016, Ryan is still the head coach of the Buffalo football club, but this time of year, if you have not made the playoffs, again and again, your days are probably numbered. Another year for Buffalo that ends with the regular season–with the Bills being the owners of the NFL’s longest current playoff doubt, when they were on the losing end of the Music City Miracle, in January 2000–and the Pegula family, who bought the Bills in 2014, are growing impatient. If this is it for Sexy Rexy as a head coach in this league, he will surely go down as a memorable coach, and the stories told about him will probably outlast his career wins and losses with the Bills and New York Jets. Nothing lasts forever in football, except maybe Bill Belichick.
For years, longtime Houston Oilers, Tennessee Oilers, Tennessee Titans, St. Louis Rams, and Los Angeles Rams head coach was the go to “how does he still have a job?” guy, and rightfully so, as he had not made the playoffs since 2008, and in over 20 years as a head coach has made the playoffs as many times as Belichick has made the Super Bowl with the Patriots, but 2016 was the year the Rams decided enough was enough with regard to Fisher. The guy strung together a couple of good playoff wins in 2000, starting with the Music City Miracle (In all my years writing about sports on the Internet, this is the first time I’ve ever referenced the Music City Miracle in back-to-back paragraphs.) and came up a yard shy of sending the Super Bowl to overtime for the first time ever (which still has not happened), and conned NFL teams for another sixteen years that he was a good coach based primarily on that season. The last straw for Fisher was the Rams’ inaugural season in returning to Los Angeles, when they had no offense, quite possibly botched the selection of a quarterback with the #1 overall pick, struggled to find his challenge flag in his own jacket pocket, and made the rest of the country collectively wonder why the NFL was so eager to get back to LA with such little buzz for such an uninspiring professional football operation.
Not all head coach firings are as cut and dry as the Rams’ decision to part ways with Fisher, or the Jacksonville Jaguars’ decision to let Gus Bradley go after four seasons, a failure to develop Blake Bortles into a franchise quarterback, and a historically poor winning percentage, given the sample size. Fisher and Bradley were put in positions to succeed, and did not get results. At some point, every team realizes what they are trying is not working, even if the coach experiences success, like Jon Gruden with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mike Shanahan with the Denver Broncos, or Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, but these guys both got a longer rope than most, and did not accomplish much of consequence with their current teams. Not to compare every coach to Bill Belichick, but Belichick could go 0-16 four straight years and have a better career winning percentage than Fisher, and 41 straight years and have a better winning percentage than Bradley.
By comparison, Chip Kelly seems like a likely candidate to lose his job as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, but he inherited a bad roster and a shaky-at-best QB situation. I am not sure where the next place to go will be for Kelly, as the University of Oregon has moved on from his legacy and his assistant coaches, and seems to be moving in a different direction. I am one of those people who was hoping to see Kelly coach Marcus Mariota again, as he was the coach who recruited Mariota to Oregon in the first place, and Matiota’s Titans had a head coaching vacancy the same year Kelly was fired by the Eagles, but it was not to be. It almost would have made too much sense.
The New Year’s Day game between the Bills and Jets, who have both been eliminated from playoff contention, Rex Ryan and his successor as head coach of the Jets, Todd Bowles, could both be coaching for their jobs. Both have been in their current job for two seasons, and neither has been able to break through and make the playoffs. There is high turnover in the NFL in general, but it seems that the other three teams in the AFC East, the Bills, Jets, and Miami Dolphins (who clinched their first playoff berth since the 2008 season in which the Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel as their QB after Brady hurt his knee, yet missed the playoffs), who have had so much trouble giving the New England Patriots any kind of divisional competition for the bulk of the Belichick and Brady Era, are on the shortest leashes. At then beginning of any season, you can pencil the Patriots in for at least 10 wins, even when Tom Brady gets injured or suspended. The NFL’s other divisions are much more consistently competitive. The Denver Broncos, for instance, won the AFC West and the Super Bowl last season, and this year find themselves behind the Oakland Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots have no team in their division who is year in and year out ready to go toe-to-toe with them, but a huge reason for that is the continuity in the other three teams has not been great.
Rex Ryan stands out because he tried, and for a little while, gave the Patriots everything they could handle. The longtime Baltimore Ravens defensive assistant was hired to replace Eric Mangini in 2009, and made waves in the power structure of the AFC when he declared that he “never came here to kiss Bill Belichick’s rings.” Ryan’s Jets enjoyed initial success against the Patriots, including an upset playoff win against the 14-2 New England team in Foxboro in January of 2011, but success was fleeting. Being the guy talking about winning the Super Bowl in July is charming when you have nothing to lose, when the Patriots had such a commanding upper hand on a rivalry that dates back to the AFL that a regular season win here and there, or a playoff win as road underdogs can buy a fan base the most joy they have had in over a decade. But when you keep talking about the Super Bowl, and keep not getting there, as the Jets now have not in nearly 50 years, then your sound more and more like a cartoon parody of yourself with each passing week.
When the Jets fired Rex Ryan, and he was hired by the Buffalo Bills shortly thereafter, I thought it was a good move for Buffalo, and I still think it was, even if the record has not been what the Pegulas would have wanted through two seasons. The Buffalo Bills have been an afterthought ever since the Music City Miracle (Third time’s a charm!) broke in the wrong direction for them. Whenever there has been an AFC East team to give the Patriots trouble in the 21st Century, it’s been the Jets or Dolphins. Rex Ryan was going to get the Buffalo Bills into the national football discussion. For one of the great critically acclaimed teams in the history of sports, having championed the hurry-up offense, and championed the AFC, even if they went on to lose four consecutive Super Bowls.
I’m a Patriots fan, and my dislike for the Jets and Dolphins is a real thing. The same is true of the Colts, and to a lesser extent the Broncos and Cowboys, but I have no ill will towards the Bills, despite the division rivalry with my team. In a lot of ways, it would be good if the Bills were good, and I was thinking (and hoping) Rex Ryan would be able to do that.
The thing I like most about Rex Ryan is his off the field antics. He’s a goofy guy in a profession full of guys who take themselves too seriously. My team has benefited greatly from Belichick, but his disdain for the media, and for putting any kind of presentable effort into anything other than game-planning for the next football game is the kind of thing I understand rubs people the wrong way. In a league where most coaches try to act more like Belichick because they think acting like him will make them coach as well as him, Rex was decidedly the anti-Belichick. He used his press conference podium to trash-talk his opponents, hammed for the Hard Knocks cameras, and was a lightning rod for the scrutiny of his teams, creating a more loose environment for his players.
At the same time, he was a football guy from a football family, just like Bill Belichick. His dad, Buddy Ryan, was the defensive coordinator for the 1985 Chicago Bears team that won the Super Bowl, and was later head coach of the Eagles and Arizona Cardinals, and his twin brother, Rob Ryan, currently serves as his defensive coordinator in Buffalo, and has coached all around the NFL, including winning two Super Bowl rings during his stint as linebackers coach for the Patriots in the early 2000s. Ryan did things to endear himself to football fans that not many coaches think to do, like jumping on the Buffalo media’s conference call with Patriot wide receiver Julian Edelman, claiming to be Walt Patulski of The Buffalo News. Walt Patulski was a former #1 overall pick for the Bills in 1972, a standout defensive end at Notre Dame, who is considered to be one of the NFL’s great draft busts, but Rex is a student of football history, and did not do that to belittle Patulski, but the prank was so well received (and brought national attention to Buffalo when there usually is none, like I thought Rex would do) that The Buffalo News actually brought in the real Walt Patulski as a guest sports columnist. Ryan was also the guy who, in his first offseason as head coach of the Bills, wore a throwback jersey of Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas to the NFL Scouting Combine (the same day Bill Belichick wore a gray hoodie with his own name on it).
He might be a loud buffoon, and he might not be close to delivering the Buffalo Bills their first ever Super Bowl championship, but it’s hard to imagine that cutting Rex Ryan loose after two seasons brings the franchise that has come the closest to winning it all the most times without ever winning it any closer than they have been this century. Changes happen in football, but different is not always better.
I haven’t written a blog post that was just about the NFL since the Patriots traded offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the preseason. After that, I went back to school, and one scandal after another got me less and less interested in the NFL. I love football, and I love the Patriots, but it had finally gotten to the point where the incompetence of the commissioner and the moral depravity of the league took me out of it. It’s a league that doesn’t care about the health of its players. Junior Seau gave twenty years of his life to the NFL, but killed himself before he could get into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. The NFL is willing to overlook its concussion epidemic just as easily as its willing to overlook security footage in a casino elevator. It’s a miracle Roger Goodell didn’t make Seau’s family hold a press conference to apologize for tarnishing the NFL’s reputation, the way the Baltimore Ravens did with Jenae Rice. Then, the NFL found a scandal they could get behind because it was a scandal about nothing and they knew people are comfortable enough with the Patriots being villains.
The last two weeks for Patriots fans had been awful. Just hours after the Pats booked a trip to their seventh Super Bowl in my lifetime, accusations started swirling about the footballs being under-inflated in New England’s rout of the Colts in the AFC Championship Game. All of a sudden, the Patriots were cheaters again, with no hard evidence, and a narrative led by leaks to the media. Through all of it, Roger Goodell was hard to find, and when he did get in front of TV cameras, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to say nothing. If it wasn’t the Patriots, this would not have been a story. People love to hate the Patriots because of the success they have experienced since Robert Kraft hired Bill Belichick away from the AFC East division rival New York Jets in 2000. People love to hate the ones who always succeed. For all the problems the NFL had on and off the field this year, there could not have been a better ending, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a Patriots fan.
I wrote over the summer questioning how much Tom Brady had left in the tank. He’s an all time great, and in the discussion for Greatest of All Time, but when it goes, it goes. In Kansas City during the fourth week of the season, it looked like it went. I was at work and listening on the radio as the Patriots looked like a college team playing an NFL team (or at least a terrible team like the Jacksonville Jaguars or the Jets) when they were manhandled in every facet of the game in Arrowhead Stadium by the Kansas City Chiefs. The offensive line looked porous. The team missed Mankins and longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia more than anyone realized, and Brady looked like a washed up has-been standing in the way of the future. Drafting Jimmy Garoppolo out of Eastern Illinois last spring opened the door to discussing life after Brady, and with that loss in Kansas City, it looked like that day would come sooner than expected. In hindsight, it was foolish to think that was the end. The most Garoppolo would contribute after that game was playing like Russell Wilson in practice in preparation for the Super Bowl, but after Kansas City, it seemed outrageous to even think about the playoffs. We just hoped we could win a game.
Bill Belichick elected not to channel Jim Mora in his presser after the loss to the Chiefs, and instead put out the most memorable quote of his illustrious career of saying as little as possible to the assembled media. “We’re on to Cincinnati.” They were ready for Cincinnati. Then they were ready for Buffalo. Then they were ready for the Jets. Then they were ready for Chicago. Then they were ready for Denver. Then they were ready for Indianapolis. Then they were ready for Detroit. Then they lost a close one in Green Bay, but by then they had established themselves as the top team in the AFC as the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning were coming undone. They won in San Diego, and avenged their season opening loss to the Miami Dolphins before beating the Jets a second time and losing to the Buffalo Bills in the completely meaningless season finale. The Patriots seemed poised for another deep playoff run, but their Divisional Round opponent would be no easy task.
The Patriots always seem to have trouble with the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore had their share of struggles this season, having to release Ray Rice after his domestic violence incident became a viral video that the NFL had apparently never seen before TMZ showed it to everyone, and it took all sixteen games to make the playoffs. So much for getting home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Broncos got an easier game in the form of the Indianapolis Colts, and the Pats had to play the resilient Ravens. They were down by 14 points and things looked bad, but that’s when the Patriots got creative. The play of the decade came when Brady threw a lateral pass to wide receiver and former Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman. The split second when every Pats fan realized Edelman was going to throw it changed the tone of that game and the tone of the playoffs. Edelman’s first NFL pass was a completion to Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and the crowd at Gillette Stadium erupted. The Patriots did their job, even if their job included receivers throwing to receivers, and running backs lining up as linemen to confuse the defense. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh cried to the media, and Tom Brady told him to read the rule book. The creative ineligible receiver formations were not a Belichick invention. Chip Kelly has used them at the University of Oregon as well as with the Philadelphia Eagles, and Nick Saban used formations like that with the University of Alabama this season.
Where New England did their job, Denver did not. The Broncos lost their home playoff game to the Colts is what may have been Peyton Manning’s last real shot at winning a Super Bowl. The personal rivalry between Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, which began with Brady’s first NFL start, may be ending for good, and while both are great and both were champions, Brady put himself ahead of Manning with this year’s playoff run. It’s clear that Brady intends to go out with a bang, not to say he is finished at the age of 37, but whether Manning retired now or hangs on another year, he is much more likely to go out with a whimper. Manning is a great regular season player and maybe the best pure passer in the history of the game, but Brady has a little more of the old fashioned gunslinger in his makeup, pumping his fist after every big first down like the young kid who stunned the Oakland Raiders in the snow in 2002. When Peyton Manning fell apart against his former team, the Patriots were ready for a rematch with the Colts. Deflated balls or not, Andrew Luck had replaced Manning in Indy, but he was still out of Tom Brady’s league.
After two weeks of accusation, leaks, and scientific lectures from both sides of the issue, we finally had a football game, and it more than lived up to the hype. We had the Patriots, a perennial contender with an all time great coach and an all time great quarterback who had not won a title in a decade, and the Seattle Seahawks, the defending Super Bowl champions with a fun-loving coach (an unusual characteristic in the NFL or college football, two levels where Pete Carroll has thrived), an all time great defense, and a great young quarterback who is only getting better. In two decades as an NFL owner, Robert Kraft has only hired two head coaches: Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick. While Carroll did not work out with New England, he ad a great run at USC before making a triumphant return to the professional level with Seattle. It was a scoreless first quarter, and tied at the half. The Patriots moved the ball well, but Brady threw a bad interception. Russell Wilson and the Seahawks had a slow start on offense, but found a way to score quickly at the end of the second quarter. Halftime of Super Bowl XLIV was the tensest moment set to a Katy Perry soundtrack since the battle scene from The Interview.
The second half got off to a slow start for the Patriots, and the Seahawks played the third quarter like champions, but the Patriots stayed in it. While Richard Sherman was gloating on the sideline, the Pats chipped away. Brady and the offense came alive in the fourth quarter, with touchdowns from Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, and then the Seahawks got the ball back down by four points.
“I’ve seen this movie before.” I said aloud. Super Bowls XLII and XLVI ended with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning marching down the field. When 19-0 was on the line, David Tyree made a nearly impossible catch off his helmet. In 2012, Mario Manningham made a catch just as impressive on the sideline to get the drive going. Both of those Super Bowls ended with the the Giants raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy instead of the Patriots. When Jermaine Kearse kicked up the ball that undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler knocked away, it was happening all over again. Seattle was going to score. There was no way they wouldn’t. All I could hope for was enough time for Brady to launch another score. For all the success Boston teams have had since 2002, we have had out share of devastation as well. In addition to David Tyree and Mario Manningham, we have had Aaron Boone’s home run off Tim Wakefield, Ron Artest’s shooting in the 2010 NBA Finals, and the 17 second period of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final that I still refuse to watch. Another ne of those moments was happening. It was just a matter of time.
It’s a bit of a blur now. The way it ended was so surreal. Dont’a Hightower made a great tackle to keep Marshawn Lynch out of the end zone, and the broadcast team of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth both thought Belichick should let the Seahawks score to give Brady more time for the comeback attempts. Instead, Belichick let the clock run down and Pete Carroll put the ball in Russell Wilson’s hands. Malcolm Butler, who bobbled the ball into Kearse’s hands moments before made an incredible interceptions to seal the game for the Patriots. I think I saw it when it happened, but it did not register right away. Then I was standing up and laughing and screaming. It had happened. They survived. The Patriots were champions again.
With the 2015 playoffs, Tom Brady did more than pass Peyton Manning as the greatest quarterback of his generation. He also passed John Elway by starting his sixth career Super Bowl, tied Joe Montana as a three time Super Bowl MVP, and tied Montana and Terry Bradshaw as a four time Super Bowl champion as a starting QB. Brady and Belichick reestablished themselves as the Duncan and Popovich of football, continuing the success that began fifteen years ago. With all due respect to Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots will never have a better quarterback than Tom Brady. The best we can hope for with Jimmy G is that he becomes the Ray Bourque to Brady’s Bobby Orr, the Steve Young to his Joe Montana, the Larry Bird to his Bill Russell, or the Carl Yastrziemski to Brady’s Ted Williams. There is still a chance for greatness in the future, but nothing like what we are seeing now. Enjoy it. We don’t know how much longer it will last.
The best part of the night was the trophy presentation where Kurt Warner, who the Patriots beat to start this run of dominance walking through a gauntlet of newly crowned champions with their trophy, and then Robert Kraft refusing to acknowledge Roger Goodell on the podium. Everyone hates the Patriots, and the Patriots don’t care.The conversation about deflated footballs was dominated by sports pundits who have a reason to hate the Pats: Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk, Jerry Rice, Troy Aikman, Trent Dilfer, Ray Lewis, Tony Dungy, Bill Polian, and the list goes on. They just hate us ’cause they ain’t us. It’s the fourth Super Bowl victory by the Patriots in this century, and then ninth Boston championship in that span, and it still hasn’t gotten old. They did their job. On to the parade!
Andrew Luck has a great career ahead of him. He and Cam Newton became two of my favorite young players in football this season, and Luck showed us a lot with that big time comeback against Kansas City last week. He and his head coach, Chuck Pagano, will do great things together in the NFL before it’s all said and done, but not today. Not this year. On a day where two dome teams went on the road to play in the January rain, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were the ones to come out on top. I remember in the baseball playoffs in 1999, when Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox was set to start against Roger Clemens of the Yankees, that the match up was dubbed “Cy Young vs. Cy Old” and this game between Luck and Brady could have been promoted much the same way, except this time the old man prevailed over the young man.
It’s rare to see the Patriots run more often than they pass. It’s even rarer to see them score 43 points without Brady throwing a touchdown pass, but the 2013-14 Pats are nothing if not versatile. They had to be. Brady’s favorite targets of the last few years are out of the picture for one reason or another, and they had to get creative. Julian Edelman shouldered the load once carried by Wes Welker. The backfield of Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley, and LeGarrette Blount replaced the production the Patriots were used to getting from the tight end position. Blount was the hero of the night, rushing for 166 yards and scoring four touchdowns for the home team. The undrafted former Oregon Duck, who was close to getting cut in training camp, has proven his value to the team this year more than Tim Tebow ever could.
The Patriots defense was impressive in this game as well. Alfonzo Dennard intercepted Luck twice: once at the beginning of the game, and once at the end. Linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower also had interceptions in the game. They didn’t make things easy for Luck. There always seemed to be a lot of pressure on the pocket, and while Luck did make some incredible throws, by the 4th quarter, the Colts really started to come apart. It was a good old fashioned kind of win. This is what Patriots football was when they Patriots were winning Super Bowls: tough and physical on both sides of the ball.
I realized this week that the rivalry with the Colts does not have the same venom it used to have. Peyton Manning is gone. Bill Polian is gone. Tony Dungy is gone. Jim Caldwell is gone. Dwight Freeney is gone. The old Colts were two finesse and too whiny for my liking. They were all flash and no substance. Jim Irsay is still the owner, and I’m still not a huge fan of his, but I could say that about the Red Sox’ and Bruins’ owners, as well and I love those teams. It’s really hard to hate this Colts team. They were everything the Patriots were not back then. Chuck Pagano is a great coach and a great human interest story. Andrew Luck is hard to hate, as are Reggie Wayne and Robert Mathis. If they were playing the Broncos or any of the NFC teams this weekend, I would probably have rooted for them. This team is only going to get better. Andrew Luck had flashes of brilliance today, but there’s a learning curve for becoming a star quarterback. A Stanford education is only a starting point. Most QBs don’t shock the world by winning the Super Bowl in their second year the way Tom Brady did.
43-22 may seem like a lopsided game, but it was closer than that for most of the game. It seemed like whenever the Pats scored, Luck and the Colts would come right back with a few quick strikes down the field. If he stops turning the ball over, he will be tough to stop. When Reggie Wayne comes back healthy next year, he’ll have another good proven option to rely on. If he ever gets a better running game to work with than Donald Brown and Trent Richardson, then he’ll really be in business.
The season ends for the Indianapolis Colts and an illustrious broadcasting career ends for Dan Dierdorf. This was Dierdorf’s last game as a color commentator for CBS. He was always one of my favorite ex-athlete broadcasters, and before that, he put together a Hall of Fame career as an offensive lineman for the St. Louis Cardinals. Thanks for all the memories, Dan!
Tom Brady and the Patriots are back in the AFC Championship Game for the eight time since Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe. As fans, we shouldn’t take for granted the consistent level of success this team has accomplished, because it might never happen again. The game will either be in Foxboro against the San Diego Chargers or in Denver against the Broncos, depending on the result of tomorrow’s game.
The NFL regular season has come and gone and the Patriots find themselves where they always seem to be: atop the AFC East Division with some time off during Wild Card Weekend. They will play again in Foxboro in the second weekend in January while teams around the league are firing their coaches. Bill Belichick, who became the longest tenured NFL head coach this time a year ago when the Eagles fired Andy Reid, is preparing for a playoff game while the only coaches who have beaten him in the playoffs during his Patriots tenure–Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh, and Mike Shanahan–are all either out of the playoffs or out of football.
The Patriots will face either the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, or Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks. In a year full of flawed teams and devastating injuries, the Pats have as good a chance as anyone to reach the Super Bowl. None of the QBs on those teams have had a ton of January success, while Tom Brady won three Super Bowls in his first three trips to the playoffs. Last year the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, but this year they are already finished. Two years ago, the New York Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl, but they will not be there this year when the big game is in their home stadium. The Patriots are always there, which means they always have a chance. It’s been nine years since the Pats won the Super Bowl, but the road to get there looks as good as any year since then.
Playoff wins are no sure thing, and despite what the Patriots have accomplished, neither is getting there. This season was no cake walk for the Pats. They played most of the season without Rob Gronkowski. They lost key defensive personnel in Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly midway through the year. Wes Welker is playing for the Denver Broncos, and Danny Woodhead is playing for the San Diego Chargers now. Aaron Hernandez is in prison and awaiting trial. The Patriots had every reason to pack it in and not answer the bell this season, but they’re still going to play in January. Bill Belichick put together one of the greatest coaching performances of his career in 2013. Julian Edelman deserves a lot of credit for bailing out the offense and filling the void left by Wes Welker. Tom Brady deserves credit for continuing to make it work with the offense he has to work with. LeGarrette Blount, who I wrote about during the preseason, was one of the biggest acquisitions of the year for the team despite being one of the last players to make the roster in September. Blount has added another dynamic to the offense, and the running game could be the key to winning in January. This is not the most talented Patriots team we’ve seen, but they’ve shown a lot of toughness overcoming the adversity they were dealt this season. There’s a lot of football to be played and a lot of stories to write about in the coming weeks, but it’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what the Patriots have accomplished…yet again.