Death on the pigskin piazza

Cold, Hard Football Facts for Feb 06, 2008



The Patriots ruled the NFL like a football fascist in 2007. Nobody liked them but at least the trains ran on time: every Sunday you could set your watch by the fact that another New England victory would roll into the win column.
 
Today the lifeless body of the gridiron dictator is the subject of public ridicule, hanging limply like a modern Mussolini of sport: beaten and bloody on the pigskin piazza.
 
The sudden downfall of this once unbeatable tyrant has raised countless questions here in the offseason. So here are four of the iciest issues that surround New England's humiliating downfall ... followed by the even icier responses.
 
Icy Issue: Is the New England dynasty over?
Icier Response: It looks that way.
This is the biggest question football fans should be asking – especially those in New England.
 
Some defeats are so crushing and humiliating that the parties who suffered them never recover. Italy hasn't scared anybody since about 1943. And few remember the seemingly invincible 2001 Rams, either.
 
There's never been a defeat in pro football more crushing and humiliating than the one New England suffered: a literally unbeatable juggernaut that was shut down by – let's face it – a team that was barely above mediocre this season and whose own fans were ready to disown it back in mid-December.
 
Now, for a better or worse, a world of hurt is about to descend upon the organization and its coach - some of the hurt the team's own doing, some of the hurt coming from the gridiron resistance! that has encircled the organization, waiting to pounce.
  • One player, Willie Andrews, was busted for possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, just two days after the Super Bowl and just a day after the team returned from Arizona. Police said he had two to three ounces of weed on him - enough, perhaps, to deaden the pain of 53 men.
  • Several key personnel decisions loom on the horizon, on both sides of the ball.
  • Congress – Congress! – is about to get involved in the whole SpyGate scandal, calling in people to ask "what did you film, and when did you film it?"
  • And there's a certain golf pro in Hawaii who might have information that could topple the entire organization, or at least its controversial coach. The NFL has even offered this individiual, Matt Walsh, legal protection if he'll talk. Viva la resistance!
Sports are amazing, folks. One day you're walking on water. The next day your best buddies are betraying you in front of the gathering hordes.
 
The 2007 Patriots will stand as a premier example of the quick and sudden turnabout that make sports such great theater: on Sunday morning they were celebrated for being the first team likely to go 19-0. Now the humiliating loss of Sunday evening looks like just the start of an off-season that could ruin the dynasty in a week that should have been its finest hour. 
 
Icy Issue: Did the Patriots choke?
Icier Response: Abso-f'in-lutely.
We love this part: New England fans telling us that the Patriots didn't choke. They just ran into a team that outplayed them in the Super Bowl.
 
Say what?
 
Last we checked, the Patriots were 18-0. They lost to a 13-6 team. Last we checked, the Patriots averaged 35.6 PPG (including playoffs). They scored just 14 on the biggest stage of the year.
 
Last we checked, the Patriots rarely ever punted and, even in a bad game, scored on about half of their offensive possession. In the Super Bowl, they punted four times and went six straight possessions without a point – the longest scoreless stretch of the season.
 
And let's not forget who they lost to: a team that was literally one of the worst ever to reach a Super Bowl: New York's 10-6 regular-season record is the worst of any Super Bowl champion (tying the 1988 49ers) and its +22 scoring differential (+42 if we include all four playoff games) is also literally the worst of any Super Bowl champion.
 
Our old pal, Wall Street Journal sports columnist, New Jersey resident and author Allen Barra, said it best in an email the other day: "I'm a Giants fan and I was completely baffled by what happened. The Patriots outscored 18 opponents by 335 points. The Giants outscored 19 opponents by 39 points. Over the last eight regular-season games, the Giants were just 4-4 and outscored by those opponents. I haven't a clue as to how New England lost this game."
 
The NFC sent a team that on its best day could barely squeak by its toughest NFC foes: let's not forget the gift Brett Favre handed the Giants in the NFC championship game. And that team physically beat up the undefeated Patriots. The Patriots simply didn't show up against a team they should have been able to handle easily and did handle, at least offensviely, quite easily just a month ago.
 
When you play your worst game in years in  the biggest game of the season, when you're physically beat up by an opponent that was inferior by every quantifiable measure, they have a word for that. And the word for that is "choke."
 
Icy Issue: Should the Patriots break the bank for Randy Moss?
Icier Response: No. They can live without him.
Yes, Moss had a record-setting season that made for individual awards and great headlines. But at the end of the day these records, awards and headlines proved as ethereal as cotton candy and beer foam - not good in a world that prizes the solid and instant gratification of rock candy and straight whiskey.
 
The Patriots proved in the past they can win Super Bowls with David Patten, Troy Brown and Deion Branch. Moss, meanwhile, pulled a Marvin Harrison (who has 2 career playoff TDs) and just up and disappeared in the playoffs. Moss's output: 7 catches, 94 yards, 13.4 YPC and 1 TD in three games. That was about one half of work for him early in the season.
 
For reasons even we still can't fully explain, prolific passing offenses routinely tank in the playoffs. Call it Fouts-Marino syndrome.
 
The 1998 Vikings, the NFL's highest scoring offense (556 points) before the 2007 Patriots, didn't exactly tank on offense, but lost in the NFC title game after a 15-1 season. The 2001 Rams, the "Greatest Show on Turf," were shutdown in Super Bowl XXXVI and lost. The 2004 Colts, Peyton Manning's best offensive team (522 points) mustered just three points in their divisional playoff defeat. And, of course, the record-589-points 2007 Patriots were humiliated in Super Bowl XLII, scoring just 14 after a season in which they averaged 36.8 PPG.
 
Meanwhile, six of eight Super Bowl champions this decade failed to score even 400 points: the 2000 Ravens (333), 2001 Patriots (371), 2002 Buccaneers (346), 2003 Patriots (348), 2005 Steelers (389) and 2007 Giants (373).
 
Like we said, Moss made for a lot of headlines and nifty records. But in a bottom-line business his contributions were meaningless. The organization would clearly be better off taking No. 1-caliber receiver money and spending it instead to reinvigorate the defense. There's no reason to believe that fielding another prolific offense will help the team win a Super Bowl.
 
Icy Issue: Will the Patriots recover?
Icier Response: The betting public seems to think so.
Vegas has already installed the Patriots as a prohibitive favorite to win Super Bowl XLIII. They have the No. 7 pick in the 2008 draft. And the Patriots face the easiest schedule in football next season, by a large margin. New England's opponents in 2008 were just 99-157 (.387) in 2007. San Diego boasts the second easiest schedule, with opponents who were 108-148 (.422) in 2007.
 
It's a rare convergence of factors for a team that lost the Super Bowl. High draft pick, easy schedule an something real big to prove to the world. It bodes well for New England's hopes in 2008 – provided the Patriots don't collapse between now and training camp the way they did on Super Bowl Sunday.

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