FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bill Belichick had a decision to make, and it seemed like a no-brainer. His New England Patriots held a six-point lead over the Atlanta Falcons with six minutes remaining in the third quarter of Sunday's game at Gillette Stadium, and it was fourth-and-1 from the Pats' 24-yard line.
Thirty-one other NFL coaches surely would have punted, and logic suggested Belichick would surrender the ball as well, especially after watching a choppy and frustrating offensive effort that probably had him experiencing bad Bernie Kosar flashbacks.
Yet Belichick, as if trying to shock his team out of its stupor, went all Barry Switzer, circa 1995. He left Tom Brady(notes) and the rest of the offense on the field and empowered them to take over the game, and they absolutely appreciated the gesture.
"Aw, man, I was loving it," Brady said of the successful fourth-down conversion that helped spur the Pats to a 26-10 victory. "That was a great call. We hadn't been stopped in short yardage all day, so let's take a shot."
As halfback Sammy Morris(notes) was slamming through the line for the two-yard gain that extended the pivotal 16-play drive, New England cornerback Shawn Springs(notes) stood on the sidelines and silently gave thanks that he's on Belichick's team.
Two seasons ago, Springs came to Gillette as a member of the Washington Redskins and absorbed a humiliating late-October beating. The Pats won 52-7 and went two-for-two on fourth-down conversions, one coming with New England holding a 45-0 lead midway through the fourth quarter.
"They were beating the [expletive] out of us and went for it, and I was like, 'Oh man, this guy's an animal,' " Springs recalled Sunday, referring to his current coach. "Now I can't be offended – hell, I love it."
Springs, like so many veteran acquisitions before him, is thrilled to be a part of this decade's most successful organization. But if he thought he was latching onto an encore presentation of the '07 Patriots upon signing with the team last March, he – along with the rest of the football watching-world – is beginning to understand how much things have changed.
In '07, as they stormed to the first 16-0 regular season in NFL history while racking up offensive records, the Pats' fourth-down gambles were typically analyzed in the context of their coach's perceived arrogance.
This year, with Brady coming back from reconstructive knee surgery, six new starters on defense and the typically drastic season-to-season shifts in the NFL landscape, New England isn't blowing anyone off the field. Now, when Belichick goes for it on fourth down – he did so three times in Sunday's second half, and all were successful – it's because he feels he needs points.
What he doesn't need, contrary to popular opinion, is to prove one.
If the current Patriots don't bear much of a resemblance to Belichick's '07 squad, so be it. That doesn't mean they aren't capable of developing the grit, resourcefulness and chemistry that can allow a team to contend for a championship.
"To be honest, I can't tell you what this team's like," veteran halfback Kevin Faulk(notes) said after Sunday's victory over the Falcons (2-1). "All I know is, it's all about the 'W.' It doesn't matter what you have to do to get it, or how it looks. The bottom line is, it's easier to correct mistakes after a win than it is when you lose."
The Pats (2-1) were coming off a 16-9 defeat to the New York Jets, which followed a 25-24 triumph in the season opener made possible only by the careless generosity of Buffalo Bills kick returner Leodis McKelvin(notes). That one-two punch (or lack thereof) compelled virtually every analyst within spitting range of a microphone to proclaim that the Pats – and especially Brady – were no longer the same.
The thing is, as we saw Sunday, the '09 Patriots are much like the Patriots of old. It's just that they seem to have more in common with Belichick's pre-'07 New England squads: teams that initially, at least, were short on star power but long on role players – and teams that didn't overwhelm opponents so much as hang around in reasonably tight games and rely on a revolving cast of heroes to step up and win a majority of them.
That three of those teams won Super Bowls – which, of course, the '07 dominators were unable to do, suffering a shocking defeat to the New York Giants after 18 consecutive victories – should be enough to forestall the dynasty-is-dead hysteria.
We could harp upon the Pats' lack of crispness against Atlanta, from Brady's blatant misfires to the dubious route running (specifically from backup wideouts Joey Galloway and Sam Aiken) that had the quarterback visibly peeved on the sideline late in the first half. Four times in five trips to the red zone the Patriots had to settle for Stephen Gostkowski field goals, and Brady was a ghastly 3-for-10 for 10 yards inside the Falcons' 20.
Then again, there were plenty of positive developments: For the first time in '09, New England had a semblance of balance, with 39 running plays and 42 passes by Brady, who completed 25 of them for 277 yards. The quarterback wasn't sacked and the Patriots had the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game, a testament to the offensive line's comprehensive excellence.
The Pats got a breakout performance from 33-year-old halfback Fred Taylor, an offseason signee after 11 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars, whose 49th career 100-yard game (21 carries, 105 yards, one TD) vaulted him past John Riggins and into 15th place on the league's career rushing charts.
That's not bad for a guy who, because of a rash of injuries early in his career, was once dismissively called 'Fragile Fred' by critics. "Twelve years later, I'm working on it," Taylor said Sunday. "I'm doing my thing, and I've still got a ways to go."
With slippery wideout Wes Welker sidelined by a knee injury for the second consecutive week, Randy Moss (10 catches, 116 yards) stepped up with the 61st 100-yard receiving day of his career, second all time behind Jerry Rice's 76. But the receiver who caught the game-clinching touchdown – and the 200th scoring pass of Brady's career – was, appropriately, a relative no-name.
Backup tight end Chris Baker, signed away from the Jets in March via free agency, was supposed to run an innocuous route to the right flat with eight minutes remaining and the Pats, now up 19-10, facing third-and-6 from the Falcons' 36. Baker, however, noticed Atlanta linebacker Mike Peterson overplaying to the inside and made an executive decision.
"I just instinctively made a move to the sideline and turned it up the field," Baker said. "It's not going to do Tommy any good if I'm sitting there covered, and I saw the linebacker look back inside. At some point you've just got to be a football player."
Fortunately for Baker, the best football player on earth – no matter whether he's as polished as we'd like him to be in his third game back from knee surgery – was in tune with the tight end's thought process.
"He really just ad-libbed on that," said Brady, whose 2-year-old son, John, was upstairs in a luxury suite, the first time he has attended one of his father's games. "He wasn't supposed to do that, but he just turned it up and I saw him."
Baker caught Brady's gorgeous pass down the right sideline and charged into the end zone, allowing the Patriots to head into next Sunday's showdown with the 3-0 Baltimore Ravens at Gillette with a bounce in their step. Watching from the opposite sideline, second-year Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, a former Boston College star and last season's NFL offensive rookie of the year, shook his head in appreciation.
"It's great to watch him work," Ryan said of Brady. "That touchdown at the end … that's what he does. We need to get there."
On Sunday, the Patriots got to victory lane with the help of a coach who didn't shy away from a high-risk maneuver. It's far too early to tell if the Pats are headed for greatness, but you can be sure Belichick will be putting the pedal to the metal the rest of the way.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• OK, so maybe it's time to re-think this whole Brett Favre(notes) return thing. Yes, he's got drama-queen tendencies. Absolutely, he's indecisive. And I'm convinced that he's out for revenge on Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, which isn't very becoming of a legend. But after what Favre did Sunday, it's all good. Seriously, was that 32-yard touchdown pass to Greg Lewis(notes) with two seconds left that gave the Minnesota Vikings a 27-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers not one of the sickest plays ever? Favre, having driven the Vikes from their own 20 with 1:29 left and no timeouts, took a shotgun snap with 12 seconds left, pumped once, rolled to his right and calmly sidestepped onrushing 49ers defensive end Justin Smith(notes). With linebacker Manny Lawson(notes) bearing in from behind and preparing to pummel Favre in the back, he calmly fired a pass to the back of the end zone. Wideout Greg Lewis, a late Patriots cut who had yet to catch a pass for the Vikes, went up and got the ball while somehow managing to drag his feet inbounds – and gave a future first-ballot Hall of Famer another signature moment. "Unbelievable!!!" said Vikings kicker Ryan Longwell(notes) (via text), who played with Favre for nine years in Green Bay. "The legend only grows!!!" The timing couldn't be any cooler, either – Favre's 3-0 Vikings host Aaron Rodgers(notes) and the 2-1 Packers next Monday night in a game that 99.9 percent of all players on the other 30 teams will be watching. And I'll go ahead and say it now – even if Favre's comeback takes a negative turn and the Vikings' season implodes, it was still a great thing that he returned, if only for that magical moment. We all agree that Sage Rosenfels(notes) or Tarvaris Jackson(notes) wouldn't have been able to do what Favre did Sunday. Now think about all the Hall of Fame quarterbacks, current and future, who couldn't possibly have pulled off that particular play – and realize that Favre turns 40 in two weeks. That was his early birthday present to us. Well, unless you're the 49ers. Asked via text if he could believe what had just happened, San Francisco quarterback Shaun Hill(notes), a former Vikings backup, replied, "Nope. Still can't."
• Meanwhile, in another NFC North dome, a different kind of celebration was taking place at Detroit's Ford Field, one of relief and pent-up release: Lions win! Lions win! Lions win! By beating the Washington Redskins 19-14, Detroit ended a 19-game losing streak – tied for the second-longest in NFL history – and gave first-year coach Jim Schwartz a chance to settle down and rebuild a team without having to contend with a preexisting stigma. "It was a burden the players shouldn't have had to bear," Schwartz said late Sunday night from his suburban Detroit home. "We turned over half the team, and most of the coaching staff was new, so for a lot of us it really wasn't our streak. We were 0-2, and it was like we were 0-19. Now we can just worry about playing." After Sunday people can start worrying less about rookie starting quarterback Matthew Stafford's(notes) intangibles. He showed his cool early in the game when, after the Detroit defense stopped 'Skins halfback Clinton Portis(notes) on fourth-and-goal, Stafford drove the Lions 99 yards for a touchdown that gave them a 7-0 lead. "After you stop them on the 1, you have to do something with the ball or they end up with another scoring opportunity right away," Schwartz said. "On the very first play, Stafford draws them offside with a hard count to give us a cushion. That showed me something." Later, as the Lions tried to kill the clock from their own 21 with 2:33 remaining, Stafford ignored tight end Brandon Pettigrew(notes), who was wide open in the flat a few yards downfield, and went up top to tight end Will Heller(notes) for a 24-yard completion. "Not the safest throw of all time," Schwartz said, laughing. "But Matt's not a guy who's always going to play it safe. Will was open, and he hit him. That was huge." And when the game finally ended, it was a huge respite for everyone associated with the Lions.
• Four years ago, the Cincinnati Bengals thought they had finally stood up to the Pittsburgh Steelers. After beating them for the AFC North title, the Bengals hosted the Steelers in a first-round playoff game, and fans at Paul Brown Stadium went nuts as star quarterback Carson Palmer(notes), on his first pass, connected with wideout Chris Henry on a 66-yard bomb. Then, dead silence: Palmer lay on the grass with a torn-up knee, and the franchise has never recovered. Until Sunday. Trailing 13-0 in the second quarter and 20-9 through the third, the Bengals never stopped fighting. In the end, two huge plays by Palmer – a fourth-down pass to halfback Brian Leonard(notes) and a four-yard touchdown laser to wideout Andre Caldwell(notes) (yeah, that's the guy Palmer told me to keep an eye on back in May) with 14 seconds remaining – made Cincy's 23-20 victory possible. The Bengals (2-1) now lead the Steelers (1-2) by a game in the AFC North, with both looking up at the 3-0 Ravens. Cincy, too, would be 3-0 if not for a somewhat fluke 87-yard touchdown catch by Denver's Brandon Stokley(notes) to give the Broncos a shocking victory in the season opener. "Hey, we had a chance to make that play, with guys on the backside, and we didn't make it," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said late Sunday night by phone. "You get what you pay for. But we're really happy about where we are. This is a team whose leadership has come from within, with guys who are tired of losing and who've taken steps to correct that. In '05, we didn't have enough maturity to handle the ups and downs, and when we won the division they thought they won the Super Bowl. I think this team is more steady." Added wideout Chad Ochocinco(notes), via text: "This is just the beginning."
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• In my heart, I still believe the Tennessee Titans are a very good team, as they were a year ago when they started 10-0 and earned the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC. For now, however, the evidence to the contrary is overwhelming, and it's not far-fetched to believe we're witnessing a Music City Meltdown. On Sunday against the undefeated Jets, the visiting Titans fell behind 14-0 and gamely fought back, taking a 17-14 lead. Then they decomposed, with return man Ryan Mouton(notes) fumbling for the second time to set up New York's go-ahead touchdown, and quarterback Kerry Collins(notes) throwing incompletions on his final 13 attempts, the last of which was a fourth-down pass to Justin Gage(notes) into double coverage that was predictably intercepted. Last year, Collins was a great story – the grizzled veteran thrust into the lineup after Vince Young's(notes) opening-week injury who proved he could still be productive. Now? You have to wonder whether coach Jeff Fisher will consider turning back to Young to try to give the team a spark. That was how things played out in 2006, Young's rookie of the year season, as Tennessee fought back from an 0-6 start and had a shot at a playoff berth up until the final day of the season. Schwartz, a longtime Titans assistant, believes Fisher won't do anything drastic. "He's not going to panic, change the lineup, fire anybody," Schwartz said. "His confidence won't be shaken, and therefore the players' confidence won't be shaken. Not many coaches can handle something like this; Jeff can. In 2002 we started 1-4 and got to the AFC championship game. In '06 we lost our first six and almost made the playoffs. Trust me, all is not lost." Outside linebacker Keith Bulluck(notes), the team's defensive leader, believes his unit will lead the way. "Always gonna fight," Bulluck said via text. "The Tyrant is returning. I feel it coming."
• Next up for Tennessee is Sunday's game at Jacksonville, aka the only Florida-based team that has won a single game this season. (The Sunshine State is a combined 1-8.) That happened Sunday when the Jaguars (1-2) defeated the Texans 31-24 in Houston. At least Jags fans have reason to hope – I guess. If you're a Miami Dolphins devotee, it's looking more and more like last year's stunning AFC East title run was an aberration. First came last Monday night's excruciatingly deliberate and ineffective two-minute drill in a 27-23 loss to the Indianapolis Colts; then, on Sunday, the Chargers beat the Dolphins in San Diego 23-13 and knocked out quarterback Chad Pennington(notes) with a third-quarter injury to his throwing shoulder. Uh-oh. Pennington, who has a history of right-shoulder problems, later said he was in "a state of shock." He should be. Even if he's only out of the lineup for a few weeks, that could be enough for second-year replacement Chad Henne(notes) to (a) play well enough to remain in the lineup or (b) stay in by default if Miami keeps losing and coach Tony Sparano views the season as a lost cause. Either way, this might be an abrupt and unfortunate end to Pennington's post-Jets career revival. And if so that's regrettable, because he's a hard worker and an exemplary leader who deserves better.
• The most pathetic team in Florida? Ladies and gentlemen, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a 24-0 home defeat to the New York Giants that was more lopsided than the score indicated, the Bucs didn't get a first down until five minutes remained in the third quarter. They finished with just five overall (to the Giants' 28), gained just 86 total yards (to New York's 397) and gave hope to fans in St. Louis and Cleveland that their respective teams aren't the league's most pathetic. Rookie coach Raheem Morris, who walked into this mess (the Bucs reportedly have twice as much cap space as the next lowest-spending franchise in '09), said it best: "We were beat by a grown-man team, a team like we want to be one day. They came in here and took it to us. … It wasn't even close."
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. How I could manage to lock my keys in my rental car – with my computer and notebook inside – while unloading a suitcase from the trunk outside the new Renaissance at Patriot Place behind Gillette Stadium on Sunday night. So much for the convenience of staying close to the stadium. Thankfully, Patriots PR director Stacey James and (after a couple of regrettable delay-of-game penalties) Avis made some calls that led to the timely liberation of my belongings. Then James dropped off the cell-phone charger I'd left in the press box. Note to self: When taking the red-eye, expect such snafus. (It was worth it, though, as you'll find out come Friday when I brag about my daughter's soccer team's glorious weekend.)
2. How the Raiders' brass can be so brutally tough on the last quarterback who gave the franchise a chance to be successful (Rich Gannon) and, incongruously, so pathetically soft on current quarterback JaMarcus Russell(notes), who right now is one of the worst players in the league, period. Yeah, I said it, which might get me banned from Raiderland – hey, it has happened before – and, thus, give Gannon some company. Here's Raiders executive lackey John (Yes, Al) Herrera explaining the team's desire not to allow Gannon, now a CBS broadcaster, into the team's training facility for the network's production meetings in advance of Sunday's 23-3 defeat to the Broncos (the Raiders ultimately relented): "Rich Gannon is not welcome here. … He's attacked us on a consistent basis since becoming a member of the media. … He seems to be a guy who can't get over the fact that he played the worst Super Bowl game in the history of the game and he wants to blame everybody but himself. I guess it's our fault he threw five interceptions."
Uh, right – and I guess it's Gannon's fault that Russell, who entered Sunday's game completing 35.2 percent of his passes, is so coddled by Herrera's boss, Raiders owner Al Davis, that any criticism of the third-year quarterback is treated as blasphemy. Just ask Lane Kiffin who, when fired by Davis a year ago, heard the owner cite the outgoing coach's lack of faith in Russell as a supposed justification for withholding the balance of his contract. Gee, I wonder what kind of message that sent to Russell, who is visibly overweight and generally carries himself like a guy who goes through the motions from Monday through Saturday and wings it on game day. Sunday, Russell completed 12 of 21 passes for 61 yards, including just one passing yard in the second half, and threw a pair of first-quarter interceptions. Fans at McAfee Coliseum booed Russell repeatedly; I wonder if they'll get calls from Herrera informing them they're not welcome, either. And you can all but forget about Raiders passing game coordinator Ted Tollner staying with the team beyond this season after his public call-out of Russell last week.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN
It's very tempting to take this opportunity to rip my beloved California Golden Bears, who got their pants pulled down (figuratively! … at least, as far as I know) Saturday by the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium. The Bears got eviscerated 42-3, a shocking outcome given their No. 6 national ranking and increasing hype as a national-title contender. Instead, however, I'm going to rail against some of my own: Cal loyalists who, in reaction to the debacle, are acting like affronted aristocrats and assuming that the sky is falling. Hey, it may be falling – in terms of the Bears realizing their lofty 2009 goals – or it may not be. But the program is most certainly not going back to the sustained run of ineptitude that plagued it for the better part of five decades, most unbearably in 2001, when Cal went 1-10 and arguably had the worst program in the country. Then Jeff Tedford arrived and the Bears became instantly competitive and put together a run of excellence that, in normal times, would have produced multiple Pac-10 titles. However, the run coincided with USC's return to dominance, and Cal instead developed a national reputation as a tantalizing tease that inevitably disappointed in truly big games. Fine. Saturday's result seemed to confirm this label, and I think it factored into Cal's severe drop (No. 24 AP/No. 19 USA Today) in the polls. But this whole "We're a joke" thing I'm hearing from some Cal fans? And that "We need to fire Tedford" email I received? To borrow from the great philosopher John McEnroe … You cannot be serious.
Look, Bear backers: Forget about the national title you thought we were good enough to capture, or whether Jahvid Best is racking up enough yards to win the Heisman, or who ranks us where in what poll. The only thing that matters, at this point in our development, is winning a Pac-10 title, and we haven't done that (outright, or with a tiebreaker in our favor) since 1958. We're now 0-1, and we have eight games remaining, beginning with Saturday's insanely tough test against the Trojans at Memorial Stadium. I plan to be there to cheer on Tedford and his players and insist that they play the kind of tough, focused and unrelenting football that is befitting of our great university. If they do that, I can live with any outcome. If they do that for the next eight games, it will have been a terrific season. And if we ever get to the Rose Bowl in my lifetime, it won't be because we were living up to our hype or coming through in big games; it'll be because we were undistracted grinders who hit people in the mouth and found a way to win football games. Period.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Midway thru 2nd quarter Typi-Cal. The best chance of any us having business in Pasadena on Jan 1 in our lifetime remains one of us getting a sex change and becoming Rose Bowl princess."
– Typically understated email Saturday afternoon from my friend Ajay Nirula to our gang of middle-aged Golden Bear loyalists as the debacle in Eugene unfolded.
- Bill Belichick