With A Little Bit Of Luck (2016 Edition)

(Editor’s Note: We ran this column last year and – given the craziness of the past wild card weekend – think it’s worth an updated review.)

In the NFL, every team needs some good fortune to win the Super Bowl.

Last Saturday and Sunday each provided a startling example. In weather so frigid they could have called in Jack London to write the game story, Minnesota kicker Blair Walsh made three field goals in a row, including a 47-yarder, only to miss the potential game-winner from 27 yards out. Walsh had been on a 10-for-10 hot streak (including two 53-yarders) since his last miss on November 29 vs. Atlanta. Seattle did well to come back from a 9-0 deficit, but they got a big break.

Maybe Pittsburgh got a bigger one. After getting slammed to the turf, QB Ben Roethlisberger left the game for three series. He came back in despite moving with all the easy grace of a rusty lawn chair. After a few short passes, his one long throw sailed harmlessly over Antonio Brown’s head, the same head that Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict crushed with a brutal-looking hit. Unnecessary roughness penalty,15 yards.

But wait, there’s more: while on the field arguing the call and standing off vs. his opponents, Cincinnati cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones confronted Steelers assistant coach Joey Porter, getting another 15-yard penalty. So, with 22 seconds left and no timeouts at Cincinnati’s 47-yard line, the Steelers picked up 30 yards on zero offensive plays, taking up zero seconds. Kicker Chris Boswell jogged onto the field and pushed the ball through for a 35-yard game winner.

Pittsburgh deserves some credit for not completely losing their minds (a low bar), and also for putting enough pressure on the Bengals to evoke the possibility of a meltdown. Jones insists that Brown faked getting hurt on the play, and that the receiver actually winked at him. If so, impressive. But, really, the Steelers basically did what children do on Christmas: they showed up and got their gifts.

This Saturday, a New England team with some key starters returning to action hosts a Kansas City team with at least one key starter (receiver Jeremy Maclin) nursing an injury (ankle). Is that the Patriots’ big break this week? We shall see.

For a look at how every team – no matter how deserving or how talented overall – needs the ball to bounce its way, see below, starting with the Patriots’ first Super Bowl run in early 2002.

2002 Super Bowl: New England 20, St. Louis 17

Most Fortunate Moment: Has to be the Tuck Rule, right? An obscure, now-abolished rule – albeit one with which Patriots fans had become familiar in 2001 after their Week Two game against the Jets – was implemented correctly to overturn an apparent Tom Brady fumble, thus allowing Adam Vinatieri to kick the football into the maw of a blizzard for the greatest field goal in playoff history.

Hey, Raiders fans? That was 2002. You want to live in 2002, go listen to Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me” and watch “CSI.” We can share content on Friendster. Might be time to let it go.

Honorable Mention: Pittsburgh’s special teams implosion in the AFC Champsionship game, allowing two TDs (punt return and blocked kick return); having Drew Bledsoe as a bench QB after Brady hurt his ankle in the first half of that game; the Super Bowl refs adapting a “let ’em play” attitude, with Pats DBs getting their hands on more Rams than a shepherd in a shearing contest.

2003 Super Bowl: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21

Most Fortunate Moment: Coach Jon Gruden got to play his previous team in the Super Bowl, reaping the benefits of new Oakland head coach Bill Callahan failing to make significant changes to the offense that Gruden had developed. Talk about an in-depth scouting report. Almost makes one feel badly for Raiders fans. (The first word of that sentence is key.)

Honorable Mention: Oakland’s starting center Barret Robbins did not show up to practice Super Bowl week (he was barred from playing and later diagnosed with manic depression).

2004 Super Bowl: New England 32, Carolina 29

Most Fortunate Moment: After Carolina tied it at 29, John Kasay kicked off out-of-bounds, giving New England the ball at their own 40 with 1:08 left. Vinatieri kicked the game-winner with four seconds remaining.

Honorable Mention: Panthers coach John Fox went for two 2-point conversions in the fourth quarter and failed; in the divisional playoffs, normally sure-handed Titans receiver Drew Bennett dropped a pass that would have gotten Tennessee into field goal position to tie it; in the AFC Championship vs. Peyton Manning and the Colts, the refs allowed the Pats’ defensive backs to play with the type of aggression that would get penalized today; plus, snow fell in Foxboro, an anathema to most dome teams.

2005 Super Bowl: New England 24, Philadelphia 21

Most Fortunate Moment: The failure of the Eagles to deal with shaken QB Donovan McNabb. Down by 10, Philly declined to hurry on offense, in part because McNabb was having trouble breathing after getting hit by Tedy Bruschi. (You can read a more in-depth story on that here.)

Honorable Mention: Optimum health. As they had in 2003, many New England starters missed games due to injury, but most came back in time for the playoffs; more snow in Foxboro vs. the Colts.

Overall, it’s tough to associate pure luck with this team: one of the best of the decade and certainly one of the strongest, deepest squads in Patriots history.

2006 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10

Most Fortunate Moment: Not having to play the Patriots in the playoffs. (Well, they had shown Pittsburgh the way home twice in four years.)

Honorable Mention: Some close officiating in the big game. This is not to say that Pittsburgh didn’t deserve to win (they appeared to be the better squad), but had some of those close calls gone the other way, Seattle would have been the lucky ones. In the divisional playoffs at Indianapolis, Jerome Bettis fumbled on the Colts’ two-yard line, paving the way for glory for Nick Harper on the fumble return, but Roethlisberger made a diving, spinning tackle at Indy’s 42; Colts kicker/anti-hero Mike Vanderjagt missed a potential game-tying 47-yard field goal.

2007 Super Bowl: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17

Most Fortunate Moment: Whatever switch went off in Manning’s head in the AFC Championship that had him looking for drive-sustaining first downs instead of long passes. The Patriots defense had to stay on the field forever and couldn’t protect their halftime lead.

Honorable Mention: The Patriots defense was also suffering from the flu, wearing them down further; NE receiver Reche Caldwell dropped an easy pass that would have at least led to a clock-killing first down; cornerback Ellis Hobbs got a questionable pass interference call in the end zone that led to a Colts score; Indy got to play Rex Grossman in the Super Bowl.

2008 Super Bowl: New York 17, New England 14

Most Fortunate Moment: We think we know what most fans would say, but we’ll point to the NFC Championship, specifically Brett Favre and his ill-advised pass-punt in overtime, an easy interception that led to the Giants’ game-winning field goal. Few New England fans doubt that the Pats would have cruised past the Packers.

Honorable Mention: The Helmet Catch, of course; Eli Manning fumbled twice in the Super Bowl but lost neither; Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel failed to secure what could have been the game-sealing interception on New York’s final drive.

2009 Super Bowl: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23

Most Fortunate Moment: While Steelers defender James Harrison returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown, he got unintentional help from Cardinal Antrel Rolle who – stepping onto the edge of the field for a closer look – bumped into receiver Larry Fitzgerald, preventing Fitzgerald from making the tackle in time. (Keep an eye on number 11 running along the sideline in this clip.)

Honorable Mention: Roethlisberger bounced back from a concussion suffered during the final week of the regular season to beat the Chargers in the divisional round; in the AFC Championship, the QB fumbled twice but lost neither in a 24-19 win over the Jets.

2010 Super Bowl Winner: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17

Most Fortunate Moment: On a potential game-tying drive, Colts receiver Reggie Wayne came up short on his route, allowing Tracy Porter to cut in front of him for a pick-six.

Honorable Mention: During their on-sides kick – a gamble that made putting all your cash into lottery tickets seem like a sound investment – Indy receiver Hank Baskett had the ball bounce off of him, giving the Saints possession to open the second half.

2011 Super Bowl: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25

Most Fortunate Moment: I’m not sure what I was doing at this time, but, honest to God, I remember nothing about these playoffs. Apparently the Chicago Bears were down to their third-string QB (Caleb Hanie) in the NFC Championship game; Hanie threw an interception directly at Packers defensive lineman B. J. Raji, which seems like trying to throw a crumpled-up piece of paper into a wastebasket and not realizing there’s a door in front of it.

Honorable Mention: Um, I dunno … health? Seriously, I got nothing. Did these playoffs happen?

2012 Super Bowl: New York 21, New England 17

Most Fortunate Moment: An injury to regular San Francisco punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr. put Kyle Williams into the spotlight for the NFC Championship. That worked out great for New York, as Williams muffed one return and fumbled the other, respectively leading to a regulation TD and the game-winning field goal in overtime for a 20-17 win.

Honorable Mention: Gronkowski getting hurt during the AFC Championship, making him less than 100 percent for the Super Bowl; New York fumbling three times in the big game and – again – losing nary a one.

2013 Super Bowl: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31

Most Fortunate Moment: In the divisional playoff, Denver safety Rahim Moore got lost on Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass, allowing the tying touchdown with 31 seconds left to play. Baltimore won in OT.

Honorable Mention: Gronkowski’s absence from the AFC Championship game; Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib’s injury during that game opening up the passing lanes for Flacco; in the Super Bowl, terrible play-calling for the 49ers on their potential game-winning drive; on that drive, the refs allowed contact on a potential pass interference penalty in the end zone. (Something that probably would get the call this year.)

2014 Super Bowl: Seattle 43, Denver 8

Most Fortunate Moment: On the first snap of the game, Denver center Manny Ramirez shotgunned the football past Peyton Manning into the end zone for a what-the-heck-just-happened safety. Seattle’s D had a huge game, but didn’t have to lift a finger to get the lead. The Broncos’ lack of preparedness for the Seahawks’ 12th man set the tone for the night.

Honorable Mention: In the NFC title game, on a fourth-and-seven play, Niners defensive end Aldon Smith went offside, giving QB Russell Wilson a free play (as he told in this game story); Jermaine Kearse snatched Wilson’s pass in the end zone, giving Seattle a 20-17 lead on their way to a 23-17 win.

2015 Super Bowl: New England 28, Seattle 24

Most Fortunate Moment: Unlike what seems like the rest of the world, we don’t think the play call was the worst in Super Bowl history; http://seattletimes.com/html/seahawks/2025601887_brewer02xml.html however, the Seahawks’ decision to pass from the one-yard line gave rookie Patriots defensive back (and instant fan favorite for life) Malcolm Butler the chance to intercept the ball and seal the game. Also fortunate? As we saw in the “Do Your Job” program, the Patriots had planned for that exact play in the previous week’s practice.

Honorable Mention: The Patriots finally – finally! – had a mostly healthy roster, with Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Vince Wilfork and a full O-line contributing; Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signed with New England and re-shaped the defense. (For a year, at least. A very good year.)

For most of the past two games, the Seahawks seemed destined to win this thing. From Green Bay’s inexplicable breakdown in the NFC Championship to Tom Brady’s first interception (I mean, really Tom. Where? To whom?) to what would have been deemed the Juggle Catch, Seattle looked like SB repeaters for sure.

The Pats just needed a break. And they got it.

Thoughts regarding lucky moments on the big stage? Let us know in the comment space below.

You can reach Chris Warner at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com or @cwarn89 on Twitter.

Pats 2015 Fourth Quarter Review

The Patriots flew into Miami for their regular-season finale with only slightly less energy than a potato battery. Their 20-10 loss made them 2-3 over their past five games, the worst mark for New England in December/January since Pete Carroll’s final season in 1999.

The Pats beat the teams they should have, keeping pace by demolishing the Texans 27-6 and pushing past the Titans, 33-16. They lost one game they could have won, falling to the Jets in overtime, 26-20. Had they taken that game, the Dolphins “contest” (quotes all mine) would not have mattered. As things sit, New England has a 12-4 record and a bye week to try to figure it all out.

Some thoughts as we prepare to watch others play for the privilege of visiting Foxboro…

Price Is Right? Chris Price of WEEI.com wrote a follow-up piece on how, when it comes to the playoffs, health trumps momentum. It’s a compelling debate, especially when you look at a team like Baltimore, who went 1-4 at the end of 2012 on their way to Super Bowl success. Again, this Pats team might get bounced faster than a Super Ball in a paint shaker. But the phrase “anything can happen” can work for optimists, too.

Lost In Logan: Disappointing couple of weeks for cornerback Logan Ryan. After a sharp run through most of December, Ryan got bypassed by Brandon Marshall in New York (eight catches, 115 yards, two touchdowns) and outplayed in part by Devante Parker in Miami (five for 106 and one TD). New England’s defensive backfield is playing like season two of that show you unexpectedly enjoyed last year: you want to keep liking it, but it hasn’t been living up to its potential. A healthier safety crew and front seven might help.

O, O Sea Bass: Yup. You know it’s the end of the regular season when I’ve run out of puns. (Oh, Sheila? Anyone? No? Too bad.) Anyhoo, this season the Patriots O-line has gone through more combos than a busload of returning Outward Bound students at McDonald’s. Tackle Sebastian Vollmer went down with an ankle injury during the first quarter of the Jets game December 27, providing the final push to this superhuman-sized row of dominoes. Vollmer had stepped over from right tackle to take over for Nate Solder. His injury forced Cameron Fleming to left tackle, which has made things tough for the offense. His expected return could help settle down the entire line.

Jules Of Denial: I mean, yeah, if you want to talk injuries, the Patriots have more personnel on reserve than the Coast Guard. Yet, amidst all the gloom, we seem to look past the fact that Julian Edelman, New England’s best receiver, looks primed to come back for the playoffs. After catching 61 passes in his first nine games, Edelman sat with a broken bone in his foot. That means almost seven completions per contest had to got to other targets. Nice to have that potential back for the big games.

How LaFar He LaFell: I suppose Patriots fans should consider themselves lucky they got the 2014 version of Brandon LaFell when they did. That guy distinguished himself as a solid pass-catcher in big situations, culminating in the game-winning score in the Divisional Round vs. Baltimore and the opening TD in the Super Bowl. Not sure what happened to that guy. Maybe off-season foot surgery took more of a toll than expected. His first game back, vs. the Jets, featured nine drops. He has only 37 receptions in 11 games, half of his 74 in 16 games last year. Zero touchdowns this season vs. seven in 2014. Pretty rough, especially considering the absence of Edelman and the need for different receivers.

I’m Just A Bill: Everything I just said about LaFell works for tight end Scott Chandler, minus the Super Bowl run. Last year Chandler had 47 receptions with Buffalo. This year in Foxboro, 23. Too often these guys react to the football like emotionally stunted bridesmaids watching the bouquet flying toward them, giving an effort that seems perfunctory at best.

No Reason To Get Excited, Or All Along The Hightower: If injuries to a football team are like removing tools out of a toolbox, then linebacker Dont’a Hightower is the hammer. New England’s run defense hasn’t been the same since Hightower’s injury in Denver; it remains to be seen if he has played again at full strength.

Eh, at this point it just feels like we’re making excuses, but when you’re the most injured team in the league, it makes a difference. Getting back to full health, or close to it, will give the Patriots a chance to show what they can do.

Or maybe everyone should just lower their expectations. Speaking of which…

Earthwind And Fired: In past years, New England has been able to find a free agent or practice squad player who can fill in at an acceptable level. No one should ever confuse defensive back Earthwind Moreland with Ty Law, but the former stepped up from the practice squad after Law’s season-ending injury in 2004 and notched 17 total tackles (the only stops recorded in his five seasons in the NFL). Not a long-term solution, but a good enough stop-gap.

In a similar way, Danny Woodhead got to Foxboro in September of 2010 and took over Kevin Faulk’s third-down role less than two weeks later after Faulk went on injured reserve with a knee injury. Woodhead averaged 5.6 yards per carry (97 for 547) and 11.1 yards per catch (34 for 379). Last year, guys like LeGarrette Blount and Alan Branch helped out down the stretch. This season, the rewards have been harder to come by.

Defensive back Leonard Johnson had a sweet Pats debut at Houston, breaking up two passes and dancing like it was Gino time. He did fine vs. Tennessee, then seemed to slip over the past two games. Offensive tackle LaAdrian Waddle got hurt before getting to show much. Receiver Chris Harper came with high hopes off the practice squad. I’ve watched him twice in the past six weeks and have yelled at the TV both times.

Just catch the punt! Just get out-of-bounds!

Disappointing. Much like running back Steven Jackson, who has averaged 2.4 yards per carry. Not all his fault – he’s only been a Patriot for two weeks and could deliver more in the post-season – but still tough to watch.

Bye Curious: The past month has felt like a team tetanus shot they just wanted to get out of the way. So, how much can one week off really help? We only know that things can change quickly in the NFL. No AFC team looks unbeatable right now. Kansas City has had a great run, but how will they play at Foxboro? Denver deserves credit for nabbing the number one seed, but how will they transition from a young, promising QB back to their Hall of Famer, the amazing Ashley Manning?

(Oops. Sorry. That was meant for Peyton Manning, but I addressed it to his wife.)

This thing is wide open. No one’s undefeated. No one’s playing perfectly. Let’s see how it all turns out.

Chris Warner like to spend a little too much time on Twitter @cwarn89

Patriots 2015 Third-Quarter Review

New Englanders take to losing about as well as fish take to land: beyond your occasional mudskipper or lungfish, it does not tend to work out well. After two losses in a row, you’d think the Patriots had fallen out of playoff contention.

In our Second-Quarter Review, we predicted 3-1 at the worst, noting that the Broncos looked like the toughest opponent in that four-game slate. Denver proved it, despite some late-regulation heroics by Hall-of-Fame shoo-in Tom Brady and potential HOF kicker Stephen Gostkowski to bring the game to overtime. Execution by the home team brought the Patriots their first loss of the year. After a humbling loss to the once 4-7 Eagles featuring more screw-ups than a warehouse full of ceiling lights, New England went 2-2 for the quarter and sit at 10-2 on the year.

The Patriots began this four-game slate with a near-nauseating 27-26 triumph over the Giants, a thriller so taut it could have made Dennis Lehane faint. Gostkowski nailed a 54-yarder with one second left. (Highlight here.) Just a tense, frustrating, memorable game to watch.

Dwelling on that frustrating note, New England scored just 20 points vs. Buffalo, their lowest output of the season, but the visitors couldn’t muster enough to overcome a stout defense in the Patriots’ 20-13 win November 23. In their first full game without Julian Edelman, Brady looked to Danny Amendola, who delivered nine catches for 117 yards. But no one else stepped up. Foreboding, one could say.

As far as the loss to the Eagles? I mean, really: if you were going to concoct an upset, you’d go by the book written last Sunday, with special teams snafus, questionable coaching choices, silly penalties, and more ball drops than a slippery Christmas tree. And yet… the Patriots scored 14 in the fourth and made it exciting. Maybe this was their Kansas City game from last year. I mean, they can’t lose another game in quite that way, can they? Right?

According to boston.com columnist Chad Finn and any reasonable interpretation of history, no, they can’t.

Anyway, on to the notes…

Gillette: The Best A Team Can Get. The Eagles came into Foxboro looking lost, having given up 90 points in two weeks. Well, beating the defending champs can cure whatever ails a team. Now they’re a contender in the adorably inept NFC East. There’s the lesson for the Patriots and their fans: opposing coaches and players can save a season with a win vs. New England. Those calling for Chip Kelly’s firing as late as Sunday afternoon probably switched topics to how he out-coached Bill Belichick. We hear the expression, “you have to overlook this team’s record,” and we have to apply it to every club that gets a chance to knock off the defending champs.

Is Pass-Dropping Contagious? Because They’ve Caught That: The Patriots allowed Brady’s final three passes to slip through their hands against Philly, taking away any chance at an improbable comeback. Watching the Pats pass-catchers (maybe not the best name for them) has felt like watching Timmy Lupus in left field: you hope for the best, but expect the worst. Even Amendola succumbed to the trend Sunday, dropping two passes. It’s one thing to miss Edelman and Gronk. It’s another when backups can’t make much of their opportunities.

YACkety-YAC: With injuries to Dion Lewis (out since Nov. 8, yet still ranks fourth on the team in receptions), Edelman (out since Nov. 15, yet still leads the team in receptions), and Amendola (back just this week), the Patriots have missed their coveted Yards After Catch, where a five-yard pass to the flat becomes a first-down pickup. The team looked to add to their yardage with the signings of slot receiver Damaris Johnson and running back Trey Williams. (We actually mentioned Williams as a potential late-round pick on our mid-April Patriots mock draft.) Johnson displayed some nifty speed on an end-around play, and – given the difficulties receiver Keshawn Martin has had taking on a greater workload – we could see more of him in the next few weeks.

Speaking of difficulties…

Ship Chandler. Ship Him Far Away: Now, that’s not fair. Tight end Scott Chandler is a big target who, when paired with Rob Gronkowski, provides a viable red zone threat. Without Gronk? Well, that’s the issue. He’s a gigantic ‘tweener, really, as a tight end who doesn’t block all that well and a receiver who drops a pass or two every game. Despite measuring 6-7, 260 pounds, Chandler doesn’t create space for himself as well as one would think, and he often gets out-fought for footballs vs. smaller defenders. He’s a solid complement; he’s just not the guy.

What’s My Line? These days, Brady seems to get knocked down more than that guy in the Chumbawumba song. The same QB lauded for getting rid of the ball faster than any other in the first half of the season now has to wait an extra half-second for receivers to get open. Call it the Edelman effect, and put some blame at the feet (the heavy, slow-to-react feet) of the offensive line. New England needs to figure out their best O-line combination and make it work. Anyone else thinking of putting undefeated rookie David Andrews back at center and trying Bryan Stork at guard, where rookies Tré Jackson and Shaq Mason have had some trouble? That seems like it would work, but the best blocks I ever threw had brightly colored letters on them, so what the hell do I know?

Okay, okay. So who hasn’t been disappointing?

Going In The White Direction: Notice how running back James White a) catches the ball when it’s thrown to him, and b) runs with said ball for the aforementioned YAC? (Here he is scoring a TD vs. the Bills after doing something called “breaking a tackle,” which hasn’t happened around these parts in a while.) White’s 10 catches for 115 yards and a touchdown this past Sunday show how important he has become to the offense, as he only had 12 receptions for 95 yards and one TD in the previous nine games where he was active. With the way receivers with names that don’t rhyme with “Ham-and-cola” have been playing, look for White to get his hands on plenty more throws.

No Ifs, Ands, Or Butler: The Pats came into the season with a built-in excuse for failing to live up to expectations when they let go of most of their defensive backfield. Iconic Super Bowl photo subject and free drink recipient-for-life Malcolm Butler has had a number of strong performances this year, while Logan Ryan has provided some pleasant surprises along the way. The defensive backfield has fallen short of great, but they’ve made some solid plays. They also could get Justin Coleman back onto the active roster soon, although according to this recent piece on Mike Reiss’ Patriots blog, there’s no timetable yet.

Don’t’a’s Circles Of Hell: Imagine trying to stop the run without your best run-stopping linebacker. Such is the deal with Don’t’a Hightower missing from the lineup. Rich Hill of Pats Pulpit called attention to a Kevin Duffy (of MassLive) tweet that said, at Denver, New England gave up less than three yards per carry with Hightower on the field and eight per carry once he got hurt. Math never served as my strong point, but even I can see the significant difference there. With Hightower out and with linebacker Jamie Collins still recovering from a mutant zombie virus (note: possible misdiagnosis there), James Freeney has had to step up.

And when Freeney steps up, he gets blocked.

Point Of No Return: There comes a point when the term “next man up” just runs out of gas, and the Pats may have reached it. One example of how one player’s absence affects a team has shown up in New England’s kick returns, where Keshawn Martin averaged 17 yards in his four runbacks. Taking a knee in the end zone each time meant three more yards for the team. Martin had the job in part because Amendola, who’s averaging 21.5 yards, has to focus more on his receiving duties with Edelman out.

The answer? Maybe newly-signed running back Williams could help out as a kick returner, as he averaged over 24 yards per return at Texas A&M.

You’re Wondering Now, What To Do: Ah, the Specials, for this week’s misnamed special teams. Should we go into detail about this past Sunday’s blocked punt, or punt return, or pooch kick, or the previous Sunday’s muffed punt in Denver? No? Okay, then. Let’s wrap this thing up.

Fourth Quarter Preview

New England travels to Houston to take on the Texans next Sunday night, then host the Titans in their last home game of the season December 20 at 1 p.m. (Oh, how we love 1 p.m. games.) They wrap up with two AFC East trips, at the Jets Dec. 27 and at the Dolphins Jan. 3. Besides the Tennessee game (which, I mean, they have to win, right?), the three remaining tilts fall under the “best effort against the best” category. Games New England should win, but you never know.

No coaching staff understands the Patriots better than Houston’s between their head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, offensive coordinator George Godsey, linebacker coach Mike Vrabel. Ridiculous amount of knowledge there. They are also playing at home (where New England has never played all that well) with first-place AFC South standings at stake. The Pats should win this one, but there looks like a lot of potential for ugly to happen.

As far as ending the season within the division at New York and at Miami, we’re looking at two more tough games, with the Jets looking especially spry lately. Again, if the Patriots play well, they’ve got a clear shot at 4-0. Any mishaps like the past couple of weeks, though, and any of games against non-Nashville-based squads could go the wrong way.

In the end, we’re looking at a double-digit win team who should a) make the playoffs, b) win the division, and c) open with a home playoff game. That’s the worst-case scenario. Best case? They win out, get a first-round bye, welcome Edelman and Gronk back (along with Hightower and Coleman) and field the most complete team they’ve seen in months.

Patriots 2015 Second-Quarter Review

In our First Quarter Review, we figured New England would have some trouble with the Jets, but should take care of their other three opponents without much drama.

The Patriots outlasted the over-thinking Colts in Indianapolis, 34-27. Then they hung tough against the aforementioned Jets, 30-23, in a game that had more drops than a bottle of Visine. They cut the Dolphins’ win streak at two with a decisive 36-7 outcome. Despite their latest victory – a 27-10 handling of the Washington Powhatans – the Patriots may feel as though the let one into the loss column after Dion Lewis’ season-ending knee injury and Sebastian Vollmer’s apparent concussion.

So, I guess we buried the lede: your New England Patriots are 8-0. Back in the last century, some Pats fans began the season hoping the team stayed above .500. They haven’t had a losing year since Bill Belichick’s (and Tom Brady’s) first in 2000. Back then, you could call your friends on a pay phone to see if they wanted to go see Almost Famous, and you’d commiserate on how you couldn’t get that damn “Thong Song” by Sisqo out of your head.

It was a long time ago, is what we’re saying. If you’re not enjoying each and every game, you’re missing out on some fun stuff.

In any case, some thoughts on the previous four… [Read more…]

Yoiks, And Away!

With the Patriots off to a 7-0 start, the media strategy this year seems to involve talking up that week’s opponent (at least one that looks more than half-decent on paper), point out their strengths, and speculate on how they can beat New England. The more exuberant the prediction, the funnier it gets.

Much like Daffy Duck as Robin Hood, the prognosticators keep calling, “Yoiks, and away!” and ending up with a tree trunk in the face.

The Patriots open their season against Pittsburgh, a perennial contender featuring that gritty defense and Big Ben!

Yup. Pats give up a late touchdown, but hold on for a 28-21 win.

Well, Rex Ryan has the fans in a frenzy up in Buffalo as he works on building a bully. Tom Brady has always had trouble with Ryan’s defenses. With the Bills adding running back LeSean McCoy –

Patriots win 40-32 in a game they lead 37-13 after three quarters.

Really? Forty points? Hunh. So, anyway, the, uh, Jaguars are looking solid with Blake Bortles …

Come on.

All right, fine. Give it to me.

51-17, Pats.

Yeesh. Okay, the Cowboys, in Dallas. They’ve got pass-rusher/rage-aholic Greg Hardy back, and with Tony Romo under center –

Brandon Weeden.

Beg your pardon?

Romo’s hurt. Weeden starts vs. the Pats, and that helps New England to a 30-6 win.

Yes, but, here come the Colts! Looking for vengeance for their AFC Championship setback, Indianapolis, led by Andrew Luck, will do whatever it takes to deal the Patriots their first defeat.

Colts lose, 34-27, but they do try whatever it takes, including one of the most poorly conceived fake punts ever.

Oh, wow. Look at that. Why did they snap the – you know what? Let’s move on. We’re in a New York state of mind, as the J-E-T-S will challenge the Pats for dominance in the AFC East!

They will challenge. And they will lose, 30-23. Brady will throw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns and lead the team in rushing.

Well, he – sorry, say that last part again?

New England hands off the ball five times all game. Brady, despite double-digit drops by his receivers, completes 34 of 54 passes for 355 yards.

That is impressive. But, hold on, the Dolphins, though! Most-heralded defensive line in football! Undefeated under interim coach Dan Campbell! Two straight blowout wins!

All true. Pats 36, Dolphins 7.

Oof. Did not see that coming. Ah, but this week: the Redskins! Kirk Cousins in on fire!

Yeah. He sure is. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

Despite the doggedly incorrect predictions, it’s a constant of the NFL that any team could knock New England into the loss column. Just look at the schedule. After Cousins and his well-rested arm visit Foxboro, Eli Manning could have another savant moment and put his Giants over the top. Trips to Denver (Nov. 29), New York (Dec. 27), and Miami (Jan. 3) are never easy. Hell, maybe the Eagles can pull it off Dec. 6. You never know.

We’ve heard some talk about fans wanting to avoid an undefeated regular season. After how the last one ended, that makes sense, but the thing is, this season isn’t like 2007. We’ve been there, and as Bruce Allen so eloquently put it in February 2008, that was The Most Miserable 18-1 Season in History. Part of that frustration stemmed from NFL fallout with the previous ‘gate, but most of it arose out of their loss in the 2006 AFC Championship and the desperate desire to get another chance.

Now, to this year. New England won the Super Bowl (their fourth) in thrilling, exhaustive fashion. While last winter’s playoff foes have stumbled early this year, your Patriots have come storming back in late-season form. They will try to win every single week. To think that they lessen their chances of advancing in the playoffs due to regular-season success doesn’t give the players or staff much credit. Certainly not as much as they deserve.

This all reminds me of what my father said on a bitter, windy March night at our kitchen table after we had watched Larry Bird score 60 points for our beloved Celtics. “We should appreciate what we have here,” he said, speaking of the man and his team. “This doesn’t happen very often.”

In Pete Carroll’s last year in Foxboro, New England went 8-8. In 2000, new coach Bill Belichick went 5-11. Since 2001, the Patriots have won. They have been to six Super Bowls. They have been to nine AFC Championships. They have had only one season with fewer than 10 wins (9-7 in 2002). Let’s appreciate what we have, here. Sit back and watch the show.

A Comment On Each AFC East Opponent

The Jets could contend, but they’ve had a bad couple of weeks. New York built their defense on a stout, impressive line while bringing back a strong DB tandem. Their loss to the Raiders this week demonstrated that New England, to some extent, exposed them. If you can pass with consistency, you can move the ball. New York also seemed to lose their one QB who did not consistently crush their dreams when Ryan Fitzpatrick left the game with a thumb injury and got replaced by Geno “Jekyll/Hyde” Smith.

On a positive note for them, the Jets got a coach who focuses on game-plan details rather than trash talk and bluster. Now at 4-3, they have games with the Jags, Bills, and Texans coming up, which could get them back on the winning track.

The Dolphins need to figure out how good they are. Miami began 1-3, but a coaching change and an AFC South doubleheader appeared to cure all of their ills. They traveled to Foxboro feeling strong at .500 and got a long look at a football team in contention. Ryan Tannehill’s TD drive to open the second half demonstrated why South Beach fans hold out hope: it was consistent and at times spectacular, though Tannehill has shown too little of each. Miami could contend for a playoff spot, but they’ve got to get past their 3-4 record, their 0-3 division record, and the loss of their best pass-rusher (Cameron Wake, out with an achilles injury.)

Can they find stability? Next week’s divisional tilt up in Buffalo will tell us a lot.

The Bills are indeed “building a bully.” Funny how new Bills coach (and former Jets coach) Rex Ryan said this on his preseason victory tour of Buffalo. Yes, a bully pushes people around. He picks on smaller, weaker targets. But doesn’t he always back down when confronted by a peer? Now at 3-4, interesting to see if the Bills can reevaluate themselves and focus on winning actual games rather than mid-week press conferences. They lost to the Jaguars in England (where they pronounce it JAG-ooh-AHS) but have had a bye week to prep for their biggest five days of the season: Dolphins Sunday, November 8, Jets Thursday, November 12.

Anyway, the Patriots are on to Washington. We’ll give them a mid-season report next week.

Chris Warner has a Twitter account and uses it more frequently than he should: @cwarn89

Patriots 2015 First-Quarter Review

With one-fourth of the season in their rearview, the Patriots have cruised along with four wins and zero losses.

It really didn’t have to be like this. They could have had a drop-off from last year, an exhausting odyssey through NFL competition both on-field and off. Letting go of most of their defensive backfield while laying off draft picks of need could have been seen as signs of, hey, let’s feel satisfied with a fourth Lombardi Trophy. Let’s rebuild. But, nope.

Instead, while playoff foes Baltimore (1-4) and Seattle (2-3) strive for .500 football, and the Colts fight to stay above that line, the Patriots cruise along at 4-0.

New England opened up at home with a 28-21 takedown of a gritty Steelers team. They then traveled up to Buffalo – this year’s Rex Ryan entry into the Patriots’ annual King of the Mountain contest – and settled for a 40-32 victory where they took off most of the fourth quarter. They played rude hosts to the Jaguars (51-17) and toppled the Cowboys 30-6. The most important aspect of these wins involved the overall learning experience.

Pretty Sneaky, Sis: In the future, New England should have Tom Brady sneak the ball on fourth and short. It remains their best option. We saw too many instances where LeGarrette Blount runs (vs. Dallas) or Brady bombs (vs. Buffalo) failed to convert. The thing is, now they know, and they didn’t have to lose a game to learn a lesson.

Lippy The Lineman, Hardy Har-Har: (and if you get this reference, I’m impressed.) Defensive lineman/tone-deaf hump Greg Hardy, who suffers from elephantiasis of the ego, did New England a favor by playing as well as advertised and exposing weaknesses along the line. Left tackle Nate Solder did little to prevent Hardy from harassing Brady, but any complaints that may have come up about him this week are lost due to his placement on IR. Now, there’s renewed appreciation of how much this team needs him anchoring that spot. His replacement Marcus Cannon failed to fare any better.

Hey, it’s adjustment time. It’s not like they can go out and buy a top-tier left tackle this week. Instead, they’ll set up their linemen for success, helping out up front when necessary and having Brady get rid of the ball like it’s a flaming bag of Hardy. Definitely adds to their degree of difficulty, though.

At Their Beck And Collins: Sure, I thought Jamie Collins could help this team when the Pats drafted him. A quick review of his combine numbers reveals a 4.64 40-yard dash, a 41.5-inch vertical leap, and an 11-foot, 7-inch broad jump. (For comparison, stand with your feet together and jump. Now look forward several feet to where 11-7 is. Laugh.) But this guy can do anything, just about anywhere on the field. In four games, he has 32 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and three forced fumbles. After two full seasons, he’s gone from a commendable athlete to a leader, and that I did not see that coming.

To Aaron Is Human: So… What’s up with Aaron Dobson, do you think? Seems like he’s run out of excuses. He’s not hurt. He’s not a rookie. There’s no other receiver on the roster with his body type, so it’s not like he should be sharing reps. Back in August 2011, we discussed Chad Ochocinco and the JG Scale, which came down to this: receivers (and I meant free agents, but it counts with rookies, too) either pick up the offense quickly (Jabar Gaffney) or not at all (Joey Galloway).

A seventh-round pick named Julian Edelman can start Game One of his rookie season and contribute. Chad Jackson, a second-round pick, can struggle with the offense and catch 13 passes for his two-year Pats career. The fact that Keshawn Martin can come over from Houston and nab five passes in two games after catching six all year for the Texans does not bode well for Dobson. Brady likes Martin. Interesting to see what will happen there. We’re rooting for him, but it doesn’t look good.

Onto a more optimistic outlook.

Feeling Good, Lewis: Know whom else Brady likes? This Dion Lewis fella. He can start-stop like a squirrel on a tree, or duck and dive like an otter on an ice floe. We had some hope for him this summer, but he has delivered far more than expected. He’s got a high school sophomore build at 5-8, 195 pounds, and has taken on the bulk of the halfback workload, with 36 carries for 180 yards (5.0 avg) and 23 receptions for 238 yards. And he got cut by Cleveland and the Colts, for Heaven’s sake.

I know fans of other teams must get tired of hearing about guys who start their careers elsewhere and end up reaching another level in Foxboro (The Mike Vrabel Rule? The Wes Welker Corollary?), but Lewis has staked his place atop the list for 2015.

Hoo, Man, That Was Rough: Very sorry to see Michael Hoomanawanui get traded, but it’s understandable given the current roster makeup. Between Rob Gronkowski, Scott Chandler, and Michael Williams, the Pats boast over 800 pounds of tight end. Plenty of blocking to be had here, and enough receiving to make even a solid fan favorite like Hoo-man seem expendable. In four games, Gronkowski has 20 grabs for 375 yards (18.8 avg) and four touchdowns. Looking forward to watching the non-Gronks get more involved with the offense and the downfield rumbling that could ensue.

I did not make this up: there’s now a twitter hashtag and urban dictionary definition for “RiGronkulous.” We live in a wonderful era.

Lots Of Hicks In Indy: In exchange for Hoomanawanui, New England brought in defensive lineman Akiem Hicks, adding to the team’s list of DL’s who have disappointed other teams (Alan Branch also resides on that list). At roughly the size of a bank vault at 6-5, 324 pounds, Hicks won’t run down backs or get to the QB that often, but – even though he didn’t register a tackle – he contributed in Dallas by clogging lanes and freeing up linebackers to make plays. If he gets on board like Branch seems to have done, this could become a positive trade for the Patriots.

Sheard And Sheard Alike: Look how far we’ve gotten in this column without even talking about Jabaal Sheard. Four sacks in four games? Sure. Stout against the run? We’ll take it. Potentially giving Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich occasional breathers? Why not? Sheard seems to have lived up to expectations in Foxboro and could provide more help given greater playing time.

Another Cleveland castaway. Weird.

Ghost Is The Machine: I’ve used this pun before. Like the album after it’s named, it still holds up, because Stephen Gostkowski continues to make kicks. This past Sunday he set a personal record with a 57-yarder in Dallas.

Seems simple enough. Trot onto the field, mark off some steps, give your holder a nod, and boot away. Yeah. Went to the Patriots Hall of Fame museum a few years ago and tried a kick. Almost pulled my hamstring while sending the ball knee-high into the wall. Bad look. In a year where kickers seem to have the accuracy

Two Questions About The League

One: What the hell is up with Houston? You’d figure a defense with J. J. Watt, JaDeveon Clowney, and Vince Wilfork would be able to get something done. Watt has four sacks in five games, a mere mortal number, while Clowney has zero. I mean, it makes sense that the offense isn’t exactly Air Coryell, but for them to sit at 1-4 with a loss to the Colts filled with about as much enthusiasm as a pediatric dentist’s waiting room? Did not expect that.

At this point, anybody agreeing to appear on “Hard Knocks” must not be paying attention.

Two: How long will it take for the NFL to outlaw pick plays? New England showcased the effectiveness of so-called “rub” or “pick” plays in the second half at Dallas, with a Danny Amendola screen freeing up Edelman for a long TD. (CSNNE.com’s Phil Perry does a nice job describing the play here.) All of a sudden it seems like New England is getting credit (or, as usual blame) for conceiving this play. It works, and it frustrates defenses, and officials aren’t always sure how to call it, so look for the NFL to take a hard look at it soon. But don’t forget that other teams do it, and have done it for years.

Case in point: Denver’s Wes Welker taking out New England’s Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship two seasons ago (clip here). Welker never even looked for the ball. No call, and it’s not even close.

Second Quarter Preview

At the Colts Sunday night, hosting the Jets the following Sunday afternoon, the Dolphins on Thursday (10/29), then hosting the Nacotchtanks (see, Dan Snyder? Not that hard).

The Colts, Dolphins, and Redskins have six wins between them, with the Indyhorsies riding high at 3-2. All three wins have come against the AFC South, which is a bit like reigning as thumb-wrestling champion in a league of six-year-olds. Just adorable.

The Jets game looks like the toughest, with a focused 3-1 squad coached by a guy who manages to stay under the radar. The Patriots could go 3-1 over the second quarter, but barring any major setbacks, 4-0 looks more likely.

Seriously, predicting games for New England feels like working as a weatherman in San Diego. Occasional storms, but sunny skies most of the way.

Chris Warner can be tweeted: @cwarn89 

The Unstoppable NFL

Like a TV zombie that takes multiple hits to the body, the National Football League continues to survive, and thrive. The September 20 Sunday Night Football game between Seattle and Green Bay led all programs that week with over 26 million viewers. According to Variety.com, “This was the largest audience for a Week 2 NFL primetime game in 24 years (since Dallas-Washington on ABC’s ‘Monday Night Football’ in 1991).”

We could have seen this coming. The Hall of Fame game on August 10, the NFL’s preseason opener between the Steelers and Vikings that featured neither Ben Roethlisberger nor Adrian Peterson, had a 6.9 rating, (according to CBS Sports) better than Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals and both the American League Championship and National League Championship openers.

This all seems incredible based on how the NFL has presented itself as a tone-deaf botch-fest this year. We have witnessed many events that would weaken most corporations. Yet pro football keeps gobbling up brains.

So what, if anything, could possibly derail the NFL’s popularity? We asked a number of journalists their thoughts on the topic and categorized their answers.

NOTHING

Most seem to have joined this camp (well, less “joined” than “acquiesced to”). Even those who posited potential problems with the league included disclaimers. Nothing, it seems, shall damage the allure of the shield.

BSMW head Bruce Allen laid out the bullet points: “Well, what hasn’t derailed the NFL’s popularity? An active player arrested and convicted for murder. Numerous drug arrests and suspensions. Concussion and brain damage studies. Numerous domestic violence incidents. An inept boob of a commissioner who has been proven a liar on more than one occasion. Made up scandals (Bountygate and Deflategate) which the WWE wouldn’t even attempt…

If those things haven’t – I don’t know what will.”

Tanya Ray Fox, writer for SportsGrid, had a similar outlook, including a few specifics and a New England perspective.

“Let me put it this way,” Fox said. “In a league where a superstar QB has been substantially accused of rape, a superstar RB was videotaped beating his wife, a Hall of Fame LB was arrested for rape, a former TE is in jail for murder, a former DB and NFL Network employee is in jail for serial rape, and Pacman Jones is still playing (Note: a rundown of Jones’ arrests here), you know who the fans hate the most? Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, who they believe have been in six of the last fourteen Super Bowls because they cheat.

“Think about that. Fans still watch loyally, despite the fact that they think the most successful team in the NFL are cheaters and the rest of the teams that they hate far less are peppered with violent criminals. If that’s not enough to take away even a fraction of the fan base, I don’t know what is.”

Dan Duggan, NJ.com Rutgers football beat writer, agreed. “I really don’t think anything (can derail it), at least in the short-term. We all get outraged about the off-field issues, and then we dedicate all day Sunday, Thursday night and Monday night to watching the NFL.”

Duggan did hint at a possible pitfall. “Maybe there will be an effect down the road as parents shy away from allowing their kids to play football due to concerns about concussions. But I can’t see the popularity of the NFL diminishing any time soon.”

CONCUSSIONS

The greatest trouble for the NFL lurks within this issue. Just a few years ago, we would hear about a player from a past era dealing with what was then an alleged – and seemingly rare – brain injury. Now, in real time, we’re witnessing the decline of recent retirees whom we followed into the new millennium; meanwhile, young players have decided to hang up their cleats early. The most recent report from the Department of Veteran Affairs and Boston University study on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) puts the rate at 96 percent of NFL football players tested.

The study comes with caveats, of course. The brains that have been tested came from players who showed symptoms and/or had concerns. Still, we could see these occurrences increase. We have to ask: will more and more of our favorite players live out their post-NFL lives in constant physical and mental pain? That’s tough to consider, and even harder for the league to spin.

“The only thing that could remotely threaten the league’s popularity is the concussion issue, and even that is probably not enough to stop it.” said Mike Giardi of CSNNE.com. “I think it’s pretty clear that we’re just scratching the surface on the staggering amount of brain injuries players have suffered in the past, and I wonder if eventually we get to the point where players are forced to sign waivers, absolving the league of any legal responsibilities and the financial burden that can come with it.

“That’s obviously a slippery slope, but unless there are some dramatic rule changes – say no helmets – then this will continue to be an ongoing issue. But by and large, I think the average fan doesn’t care. They want points, they want big hits and they enjoy the potential that you can rebuild your team from year to year if needed.”

Mark Daniels, football writer for The Providence Journal, said, “I think it would come down to the concussion issue. I still think we’re a long ways away from that, but it would have to get to a point where parents didn’t want their children playing because they were fearful of head injuries. If people stopped playing, then you might see a diminished product on the field. But so many people love this sport and it’s so popular, I don’t know if I see that happening in my lifetime.”

Mike Reiss, ESPN Boston writer, and Shalise Manza Young, writer for Yahoo! Shutdown Corner, saw both the concussion problem and a leadership problem plaguing the league in the future.

Reiss said, “Head trauma and concussions remain issues worthy of further exploration. As we learn more about it, perhaps there is a possibility that the game becomes more challenging for the general public to support. Admittedly, that seems like a reach right now.”

“You know, at this point I’m not sure if anything could (derail the NFL’s popularity).” Young said, adding, “Parents are rightfully concerned about their own kids playing, but that doesn’t mean they won’t watch someone else’s kids play. Maybe if we start seeing an increase in former players committing suicide (i.e., more Junior Seaus), that could affect it.”

The concussion/CTE issue puts the NFL in a tough spot. They have to admit their product can cause irreparable damage to its employees, yet the scheduling of Thursday night games reveals players’ health remains a minor concern. If former Patriot guard Stephen Neal can allude to NFL games as “car crashes every week” and few people bat an eye, it will take more time – and more exposure of damaging effects – for health issues to make a difference in fans’ minds.

While most respondents considered the long-term, chronic effects of playing football, Christopher Price of WEEI.com brought up another, more immediate danger. What if, he asked, a player died because of an on-field injury?

“I think that would cause the rest of the world to take a hard look at player safety and and the level of violence associated with the game. You’d likely get Congress involved, and there would be hearings, which would (inevitably) lead to other revelations, most of which would probably come down to money. I think the fallout from something like that would be incredibly severe, and making a sizable impact on how the game is viewed and played going forward.”

In 2005, Al Lucas of the Arena Football League’s Los Angeles Avengers died of blunt force trauma to the spinal cord. A write-up of the incident from 2013 can be seen here on Grantland. A high school player from New Jersey died last Friday night, cause as yet unknown.

These deaths happen rarely enough that they can be viewed as aberrations, but if an NFL player were to get killed in front of tens of thousands of spectators and millions of TV-watching fans, how would the league handle that? Is leadership prepared for this?

Which brings us to another potential issue…

LEADERSHIP

In talking about the leaders of the NFL, I am reminded of a slogan from 30 years ago: Certs have Retsyn.

Sounds like an Eastern European language? Let me explain: the Certs breath mint company created an additive (basically cottonseed oil, sugar and flavor) specifically so they could mention it and set themselves apart from competitors (as does this vintage commercial).

“The NFL has integrity.” Right? They use words like “integrity” and “shield” as if they mean anything, as if they give the NFL something that other professional leagues can only long for but never attain.

We’re talking about a league with a commissioner that has – on the record – mischaracterized the testimony of two different players. Roger Goodell said Ray Rice lied to him; a judge disagreed. Goodell said Tom Brady did not mention speaking of the football scandal with his equipment manager. Brady’s appeal transcript showed that was not true.

“And maybe,” Young said, “if Goodell keeps making such stupid decisions, that could affect interest.”

Maybe. It seems probable the commissioner will make more mistakes; therefore, it must be possible he makes one or two big enough to actually make an impact. But how big do those gaffes have to get?

COMPETITION

We know they’ve busied themselves with keeping the shield clean, but have the heads of the NFL stayed in touch with fans’ interests? As Reiss said, “Any time you are No. 1, there is always the possibility of resting on one’s laurels and not pushing harder to continue to improve and be proactive against competitive threats. Resisting against that is critical.”

This topic provides fascinating hypotheticals. What could possibly draw viewers away from the NFL?

We look past baseball, basketball, and hockey because, frankly, they’ve had their chances. Soccer? Too many teams, too many leagues, too many countries. And too floppy for the taste of many.

Maybe we’ll see a non-traditional sport like “American Ninja Warrior” grow, where we root for the contestants (rife with human interest stories) and root against the obstacle course. At some point, there could be a kind of live-action single-shooter video game, a choose-your-own adventure where viewers would text an actual human being where to go in a game of laser tag.

Mixed martial arts has gotten popular. But then we go back to the health/concussion issue.

I dunno. Is dodgeball still viable?

Well. Maybe something can take viewers away from football, but hell if I can predict it.

GAMBLING

If you watch television for more than two minutes on a Sunday afternoon, you will see an ad for a fantasy sports website. On these sites, visitors pay money to participate in a fantasy league. According to DraftKings.com, “Daily fantasy sports is a skill game and is not considered gambling.”

Hey, remember when Pete Rose gambled and got banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame for life? Bet he wishes he’d had the Internet.

This angle seemed to intrigue Matt Chatham, founder of footballbyfootball.com, writer for Fox Sports “Game of the Week” breakdown, analyst for NESN and ESPN, and volunteer Super Bowl 38 security guard. Chatham sees the NFL’s potential downfall in the money that exchanges hands outside of NFL arenas.

“Reversal of some law regarding fantasy sports and some government overreaching would be the biggest potential blow,” he said. “Stripping away a huge new part of the audience that likely otherwise wouldn’t watch. TV revenue projections and ad values are based (I believe) on the assumption that that audience will be there and continue to grow. If for some reason it was gone overnight and there were a competing product that could accept that audience, that’s probably the most plausible scenario.

“But I don’t think that’s happening. Very unlikely. The wagering (legal, fantasy and otherwise), the league, and the communities that have these teams are symbiotic at this point. They both need each other. There would be holy hell to pay if it was ever disrupted, for politicians, whatever. So in the absence of choice, everything will be done to maintain the status quo.”

Young said the NFL could also get hurt “if some major scandal like finding out games are fixed is uncovered. But really, at this point I don’t think anything could have a major impact on numbers and interest, and fantasy plays a huge role in that.”

OFFICIATING

Related to Young’s point, let’s look at officials not for what they do or how well they do it, but for their role in upholding the (dare I say it) integrity of the game.

As Price said, “If there was some sort of overarching scandal involving officiating and/or gambling regarding major games, like the conference championship and/or the Super Bowl. I’m not just talking about Donaghy-esque style issues with regular season contests between the Bucs and Jags. If there were marquee games that were found to be not on the level, the fallout would be massive. The ripple of suggestion that games might not be on the level would in turn create sizable waves throughout the sports world – namely distrust among the NFL’s fanbase.”

Fans don’t trust the NFL front office or its players. They do trust the game itself and the effort put into each one. Taking those elements away could deal the biggest blow of all.

Concussions/Injuries, Leadership, Competition, Gambling, Officiating. All possible traps for the NFL. But, for now at least, it looks like they shield is safe.

Chris Warner has email (chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com) and tweets: @cwarn89

Patriots Preseason Thoughts Heading Into Game Three

Some thoughts on the local footballers as we prep for the third game of the 2015 preseason – often referred to as the “full scrimmage” of the four-game summer slate. So far, the Patriots have lost to Green Bay and beaten New Orleans, all of which means next to nothing. In terms of individual performances and positions, though, their upcoming scrimmage at Carolina could provide some answers.

Speaking of which…

No Wright Answer: When New England waived tight end Tim Wright in June, a few local pundits scratched their heads. (We agreed with ESPN.com’s Mike Reiss calling it “a mildly surprising move.”) Wright had solid, if unspectacular, production for the Patriots last year with 26 receptions, making his mark in the red zone with six touchdowns. It seems that the higher-ups at Foxboro figured they could do better. Of course, when you’re starting out with over 13 feet and a  quarter ton of tight end between Scott Chandler and Rob Gronkowski, maybe there’s some leeway for the “move” TE.

We certainly liked the potential of rookie A. J. Derby (you can read our draft review here), but with him on injured reserve, the outlook becomes less shiny. The team traded for Asante Cleveland, who got tossed around vs. the Saints like a stuffed animal at a play date. The Pats used him mostly as a blocker, but after watching that game, I wondered if Cleveland could block a one-man play about FDR.

Could they consider Jimmay Mundine? Maybe. He’s smaller (actually listed as a fullback on NFLDraftscout.com) and quicker than Cleveland. He also had experience in Kansas under former Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Plus, it’s always fun to say Jimmmaaaaaaayy. Or, they could eschew the “move” TE role and look for a bigger receiver instead. Still curious as to why they let Wright go so early.

Dealing With A Sense Of Shane-lessness: Last year, Shane Vereen caught 52 passes for 447 yards and three touchdowns. While no one running back might replace those numbers, the Pats did well to draft James White, who has looked the part in two preseason tilts with five reception for 72 yards. Dion Lewis got into the act last Saturday, catching five balls for 36 yards and one rushing TD. Veteran Travaris Cadet has gotten back on the field and may have a chance to show what the team’s been missing for the past few weeks. Though seemingly not as efficient a blocker as the other two, Cadet has gotten positive reviews for his receiving skills.

In any case, it seems that letting Vereen go to the Giants (where he will absolutely thrive, by the way) won’t hurt the Patriots all that much. At least until he lights them up in the Super Bowl. God damnit.

Boyce Will Be Boyce: Oh, poor Josh Boyce. So athletic. Such a standout practice player. Just can’t seem to get it together on the field. With myriad injuries to New England’s receiver crew, Boyce had a chance to take over this summer and rule the preseason. Instead, the past two games have showcased names like Chris Harper (12 receptions, 117 yards) and Jonathan Krause (nine for 75). Brandon Gibson looked sharp (12 for 97), but his season-ending knee injury – plus the fact that Brian Tyms got put on IR – would seem to open up Boyce to even greater opportunities as a fourth or fifth receiver.

Except for one thing…

Blame It On The Wayne: Now, the Pats have brought in Reggie Wayne, for more than just swapping age-appropriate stories with Tom Brady, we assume. Friday night could provide a window into New England’s intentions for Wayne, be they as a short-yardage pass-catcher, third-down conversion specialist, red zone target, or all of the above. Fun to find out how much Wayne has left in the ol’ Batmobile.

Yeah. Boyce. Maybe they’re saving him for something, but if I were his friend, I’d keep him away from any Magic 8-Balls: “Outlook Not So Good.”

Interior Motives: The preseason starting offensive line, which – if there is a God and He is just – will NOT make up the starting front in September, has provided some ups and downs for the offense. Undrafted rookie David Andrews has spent many snaps at center in Bryan Stork’s absence, showing solid potential if not current readiness. The rookie guard set of Shaq Mason and Tré Jackson has provided some spotty support with more room for improvement than an abandoned warehouse. Veteran Ryan Wendell reportedly got back on the practice field Tuesday, which should provide some much-needed stability.

In any case, interesting to see what Bill Belichick goes with for his starting line on Friday night.

Uncon-Vinced: Oh, Vince Wilfork. We miss you every time you show up on “Hard Knocks.” Talking your talk, dispensing advice, always seeming to have a good time. After watching Vince, by comparison, J. J. Watt seems like a total stiff. While Wilfork emits sincerity and couldn’t care less about having the cameras around (filing rough patches on his feet, squishing his shoes so that sweat bubbles up out of the tongues), Watt seems super conscious of people seeing and hearing him. (Drew Magary touched on this in his “Why Your Team Sucks,” 2015 Houston edition.)

Anyway, New England went with youth, so watch the kiddoes on their D-line. Dominique Easley and Malcom Brown both come up several cookouts shy of Wilfork’s weight (at 285, Easley’s missing about half a cow), but each has shown some strengths so far this preseason. After suffering a knee injury last year, Easley appears to have gotten back some of his trademark quickness, while Brown has demonstrated occasional field savvy that has helped him break up plays. See if they can show improvement on Friday.

I Was Ryan When I Met You, Now I’m Tryin’ To Forget You: You know, Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner signed elsewhere this off-season.

Hey, who’s dead horse is this? And why are we hitting it with axe handles?

We won’t spend too much time on this (maybe we’re already past “too much”), but beyond Malcolm “Go” Butler, the tryouts for starting defensive backs have seemed a bit hit or miss. Logan Ryan has been talked up as a potential starter opposite Butler, and his output has proved about as consistent as a drunk bartender’s Long Island Iced Teas. On one play he’ll reach in and knock away a third-down pass. On the next series, he’ll get burned for two consecutive first downs.

As the Patriots go with something close to game conditions for their third preseason game, let’s see if Ryan can mix it up with receivers and make things flow smoothly. Because, you know, their defensive backfield personnel is different this year. *sigh*

A Means To An Ends: Once again, rookies. Trey Flowers might be back from injury after a solid first game vs. Green Bay. Geneo Grissom has been moved around more than that Patrick Nagel print you’ve had since college. Xzavier Dickson has ended up at the right places when he’s gotten to play. Considering New England already has a starting rotation of Rob Ninkovich, Chandler Jones, and Jabaal Sheard to platoon (or not?), these rookies will have a tough road to playing time. It starts now, and the more they can do, the more flexibility this defense will have.

And Coach Belichick likes his defense more flexible than the numbers from an Exponent report.

Wait, how did we end up here?

A Final Note On Deflated Footballs (Not Likely): One question amidst all the hullaballoo. How does this make football better? In our July column on getting rid of the PSI rule (called “That Song By Queen And David Bowie”), we pointed out the merits of leaving a football’s air pressure up to the ref’s discretion before and during a game. As this insanity continues, we still wonder how it helps to take measures (pun intended) to ensure proper air pressure. No one has ever cared about this. No one should ever care about this.

In 2006, Brady and Peyton Manning lobbied for QBs to be able to bring their own doctored footballs to away games. In the following years, both Brady and Manning have broken NFL records for passing touchdowns. Remind me how this is a bad thing?

Oh, it’s not? Right.

Ditch the rule, dump the silliness. Now let’s play football.

Chris Warner can be emailed at chris.warner@patriotsdaily.com or tweeted at @cwarn89

The Flat Balls Society

By Dan Snapp

Peter King in successive weeks:

July 13th:

“My best guess: Officials will chart the weights of all footballs before the game, then spot-check some at halftime and after the game.”

July 20th:

“Basically, depending on which physics expert you believe, it’s either a stretch to think the Patriots’ footballs deflated as much as they did by halftime of the game against Indy Jan. 18, or a perfectly normal occurrence.”

July 27th:

“When footballs are pressure-gauged before games, they will still have to measure between 12.5 pounds per square inch and 13.5 psi. If they do not, the officials will be instructed to put the air in the football at 13.0 psi. So if one team is trying to get an edge by having the pressure right on the border near 12.5 or right on the border near 13.5, and it’s either under or over by a tenth of a pound, it will backfire. In the past, maybe a crew would measure and say, “Close enough.” Now, that crew will have to put the psi at the halfway point between high and low, exactly 13.0. In other words, it’s a decision soft-ball lovers or hard-ball lovers really won’t like.”

This is, if not the pre-eminent NFL writer today, then the most ubiquitous. He’s the bad penny showing up everywhere, regurgitating bad science. He still thinks they’ll be charting the weight of the balls? He still thinks the physics is a coin toss? He still thinks a couple tenths of a pound per square inch is motive enough for teams to try to sneak something past the officials?

I get it, not everybody can accept science on faith alone. They need proof. So perhaps if King wakes up to find the Logo Gauge AND the Non-Logo Gauge under his tree this year, maybe then he can truly BELIEVE. Yes, Peter, there IS an Ideal Gas Law!

King has been dutifully floating Roger Goodell’s help-me-find-a-way-out-of-this-shit trial balloons the past few weeks, gauging* public response to a host of Tom Brady fates. How does two games sound? One game? No? How about forestalling Brady’s punishment for a year while we study the science just a little bit longer? Then can Roger keep his job?

* And recording? Probably. The league’s pretty diligent when it comes to Rog’s Q-rating.

Following up on one of King’s “hunches”, the league announced plans to update football inspection. They won’t “chart the weights” of the balls, sadly, but pregame they will be numbering the balls, they’ll be gauging and recording the PSI of each respective ball, they’ll “spot check” during “designated games” (i.e. “Patriots games”), and there will be a dedicated chain of custody, with the Kicking Ball Coordinator escorting the balls to the field under the watchful eyes of both an official AND league security. Go ahead and try to crack THAT nut, Dorito Dink!

This is all well and good, and does at least provide a level of standardization that might have aided the Patriots back in January when this whole ridiculous episode commenced. And the spot check measurements – assuming the league is gracious enough to share them this time – could also serve to vindicate the Patriots.

But look at some of the other details of their announcement:

Each team will be required to supply 24 footballs to the officials’ locker room – 12 primary and 12 backup – 2 hours and 15 minutes prior to the game.

At designated games, selected at random, the game balls used in the first half, will be collected by the kicking ball coordinator (KBC) at halftime and the league’s security representative will escort the KBC to the locker room.

Also, at the end of any randomly selected game, the KBC will return the footballs to the officials’ locker room, where all game balls from each team will be inspected and the results will be recorded.

Do you see the problem? Every single time they measure the balls, it’s still going to be in the climate-controlled atmosphere of the officials’ locker room. And there’s no mention in the article of recording the temperatures of the locker rooms and out on the field, the climate conditions, or the respective times each football gets measured.

They still don’t understand the science!

What’s the point of all this trouble, effort, time and procedure if they’re still going to be introducing balls that won’t be at regulation within minutes at any game where on-field temperatures are 10 degrees colder or hotter than in the officials’ locker room?**

** Assuming an officials’ locker room temp of 71 degrees, and a ball set at 13.0 PSI with no other variables out of spec.

It sure will be comforting to know,  say during December home games in New England, Buffalo, Green Bay and Minnesota, we can be assured those footballs will be at regulation up until kickoff. But hey, at least now we’ll be dead certain nobody will be tampering with already under-inflated footballs. Integrity! Shield! Nobody touch a slice ‘til Rog does!

Do they not yet realize how many games in league history have been played with balls that weren’t within their silly arbitrary PSI parameters? Not just iconic games like the Ice Bowl or the Freezer Bowl, or even the Patriots/Ravens divisional game this past season (when game-time temp was 22 degrees), but multitudes of games throughout the decades.

And the same goes for those early September games played in the sweltering heat in say Miami. If the balls were checked inside, they most likely were over regulation within minutes on the field. That’s just science.

The truth is the NFL cares not one iota about getting it right, and certainly doesn’t care about vindicating the Patriots. They do care, however, about trying to look good. And adding more arbitrary regulations to an already arbitrary standard makes it look – at least to the general populace – like they’re doing something productive. Before you look a little deeper, of course.

What should they do? Logically, they could do the preliminary ball-checks on the field. At least then there’s some consistency between the environment where the ball is measured and the environment in which they play. But that still doesn’t assure anything because, well, weather isn’t a constant.

What they really should do is go back to not giving a damn about ball pressure, like they did the 70 some-odd years since they first set the standard. They should just return to that blissful ignorance that served them so well for so long, before Ryan Grigson and Mike Kensil got their panties in a bunch.

The NFL has to worry about two audiences alone: the 32 owners whom it enriches; and the nation of flat-earthers eager to sop up any story that incriminates the team they hate. Neither group cares a whit about science.

This is why you never hear tales of Roger Goodell going on a cruise: Sure, sure, they all say the Earth is round, but why take the chance? But we could always sail Ted around the world a dozen times, just to be sure.