Our offseason Four Downs series ends with a look at the NFC West's biggest remaining holes and their most notable UDFA signings. The Rams and 49ers have to kick-start their passing games, Arizona's offense lacks a big dimension, and the Seahawks continue to rely on Russell Wilson's magic tricks.
30 Dec 2007
Each Sunday, the FO staff sends around e-mails to each other, both during and after the games. It lets us share ideas for columns and comments, and get an idea of how teams that we can't watch are playing. Be aware that the material in this roundtable might seem a bit disjointed and un-edited. It also might still show up later in the week in other columns, or in comments in PFP 2008. Games are chosen based on our own personal viewing preferences, and are going to reflect the teams we support and the cities where we live.
The FO staff doesn't usually sit around on a Week 17 Saturday night and exchange seven pages of e-mail about a single game, but there seemed to be something a little different about this one. Congratulations to the New England Patriots on their undefeated regular season.
Doug Farrar: Discussion question: With the cap going up to Mets/Red Sox-payroll levels recently, are the Patriots really doing all this stuff in the "Salary Cap Era," as they would have in, say, 1999? Does that era exist anymore, or have we gone past the financial constraints that make specific accomplishments noteworthy in that sense?
Bill Barnwell: Do the Patriots have a particularly high cap number? I don't recall that being the case. Miguel's Cap Page lists the Patriots as being $6.2 million under the cap.
Basically, the Patriots just don't screw up in the draft and make limited forays into free agency.
Doug Farrar: Right â€“- I understand that certain teams manage their payrolls better than others; my question is more about the overall constraints about the cap and whether they even exist as they used to. People talk about the impressiveness of what New England is doing this year in the salary cap era, and I'm just not sure the accomplishments â€“- and they're absolutely stunning, no matter what -â€“ really qualify for that particular designation.
Bill Barnwell: Well, yes, they can spend more, but it's not like baseball, where there are payroll levels other teams simply couldn't hope to match because of the lack of revenue they can obtain. Outside of maybe Buffalo, there's not a team in football that couldn't support the Patriots salary structure.
Ben Riley: I think it's hard to separate "cap savvy" from "front office and talent evaluation savvy." There are teams that are very good at structuring and restructuring contracts so that they maintain a healthy financial flexibility from year to year. Amazingly, there are other teams that seem completely baffled by the concepts of "guaranteed money" and "amortization." But that's a very different skill from realizing that, say, Deion Branch isn't that all that great a wide receiver, and he certainly isn't worth $39 million spread over six years, no matter how you slice and dice it.
Patrick Laverty: Is the question whether the cap is higher than most teams can afford anyway? I don't think that's the case at all. Because there is a cap, teams need to manage their payroll a certain way, and I don't think the fact that the Patriots are under the cap shows that it is higher than they could afford. I have no doubt that if the cap was twice as high, there'd be teams close to it.
Stuart Fraser: The Patriots aren't really a "dynasty" in the sense the term was used to talk about the Pittsburgh team of the 1970s and what have you -- a cohesive group of players who swept all before them. If memory serves, 19 of the Steel Curtain Steelers won all four rings. Scanning the New England roster for 2001 gets me Troy Brown, Matt Light, Tom Brady, Richard Seymour, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Kevin Faulk and Lonie Paxton (he's the long snapper). That's eight.
I don't think New England's payroll is significantly higher than that of other teams, and it's certainly not the case that they've kept together a world-beating squad over that time as previous multiple winners did.
Vince Verhei: I absolutely give the Patriots extra credit for working under salary cap restrictions. The top teams in baseball for the last decade have been the Yankees and Red Sox. Why? Because they're generally well-run organizations, yes, but also because they have essentially unlimited funds to throw at any holes in their roster. It's not just cash flow -- I believe the Orioles have a pretty darned high payroll and nothing to show for it -- but the fact is, if the Red Sox and Athletics both want a player, the Red Sox can simply outbid the A's and get their guy. The Patriots can't do that. This makes their consistent success -- and, to a lesser degree, that of the Colts and Eagles -- more impressive.
Aaron Schatz: And Steelers. If we're talking great franchises of the decade, the Steelers are in there.
Ben Riley: "History simply means historic." -- Deion Sanders. Man, I wish I'd written TWIQ in the Neon Deion era.
Patrick Laverty: The things that I don't understand about the NFL letting out the rights to this game to CBS and NBC include, why not ABC? It's on ABC in Boston, Manchester, New Hampshire and New York City? And the other thing I don't understand is, why not black it out on NBC and CBS in those cities? Why kill the exclusivity for the local ABC channels? I imagine they dumped some cash into what they have here and then in the blink of an eye, the NFL wipes that out in giving it to their competitors.
Russell Levine: It's not on ABC in New York. It went to CBS because it would be a CBS game on a Sunday afternoon (AFC at NFC) and to NBC because they're the primetime broadcast network. That's why Fox didn't get a taste.
Aaron Schatz: No question, the NFL screwed WCVB and WWOR big time.
Sean McCormick: I have no idea why more teams don't call play action on second down after a first down incompletion. The entire league seems dedicated to running the ball into the line on second down after missing on a first down pass. Why not take advantage of that overwhelming tendency?
Stuart Fraser: Alright, who left Ellis Hobbs on single coverage on Plaxico Burress? Still a better coaching decision than Coughlin's first challenge, though. Sigh. Collinsworth, the Giants are not "keeping Brady on the sidelines," as you put it, given the bomb they threw on the second play of the drive, which is not exactly a staple play of a clock-control offense.
Doug Farrar: Mr. Gumbel, Osi Umenyiora does not lead the NFC in sacks. Patrick Kerney plays for the Seattle Seahawks. The Seattle Seahawks are in the NFC. The Seattle Seahawks have not been part of the AFC since 2001. Patrick Kerney has the most sacks in the league. Therefore, Patrick Kerney leads the NFC in sacks. Thank you for playing.
Sean McCormick: Pretty much every time I turn on the Giants, a receiver is dropping a ball that hits him in the hands. Or the chest. Or the head. Or the...
Michael David Smith: That's why I consider Eli one of the hardest quarterbacks to evaluate.
Ben Riley: What's going on with Amani Toomer's hands? Have they always been coated in butter, or is that something that's happened with age? (That's a semi-serious question -- do older wide receivers struggle with drops?)
Sean McCormick: I refer you to James Lofton, circa 1992.
Mike Tanier: Old receivers like Toomer often have trouble with their hands. Lofton at the end of his career was a fine example. Art Monk at the end of his career started dropping passes. Tim Brown, I think, started to have a problem. These guys aren't gathering the ball in the way we do when we play catch in the parking lot. They are snatching it while they are turning their bodies to make cuts. They lose that quick-twitch and nanosecond coordination long before they lose the speed or the physique. It isn't unusual to see an old receiver who can still run playing for a year or two while dropping 10-yard passes he used to have no trouble with.
Bill Barnwell: Older receivers struggle to create separation because of their disappearing speed. Harder to make a catch with someone on you than it is with someone open.
I should note that I'm covering a fight show at the moment, and the loudest reaction for anything all night was the announcement of the Giants-Patriots score.
Sean McCormick: Is it not a horse-collar when you tackle the guy really gently by the collar?
After a helmet-to-helmet hit on Randy Moss away from the play...
Sean McCormick: That was a particularly excellent piece of refereeing consistency. Jam a receiver for 5.01 yards past the line and you get an illegal contact flag, but make what was, if not an attempt to injure, then very much a hit for the sake of making a hit, and no flag. Given the rules of the NFL I'm sure both calls are perfectly justifiable, but that doesn't make them right.
Ben Riley: Mike Carey's crew is not having a good night. Ticky-tack call for illegal contact, no-call on the hit to Randy Moss's head, and then another ticky-tack call for excessive celebration that indirectly turns into a kickoff return for a touchdown. I am soooooo tired of having officiating impact these huge games so dramatically. Fix it, NFL. Please. I beg you.
Doug Farrar: Oh, Good Lord. New England gets called for delay of game for "holding the runner down," but Vince Wilfork can poke Brandon Jacobs right in the eye after the play and it goes uncalled?
Vince Verhei: I like Gumbel responding to that incident by making Three Stooges references, like it was all a joke. Clearly, Gumbel has never been poked in the eye.
Stuart Fraser: To be fair, I'm pretty certain that "delay of game" was exactly what Wilfork was trying to do there.
Mike Tanier: Is Wilfork going to get suspended? He should. Eye-pokes aren't even legal in extreme fighting.
Michael David Smith: I've always thought that if you do something that the ref would have ejected you for, but the ref didn't see it, you should be suspended for the next game once the league reviews the video. I also think there's approximately zero chance Goodell suspends Wilfork for the first playoff game.
Later, after the Patriots are flagged for "illegal formation" near the goal line...
Aaron Schatz: I hate asking questions like this, and this has nothing to do with complaining about a call which didn't end up meaning anything anyway. I really want to know so I understand the rules. Can somebody please explain the illegal formation call before Laurence Maroney's touchdown?
Stuart Fraser: Given that the only replay we saw only showed half the New England formation, no.
Doug Farrar: No clue -- Vrabel was in on that play, right? The only thing I can think is that he was in as a lineman (or they thought he was), or the crew was otherwise positionally confused. Other than that, Collinsworth didn't understand it, and neither did I.
Stuart Fraser: Maybe Vrabel didn't report eligible? He doesn't have a pass-catcher's number, does he? Seems like a kind of unlikely mistake for him to make though, given how often he plays in that package.
Vincent Verhei: I have just rewatched the play, hours later. The exact words from the official were "Illegal formation, offense, not lined up at the line of scrimmage." I guess they saw Vrabel lined up off the line, figured he was supposed to be on the line, and threw the flag. But the Patriots clearly had seven men on the line -- the five linemen, plus a tight end to either side. I think the refs just completely blew this one.
Ben Riley: At least Mike Carey is screwing up on both sides. Brady did not get that time out in before the play clock expired (at least, that's the consensus of the five people watching the game with me, including two who want to have Tom Brady's love child. Well, his second love child.)
Aaron Schatz:This is what I was talking about a few weeks ago with Eli Manning, in that game where he was called for delay of game numerous times. The officials are supposed to give the quarterback the timeout if he calls it only a half-second too late. That was a league directive starting last year. They just gave it to Brady, which is the way they are supposed to do it now. In that game a few weeks ago, they didn't give Eli that, and I think he got screwed.
Stuart Fraser: I question Brady's decision to call a timeout there. From a play-calling standpoint, is there really all that much difference between third-and-11 and third-and-16? On the other hand, in a tight game like this the timeout could well be useful later.
Vince Verhei: That's one of my biggest pet peeves in football. Don't waste a timeout to "save" a third-and-long. You can get the yards back, but you lose the timeout forever.
Aaron Schatz: Just to further explain the 2006 directive to be less exact on delay of game, I just went to look up the numbers. In 2005, delay of game was called 112 times, not counting special teams. In 2006, delay of game was called only 68 times, not counting special teams. (2007 numbers won't be comparable because the stupid lame "don't spike the ball" penalty is ALSO called delay of game, but it is a completely different issue.)
Later, after a personal foul call left everyone confused...
Doug Farrar: Sooo ... is the kickoff penalty after the Moss touchdown on Brandon Meriweather, Randy Moss, Amani Toomer, or what? What the hell is Mike Carey's crew doing tonight?
Stuart Fraser: Lil' hint for Mike Carey here: When you're calling a penalty on Randy Moss on a special teams play, you probably don't mean it. That said, I'm not sure what Amani Toomer (who the penalty was called on) did to deserve it. Cynical European that I am, I don't think anybody on the Giants sideline touched Meriweather when he fell over.
Ben Riley: In the interest of learning more about the rules, why did the Giants just get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct? Because a Patriots player fell down?
Vince Verhei: Yes, actually, they did. Again, I had the benefit of watching this frame-by-frame hours later. Meriweather made a borderline late hit on the sideline, and he and Toomer were jawing at each other. There was a referee between them. Meriweather was walking backwards, yapping at Toomer, then tripped over either his own feet, or Jared Lorenzen's, who was just wandering through. At that point, another official, in the back of the screen, who was separated from all of this by several players, threw his flag in the air and called a penalty on Toomer. Somehow, the official who was right there watching, who was physically in between Toomer and Meriweather, let this call stand. Atrocious.
Aaron Schatz: I'm not saying the crew made a bad call, but I didn't see anything either, and I wish Carey would turn his microphone on and explain to us what happened on that kickoff return. Don't you want to be as famous as Ed Hochuli, Mike?
Ben Riley: The weird thing is, Carey is probably one of the most vocal refs in the NFL. He usually talks the crowd through his decisions.
Michael David Smith: The league really, really needs to explain that personal foul call on Amani Toomer on the sideline. The replay showed him do nothing, he said afterward he did nothing. That doesn't necessarily mean he did nothing, but it does mean that it's incumbent on the league to tell the fans what the hell happened, not just stick with the non-announcement Mike Carey made.
Patrick Laverty: Penalty calls/non-calls were pretty crazy tonight. Early on there was a Harrison late hit not called, there was the ridiculous "5.01"-yard illegal contact call that benefited the Patriots, and there was the "gentle" horse-collar on Welker. I lost track of more after that, but I was confused as to why receivers will push off, not make the catch and then lobby for a P.I. call. I think the back judge called the celebration penalty against Moss just out of fear.
Mike Tanier: Collinsworth said something about Eli being too robotic and mechanical in the past. Well, that's a critique that applies to the officiating. I watch basketball refs, and they call a game. I don't want to hold them up as marvels of fariness or equity (particularly the gambling ones), but they call a game. They call ticky fouls early to assert themselves then ignore them or make "no-calls" with the game on the line. They use make-up calls when they miss something. Yes, they make "superstar calls" and other mistakes, but there's a traditional way they do things to keep themselves out of the story.
Football refs seem addicted to going all paragraph-subsection on you at the worst possible times: sudden letter-of-the-law interpretations at key times in key games. The "group celebration" call after Moss' first touchdown may have been the refs asserting themselves ("There will be a lot of records broken tonight, so don't get carried away") but 15 yards is too big a penalty to use to prove a point. The refs missed the eye gouge completely, but they knew damn well it happened (they talk to each other and see replays on the big screen too). But they shoulder shrugged it. Then they called the Toomer on the sidelines play on the kickoff, and suddenly the calls are looking one-sided. Maybe they should have huddled after that jawing match on the kickoff and said "I think Toomer or somebody gave a shove over there, but the kid may have taken a dive, and anyway we missed the eye-poke earlier, so let's give some warnings and keep the game clean." Either way, there are no five-yard infractions on the book that make good "warning" type penalties except offsides, which the whole stadium can see.
Anyway, I am the only person in America who thinks that refs should use their judgment, not even more codicils and subheadings in a rulebook, to make their decisions. Hockey fans, help me: in big games, minor fouls get shrugged off with "you don't call that in the playoffs or overtime or wherever" right? Wouldn't that be better in football? "That PI is too close to call in the playoffs, especially when it is in the end zone and it just looks like both guys tripped over each other." No, in the NFL five plays are written off as incidental contact or whatever, then someone rings the magic bell and puts his pinky in the wrong place and it's a 50-yard play.
And I would be much happier about the whole celebration rule if I didn't see Terrell Owens eating popcorn after a touchdown on the cover of The Sporting News.
Aaron Schatz: I have an idea to help clarify the celebration and spike penalties: get rid of them. That's pretty clear, and then we don't have to fight about whether a slight hip boogie counts as a "group celebration."
Sean McCormick: It's nice to have a color commentator who is actually watching the game. Collinsworth noted the Pats' switch to a two-back shotgun look instead of a single back or an empty back look as soon as it happened, and he correctly noted that it was necessary to counter the Giants' defensive penetration. It's a small detail, and yet you rarely hear any commentator other than Madden pick up on a schematic adjustment.
Vince Verhei: Collinsworth is outstanding. I may be in the minority, but as horrible as Gumbel is, I'll take this team in a heartbeat just for Collinsworth.
Doug Farrar: As a long-time "Eli-basher," I have to capitulate. He's solid in the pocket, making some good reads and throws. He's not just going with his first read and the transparently easy play.
Bill Barnwell: It's not as if Eli's terrible. He's a perfectly solid quarterback a good portion of the time, and then the other percentage of the time, he doesn't set himself and makes awful throws, and he's been doing it since his rookie year.
Aaron Schatz: And at halftime, the happiest man in the NFL is Jon Gruden.
Stuart Fraser: Meanwhile, Eli is blissfully unpressured. When you're facing a quarterback whose major failing is that he doesn't set himself well, ideally you'd like some pressure up the middle. Or, you know, anywhere. Brady, on the other hand, is frequently hit or hurried -- but then, he was frequently hit or hurried against the Steelers too. It's a natural hazard of a spread offense. This doesn't mean that Matt Light is having a good game against Osi Umenyiora.
To be fair to the Patriots, I think VOA would have them ahead at the moment -- they've put together lots of drives without turning them into touchdowns, and 14 of the Giants' points have basically come off two huge plays.
Aaron Schatz: Aaron Ross is really, really good on the corner blitz. I've noticed it charting a few Giants games this year and I certainly noticed it tonight. And I don't think I saw the Patriots go four-wide a single time this game. Given that they couldn't keep themselves from doing it against every other opponent, that is some serious (and well-deserved) respect for the Giants pass rush.
Patrick Laverty: Is it a serious respect for the pass rush or at least partly an understandable fear of Russ Hochstein and Ryan O'Callaghan?
Doug Farrar: I think the answer is a resounding "Yes." If they want to win this thing, they're going to have someone back there chipping on just about every play, especially on the right side. Great blocks from Faulk and Welker on the third-quarter touchdown drive.
Patrick Laverty: Brady's gotta be hoping that Stephen Neal and Nick Kaczur get back soon.
Doug Farrar: That Moss dropped pass after Gibril Wilson fell down brought to mind Jackie Smith in the end zone in Super Bowl XIII. "He's GOT to be the sickest man in America."
Oh, wait -- next play, another bomb, touchdown, as James Butler sets up a nice little picnic while Moss blows right by him on a go route. Standard mortal fate-based rules do not apply to this team. When will I learn?
Vince Verhei: That sequence was so beautiful. Almost every other team in the league would have figured that they'd had their chance for the big play and blown it. The Patriots know they always have a chance for a big play. It just showed amazing disdain for the defense.
Sean McCormick: Ah ... and I remember when Mike Mayock was in a snit on the second day of the draft because so much coverage was being devoted to the Randy Moss trade. I'm sticking with my guns. Randy Moss is the MVP, not Tom Brady. They're both great players, but I don't think there is any question that Moss is more responsible for Brady's numbers than the other way around. And Wes Welker should give Randy a cut of any new contract extensions he signs.
Mike Tanier: Tom Brady is the MVP. Without Randy Moss, the Patriots go about 14-2 and have home field advantage through the playoffs. Without Brady, they are about 10-6, only because a) their division would still hand them at least five wins and b) Belichick would trade for Tim Rattay or somebody 10 seconds after writing Matt Cassel's name on top of a depth chart.
Aaron Schatz: Another strange thing about this game is that it took the team with the top Adjusted Sack Rate in the league three and a half quarters to get a sack, and the team with the second-best Adjusted Sack Rate also has only one sack. Although the Giants must have like 20 quarterback hits tonight...
Patrick Laverty: Laurence Maroney drives me nuts. When is someone going to tell him to stop dancing and just run? When he puts his head down and accelerates he does well. Or if he is going to keep his head up and look around, then really look around. There are multiple times where he's trying to hit the 1 or A gap, and off-tackle is wide open. And with the way he dances, he's far enough back to make the cut. He dances in the backfield and if there's nothing there, he seems to just kind of flop into the line.
Ben Riley: I think this is the worst possible outcome for the Giants. They just played an incredibly tough game for 60 minutes. They just ran a flaccid offense for two critical minutes and the game is all but over. Oh, and there was some sketchy officiating along the way. There is no chance -- none -- that this team beats Tampa Bay next week.
Aaron Schatz: Don't forget injuries to Kawika Mitchell, Shaun O'Hara, and Sam Madison. Also, did Eli go to the Donovan McNabb School of Clock Management?
Ben Riley: OK, the Giants need to pull the Neil Rackers onside kick move right now. A slow dribbler straight up the middle, recovered by the kicker. This has a 1 percent chance of succeeding. Anything else is doomed to fail.
Stuart Fraser: That was a horrible onside kick. I'm sure that Mike Vrabel didn't actually need more catching practice.
It's unfair to Eli, but what people are going to remember from this game is that he had the ball with his team down three in the fourth quarter, overthrew Plaxico Burress in traditional Eli style and was picked off. He's played well tonight -- certainly better than his receivers, though not as well as his line (at least until the fourth, where the Patriots have managed to get more pressure). I was going to spend more time being complimentary about Eli, but Collinsworth just said "he saved his best for when they needed him most" about Brady, which has blocked all my positive feelings off.
Aaron Schatz: OK, this is the third game now where I am sitting here saying, "Man, Team X played really well against the Patriots tonight. Where the hell has this team been the rest of the year?" We all felt that about the Eagles, the Ravens, and I definitely think the Giants played really, really well tonight. Is it that hard to get up for games against teams that aren't the Patriots? Where the hell has this version of Eli been the rest of the last four years? I am telling you, we'll make it a FO crusade to make sure Eli is not blamed for this loss. I'm not the guy's biggest fan, but he was excellent tonight.
Michael David Smith: I actually thought Eli's best game this year, in terms of the crispness of his throws, was the Detroit game. But this game, obviously, he was very good.
Mike Tanier: This is the best game I've ever seen Eli Manning play. He's moving around in the pocket more than usual and making quicker decisions. Please, let's not get into the hand-wringing about whether we are too hard on the guy or whether we've misjudged him. It was a very good game. A.J. Feeley had a good game against the Patriots. Next week's game means a lot more for Eli's legacy. I want to see this spontaneous, decisive, fairly accurate passer in the playoffs.
Bill Barnwell: I think one of the things people try to do that's usually a failure is to try to define a player in a sentence. Eli Manning isn't a player you can define in a sentence, because he's a strange mix of strengths and weaknesses. He has a good arm that allows him to make any throw you can ask a quarterback to make. He has a fast release. He doesn't get sacked all that often. He has a good playfake.
On the other hand, as I've said many times about Manning before, he makes obvious mistakes that should be corrected with proper coaching and repetition. He throws off his back foot too often. He misses reads. He fumbles too frequently.
There's two different types of quarterback accuracy. It's like pitching, where there's command and control. Control is giving your receiver any chance to catch the football. There's also command, where receivers are thrown passes in places they can adjust naturally to the ball, are likeliest to catch it, and can run after the catch with the ball. Manning has periods where he's erratic with both. This is commonly thought of as throwing high to Burress, but he also tends to throw balls on crossing patterns behind his wideouts, while his throws to the sideline are often low. This isn't the result of new wideouts, since Manning's had the same crop of guys since his first season as a starter, and I don't think the offense has changed too dramatically.
If you want to summate Manning in a sentence so badly, it would be, "Gifted quarterback with obvious flaws that should have been corrected by now." Manning's having his worst year as a starter according to DPAR and DVOA, but this isn't really his worst season. He's still the same guy. And that's the problem. He hasn't developed beyond the player he was. Furthermore, what makes him so frustrating as a Giants fan and an observer is that he's not like a Charlie Frye, someone without the tools to play the game at a high level, or a David Garrard, who plays well but lacks the ability to really change the game. Manning makes repeated, obvious mistakes that better quarterbacks simply don't make. And he makes them too frequently to be a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback.
Doug Farrar: I finally figured out who this team reminds me of -- Tiger Woods. When Woods is on his game and winning majors between swing changes, he's not winning because he's perfect. He's winning because if you want to beat him, you are going to have to play at a sustained level of excellence that is probably over your head. His reserves are larger than yours. And if you slip, even a little, he will see the opportunity and seize it. And then he's doing the "Tiger Walk" down the eighteenth fairway on Sunday and all his opponents are dying from 1,000 paper cuts and wondering what happened. There's something admirable but almost robotic about Woods at his best, and I see that in this team. They even had a "Tiger Slam" of sorts when they won the record 21 straight, but not every game in a season.
That said, the Pats have looked entirely beatable on a regular basis ever since Rosevelt Colvin got hurt in the Eagles game. With the Jaguars playing so well, and Indy getting Marvin Harrison back, and even the Chargers hitting their stride just now, I think you have to erase the blackboard as the playoffs begin. They are the best team going in, but they're not the team I look at and say, "They're unbeatable." There is no such team this year.
This is the most incredible achievement I've ever seen in sports, but their real test begins now. They've got one bad-ass list of fortified teams to deal with on their way to destiny.
Stuart Fraser: I'd go with that. It's Woods-dominance, not Federer-dominance. Roger Federer is incredible. He hits shots other people can't do, he's breathtaking. Woods, and New England, are just better than everybody else. More consistent, more reliable, more ready. You can beat them -- if you get everything right, time after time after time, like they will.
I'm also with Sean about the MVP. Brady doesn't look any different to Brady last year, to me, so Randy gets the credit for the difference in output.
Russell Levine: I love this analogy. Woods is the ultimate grinder. Sure, the Pats can light you up and win 52-7, but when they get in a scrap, they'll find a way to do one or two things better than you do and it will make the difference. After they beat the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, I wrote a piece on them called The Art of Being Better. You just get the sense this year that no matter what kind of fight a team puts up, New England will find a way to get it done.
They might find a tough game in the AFC, but I won't be shocked if the Super Bowl looks like Niners-Broncos (55-10), either.
Sean McCormick: Well, congratulations to the Patriots on their historic season. What strikes me is that in each of the games where they've been tested, the Patriots have been able to hit big pass plays in the fourth quarter. The way to beat -- or at least to stay with New England -- is to generate pressure on the quarterback while playing tight coverage on the receivers. Indy, Philly, Baltimore and the Giants were all able to do so for a while, but come the fourth quarter, the pass rushers get just tired enough to open up the deep ball, and Brady is going to find Moss or Donte' Stallworth every time. It's that aspect of their game more than anything that makes it hard to see a team beating the Pats.
The other common denominator in these close games is that the offenses have gone into untimely lulls in the fourth quarter, especially when protecting a lead, which suggests strongly that the offensive coordinators tightened up. (The Colts get a bit of a pass here, as half their offense got carted off the field.) The Patriots never tighten up with their play-calling. They're the most aggressive offensive team I've ever seen.
All that said, I can't help but think they can be beaten in the playoffs. Indy is the team I would put my money on, because they have the offense to go toe-to-toe with Brady and Moss and no glaring coverage holes in their secondary a la Roy Williams. I think an Indy-New England game is about a 60-40 proposition, maybe even a 55-45 proposition. But the other thing that might hurt the Pats is a succession of very difficult opponents. The Pats are looking at a potential gauntlet of Jacksonville/Indianapolis/Dallas, which is about as tough a slate of games as I can remember a No. 1 seed having to play. (Someone should go back and check the average DVOA for opponents faced in playoff runs.) Are the Patriots the favorites? No question about it. But I won't be surprised at all if they lose. Not at all.
Ben Riley: Hey, I hate to break this to everyone, but the Patriots are winning the Super Bowl this year. Could they be beaten? In theory, abstractly, perhaps in a computer simulation, yes. In reality, this team is rolling through the AFC and then crushing whatever poor sacrificial lamb is offered up by the NFC.
Aaron Schatz: The hardest playoff runs ever were two of the last three years. The 2005 Steelers had to play 11-5, 14-2, 13-3, and 13-3. The 2004 Patriots had to play 12-4, 15-1 and 13-3 -- remember those DVOA ratings showing four teams in the top 10 ever before the Eagles started sitting players that year? As far as DVOA goes, that is harder, because the Jaguars' DVOA is depressed by being only slightly above-average the first few weeks, and the Cowboys' DVOA is depressed by recent struggles.
Vince Verhei: When the game ended, they flashed up a graphic that read something like "First perfect season since 1972." And I thought "Hey, they're not perfect yet, they've still got the playoffs." And that's really kind of sad, because this is obviously a once-a-generation thing. Teams win the Super Bowl every year. Only four teams have gone undefeated through a regular season.
I spent a summer following the closest thing a Major League Baseball team ever had to a perfect season, the 2001 Mariners' 116-win campaign. Of course, the Mariners lost to the Yankees in the playoffs, and the Diamondbacks ended up winning the World Series that year.
When I look back at that season, I remember the team that would win seven games on a road trip, eight on a homestand. I remember the six months of asking "Did the M's win again?" and hearing "Yup!" I don't remember the bad week they had in October. If the Patriots do end up losing to a good team in the playoffs -- which, for the record, I bet doesn't happen -- I hope that New England fans still take time to appreciate and cherish the past four months, and how this team accomplished something that people said would never be done again.
Doug Farrar: I went to about 20 games that year. By August, people weren't even asking if they won, because it was a shock if they lost. Well, here's how hard it is to win 16 times in a row. In anything. Ever. In that 2001 season, the M's had 162 regular-season chances to win. The longest winning streak they put together? 15 games.
Aaron Schatz: We appreciate it, but I don't know if the rest of the country will. The obnoxious New England fans get noticed, but the majority of New England fans understand just how lucky we are. There has never been a run like this by any city in America. We have the World Series, the perfect NFL (regular) season, the 24-3 Celtics. The only thing like Brady and Big Papi was Bradshaw and Pops, and Pittsburgh didn't have a third team to enjoy when they ran the sports world in the late 70's.
If the Patriots lose in the playoffs, they will be remembered as great chokers by almost all sports fans, because they have become the villains. Yes, Spygate contributed, but it started long before then and I don't understand why. They say winning breeds contempt, but if that's true, how come nobody hates the San Antonio Spurs? Aren't Tim Duncan and Tom Brady extremely similar, steady superstars who don't trash talk their opponents? Isn't Bruce Bowen a quiet, hard-working role player like so many of the Patriots defenders?
We already know that the 1972 Dolphins keep moving the finish line. Now that the Patriots have matched their perfect regular season, they put out a press release where one of the guys from the '72 team says "congratulations on finishing the exhibition season." Earth to 1972 Dolphins: What makes you special isn't winning the Super Bowl, it is going 14-0 before that. If the regular season is the exhibition season and only the playoffs matter, then the 1985 Chicago Bears and 1989 San Francisco 49ers and 1992 Dallas Cowboys kick your whiny wrinkled asses. Show some class like your head coach Mr. Shula and appreciate what this team did. Yes, they have to win the Super Bowl to finish perfect, but if these last 16 games were the exhibition season, apparently nobody told the Giants, Ravens, Colts, and Eagles.
Of course, this is why we can't do a statistical comparison to figure out if the Patriots are the greatest team ever. They probably would come out as the greatest regular season team ever, but I doubt that they will match the dominance of the 1985 Bears in the playoffs. So which team you believe is the greatest ever will depend on how much weight you put on the postseason -- which is opinion, not statistical analysis.
This will change based on opponent adjustments after Sunday's games, but:
2007 Patriots: 51.6%
1999 Rams: 45.8%
1996 Packers: 40.6%
2001 Rams: 38.5%
2000 Titans: 37.4%
2007 Patriots: 42.7%
2004 Colts: 39.9%
2006 Colts: 33.7%
2002 Chiefs: 33.3%
2000 Rams: 31.7%
273 comments, Last at 07 Jan 2008, 4:13am by Ken Pierce