September 7, 2006

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LONGSHOTS: Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
by Dave Long

Thanks to the worst May/June weather since the last great floods in these parts, which I personally blame on Mike Haddad, our summer is over quicker than the Red Sox’ pursuit of a wild card slot after they got swept by the Yankees. So the football season is here, where the Patriots will continue pursuit of one of the two more Super Bowl victories they need to become a true dynasty.

Being an optimist, I believe that’ll happen as long as Bill Belichick is around running the show. It all starts Sunday versus the Buffalo Bills, who look a lot different than the last time they met in a season opener. That was Drew Bledose’s first game in Buffalo, and a few days after Belichick shocked everyone by cutting Lawyer Milloy after he refused a pay cut. The Pats got smoked and dire predictions that they were already toast followed, along with word from ESPN’s Tom Jackson that the players hated Belichick. However, after surviving an avalanche of injuries, four months later, Super Bowl number two was won.

Following an off-season with the most yapping Belichick has received since that week, optimism is again running high. Still there are a number of issues to talk about as the season gets under way and in no particular order here are the ones I see:

Swimming with the Dolphin: In case you haven’t noticed: Miami is the chic pick among the pundits and I agree. Though it has less to do with imported QB Duante Culpepper than Nick Sabin. A “my way or the highway” coach, Sabin will take a historically under-performing team with the overmatched Dave Wannstedt and reach its potential. I don’t think they’ll beat New England yet, but they’ll make them work and be there in the playoffs.

The Saga of Deion Branch: I’m going on a limb and guessing Branch got nothing done by the September 1 deadline he had to make a deal with an NFL team. It’s nuts to give him up for just the fourth-round pick the rumor mill said they were being offered. And if true, it’s another smart move, as it will bring him in to camp quicker, or let them know where they stand on their terms, not the agent’s, er, I mean the player’s.

Alive If They Are Kicking: Speaking of Vinatieri, if you haven’t heard, he jumped to the Colts as a free agent. Not quite like Johnny Damon going to the Yanks but he still went to a rival after their near miracle season ended when Mike Vanderjagt’s last-second field goal attempt went farther right than Rush Limbaugh. The truth is, once upon a time V was a less heralded rookie than new kicker Stephen Gostkowski, and you’ll notice he’s gone maybe five times all year. If that. The problem is, one of those times could be on the play that ends their season as Vanderjact did last year for Indy. So the margin of error in the environment Gostkowski learns under is so much greater than the one free agent Vinatari cut his teeth on. Still he’s looked solid, so it remains “In Bill We Trust” until proven otherwise.

Linebacker U: Linebacking is the backbone of the Belichick defense. With Tedy Bruschi sidelined after his stroke and Ted Johnson unexpectedly retired, Monty Beisel and Chad Brown were a disaster and chaos ensued last year. Things only turned around after Bruschi returned and Vrabel moved inside. In 2006 they need to replace Willie McGinest, whose loss will be felt more often than Adam Vinatieri if Junior Seau has nothing left or can’t stay healthy. If he can, Vrabel goes back outside where his speed on the edge and knack for big plays lead to turnovers. This assumes Bruschi returns from his broken wrist with no effects, and since this is football where guys do amazing things hurt I expect that to be the case.

Ben Coates Redux: The offense will be a changing this year. Ben Watson gets the Ben (winter) Coates roll as a central player offensively to mitigate an expected drop in production from the wide-outs. I’m betting he catches 60 balls. Plus with two more tight ends drafted and Daniel Graham still on hand, you’ll see two tight end sets out the wazoo, balls go to the big targets more often and them pounding it on the ground.

The Running Game: The offensive line has a chance to be the best since maybe the John Hannah-Leon Gray era. Accuse me of hyperbole if you wish, but they can move the pile and, with the experience the young high draft picks got in the injury-wracked 2005 season, they have depth. With the power and speed mix of Corey Dillon, Lawrence Maroney (who has very quick feet), Kevin Faulk and whoever survived cut down among Patrick Cobb, Patrick Pass and Heath Evans and the runners are deep, versatile and will come at the D in many different ways. Plus with Dillon on the scene, they’ll do the most important thing a running game does: get first downs on third and one, two or three. That is key to winning.

Wisdom of Going With Just Two Quarterbacks: Going with just Tom Brady and Matt (Hearst) Cassel reminds of the first movie I ever saw with Tom Cruise — Risky Business. Far be it from me to question the wizard behind the curtain, but now that we are on the subject, they do know this is the NFL, right? Where it’s not out of the realm of possibility to lose quarterbacks on consecutive plays. If that happens, who plays QB, Troy Brown or Mike Vrabel? Maybe they have Doug Flutie on speed dial, or maybe they’re waiting for the right guy to show after cut down day—which apparently is not Rohan Davey, who was cut by Arizona last week. But at the moment this is an area to knock on wood that Tom Brady makes it through the year in one piece.

I did not mention the cornerbacks, as I’m out of space, but that’s another area to keep an eye on. As always injuries are huge in football and hold their own, but if the Pats can avoid the calamity of injuries that have befallen the Red Sox in recent weeks they’ll be in the mix come late January.

Dave Long can be heard on Sports Night with Dave Long nightly from 6 to 7 p.m. on 610 WGIR-AM


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