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When I think back on the New England Patriots' 2007 season, several annoying images come to mind: Coach Bill Belichick and his players reacting like the aggrieved party to his $500,000 fine in the wake of an improper-videotaping scandal; the Pats gleefully piling on points in blowout victories over various opponents, including one coached by revered Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs; Belichick bolting from the field following a premature handshake with Giants coach Tom Coughlin before the final gun sounded on the team's Super Bowl XLII defeat.
Yet a part of me will always adore the '07 Patriots, because Tom Brady(notes) and the boys did us a great service for which we should all be grateful: By obliterating the mystique of the perfect season, the Pats rendered the 1972 Miami Dolphins far less relevant. And that, football fans, is a beautiful thing.
Think about it: Two NFL teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Indianapolis Colts, are 12-0, each four victories away from completing undefeated regular seasons. It's the deepest into any campaign that two teams have carried unblemished records, and they don't play one another. A glance at the schedule shows that 16-0 appears doable for both the Saints (at Falcons, Cowboys, Buccaneers, at Panthers) and Colts (Broncos, at Jaguars, Jets, at Bills), and each team has already survived scares in games they seemed destined to lose.
And still, for all of the improbability of the situation, there's a decided lack of noise coming from South Florida: No Mercury Morris rapping. No Bob Kuechenberg yapping. No Don Shula spewing out sour grapes or talk of Bob Griese, Dick Anderson, Nick Buoniconti and company getting ready to pop champagne.
I'm fairly sure that the '72 Dolphins themselves bear no responsibility for this relative silence: I know from personal experience how much these guys love to talk perfect season. Rather, it's the people in my business who, in our refusal to rev up the hype machine, have neglected to provide them with the forum they previously enjoyed for decades.
The '07 Pats changed all that.
By going 16-0 in the regular season, New England made the '72 Miami bunch seem less unique. Granted, the Pats didn't finish the job, falling 35 seconds short of perfection in a classic Super Bowl. But the fact that they got so close – and, before that defeat to the Giants, had actually eclipsed the 17-0 Dolphins by winning the AFC championship game to improve to 18-0 – changed our collective perception of what's extraordinary and when to get excited about it.
In past years, when teams like the '85 Bears (12-0), the '98 Broncos (13-0) or the '05 Colts (13-0) got to this stage of a season, the talk of perfection was omnipresent. There were even theories espoused that it was better for teams in their situation to lose a game; otherwise, the hype surrounding the quest to go undefeated could supposedly impair their championship prospects.
You don't hear anyone suggesting the Saints or Colts lose on purpose in '09. At the same time, perhaps because the '07 Patriots were judged to have expended an inordinate amount of mental and emotional energy trying to make history (and it appeared to be reflected in their performance down the stretch), there's not much talk about the alleged obligation either Indy or New Orleans has to seize this opportunity.
Mostly, we're just hearing the usual debate about whether a team that clinches home-field advantage should rest its starters or strive to maintain momentum for the playoffs – the same argument that rages whether a team with a runaway lead in its conference is 12-0 or 10-2.
The reduction of Perfect Season hype is understandable. A good analogy, if you take away the performance-enhancing overtones, is the change in our perception of the single-season home run record. For 37 years, Roger Maris' 61 stood as the hallowed number. Anytime a player went into mid-summer still on pace to break the mark, it became a major story until he inevitably fell off. Then, in 1998, Mark McGwire (70) and Sammy Sosa (66) eclipsed it. The next year McGwire (65) and Sosa (63) did it again, and two years after that Sosa (64) beat Maris a third time. That same 2001 season was the one in which Barry Bonds hit 73, and though it was a big deal, fans didn't get nearly as excited about it as they did during the great chase of '98.
And next season, if Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard or whomever hits so many homers in the first half that he's on pace to topple Bonds, there still won't be the same level of excitement as there used to be, just as there wasn't after Bob Beamon's long-jump record fell or O.J.'s single-season rushing mark was surpassed.
The same would be true if someone were to best Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. And it even works in reverse: When last year's Lions (0-16) overtook the '76 Buccaneers on the futility scale, it removed the mystique of the winless season as well. The next time an NFL team flirts with 0-16, it'll generate much less of a reaction from fans and media members alike. What can we say? It's human nature.
It's also a reality of the 21st century that our collective memories and attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. That might explain why Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal proclaimed Tuesday in an interview with New Orleans radio station WWL that the Saints would go "not only undefeated, but all the way through the Super Bowl, something that's never been done before."
Actually, your eminence, it has been done before, but just once. And guess who felt compelled to point this out to the world?
That's right, the Dolphins, via senior vice president of media relations Harvey Greene. "With all due respect to Governor Jindal," Greene's statement read, "our fans in Louisiana and elsewhere will be disappointed to learn that he forgot about the most accomplished team in NFL history – the 1972 'Perfect Season' Miami Dolphins."
I'll spare you the rest, just as the near-miss by the '07 Pats has effectively spared us the nervous, protective chest-thumping out of that camp that we've come to know and loathe.
Thankfully, we are insulated – for now. However, if either the Saints or Colts close out a 16-0 regular season, the hype will intensify as each week of the postseason passes. If both teams stay perfect through early January, you can go ahead and double the buildup.
And if each team wins its conference, setting up an 18-0 vs. 18-0 Super Bowl for the ages, and one which will be staged in South Florida to boot? Well, get ready for two weeks' worth of hysterical hoopla that will dredge up our familiar cast of characters and make the remaining 12 hairs on Garo Yepremian's head stand up.
Then they'll play the game, and the winner will walk off as the first 19-0 team in NFL history, and the '72 Dolphins will finally be 100-percent irrelevant.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Counterintuitive as it might seem, the Dolphins (at Jaguars) will have an easier time than their fellow AFC East contenders – the Patriots (at home vs. Panthers) and Jets (at Bucs) – on Sunday. … As impressive as they have been in recent weeks, the Chargers aren't very good at stopping the run, and the Cowboys will exploit this weakness in a season-boosting victory in Arlington Sunday. … Still bitter over the way the 49ers behaved while defeating them in the season opener, the Cardinals will unleash the full force of their might in an NFC West-clinching victory at Candlestick Park Monday night.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
North Texas, where I can pay my second visit (and first on game day) to Cowboys Stadium and watch the Chargers put their seven-game winning streak on the line against a desperate, December-challenged Dallas team. Remember that whole punts-caroming-off-the-video-board controversy from the preseason? Maybe my man Mike Scifres(notes) will bring it back.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. In an effort to enhance his street cred inside the Vikings' locker room, Brett Favre(notes) drove his tractor past the Mall of America at 75 miles per hour (but instead of citing him, local police blocked off the adjacent roadways and staged a parade).
2. Raiders coach Tom Cable reacted angrily upon learning he'd been named the seventh-worst boss in America – but not as irately as the six people above him on the list.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
While sitting in the ever-friendly confines (except for the absurdly unprofessional behavior of one team employee, which I'll reveal in good time) of the University of Phoenix Stadium last Sunday, I watched Bruce Gradkowski(notes) stake the Raiders to a three-point lead over the Steelers with 8:27 remaining, and it occurred to me that my dreams of a start-to-finish run in this space might be in jeopardy. Thankfully, Ben Roethlisberger(notes) had my back: He led the Steelers to go-ahead touchdowns – twice – and by all rights I should have lived to see a 14th week. But Gradkowski, amazingly, got Oakland into the end zone a third time, throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy(notes) with nine seconds remaining to give Oakland a 27-24 victory. Watching Tom Cable and his players celebrate on the Heinz Field sideline, I felt like I'd been accidentally bumped. Oh well – given the weird way this season has unfolded, it had to be the Raiders that took me out, and I salute the men in silver and black for a tremendous performance. I'd also like to thank the Patriots, Redskins, Ravens, Texans, Eagles, Packers, Colts, Bears, Falcons, Vikings, Cowboys and Bengals for keeping me afloat through the season's first three months. I'll now focus my prognosticating energies on the ever-scintillating competition for bragging rights between my fellow NFL writers and me (not to mention that insipid, favorite-worshipping stiff named ''Yahoo! Users'').
MY BUDDIES' ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
In 2008, my first season as Lindsay Gottlieb's fantasy-football adviser, the UCSB women's basketball coach's other team narrowly missed the playoffs, the first time she had ever been left out of the postseason. That's not a problem this year – Harsh Reality (6-6-1) had already clinched a playoff spot before last weekend's 95-87 defeat to I'm On A Boat!!! and will enter the six-team field as the No. 6 seed. The good news is that we love this weekend's first-round matchup against No. 3 seed The Punt Blockers, a team Harsh Reality tied two weeks ago.
Before setting the lineup, we did some roster-tweaking: Inserting the Titans' defense (vs. Rams), which we'd picked up the previous week, and claiming the Broncos' defense (vs. Oakland) for the following week's matchup; claiming Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley(notes) (at Falcons), and starting him ahead of the Packers' Mason Crosby(notes) (at Bears); and picking up Titans wideout Kenny Britt(notes) for a potential start later in the playoffs. Meanwhile, Punt Blockers sat a pair of banged-up stalwarts, Matt Ryan(notes) and Hines Ward(notes), as well as underperforming first-round draft pick Matt Forte(notes), instead going with the following lineup: Alex Smith, Rashard Mendenhall(notes), Fred Jackson(notes), Pierre Thomas(notes), Andre Johnson(notes), Miles Austin(notes), Visanthe Shiancoe(notes), Nate Kaeding(notes), Eagles defense.
Gottlieb countered with a lineup of Carson Palmer(notes), Chris Johnson (no complaints about our first-round pick), Marion Barber(notes), Chad Ochocinco(notes), Terrell Owens(notes), Greg Jennings(notes), Vernon Davis(notes), Hartley and the Titans' D. Antonio Bryant's(notes) matchup with the Jets – and shutdown corner extraordinaire Darrelle Revis(notes), who killed us on T.O. last Thursday – scared us away from playing him over Jennings. And she scoffed when I brought up the possibility of playing Britt. ''This is the team we drafted, and it's time for us to flex our muscles,'' she said. ''We've had different guys step up and have big games in various weeks, but we haven't had that week where a bunch of them go off. This is that week.'' All I know is that with Johnson facing the Rams, we're going to be very tough to beat.
As for my buddy Malibu's Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – take heart, for it's almost over. While Malibu's son, A-Man, enjoys a first-round bye after Man Up Willis U … won its his ninth straight to finish with a regular-season-best 11-2 record, Sabbath dropped to a cellar-dwelling 2-11 after suffering a six-point defeat to Gravity Rebels. However, there is a consolation round, and I'm determined not to let my bro finish dead last. This week's matchup is against 11th-place Team 420 (I don't even know how the consolation round works, but that doesn't seem very fair), which features Philip Rivers(notes), Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Mike Bell(notes), Calvin Johnson(notes) and Santonio Holmes(notes). The retooled Sabbath lineup includes wideouts Mohamed Massaquoi(notes) and Louis Murphy, tight end David Thomas(notes), the Titans' defense and Jets kicker Jay Feely(notes). And though I knew full well we should've gone with Johnny Knox(notes) instead, I started the hobbled Ward in the bitter wind of Cleveland. What can I say? He's one of my favorite players.
As he has all season, Y! Sports guru Brad Evans now joins us to tell you what it all means:
Coach Gottlieb needs to lay it all on the line. With her back pressed against the wall, she needs to unleash hell. If she hopes to hoist the gridiron gold, hopefully her version of Hades will be slightly more frightening than Mike Tomlin's. Seriously, it needs to be Bill-Romanowski-hyped-up-on-roids-wielding-butcher-knives scary.
To create a monster, she must take chances, rolling the dice on unproven commodities with favorable matchups over underperforming veterans. As David Bowie once sang, anyone can be a hero, just for one day.
Captain Quick (Johnson) could annihilate Adrian Peterson's single-game rushing record versus the repulsive Rams, but Barber is deadweight. The Cowboys' back has eclipsed the 70-yard mark and splashed pay-dirt just once since Week 5. His matchup against San Diego, albeit decent, isn't ideal. The Chargers have surrendered the 11th-fewest fantasy points to rushers over the past five weeks.
Scour the wire for recently anointed Washington starter Quinton Ganther(notes). The Redskins rusher, who's averaged an impressive 6.0 yards per carry over the past two weeks, could be a waivers savior. His matchup against Oakland is downright delicious. The Raiders have surrendered 5.3 yards per carry and the ninth-most fantasy points to rushers since Week 9. With 15-18 touches he could easily rack 70-90 total yards and 1-2 scores.
Quinton, Quinton could be king …
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
So my wife and I are a little late on the holiday-card thing, and we thought we could go with the old standby of the kids playing soccer and leave it at that. But then I read a couple of links that my buddies Josh and Jim forwarded, respectively, and it hit me: Thanks to the magic of Photoshop, I'll send out an image of former Mississippi Congressman Chip Pickering upbraiding a neck-brace-wearing youth-soccer coach as he leans into the coach's vehicle – while Stuttgart keeper Jens Lehman squats on the roof of the car and busts his new signature move in Pickering's direction. And then, maybe, I'll throw in the classic ''Peace On Earth'' tag, or a slightly altered version thereof.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Chicago Sun Times columnist Rick Telander, a brilliant sportswriter who, because I am apparently smiled upon, has provided me with journalistic and spiritual guidance for 15 years. What a week for Telander: Last Sunday he managed to write a column about the fallout from my visit) with injured Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher(notes) that actually made me sound cool; on Tuesday he spoke at a Converse-sponsored New York City exhibit celebrating the 35th anniversary of his classic book, ''Heaven Is A Playground''; and, most important, he prepared to give away his daughter, Lauren, (and play a few tunes) at her wedding this weekend. I'll be slamming them back for Rick, his wife, Judy, and the entire Telander family, and I know that this blast from their illustrious past won't be the only thing that gets them choked up in the next couple of days.
DISPATCHES FROM THE LAIR OF THE BEAR
I figured a letdown was inevitable after Cal's epic Big Game victory over Stanford; however, a 42-10 defeat at Washington seemed a bit over-the-top. Oh well – it's time to gear up for a season-closing showdown with Utah in what my friends are calling the DisaPoinsettia Bowl on Dec. 23 in San Diego, and Golden Bears sophomore kicker David Seawright is already getting fired up. For him, it'll be a glorious homecoming; for me, another reason to remember the Holiday Bowl nightmare from five years ago.
It's the most wonderful time of the year. It's college bowl season.
It's the time for gifts, traveling and merrymaking. The time for giving, celebrating and eating heartily.
This is especially true for the college football teams fortunate enough to be invited to play in a bowl game. And, despite a season filled with highs and lows, we are among those teams playing deep into December.
Sure, there are three southern California bowl games (BCS Championship, Rose, Holiday) that we would have preferred as a team. But more importantly, we are granted one more opportunity to wash the bad taste of defeat out of our mouths.
Bowl games are valuable for plenty of reasons: extra practice time to develop young talent, more available recruiting weekends and more money for the conference and school.
But the true winners, without a doubt, are us players. We get to act as tourists in a new city and are lavished with gifts. And, after playing on the same field six days a week since August, we get a very welcome change of scenery.
For me, this truly is the season of dreams coming true. Having grown up in San Diego, I've idolized those who play in Qualcomm Stadium (or Jack Murphy for those of you born before the ‘90s) for as long as I can remember. Great joy and heartbreak have been mine in that stadium, but this time I won't be relegated to section 32 of the nosebleeds.
I was at the TCU-Northern Illinois Poinsettia Bowl in 2006 – a game on which LaDainian Tomlinson(notes) and his then backup Michael Turner(notes) had a public wager – and then the game has continued to grow in popularity since.
Ask last year's participants (TCU and Boise State). You'll find them in Glendale, Ariz., facing off once again in the postseason, this time in the Fiesta Bowl.
We leave for San Diego on the 19th – I finish my last final the night before at 8 p.m. – and get to reap the rewards of an exciting and successful season, regardless of expectations.
And when I run out of the tunnel on Dec. 23, I'll be enjoying one of the greatest holiday gifts I've ever received.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
On a Saturday when I was in no position to complain about anything going down on a soccer pitch, the Reading Football Club came through with a 2-0 victory over Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. Three minutes into the second half, the Royals scored when Grzegorz Rasiak headed home a Jobi McAnuff cross, and they piled on in the 67th minute on a brilliant goal that involved the efforts of Brynjar Gunnarsson, Marek Matejovsky, McAnuff and finisher Kalifa Cisse. Alas, they failed to build on their momentum three days later, dropping a 4-2 decision to Crystal Palace at Madejski Stadium. Though Alex Pearce and Glyfi Sigurdsson found the net, Reading was undone by 18-year-old prodigy Victor Moses, who scored Palace's final two goals in spectacular fashion. Remember that name (which shouldn't be that hard): Moses, who plays for England's Under-19 national team, may be starring on the big stage with Rooney, Beckham, Terry, Cole and Gerrard soon enough. He's also likely to end up in the Premier League before long; I wish I could say the same for the Royals, now 19th in the Championship table with 20 points. Said Reading boss Brendan Rodgers of the defeat to Palace: ''I think we got from the game what we deserved – nothing.'' The Royals host Scunthorpe at Madejski this Saturday.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Brady had an emotional week, what with the birth of his son and the wrenching aftermath of a 22-21 defeat to the Dolphins that left the Patriots just a game ahead of Miami and the Jets in the AFC East. Meanwhile, Belichick coped with his team's first two-game ''losing streak'' since 2006 and reminded everyone who's boss, sending home four players who were late for a team meeting on Wednesday. Can the golden-armed quarterback make everything OK for his silver-tongued coach? I see him riding to the rescue and coming through with a masterpiece, Declan Patrick MacManus style (to the tune of Elvis Costello's "Alison.'')
Oh I've been studying this game plan for 12 hours, Coach
And with the way you look I understand that you're a little stressed
But I heard you sent my buddy Randy Moss(notes)
Straight home with no practice
I'm not going to get too sentimental
Like T Bruschi and those other guys
‘Cause I don't know if you've been serving somebody
I only know it's humble pie
Belichick, I know this season's killing you
Oh, Belichick, my aim is true
Well you heard we've got a baby now
Gisele dressed him in that pretty onesie hoodie that you sent
In Indy they said to punt the ball
But you said, ''Screw that'' and went
Sometimes I wish that I could stop all the haters
When I hear how much you're misunderstood
I think those haters better put on the brown nose
Cause I promise I'll make it all good
Belichick, I know this season's killing you
Oh, Belichick, my aim is true
My aim is true
My aim is true …