The lack of excitement surrounding New England’s playoff premiere seems a little … weird? Looking at both teams, the Patriots should win their tilt with Houston Saturday night. Plenty of statistical evidence backs them up, from their win over the Texans in Week Three, to the addition of Tom Brady since then, to the Space City’s winless record in Foxboro.
You know, if Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola had flown down to Miami during the bye week, there would be more to talk about. But there’s no reason to think that the Patriots are looking past Saturday.
That said, a certain Boston writer (whose name sounds a lot like “Man? Honestly”) insists the Patriots are not legitimately good because they have played a series of tomato cans. First off, I think the use of that reference speaks to the relative freshness of this writer’s work. Secondly – and those five or six of you who read this column on a regular basis might be sick of this, but it’s worth repeating – this is the Platinum Patriots Era. With everything that is geared toward making top teams fade in the NFL, from last draft pick to last waiver-wire choice to toughest opponents filling out schedules, the fact that the Patriots have won at least nine games every year since 2001 deserves respect.
The most bothersome aspect about this negative line of thinking is that we didn’t use to feel this way. Back in 1986, the Celtics were on the verge of winning their third championship in six seasons. Michael Madden of The Boston Globe described the team this way (note the 1980s-appropriate Spenser reference):
“Simply, these Celtics are a whole level above their opponents. You have to search diligently to find a loss, but, just as important, Spenser would have to be hired to turn up even a close game, the Celtics’ dominance is so total. These Celtics are winning but they are also winning completely, more so than any of their predecessors. Havlicek may have stolen the ball, Don Nelson may have bounced a jumper in off the back rim and Sam Jones skimmed one off the glass, but all those were in the final seconds — the games these Celtics play are over in the third quarter.”
Madden continued, pointing out two specific players:
“Boston has two offensive players – Larry Bird and Kevin McHale – who are nigh unstoppable, and no Celtic team of the ’50s or ’60s had even one unstoppable offensive player. The Celtics of the first glory years had one totally dominant defensive player in Russell, but these Celtics, despite Bird’s defensive shortcomings, may play the best team defense of all Boston teams. This Celtic team is without a weakness, a complete team.”
Keep in mind, this was printed on May 31, 1986, when the Celtics led the Rockets two games to none in the NBA Finals. Boston wouldn’t wrap it up until running away with Game Six on June 8, but, over a week earlier, Madden had no hesitation calling Boston the best basketball team.
The Celtics won three championships during Larry Bird’s 13-year tenure. The Patriots have won four titles in Tom Brady’s 17-year career. Is it too much to ask that the Patriots get their due respect? I’m not demanding any fawning or proclamations of infallibility. Just show me that you understand this is an exceptional team on a remarkable run. Start there, then nitpick all you want. And for God’s sake, think up another phrase. “Tomato can” isn’t even correct: football isn’t like boxing, where the best fighters can choose to take on inferior opponents. Work a little.
Some notes on last weekend’s games and other events:
Houston, We Have No Problem: The Texans looked solid taking on the Raiders, but level of stability could change with a little snow on the ground and a lot of Brady in the air. Houston held rookie QB Connor Cook to 18 of 45 passing for 161 yards and one TD, while also limiting Oakland to 64 yards rushing as a team. In the regular season, Houston had the number-one ranked defense in terms of yards allowed, giving up a mere 301 per contest. Should be interesting, especially because of the below observation.
We’re Number One, I Guess? Houston’s defense is ranked number one. So is New England’s. So is Denver’s. Defensive rankings are like TV ratings: find the right category (or demographic), and you can rule the day. Houston gives up the fewest yards; New England gives up the fewest points (15.6 per game); Denver gives up the fewest yards per play (4.7). If “wings eaten during a game” were a defensive stat, I’d have a chance to get on there.
Positive for the Texans? They limit their opponents, yards-wise. Negative? Opponents generally had fewer yards to cover due to great field position that Houston’s mediocre special teams afforded them.
All in all, I would not be shocked at the Patriots grabbing an early lead, then coasting a bit before finishing up strong, much like they did down in Miami. We shall see.
Going To Brown Town: Am I using that phrase right? I don’t think I’m using that phrase right. Anyway, Miami had no answer for Pittsburgh receiver Antonio Brown, who scored on a 50-yard catch-and-run within the first four minutes and added a 62-yard beauty under six minutes later. At that point, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had completed all seven of his passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns. The Dolphins tried to make a go of it, but costly turnovers by QB Matt Moore kept the visitors from getting any closer than 20-6 at the half, eventually falling 30-12. (Moore gets credit for playing through what was either a concussion or an out-of-body experience after this how-ya-doin’ from linebacker/Lennie from Of Mice And Men “I didn’t mean no harm, George” Al Dupree).
Go Fourth And Prosper: Trailing 20-3 with 11 minutes left in the first half, Miami got into punt formation on fourth and one from their own 41. This seemed like an overly conservative choice, until Coach Adam Gase called for a fake punt and converted on a direct snap up the middle. Ten plays later, Miami scored a field goal. Not the greatest payoff, but keeping the drive going kept Pittsburgh off the field and finally got the visitors within two scores.
This is a roundabout way of saying that I like Gase as a coach. Seems to adjust well during games and get the most out of his players. And, unlike a former AFC East coach whose name rhymes with Tex Mayan, he doesn’t seem to talk himself up too much. This one might be around for a while.
Go Fourth And Prosper? Hey, Coach Mike McCarthy? You’ve got to pick your battles. In the third quarter, if you’re up 14-6 at your own 42-yard line, and you just got stopped for no gain on third and one, maybe don’t try another run into the teeth of the Giants’ defense? Because then you’ll lose a yard, fire up the Giants, and watch Eli Manning chuck a 41-yard scoring pass to diminish your lead to 14-13.
I mean, I understand that at that juncture, scoring points was only slightly less arduous than doggy-paddling through a pool of lukewarm jell-o; still, know where you are on the field and do a quick cost-benefit analysis, there.
Aaron It Out: Of course, thanks to Aaron Rodgers, the Packers managed to pull away in the second half and win 38-13. This was due in part to the Green Bay offensive line, and to Rodger’s innate ability to buy himself extra time in the pocket. In certain moments he looked like one of those fictional characters who can move so fast everyone else freezes, like Marvel’s Yo-Yo Rodriguez or Hammy the Squirrel from “Over the Hedge.” (Sometimes the unrepentant vagueness of my own references saddens me.) So, yeah, the Hail Mary was pretty cool for the Pack going into halftime, but Rodgers’ second-half prowess made the difference.
Feat Of Clay: Packers linebacker Clay Matthews had himself a stud-worthy play in the fourth quarter, sacking Manning for a seven-yard loss, causing a fumble, and chasing the rolling football 15 yards down the field to recover it while 20 other players stood and watched (teammate Julius Peppers gave chase, as you can see in this replay).
The Lions Share: I guess the Lions played the Seahawks, and the Seahawks looked good? That happened? Hard to remember at this point. Kudos to the Seahawks front office for their ability to find quality rookie free agents. They actually opened the 2016 season with 24 UDFAs on their 53-man roster. And I thought the Patriots were rocking it with eight. Seattle appears to have reached their “playing well at the right moment” phase of the season. That defense against the Falcons’ offense in Atlanta should be fun to watch.
Simm-er Down: Focusing on the CBS broadcast of the Miami-Pittsburgh game, let’s review a trifecta of gems from color analyst Phil Simms.
• On Miami receiver Kenny Stills’ 36-yard reception: “It was a out-and-up by Stills, and it catches them off-guard. It didn’t catch them off-guard, but you’re thinking, ‘Oh, they’re going to throw something short.'”
So, it kinda caught them off-guard, then, Phil?
• On a crowd shot in Heinz Field: “Those Miami fans, they’re more buttoned up than the Steelers fans, I think.”
Nope. Without various hats, scarves, and coats in team colors, it would have been impossible to tell who was who. Everyone is equally miserable in 17-degree, my-skin-feels-like-turkey-jerky weather. (Except for Wim Hof, aka “The Ice Man,” aka “What In The Hell Is This Guy Thinking?“)
• On Lippett jumping over the top of the center, committing encroachment on a Steelers field goal attempt near the end of the third quarter: “Could be a game-breaker.”
That was the game-breaker? Pittsburgh led 23-6. I thought Brown’s second TD of the first quarter was the game-breaker.
For more of Simms and Jim Nantz, tune in to see the Patriots host the Texans at 8:15 p.m. Saturday. Feel free to compile your own list of Simmsisms at home.
Fret-A-Porter: Imagine being Pittsburgh outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. Your team wins a wild card game over Miami. You go out to celebrate. Then you get into a drunken, physical altercation with a bouncer and an off-duty police officer, get charged with aggravated assault (among other things), and go to jail until you get released on bail the next morning.
I mean, Porter played for the Steelers for seven seasons (1999-2006). As a coach during last year’s playoffs, he made a sneaky-savvy move of going onto the field and eliciting a reaction from Bengals cornerback Pacman Jones, who committed a penalty that swung the game in Pittsburgh’s favor. (Funny how I remember the offending Bengal as looney linebacker – loonbacker? – Vontaze Burfict). Any Steeler with a semi-normal temperament would feel welcome at any bar in the area, but Porter’s such a huge hump that he was denied entry and, instead of just walking away, tried to lay hands on the bouncer. It really says something when your hometown fans aren’t willing to sweep your stupidity under the rug.
A Giant Rumor: From a boat ride in Miami to a plane ride from Green Bay. Did the Giants force a plane delay when their aircraft required two extra hours of cleaning, according to multiple reports? Team commentator and former player Carl Banks refuted the rumors on Twitter, but United Airlines has yet to confirm the story either way.
One quick question: Doesn’t Giants owner John Mara have his own plane? He must, right? Isn’t that, like, the NFL owners’ equivalent of a membership card? Seems like he could fly his team to Wisconsin if he wanted. In any case, with boats and planes checked off, the New York media has an ongoing off-season transportation topic to tackle whenever they feel like it: “What’s Next? A Rickshaw?”
No Fees On Me: There is no more disconcerting ad on television than T-Mobile’s “You’ve Got Fees” campaign, where parents pick through their children’s hair to find crawly text declaring certain phone fees. (Can’t find a link for it, and don’t really want to.) This kind of commercial can work, but only if you associate the bad, uncomfortable thing with other, specific companies that are not your own. Now, whenever I think of T-Mobile, I’m thinking of head lice. Probably not what they intended.
Stop Your Messing Around: I’ve reached an age where the music of my youth is seen as – what? Wistful? Comforting? Not sure, but I enjoyed listening to the Specials’ “A Message To Rudy” during a recent Fidelity ad. Why not? I appreciate my favorite bands holding out (Talking Heads reportedly refused to sell “Once In A Lifetime” to Rolling Rock beer, who had the slogan “Same as it ever was”), but after 30 years, hey, Bands of My Youth, go get yourselves some cash.
Hit The Road: Here’s a fact I learned today – the word “chevy” can mean “to nag or torment.” That’s about where we are with the recent Chevrolet ad campaign, where a snarky, bearded hipster in a suit (no tie, because he’s relaxed and approachable, folks!) talks about awards from something called J. D. Power (an outfit that wants to “amplify the voice of the consumer,” apparently). I wish I could experience half as much enjoyment out of small surprises as this group of non-actors does every time a new car gets revealed.
Guy: But guess what? In addition to this year, Chevy also won the J. D. Power award last year. (Wall slides back to show line of Chevrolets.)
People: What? Wow! That’s amazing!
Guy: Aaaaand the year before that! (More walls, more Chevy cars.)
People: Oh my God! A CHEVY?!? Why, it’s like I’ve never seen a car before!!
You know what, Chevy? Start advertising the Bolt. It’s an electric car with 238 miles of range. That should elicit some surprise.
People: It’s electric? Oh, Oh, OH SWEET BABY JESUS IN A BLANKET! DOES J. D. POWER KNOW ABOUT THIS?!?
Au Revoir, Detroit: The word “detroit” is apparently French for “strait” (I am learning all sorts of trivia today), and unfortunately Detroit went straight out of the playoffs after their loss to Seattle. I say “unfortunately” because the Lions have the largest collection of players I interviewed before they were drafted (a whopping three). While writing for Patriots Daily in 2009 and 2010, I interviewed college players prepping for the NFL draft, all with the Patriots in mind. My record was shabby: out of about 50 players interviewed, none came to New England. However, some of them have done quite well, and I still believe at least a few should have ended up in Foxboro.
Here’s a list of the players on playoff teams who took the time to talk to me oh-so-many years ago:
Dolphins: Koa Misi, Utah DE (between him and Paul Kruger the year before, I had a crush on Utah ends).
Steelers: Arthur Moats, James Madison OLB (One of my favorite Q&As. He met with New England staff, and also had a notable interview with the Redskins); Antonio Brown, Central Michigan WR (oh, if only, Patriots. If. Only.).
Vikings: (I know, I know, they didn’t make the playoffs. But I’m taking the liberty, here …) Everson Griffen, USC DE (where I clumsily bring up an unfortunate incident on Nantucket); Linval Joseph, East Carolina DL (where I make a hilarious mistake regarding his country of origin).
Atlas F*&kin’ Shrugged: Some beautiful soul took a promotional video of the Atlas Robot from Boston Dynamics and added a voice-over. I call the end result One Of The Best Things Of 2016.
Go. Sit. Stay: Your OK Go Video of the Week is for “White Knuckles,” which Patriots fans don’t expect to experience. Still, it features giant cups and cute dogs, so why not?
Up To The Highest Hype: Plenty of Patriots playoff hype videos to choose from online. This one works as well as any.
Enjoy the weekend, football fans. See you next week.
Chris Warner still has trouble differentiating between buffleheads and hooded mergansers. His life is too thrilling for words. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @cwarn89