Friday, November 21, 2008

The Pats Moving Forward - I Like the Team

First the crazy thing.

I think the Patriots can win the Super Bowl this year with Matt Cassell. No joke. I truly believe that.

And now the frustrating thing.

Right now, the way things are looking the Patriots season will more than likely come down to the defense absolutely needing to make a stop late in the fourth quarter and I have absolutely no faith in them to do that. It has happened the last two seasons and the chances for a third go-round are quite strong.

With that being, the way that Jerod Mayo has been playing and the subtle emergence of Pierre Woods, the linebacking core as constituted today could be far better in a few weeks. Jerod Mayo I do not think I can rationally talk about. Not to compare him to Ray Lewis circa early 2000s because that would be unfair but do you remember how when you used to see the Ravens on MNF his name would seem to come up on every single play. Isn't that exactly where Mayo is now? I mean the guy had twenty freakin' tackles in the Jets game. He is an absolute animal and from what I've read he is clearly a favorite already of both the coaches and his teammates. When was the last time the Patriots had a rookie make such an immediate and glowing impact? I'd have to say it was back in 2001 with Richard Seymour right?

Speaking of 2001, the indisputable turning point game of that season was the loss at home to the Rams. Not because the loss dropped the Patriots to 5-5 and then saw them run the table from there on out, but because it showed everybody that that team was in fact really good. Up until that point it was tough to tell how for real the Patriots were that season, but making the Rams work - and I mean work - for their victory in that game showed the league that the team was legit. At the time, the Rams were 7-1 heading into the game, the indisputable "class of the NFL", and let's not forget the whole "greatest show on turf" thing either. Simply put, the Rams were supposed to destroy the Patriots in that game and bring them back down to earth. Instead they eeked out a 24-17 victory and that victory very well may not have happened if not for an Antowain Smith fumble inside the Rams 5 late in the first half. Blah, blah, blah, the loss was a loss but the league was put on notice that the Pats were not just some over-achieving .500 team, they were going to have to be reckoned with down the stretch.

So what does this have to do with last week? Well, for one nobody has been under-estimating the Patriots this year. At times they have been over-estimated, but nobody has slept on them to date. However, the big, million dollar question around the team since Brady went down has been the quarterback. And right now I think it is safe to say that he is not and will not be the problem. A couple of weeks ago I said that people would complain about Matt Cassell all the way to the AFC Championship Game. Well, I don't feel that anymore because people have come around on the guy but I still believe that the Pats will find themselves in that game and a rematch with the Giants in the Super Bowl - with the tables completely turned (Pats as big underdogs) - is not out of the question.

And now it is my duty to play the whole "if the Playoffs started today the Pats would be on the outside looking in" card. True. But they don't start today. And while the Pats may have just two home games left compared to four on the road, they luckily have their two toughest games at home when the Steelers come to town next week and the Cardinals enter the second to last week of the season. The Steelers game I am most interested in because that is a game where Cassell could shine. Sure the Patriots have owned the Steelers of late (congrats Pittsburgh, you stopped our 23 game winning streak back in 2004, we beat you later that year on the road in the AFC Championship Game, sorry we win there) but this year's Steelers team features a more ferocious than usual defense that sacks quarterbacks at will and can thwart any running attack. Enter Matt Cassell who has become Mr. Scramble the past couple of weeks. With Cassell's mobility in the pocket he should be able to avoid a few sacks and make some plays out of nothing, especially if he can give Randy Moss some time to wear down whomever is covering him in the secondary. I see that as a 24-21 game or something like that with the Pats emerging and the postgame chatter focusing on how the Pats are once again in the discussion of "teams to beat in the AFC".

Their other home game, against Arizona in late December seems to be a perfect storm for a New England victory. Not only are the Cardinals dealing with the vaunted west coast team playing a 1 PM game on the east coast curse, they are also dealing with the warm weather team going up north to play an outdoor game in December curse. While there is a strong shot that this game gets moved to either 4 PM or 8 PM, negating the 1 PM curse, I say that gets cancelled out when you figure how much colder it will be playing that game later in the day. Of course the Cardinals can win that game because they have the best receiving corps in the league and the Patriots secondary is suspect at best. But I don't think they will. I think the Patriots take that game by a count of something like 31-17.

The roadies are not as easy. Their toughest game comes this weekend at Miami and then after that they need to travel to Oakland and Seattle for consecutive games and then up to Buffalo the last week of the season. Lucky for the Pats, the Raiders are in mail it in mode, the Seahawks are ravaged by injuries, and the Bills should be in mail it in mode by the time their game comes around. The Patriots should be favored in all four of these games and they should win them all.

Running the table to get to 12-4 doesn't seem that preposterous anymore now does it.

Even more amazing is that they could even sneak into a two seed and get a bye. It will be tough, but consider this:

The Steelers currently sit atop the AFC North at 8-3. If the Pats are to run the table and the Steelers go 4-1 down the stretch with the loss coming in NE, the Patriots will hold the tie-breaker against them and therefore get the two seed. This also assumes that the Patriots edge out the Jets for the division, which is possibly the more daunting task. After this weekend when they play the Titans, the Jets have a slew of winnable games coming up including two against NFC West teams. Their toughest divisional game remaining is at home against the Dolphins and their toughest non-division game is also home against the Broncos. Trying to make up two games against the Jets, with that remaining schedule for them could be tough, but at the same time it is of course possible.

And all of that brings me back to my very first point which is that this Patriots team really does have a chance to play deep into the postseason. What determines how far they go though will once again be the defense. I think the offense is and will be fine moving forward and I think a big part of that is Matt Cassell and his mobility and steady improvement. Don't forget that in 2001 - and 2002 for that matter - Brady really couldn't throw the deep ball either. It's an acquired skill and a lack of it can be made up in other areas. It just stinks when you can't do that well and Randy Moss is your best receiver.

But I digress because the point of this is to be positive and put out there my very strong belief in this Pats team. Now, before signing off I do want to leave you with one point which has nothing to do with anything really but is interesting nonetheless.

Starting in 2005, the Patriots have been forced to play with three different permutations at the QB/WR spot. Unfortunately, each time the end result has been eerily similar regardless of what kind of talent was on that side of the ball.

2006: Stud QB coupled with shit wide receivers and the end result was the team losing in the AFC Championship Game because their defense couldn't hold an 18 point halftime lead.

2007: Stud QB coupled with stud receivers and the end result was the team losing in the Super Bowl because the defense could not stop Eli Manning with 2 minutes and change left.

2008: Career backup QB with stud receivers and the end result is TBD, but something tells me it will sound a lot like the above two if last week's Jets game was any indication of things to come.

I guess if we really wanted to get crazy, next year the Patriots could bring back Reche Caldwell and Doug Gabriel to give the old career backup QB/shit WR combo a try. Me, I'd rather not see what that looks like. That Jabar Gaffney TD drop in Indy was enough of a reminder for me about what shit receivers can do to you.

OK, that's it finally. But let me just go on record as saying that the Patriots this year will make it AT LEAST as far as the AFC Championship Game.

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