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Patriots don't need reason to get in your face

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When Tom Brady(notes) spiked that football into the figurative faces of Pittsburgh Steelers fans behind the Heinz Field north end zone last Sunday night, he revealed a side of himself that caught many observers off guard. In the days that have followed, I've heard from numerous people via the many ways in which I can be contacted in the 21st century – phone calls, emails, text messages, Facebook posts, Twitter and Mogotxt blurbs, telepathy, hollering "Yo" Rocky-style – who wonder whether the New England Patriots and their superstar quarterback have devolved from classy champions to brash, posturing hellions.

Not at all, I tell them. They've always been this way – it just wasn't as obvious.

After all those years of selling a sanitized image that cast them as virtuous worker bees who abhorred trash talk and glitz, Brady and the Pats have finally grown comfortable with their inherent swagger. And to be honest about it, I'm more comfortable with it, too.

By the time the Patriots had won their third Super Bowl in four seasons, that whole "Winning With Class" thing started to make me throw up in my mouth whenever I helped sell that storyline.

Now that they've stopped the façade and it's clear they're just as cocksure, emotive and flawed as their competitors, I'm experiencing that minty-fresh taste from the old days.

On Sunday, we'll be treated to the latest chapter of what might be the coolest rivalry in professional sports since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird: Brady vs. Peyton Manning(notes), Indianapolis Colts vs. Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

As with all rivalries, great efforts have been made to play up the differences between the two quarterbacks. In the case of Brady and Manning, some of those distinctions are very real. However, that camera shot Sunday night of Brady getting in the grills of his offensive linemen after a failed third-down conversion deviated from the script. Manning has always been the one cast as the rightful heir to Dan Marino, the prickly perfectionist who isn't shy about expressing his on-field displeasure with anyone who fails to meet his exacting standards.

It turns out Brady has a salty streak, too. "He goes through those [outbursts] every now and then," Patriots tackle Matt Light(notes) said after the game. "We try to humor him when possible. When you're in the heat of battle, tempers flare up. He's a perfectionist in that way. It's like having another coach."

Back in training camp, a few days after Brady had called his linemen "fat cows" in the huddle, we talked about his temperament and the sense of urgency it projected. "It's just so hard to win," he said. "It doesn't just happen. As you get older, you realize that, and you try to convince the young guys. You've got to pay the price."

Brady has been the emotional driving force behind the Pats' 7-2 start this season, and I expect his passion to be displayed even more blatantly as the stakes get higher. It'll be fun to watch, and as strange as it sounds, I think we all owe a debt of gratitude to a man named Plaxico Burress(notes).

A quick history lesson: From the time the Patriots burst onto the scene with their Snow Bowl victory over the Oakland Raiders, they projected a team-first attitude and mimicked their coach's "We do our talking on the field" mantra. They bailed on the traditional pregame Super Bowl introductions, instead running onto the field as a team, and constantly seized upon the pseudo-incendiary words of opposing players (Marcus Pollard(notes), Freddie Mitchell, Anthony Smith(notes)) as motivational gifts that stoked their collective fire.

Even after Spygate, when Patriots-haters multiplied like caged mice, Bill Belichick and his players still tried to play the role of victims, using outside criticism as fuel for a world-is-against-us mentality and crushing everybody in response. As the Pats completed their unprecedented 16-0 regular season, the popular sentiment remained: The worst thing you can do is say something unflattering about them, for it will only serve to rile them up further.

Then, six days before Super Bowl XLII, Burress called b.s. on all of it, publicly predicting that his New York Giants would stun the Pats on Super Sunday and going so far as to offer an exact score (23-17). The football world collectively gasped – until Burress caught a touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining to give the Giants a 17-14 victory and permanently smash New England's "we devour trash talkers" aura.

In the years that have followed other players have felt emboldened to show blatant disrespect to the Patriots – and, in a somewhat surprising twist, the Pats have fired back.

Earlier this year, after the Pats scored an overtime victory over the Ravens, Brady and Baltimore pass rusher Terrell Suggs(notes) got into a verbal back-and-forth, with the quarterback ultimately saying on his radio show, "They talk a lot for beating us once in nine years."

Yep, the Ravens do talk a lot. And now, blessedly, the Patriots do a little bit of talking, too. My reaction? I hope the two teams meet again in the playoffs, so the talking can resume in full force.

But what I really want is for Burress to get out of jail, sign with an NFC team and go up against Brady and the Pats in the Super Bowl one more time.

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

The Cleveland Browns, one of the NFL's better teams as of late, will take down the Jaguars, undeniably the luckiest team, in a hard-fought game in Jacksonville. … The Detroit Lions – stop the presses – will end their 25-game road losing streak and Jason Garrett's perfect head coaching record by shocking the Dallas Cowboys in Arlington. … Brady will outplay the outmanned Manning as the Pats pound the Colts.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

The center of the universe, for the 28th little game on Friday (my friends and I started it as Cal freshmen; let your imaginations run wild), the 113th Big Game on Saturday and as many drinking games as my middle-aged liver can withstand. On Saturday night, will I be toasting the defense of the Axe or drowning my sorrows? The answer will have a dramatic effect on my mood Sunday when I cross the Bay and show up at Candlestick Park to see the Buccaneers battle the Niners and take a closer look at a pair of intriguing young quarterbacks, Josh Freeman(notes) and Troy Smith(notes).

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Without beacons of moral purity like this guy, there'd be no way to strike back at the forces of deceit who pollute the otherwise idyllic landscape of big-time college athletics.

2. After learning that Blazers center Greg Oden will undergo microfracture surgery and miss yet another season, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford(notes) scoffed, "Man, that dude is injury-prone."

3. Told that Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis(notes) had used his name in an analogy for covering the Houston Texans' Andre Johnson(notes), Michael Jordan showed up at the team's training facility, lined up at receiver against Revis and, with the help of a perfect spiral from a certain Hick From French Lick, torched him on a 60-yard post.

WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL

Well, guess I should have gone with my instincts. Despite a sneaking suspicion that a Giants beatdown of the Cowboys was too preordained to be true, I put my faith in Tom Coughlin's bunch to get me to Week 11, and the lights went out on the Giants, their stadium and my quest for survival. So here's the postmortem after Dallas' 33-20 upset of New York: I didn't make it quite as far as last season, which ended with a Raiders upset of the Steelers in Week 13, but this year went a heck of a lot better than 2008, when I was one and done thanks to a Bears upset of the Colts. I'd like to express my deepest gratitude to the Titans, Falcons, Patriots, Saints, Colts, Steelers, Ravens, Chiefs and Packers for getting me to this point, and to all of you for noticing.

FANTASY ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK

If I wasn't keeping her entertained with anti-Stanford rants, embarrassingly loud karaoke renditions of Bad Company's "Shooting Star" and celebrity-laced Malibu scenes, UCSB women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb would probably have disowned me by now. After two relatively successful seasons with me as her volunteer assistant, she has officially bottomed out: The V.I.P. Room (2-8) has an eight-week losing streak and is dead-last in the league. Then again, Gottlieb could have altered her busy schedule to show up for her draft, rather than deputizing her non-football-fan sister to pick from a loose list of post-its and stream-of-consciousness exhortations. Not that I would ever question a coaching decision or anything.

View photo

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Wallace leads the Steelers with 643 receiving yards.
(George Gojkovich/Getty Images)

So here we are playing out the string, with Gottlieb's stated goal of "trying to mess up other people's seasons" in play for this week's matchup against the amusingly named PlaxiColt.45, a 6-4 team with playoff potential. One of the few good things I did for Gottlieb was to turn her on to Steelers wideout Mike Wallace(notes), who has emerged as a big-time scorer. He'll go head-up against our latest acquisition, Raiders rookie Jacoby Ford(notes), who'll be looking to prove he's not a one-hit wonder at Heinz Field on Sunday. I advised her to play Jermaine Greshman (vs. Bills) over Chris Cooley(notes) (at Titans), to claim the Chargers' defense (vs. Broncos) and dump Indy's (at Patriots) and, of course, to say a prayer for the Golden Bear.

YAHOO SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

Oski tree fight

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

Aidan McNulty, a brave, athletic, 10-year-old who is fighting his way back from a scary medical situation. A standout flag football player and Cal fan, Aidan will spend the Big Game on Saturday in an Oakland hospital supported by his parents, younger siblings and a vast network of family and friends who've been heartened by his fighting spirit. When we chant things like "The Bear does not quit, the Bear will not die," we know it means something deeper than anything that takes place on the football field.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

Before we get to the Big stuff, I'd like to welcome back coach Mike Montgomery and his defending Pac-10 champion basketball team, which opened its 2010-11 campaign with an 80-63 victory over Cal State Northridge on Tuesday. Cal's top returning player, junior guard Jorge Gutierrez, had a career-high 18 points and eight assists as the Bears welcomed freshmen Gary Franklin, Allen Crabbe, Emerson Murray and Richard Solomon to Haas Pavilion. Meanwhile, Joanne Boyle's defending NIT champion women's team had a terrific debut weekend with impressive victories over Rutgers and St. Mary's.

Cal's Pac-10 champion men's soccer team, coached by the amazing Kevin Grimes, earned a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament and will host the winner of UC Santa Barbara's showdown with Denver on Sunday. That's part of a huge Cal weekend that includes the Big Spike (No. 2 Stanford vs. No. 4 Cal in a Friday night volleyball match at Haas with conference-title implications), the Big Splash (No. 5 Stanford at No. 1 Cal at Spieker Pool on Friday evening) and, oh yeah, that other game Saturday afternoon.

Coming off a distressing 15-13 defeat to No. 1 Oregon at Memorial Stadium last Saturday, the Golden Bears host sixth-ranked Stanford in a matchup that seems horribly stacked against them. You'll be stunned to know that I have some musically tinged thoughts on the subject …

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

According to the meteorologists who are slightly better at predicting the weather than I am at forecasting the outcome of football games, a storm is coming to Berkeley on Saturday – and, not coincidentally, so am I. My age-inappropriate inner circle and extended crew of blue-and-gold-clad zealots, as always, will be loud, proud and unbowed as we do everything in our power to help the forces of good prevail over the soldiers of Satan. It won't be easy – Stanford, a one-touchdown favorite, is 9-1 this season – and it won't be subtle. It never is.

Last year, before the Golden Bears took care of business for the seventh time in eight years, I tapped into a rebellious Muse groove to set the tone. This time, we're going old school and opening the Doors to a surreal dimension where rationality surrenders and absurdist theater reigns.

Did I say Doors? Yes, boys and girls, Jim Morrison is alive, and he's in Berkeley, and he's not even close to being the strangest dude on Telegraph Avenue. Here he is belting out the tune Jay-Z sampled in "Takeover," a subversive little ditty we old folks know as "Five to One."

Yeah, come on
Love our Axe
It lookin' good
Come on
One more

Seven to one, babe
One in eight
On this day we celebrate, now
You got yours, Harbaugh
I'll get mine
Gonna keep it, baby
We shall rise

The rain comes down
And the Bears get stronger
May take four hours
And it may take longer
They got the Luck
But we got pass rushers
Gonna win, yeah
We're comin' for ya
Come on!

Yeah!

Your fragile dreams are over, ladies
Night is drawing near
Drink in Mike Mohamed before I drink 10 beers
You show up in our house you'll be sittin' on your hands
Holdin' it in like snotty Stanfurd fans
Cheerin' that Tree like dumbfounded mimes
We don't cop a 'tude, no we just grind

Come together one more time
Get together one more time
Give it to ya, one more time
Get together, aha
Get together one more time!
Get together one more time!
Get together one more time
Get together one more time
Get together, gotta, get together

Ohhhhhhhh!

Hey, come on, Oski
Put that straw through your eye and drink, baby
We'll be there in just a little while
You see, we gotta go out in these stands with these people and …

Get together one more time
Get together one more time
Get together, got to
Get together, got to
Get together, got to
Take it up into the bar and …
Hah-hah-hah-hah-hah
Love our Axe
It lookin' good, lookin' real good
Love it, come on …