Miserable conditions, another happy ending
FOXBOROUGH -- Does everyone in these here parts truly appreciate what's going on here?
I mean, if football is your game, do you understand that you have hit the lottery? Stop worrying about whether the Patriots will win a third Super Bowl on the evening of Feb. 6, 2005. There are too many variables involved to start worrying about that. What you must do is emulate your favorite team and focus, not on the future, but on the here and now. Enjoy the moment, for, as they say, it truly does not get better than this.
Week in, week out, the New England Patriots are money. In good conditions or in yesterday's conditions, home or away, they come out and play solid, winning football. And they never have been more fun, more rootable, or more exemplary than during the four weeks since they sustained their only loss of the season.
"That was one of those old-fashioned games today," said coach Bill Belichick in the wake of a 24-3 triumph over the Baltimore Ravens. He was referring to the rain, mud, and slop at Gillette Stadium, but he might as well have been talking about the effort of his team, which responded to its own inefficient and occasionally mindless first-half performance with a punishing second half of play that would have made Papa Bear Halas, Vince Lombardi, and perhaps even Amos Alonzo Stagg proud. After making the requisite halftime adjustments, they just lined up and beat the innards out a macho team that prides itself on being flat-out tougher than everyone else.
"I think we were able to wear them down," said center Dan Koppen (Boston College '03), who was probably thinking about playing with a bag over his head after watching his alma mater throw its season out the window against Syracuse Saturday. ("I had to turn the TV off.") "We just wanted to come out there and put hats on hats and create some seams for Corey."
That would be Corey Dillon, the magnificent Cincinnati discard running back Scott Pioli was able to obtain with a second-round pick. Mr. Dillon compiled 83 of his 123 yards in the second half, and, of course, it should be pointed out that it is an NFL given that nobody gets a buck running against the mighty Ravens. Now you can amend that to "almost nobody."
The Patriots defense also put a hat or two against some Baltimore chapeaus. Now no one ever has accused the Ravens of having a powerhouse offense, and they were really impaired by not having the great Jamal Lewis in uniform, but what the Patriots did to the Baltimore offense in the second half yesterday bordered on Ornithological Abuse. Try three first downs and 29 net yards.
Hard to win with those numbers, eh?
Consider what has happened since that Pittsburgh loss. The Patriots go into St. Louis with an Improv Theatre defensive backfield and pound the Rams by 18. They blow away a Buffalo team that was on the move. They travel to Kansas City to face an offense Belichick had basically anointed as the Greatest of All-Time, or thereabouts, and defeat the Chiefs. Finally, they take on a Baltimore team representing a completely different challenge, and with a short week of preparation, gradually turn a competitive game of apparent equals (3-3 at the half, albeit with an asterisk) into a convincing show of force in which the Ravens would have been well-advised to negotiate a white flag surrender with 10 minutes to go.
This game was not just over at 24-3, 17-3, or 9-3. This game was over at 6-3. You might even argue that it was over at 3-3, given that Baltimore was only able to maneuver in position for a half-ending 20-yard field goal thanks to such Patriots' complicity as a botched punt return, poor clock management, and 30 yards worth of needless penalties on the same play.
The field was terrible, but it was terrible for both teams. Anyway, what's a bad field to the Patriots? "I think the field's going to be terrible for the rest of the year," shrugged quarterback Tom Brady. "It's only going to get worse. The grass isn't going to be growing back. But we're used to it here."
These Patriots won't allow a little thing like a miserable field deter them from their appointed rounds. They are the modern masters of playing the hand they're dealt, as their defensive backfield play has been demonstrating, week after week. It was more of the same old, same old yesterday, with square pegs again jamming into round holes and oranges assuming roles normally assigned to apples. "I look at us and I see Randall Gay playing corner and Don Davis playing safety," said linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who made a rather significant play when he separated Baltimore quarterback Kyle Boller from the ball, leading to a Jarvis Green fumble recovery touchdown (24-3). "We really play as a team. That's what I love. You don't have to be an All-Star to play on this team. Everybody in this locker room is a good football player, and that's what makes me so proud about these victories."
At least Bruschi is sensitive to the fact that something special is going on. Some of his veteran mates say they have neither the time nor the inclination to dwell on the Big Picture. In the Patriots' locker room, pragmatism, not sentiment, rules.
"I'd be lying if I said I was thinking about it," said safety Rodney Harrison. "It's only, `one week at a time.' We play hard. We win a game. We come in here and have a few hugs. Then we start thinking about the next game. Nobody in here is arrogant. We just work hard and we don't get comfortable with ourselves."
"It's all about today," added Willie McGinest. "We win, and then think about the game coming up. We stay grounded here. We don't pay attention to other teams, and what their record is. We just worry about what we have to do."
What this attitude has produced is one of the great stretches in Patriots history, if not the greatest. The post-Steelers games have been a delight. The Patriots always score first (their record-breaking streak is up to 16). They show opponents a balanced offense. They may bend some on defense, but sooner or later there is a big play. And if they cross the opponents' 30 it's pretty much an automatic 3, thanks to Adam Vinatieri, who yesterday had field goals of 28, 40, and 48 yards. "There is no kicker I'd rather have," said Belichick. "Let's put it that way."
It has been a blissful fan stretch, abetted by injuries that took Priest Holmes and Lewis, two of the game's elite backs, out of the lineup the past two weeks. But in this league stuff happens. Dillon didn't play against Pittsburgh, and Ty Law hasn't been seen for weeks.
Pittsburgh would be the No. 1 seed if the playoffs started today, but the fact remains that there is only one team in the league that has a proven ability to win any time, anywhere, in any conditions. That team is the New England Patriots. They are football's gold standard.
As any Celtics fan of long standing can tell you, it won't always be like this.
Oh, and don't forget to tape it.
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.