Septemeber 6, 2007

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LONGSHOTS: Itís Super Bowl or a bust for the Pats in 2007
by Dave Long

The Patriots open the NFL season on Sunday in the Meadowlands against the J-E-T-S, jets, jets, jets amid local euphoria and Super Bowl expectations. The expectations ratcheted up after Bill Belichick opened the purse strings to pay J. D. Drew-like money for free agent linebacker Adalias Thomas and made other big-name moves to fortify Tom Bradyís receiving corps, most notably with the controversial Randy Moss, following an unexpected loss to former binky Indianapolis to end the 2006 season. Those were universally hailed as brilliant and made them the odds-on Super Bowl favorites throughout much of the NFL world.

While Iím a card-carrying member of the In Bill We Trust club, I donít see it as quite the slam dunk many do. Still, while there should be optimism, there are uncertainties that those wearing rose-colored glasses canít seem to see. So hereís my look at the factors that will make this a tougher run than many think as the Patriots begin their quest to win Super Bowl number four in the Belichick era.

The First Month: In their first four games they face the Jets and Bengals on the road and San Diego and Buffalo in Foxboro with Richard Seymour and Rodney Harrison on the sidelines, Assante Samuel working his way back to form, and Thomas learning the system. So itís not inconceivable they could enter October at, yikes, 1-3. Thatís not to say they will, but it is possible.

The Schedule: Their 2007 opponents were cumulatively 137-119 in 2006, making it the third-hardest in schedule in the league if last year means anything. And, if they do start out 1-3, itís likely the Jets could be 3-1. That would put them two games behind their main rival for the division title, which wouldnít be good since the two have the exact same schedule, with two exceptions: New York faces Tennessee and Kansas City in the final two weeks, while the Pats draw the Colts and Chargers. All of which makes the season-opening game much more important than usual.

Third and Short: I know many are delirious about Bradyís new weapons, but a facet just as critical as who heís thrown to in the Super Bowl era has been their consistency getting first down on the ground when itís third and short. Antowain Smith was great at it and Corey Dillion was even better. Itís crucial because it kept drives going and the defense off the field. And while I like Laurence Maroney, I donít see him as a guy to push the pile. Heís more like Curtis Martin ó a terrific runner in the Parcells years, where Ben Coates was the go-to guy because Martin wasnít great on third and short. At the moment Heath Evans looks to be that guy and, while I liked what he did in his brief tenure at tailback during injury-wracked 2005, how well he does here bears watching.

The Randy Moss Gamble: I said when they made it they get an A+ for the gamble, but it only had a 33 percent chance of working. Since we havenít seen him since August 1, that number might be dropping. Especially in light of the cut down day rumor that he would be one of the wideouts cut. That didnít happen, but Iíll bet my copy of Who The Hell Is William Loeb? Michael Felger wonít be the only one keeping a tally of how many plays he takes off. Heíll be under scrutiny and if something goes wrong, the media will be there to ask why. And given how he blamed the media for his past troubles upon arriving, thatís where this will get undone. I could be wrong, but it doesnít look like heíll be like Bryan Cox and Irving Fryar, who matured into leaders after being out of control early in their careers.

The Injury Factor: In case you didnít get the memo, Seymour is not only really good, heís the most important player on the defense. So missing at least six games is BIG. And while there is depth on the defensive line with Jarvis Green, as those in the Nation once clambering for Alex Cora to start at second base and then shortstop can tell you, being a productive bench player is different than being a productive everyday player.

Football is a game of attrition and everyone gets hit by it sooner or later. But the Pats have been hammered three of the last four years. Is it bad luck? Do they hit too hard? Or are they aging in certain areas? I really donít know. What I do know is during that time season-ending injuries have hit Harrison, Ty Law, Roosevelt Colvin, Junior Seau, Eugene (heeeey Mr.) Wilson, Randall Gay and Matt Light. Somehow they survived and won, which is partly why this team is so admirable, but with Seymour on the PUP list and Harrison suspended theyíre already starting out with two important defenders gone. Then throw in my concerns about Laurence Maroneyís durability and there are issues.

The Defensive Backfield: Here are four questions. What ever happened to the real Eugene Wilson? How long will it take Samuel to get back in shape? Will Ellis Hobbs play with the consistency he had as a rookie and not last year? And after three major injuries in two years will Rodney be Rodney when he returns? What this shows is there are questions. My guess is Samuel will be back quickly and Hobbs will become consistent. Wilson on the other hand is more of a mystery, as the productive hard-hitting safety on two Super Bowls teams has been MIA much of the time since then, which oh by the way coincided with the loss of Harrison to his injuries. So hopefully Rodney will be Rodney again.

The Rodney Harrison Issue: It isnít the Michael Vick fiasco, but this stuff has been in the news a lot lately. Still, Harrison turning up in a police investigation into the distribution of illegal substances wonít be a distraction, but it does lead me to yank this from the local hypocrisy file. If Barry Bonds is a sports crook to those who believe he used performance-enhancing banned substances, why isnít Harrison the same thing to them after admitting he illegally bought and used an undetectable human growth hormone?

Well, there you have it. Itís not seeing the glass as half full. Itís just me trying to point out the team has its share of questions to go along with the real and justified optimism. And itís why I see them going ďjustĒ 11-5, maybe 12-4, instead of the 14-2 and 15-1 Iíve heard bandied about this summer.

Dave Long hosts the Absolute Sports Experience at Billyís Sports Bar in Manchester each Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, broadcast live on WGAM Ė The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM-Nashua.


8/30/2007 The race is on as baseball enters September

8/23/2007 Spine vs. lack of spine theme for school board debate
8/16/2007 Time for thoughts from the summer mailbag
8/9/2007 Will this three make it big in Boston?
8/2/2007 Trading places all in a day's work for Boston GMs
7/26/2007 Getting out of a slump; an ameteur golfer can feel Sox' pain
7/19/2007 Does second chance guarantee a great outcome?
7/12/2007 Masse still a honeymooner in local baseball culture
7/5/2007 Brown Monster a big Fisher Cat hit
6/28/2007 Rambling along with some random thoughts
6/21/2007 The future is now for the C's come Thursday night
6/14/2007 Homers create bonds among fans for generations
6/07/2007 Sox win by losing two of three this weekend
5/31/2007 Lutz of things to think about
5/24/2007 Down 2-0 Mís for playoff payoff
5/17/2007 Baseballs' conventional wisdom is for the birds
5/10/2007 The Rocket lands in Gotham during Monarchs' playoff break
5/3/2007 Raiders say "No Moss" in fight with talented wideout
4/26/2007 A little history on the ancient Sox and Yanks rivalry
4/19/2007 Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods
4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Heroís death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The†Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat