Monday, October 15, 2007

The Patriots Act

I know it's not quite Super Bowl week, but there's something exciting going on in football right now -- the New England Patriots are playing at a higher level than any team I've ever seen in my whole entire middle-aged life. After watching them tear apart the Cowboys on Dallas' home field, I would be surprised if any team beats New England this year. They're 6-0, they've won five of their games by more than 20 points, and the other game they won by 17 -- not exactly a nailbiter.

Don't think I'm happy about this. At one point, I actually liked the Patriots. I rooted for them in their first two Super Bowl wins, especially when they all ran out on the field as a team and refused to have individual names announced during the pre-game hype. And how can you root against hardnosed old school guys like Tom Brady, Troy Brown, Teddy Bruschi, and Mike Vrabel? Then something happened to them. I'm pretty sure I know what it is, but I'm reluctant to come out and say it. But here it goes. I have a theory that the Patriots became evil.

It all started when the Patriots beat my beloved Colts yet again. I like Peyton Manning, and I rooted for him to overcome his nervousness problem in big games. Like Steve Young, he looked best against middling competition, but when he went up against a tough defense during the playoffs, he got happy feet and lost his confidence and timing. In the same way that it's much more interesting for me to see a cowering soldier overcome his fear than it is to watch a John Wayne guy lead a charge, I prefer the Steve Youngs and Peyton Mannings to the Joe Montanas and Tom Bradys. During the playoffs a few years ago, Manning played well, but the Patriots took advantage of loose officiating and practically tackled the Colts receivers on every play. Insult to injury, at the end of the game, once they knew it was in the bag, the Patriots openly mocked the Colts and their fans. Yeah, that's right. The Patriots hurt my feelings. When the Patriots went on to win their third Super Bowl title, I hated them as much as I hated the Cowboys and Steelers back in the 70s. The Patriots are the kind of team that keeps a low profile and doesn't talk trash until they have the game in hand, and then wham! They let it all out, and start dancing on the opponent's helmet logo at midfield. I hate guys like that. And now they're running up the score.

The Colts are the only team that appears to be in the same league as the Patriots (in the same way that the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devil Rays are in the same league). The Patriots haven't beaten the Colts since that awful game -- the Colts have won three straight, including an enormously fulfilling come-from-behind victory in last year's AFC championship game -- but both teams are different now. The Patriots added three talented receivers, including one of the best receivers of all-time, and an all-pro linebacker to their team, while the Colts lost a bunch of players from last year's championship team. The Indy reserves have stepped up and the Colts are playing well, but at this point, if both teams play their best, the Colts will get beaten -- badly.

That said, there are two things in the Colts favor. First, they're the defending champions, but everyone is overlooking them since the Pats have been steamrolling everyone. It's no surprise that Manning plays much better when he's an underdog. Second, they've reversed roles with the Patriots. The Colts used to be a pass-first offense that ran the ball only to keep defenses honest. Now, they run more than they pass. The Patriots were a run-first team when they won their Super Bowls, but now they're pass happy. Great defenses can take away the pass, and the Patriots may no longer have the mindset to grind out a victory by running the ball.
We'll get a preview November 4, when the two teams play. If the Colts don't win that one, the Patriots are probably going to go undefeated. I'm getting nauseous just thinking about it.