Rapture Saturday has arrived. Someone is going to be left behind tonight and it's not just the 48,756 or-so fans at Gillette Stadium who won't be getting free hand warmers from the Patriots. After nearly four years of playoff damnation, New England will either take a big step toward salvation or go further down the shute.
All the Tim Tebow videos, photos of dogs Tebowing, the parodies, shirts, singing girlfriend proposals and Biblical verses will have no effect on what happens once the Patriots kick off and the Broncos receive (and we're not talking Communion here) sometime after 8 tonight. This AFC Divisional playoff between New England and Denver will come down to turnovers, the Patriots' offensive line giving Tom Brady time to throw in horrid conditions and whether or not Jesus will be too busy trying to end world hunger and vanquish Bain Capital to give Tebow a hand.
It has been 1,453 days since the Patriots won a playoff game. We started this count-up on Day 1 of this blog last September and we hope our math is correct. The Patriots have been in a state of purgatory as a franchise ever since Randy Moss squeezed that TD pass from Brady in Glendale few weeks after the 2008 New Hampshire primary. Brady walked off the field for the second-to-last time that night having given his team a 14-10 lead in Super Bowl XLII with 2:42 remaining and the keys to a 19-0 season. Then we had this:
Followed by this:
If that wasn't awful enough. We then witnessed Brady's knee injury, an 11-5 season that wasn't good enough for the playoffs, the Royal Wedding (between Tom and Gisele), Brady's return and a trip back to the playoffs topped with a home playoff game against the Ravens. That went something like this:
Another season left in ruins brought about more rebuilding. Aaron Hernandez. Gronk. A 14-2 regular season. Super Bowl talk and foot fetishes. But it hit a brick wall with a meltdown against the Jets made even worse by its conclusion Bart Scott's postgame farewell:
The pain of that disaster remains fresh even a year later. It spawned the likes of Albert Haynesworth, Shaun Ellis, Chad Ochocinco, Andre Carter, and Brian Waters. Very mixed results there. The Patriots just completed the most unsatisfying 13-3 season in NFL memory. A cold windy night in Foxborough might provide the right jolt to wake up this franchise that has been stuck in neutral since the last presidential election. From one perspective, the last two playoff losses somehow spell doom for tonight. It just seems like a sucker's set-up. Great regular season, a bunch of points, the infamous bend-but-don't-break defense, slow starts, weekly runs of 27, 24 or 49 unanswered points and everything falling into place for a trip to Indy. Been there, done that.
But the Broncos are not the Jets or the Ravens of playoffs past. Denver gave up 357.8 yards and 24.4 points this season. The Jets team that terrorized Brady and the Pats last January had allowed just 19 points and 291.5 yards per game. Sure, last season the Pats had beaten the Jets 45-3 the month before their playoff matchup, just like the Pats had beaten the Broncos 41-23 four weeks before their playoff matchup. The 45-3 rout was a mirage. The Jets quit in the second quarter of that game. The 41-23 win was much more fundamentally sound, the Patriots rallied from a 16-7 deficit, ran for 141 yards and forced three key turnovers when the game was still in the balance.
Tim Tebow has captured the hearts and minds of America, His presence will bring historic TV ratings. His faith inspires and polarizes. He's managed to upstage Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton - at least off the field. His aura may force Bill Belichick to recoil like Dracula at sunrise when he shakes hands with Tebow before the game. The Hoodie might greet speaking in his best James Earl Jones voice and say: "Tim, I am your father" before taking out his light saber. We sold our souls during the Tuck Rule Game, long before anyone heard of "SpyGate."
The Patriots will be the villain tonight, especially if you take the 13 1/2 points. That's just fine with us. Nice guys don't always finish last, sometimes they just get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs.
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