In a three-hour thrashing that was sheer torture for anyone outside the New England area, expat Pats fans excepted, Bill Belichick and his defiant band of merry pranksters took down the team regarded as the NFL's most talented Sunday night and affirmed their status as the franchise to beat in 2007.
As if that didn't make millions of people nauseous enough, when it was all over Belichick got a hug and a game ball from his boss and a rowdy ovation from his players. Dramamine, anyone?
The Patriots' dominance was swift, merciless and utterly untenable for the large group of people – recently expanded to include everyone who abhors rule-breaking coaches – that hoped to see New England gets its comeuppance before God, John Madden and 68,756 fans, many of whom celebrated their good fortune by chanting at the league's classiest superstar, "LT Sucks!"
And Belichick, the coach who'd just been popped for ordering an employee to videotape opposing coaches in the team's season-opening victory over the New York Jets last Sunday, incurring a $500,000 personal fine from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and costing his team another $250,000 and a first-round draft choice (presuming the Pats make the playoffs, which is like assuming USC will play in a bowl game)?
He was the Hero In the Hoodie, beginning with the warm ovation he received before the game, cheers he uncharacteristically acknowledged with a wave to the adoring masses. Shortly thereafter, news broke on ESPN.com of a contract extension that ties Belichick to the team through the 2013 season; the arrangement actually was agreed to some time ago, but the timing of the story was full of "Cheaters Do Prosper" overtones.
Then, after watching his new-look Patriots dismantle a Chargers team from which they stole a playoff game in January, Belichick repaired to his locker room and got that game ball from Pats owner Robert Kraft.
Referencing an emotional, rally-the-troops speech that veteran linebacker Junior Seau had made at the end of a team meeting two days earlier, Kraft told the players, "It's been a very difficult week for the franchise and everybody associated with it. We all care for Bill, and he did a hell of a job this week given all that was going on. As Junior said, people have been taking shots at a member of our family, and this is how you defend your family."
Emotion flowed freely as Kraft presented the 55-year-old coach with the pigskin, and it reached a crescendo as veteran linebacker Tedy Bruschi screamed, "How do we all feel about playing for Bill Belichick?"
"Oh yeah!" the players screamed.
Oh no! most of you are now yelling at your computer screen.
If you were neutral about the Pats before this scandal, you strongly disliked them in its aftermath. If you disliked them already, you flat-out detested them when it hit. And if you watched Sunday's game, you now feel about them the way Rosie O'Donnell feels about Donald Trump.
"Oh, buddy, yeah they do (hate us)," said quarterback Tom Brady, who completed 25 of 31 passes for 279 yards and three touchdowns, two to Randy (I Play When I Want to Play, and Now That I'm in New England, I Want to Play) Moss. "I don't think we've built up a lot of good will over the years, and now…. But hey, that's OK. We'll just keep doing our talking on Sundays. That's what this team does best."
Even scarier, Belichick's crew now does it with a litany of just-unwrapped toys that includes the suddenly uncontainable Moss (eight catches, 105 yards), the maddeningly elusive Wes Welker (eight catches, 91 yards) and do-everything defensive dynamo Adalius Thomas (a 65-yard interception return for touchdown on which the 270-pounder outraced San Diego wide receivers to the end zone).
Now consider that New England's best defensive player, Richard Seymour, is out at least four more games while stuck on the physically unable to perform list following left knee surgery, and its star cornerback, Asante Samuel, is just being worked back into the lineup after a long holdout. Uh oh.
The decisiveness with which the Pats dispatched the Chargers on Sunday night was especially sobering, given San Diego's perceived status as a member of the Big Three (along with the Colts, who eked out a road victory over the Tennessee Titans). The Chargers' weaknesses – lack of big-play receivers and quality defensive backs, and quarterback Philip Rivers' inexperience – were exposed, and even their greatest strength was neutralized.
For the second consecutive game, halfback LaDainian Tomlinson (18 carries, 43 yards; four receptions, 15 yards) failed to deliver a prolific performance, raising questions as to whether new coach Norv Turner, for all of his celebrated game-planning skills, has figured out how to spring LT the way Marty Schottenheimer (and departed coordinator Cam Cameron) did. Turner probably will, but it would be great for his players if it were to happen very, very soon.
Say what you will about Martyball, but Norvieball hasn't looked so fabulous, so far. For all of his playoff failings, Schottenheimer surely would have had his team more ready to play on the Sunday night stage in September than his successor did.
"They really gave it to us tonight," Tomlinson said after the game as he dressed alone at his locker. "It's obviously frustrating, but that's football. You're tested in many ways beyond your physical attributes, and this is a test for us. We have to bounce back from it."
Asked if he felt the Patriots were now the team to beat, Tomlinson nodded and said, "Yeah, I think that's fair to say. They're an excellent team. They proved it tonight. We've got a long way to go."
So do the mysterious ways of karma, a cynic might note. From the sight of Jets coach Eric Mangini, the former Pats defensive coordinator perceived in Boston as the narc who got Belichick busted, squirming on the sidelines while watching his team drop a close one to the Baltimore Ravens to the sound throughout the second half of fans getting their "LT Sucks" on (demonstrating why certain members of the local populace are often dismissed by chafed outsiders as "Massholes"), it was a horrible, horrible night for everyone who wanted the unseen scales of righteous justice to land on the backs of the Pats.
Want further proof of karma's inglorious demise? San Diego's Shawne Merriman, he of the four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing drugs last season, had a banner night in defeat.
Mostly, however, Sunday was all about the home team and those who cherish it. Had Derek Jeter not jacked that eighth-inning homer off Curt Schilling up at Fenway, it would have been one of those God Is a New Englander type of nights, but the specter of Belichick and the boys off and running toward a fourth Super Bowl title outweighed a simple one-out-of-162 heartbreak when all was said and done.
In the end, the moral of the Pats' story seemed to be: Sticks and stones will break your bones, and cheaters always prosper. For the capper, as he headed out into the cool New England night, Brady delivered a chilling quote that the nation of newly minted Belichick bashers won't be very happy to hear.
"I think we've got a long way to go; I really do," he said, frowning. "This can get better."
You know what that means: Time to stock up on Dramamine.
I'M HOT CAUSE I'M FLY …
• It was well after midnight Arizona time when Edgerrin James, celebrating at a Phoenix-area house party, grasped the true significance of the Cardinals' 23-20 victory over the Seahawks on Neil Rackers' 43-yard field goal with one second remaining. "If we didn't get this one, we were in trouble," said James, who ran for 128 yards and a 17-yard touchdown. "When you go through the whole f----- preseason without winning, and then last week (a heartbreaking 20-17 defeat to the 49ers), which was f---- ridiculous, and then you're winning 17-0 and can't hold on and you're thinking, 'Oh, man, not the same s--- as last year…’ We had to have it, man." Now, with coach Ken Whisenhunt's first career victory in the books, the Cardinals will ride the momentum into Baltimore next Sunday to do battle with the punishing Ravens defense. Oddly enough James, who has been exchanging text messages lately with fellow Miami alum Ray Lewis, relishes the matchup, explaining, "We need that Ravens game, for the simple fact that it's one of the top teams in the league, on the road, trying to take us out. It's going to be a big test for us, to see how we handle that. Because Ray and them are definitely gonna bring it." Oh, and by the way, James told you before the season reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. If you didn't pick him in your fantasy draft, don't say you weren't warned.
• James' old team, the Colts, had another tough test against their AFC South rivals, sweating out a last-minute Titans drive that seemed set up for another Vince Young "Oh No He Didn't" finish. It fell short, but Tennessee continues to play Indy as competitively as anyone, and the Colts were happy to get out of Music City with a 2-0 record, setting up a showdown for first place with the Texans (no joke) in Houston next Sunday. "A win is a win, especially in a division game," Indy wideout Reggie Wayne said via text message from the team plane. "They know us and we know them."
• Brett Favre broke a tie with the great John Elway to earn his 149th career victory, most in NFL history, and it wasn't just a ceremonial outing. Firing lasers to the back of the end zone and moving around with his infectious verve, Favre has a Packers team that's not good enough to compete for a championship at 2-0 and believing it's possible. Morning Rush will come see it for ourselves, hopefully before the tundra freezes.
• Abby Wambach gets more acclaim for what she does with her head and body, but the U.S. forward's second goal in the World Cup victory over Sweden on Friday morning was a testament to exceptional footwork. Playing a perfectly served pass from Kristine Lilly off her chest, Wambach struck the ball in stride with her left foot just after it hit the ground, ramming a brilliant shot past the stunned Swedish keeper. Anyone who says soccer is boring after watching that play should be tested for an abnormally low pulse rate. My 11-year-old daughter was so inspired that, in her game on Saturday, she scored a hat trick in the first quarter – though, to be fair, I aided her by deciphering the opposing coach's defensive signals after extensive video study.
• Hey, Terrell Owens, that football-as-video-camera routine by the goalpost? Tremendous, definitely your best TD celebration since the Sharpie, and right up there with Chad Johnson's CPR routine and Steve Smith's diaper change as the funniest of the last few years.
• For the Lions to get to 2-0, it took surviving Ryan Longwell's potential game-winner off the upright and the surreal sight of Jon Kitna, in overtime, running wild like Paul Crewe at the end of "The Longest Yard." Whatever – Detroit, with a league-high 72 defeats over the past six-plus seasons, is tied with Green Bay atop the NFC North. On a personal note, that should make Dr. David Hoffman happy, and if he's happy, I'm happy.
• As an injured defensive leader standing helplessly on the sidelines, Browns linebacker Willie McGinest had a tough time watching Cleveland's wild 51-45 victory over the Bengals. "(It was) very hard, but when you win it doesn't matter," McGinest said via text message afterward. While quarterback Derek Anderson was the obvious star with five touchdown passes, one defender did make a huge play when it mattered most: Cornerback Leigh Bodden made a terrific interception of a Carson Palmer throw at the Cleveland 27 with 21 seconds to go, somehow staying in bounds as he snagged the sideline pass intended for Chad Johnson.
• Though his team was humbled in Foxborough, Chargers long-snapper Dave Binn didn't lose his trademark sense of humor. While walking off the Gillette Stadium field, Binn, a sometime love interest of Pam Anderson, was asked about the recent fight at the VMAs between two of Anderson's exes, rockers Tommy Lee and Kid Rock. "I've got a standing challenge to both of them," Binn declared. "Bring it on."
• Frank Gore, you played with a heavy heart … and also a huge one. Hang in there.
• Jamal Lewis, I guess you're not done. Like, whoa.
… YOU AIN'T CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• When I visited with Marc Bulger during the Rams' training camp, he talked about the way fantasy football has changed fans’ perspectives, reasoning that if he lost a game while putting up big numbers, "I guess if you throw for a lot of yards, to some people, it's not that bad of a loss." To real competitors like Bulger, that's beyond annoying, and Sunday had a whole lot of that: Bulger (368 passing yards), the Bengals' Carson Palmer (401 passing yards, six touchdowns) and Johnson (11 catches, 209 yards, two TDs) and the Panthers' Smith (eight catches, 153 yards, three TDs) shined in defeat. I know all of these players well enough to be confident that they're all furious right now, even as their fantasy "owners" rejoice.
• Both guys got away with it because the opponent's potential game-winning field goal attempt fell short, but the 49ers' Mike Nolan and the Lions' Rod Marinelli played it way too safe for my taste down the stretch, especially given that they're coaching young teams trying to come up in the world. Conversely, Tony Dungy (and offensive coordinator Peyton Ma---uh, Tom Moore) was throwing for the end zone with a two-point lead late in the game at Tennessee. Then again, what does Dungy – an odd symbol for lack of conservative play, given his history – know about winning?
• O.J., O.J., O.J., haven't you learned that what happens in cheesy Vegas hotel rooms stays in cheesy Vegas hotel rooms? I'm not certain whether you'll beat this rap, but I'm pretty sure your defense team won't be so star-studded this time around.
• Give Eli Manning credit for sucking it up and playing on Sunday with that bum shoulder – that kind of toughness, a quarterback's most important quality, will win over teammates and critics alike – but I have to wonder whether you should have been kept out of uniform altogether. Was this an ill-advised move by a coach (Tom Coughlin) desperately trying to save his job that could cost the quarterback future games? That's what I wondered when I saw Manning awkwardly go to his left hand to return Coughlin's low-five on the sidelines.
• It took the Saints 104 minutes and 11 seconds to score an offensive touchdown this season. That's the craziest stat of the young season, so far. Last year, there was such a natural flow to Sean Payton's offense, but in '07 it seems like he's been a bit too willing to put it all on quarterback Drew Brees. Then again, those big deficits in Indy and Tampa may have had a lot to do with that. But if Deuce McAllister doesn't get more than 10 carries in the Saints' Monday night home opener against the Titans next week, it'll be a very bad sign.
• As inspirational as it was to watch Kitna return from a first-half concussion to pull out the Lions' overtime victory, it was also sort of scary in light of the recent attention the league has given the subject. Now check out this postgame locker-room quote from Detroit wideout Roy Williams: "I don't think he knew where he was. He might've thought he was back at Central Washington, but he led this team to a victory." Careful there, Jon.
• Hey, Mack Brown, Cal is now sixth in the AP poll, while Texas is seventh. Shouldn't you be shamelessly pandering for votes right about now?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. People who spit while using a public urinal, apparently unconcerned about the potential splash factor.
2. Rams coach Scott Linehan's decision, on fourth-and-3 from the 49ers’ 38-yard-line with 56 seconds remaining and St. Louis trailing by 1, to have Jeff Wilkins try a 56-yard field goal. Granted, Wilkins had earlier made a 53-yarder – which is about as far as his 56-yard attempt traveled. An offense as good as the Rams' ought to be able to make three yards in that situation and set up a higher-percentage kick. Linehan is going to be a great head coach, but I'd like to see him be more aggressive as he grows into the role.
OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE AT 4:19 A.M.
Hey, all you punt returners: I love it when you take one to the house, but keep in mind that your primary job is to catch the damn ball, especially when a game hangs in the balance. Last week two Eagles cost their team a game in Green Bay, and on Sunday it was newly acquired Dante Hall whose inexcusable muff with 5:42 remaining set up the 49ers' go-ahead field goal against the Rams. Horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible! Have I mentioned that this was a brutal fumble? All Hall had to do was call for a fair catch, and the Rams might well have been able to close out the victory. Unless and until he redeems himself, I'm giving Hall an updated version of his old nickname: The Human Kill-Joy.
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Mr. Silver, you certainly have a way of covering the NFL personalities like no one else can. However when you make such audacious predictions as 'TAKE IT TO THE ATM: The Texans will keep it going with an upset victory over the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte …' it shows that you are more suited for the NFL society pages (if they had one). Wild prediction and you did it without giving any rationale to back it up, or was it a gut feeling? If so, most likely it was just intestinal gas. 'TAKE IT TO THE ATM,' indeed."
Garden City Beach, S.C.
Welcome to my society, and be sure to tune in next Friday.
"Your 'sandbox' story was the best I've read on 'spygate' thus far. I've been a Patriots fan since the Krafts bought the team (couldn't stand the Sullivans) and switched allegiance from the Giants when Bob hired Tuna. I've been very supportive of the Patriots and dubious that the video did much – if anything – to help the Pats win Super Bowls. Didn't help much the last two years, right? Anyways, Bill knew it was against the rules. The league even sent a specific warning about it, and he did it anyways. I'm thinkin' Kraft should fire him. That's right, you have here a Patriots fan that thinks Belichick should be fired. Whatever, great work on the column. I'll be forwarding it to my friends."
Wow. Now that is "Mad." And given your location, I also understand why you chose not to give your real name.
"So question on this latest post: What would you think a fair ruling would have been? I honestly believe the cost of a first-round pick with a forfeit on New England game against New York would have been fair. I honestly don't think the team cares about losing money and they do have two first-round picks so who chooses the picks? Is it the one they get automatically from the lottery or the trade? Bottom line: cheating isn't cool in anything. Not even in videogames unless you're playing Contra."
I think the first-round pick and the fines were fair – Belichick is paying that $500,000 out of his own bank account, and he'll feel that. A forfeit, to me, would have been a little much. I will say this: Cowboys assistant Wade Wilson has reason to complain about the five-game suspension he received for ordering HGH over the Internet (a dumb, self-medicating move, but one which he says was done out of a desire to treat a complication arising from Type I diabetes, which is a physically taxing and mentally draining disease) relative to Belichick's zero-game suspension.
"'Operating under the Clintonesque rationale that because he wasn't breaking down opposing coaches' signals until after the completion of the game in question, he wasn't violating any rule.' Michael, How in the world could that possibly be 'Clintonesque'? Why not 'Nixon-esque' or 'Bush-esque'? If you're going to flippantly politicize a sports column, you should at least have the historical awareness to use as an example someone who actually seriously damaged our nation's political and civil institutions. And for some laughable after the fact legal justifications of blatantly criminal behavior, one needn't look farther than the legal team of the present administration."
Hey, hey, hey – after years of riling the right, I just got a rise out of my fellow lefties (you and the many, many others who weighed in less politely). Wow. As anyone who has read me in the past knows all too well, I completely agree that the Bush administration has taken blatant lying to a new level of atrocity. In this particular case, I was referring to Belichick's parsing of language and attempt to rationalize an obvious violation through nuance and technicality. Not that any of that kept me from adoring our former president. As Bill Maher says, I kid him because I care.
"If you don't find New England 's behavior abhorrent, then I guess your sense of sportsmanship is utterly lacking. If so, then your moral compass is just as crooked. In which case, I don't understand why Yahoo! would employ you. Why don't you resign, and let someone who cares about sports do the reporting. Assuming, you have any morality left."
Whoa, Jack, you're scaring me a little with the whole moral compass thing. Are you secretly videotaping me during my all-night writing sessions in hotel rooms?
"You are the biggest reason I see sports fans moving back to ESPN or Fox, because your columns are worthless, less than that actually, and your sarcastic response is more fuel for the fire that you are an idiot with bubble-gum machine credentials. Where did you learn your trade because they should be condemned as well as you. Give it up; go back to something you know. Your sophomoric banter lends nothing to the sports world as us true fans know it and Yahoo! is losing customers because we expect input from sources that have a clue. I'll even buy you dinner at your favorite, the Cheesecake Factory, because soon enough you will be in line at the local soup kitchen if you chose to bore us any longer. Get a real job because you don't know this one, Michael."
North Providence, R.I.
Two points of clarification: That bubble-gum machine known as Sports Illustrated deserves a bit more love, and its formidable website, si.com, is but one of those (along with ESPN and Fox) which now trails Yahoo! in the ratings.
"Love the column. Will we get 32 questions each week?"
That's one question I can answer. Yes.
"How clever, I note that you'll debate 'academic' issues, but other than referring to a club sport adored by third world (expletive) countries and socialists, you don't question the challenge on football. In fact, kal hasn't won an outright championship in any of the men's revenue sports since what, the 60s? And of course, when we'd had you in something like, 11 of 14 years in the Big Game, where were you? Look, it's OK if you want to use your position in sports journalism to be a kal homer, but don't pretend you're not. Just because kal has 3X the student body and alumni, particularly when it comes to Bay Area presence, that strength numbers denotes quality. Try to take the winning in stride, even though you're really not used to it in the People's Republic. As far as academic achievement, bring it on …"
Palo Alto, Calif.
Where was I during the 2-12-1 horror show? At the Big Game, naturally, supporting my utterly superior school and taking my beating like a man. You should take some notes, though I must congratulate you for winning your first game in the new stadium … on the seventh try. In the meantime, I will concede on one academic front – you have a lock on small-mindedness. Thanks, and enjoy your impending visit from those Polynesian rugby players.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/PHONE MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"We got f---- waxed. Right now I've got a really bad case of the red-ass." … Text from Scott Fujita on the Saints' team plane
"Yeah I stunk it up, too. Right now we are not close to good, but we got to get one game before we can get 12." … Text from McAllister, also on the Saints' plane