LONGSHOTS: Questions abound as second season arrives for Pats
by Dave Long
The Patriots are a few days away from their opening-round playoff game with the sinister Baltimore Ravens, so, as the guy on Monday Night Football likes to say, “Are you ready for some football” talk?
Unless you’ve been on Mars you’re aware they’re no longer feared around the NFL. Instead they’re a flawed up and down team, which, depending on your point of view, is in transition or sliding toward mediocrity because all the new guys on defense ain’t that good. Plus they got hit with a dose of adversity Sunday when Wes Welker went down with a catastrophic knee injury. So with that as the backdrop for the game, here are some key things that will play a role vs. Ray Lewis and company;
The Welker Injury: Might as well get to what everyone is talking about first. While I love Welker as much as anyone in a pre-2003 Nomar kind of way, I’m not in the chorus of hand-wringers (like Mike Reiss on ESPN.com) calling his injury “devastating,” as the D-word means “can’t survive without” to me. I don’t say it to take away anything from him. I know how good he is, how they depend on him and that he’s their ’09 MVP. But this is football, where teams lose really important parts all the time. That means they are used to it and have a much stronger “we’ll find a way” mentality than other sports.
If you think you’ve heard this song before, you have. Check out the column I wrote after last year when all were using the new D word after Tom Brady went down. I said then they weren’t dead for the same reasons and they weren’t. In fact, they went on to win one more game with Cassel at QB than this year when Brady was back. Not saying Cassel’s better, just that football teams know how to survive big losses.
Where Does Losing Welker Hurt Most: Since they abandoned the run as the prime weapon on third and short early in 2007, he is to them now what Antowain Smith and Corey Dillion were in the glory years. He moves the chains and that’s vital. So they’ll have to find a new third-and-short go-to guy. And it won’t be as easy as just going to the ground game, as the rugged Ravens are tough against the run. But having said that, that’s where they’ll need to go, so the line had better buck up.
Julian Edelman: Stand up if you thought it to be the D word when Drew Bledose went down in ’01. Didn’t turn out that way, did it? Tom Brady stepped in and, to quote John Madden, BOOM. It’s not quite the same since Drew hadn’t played well for a while and Welker’s a star. But Edelman can approximate what he does in the slot and may be an even better runner after the catch. Only time will tell how well he does, especially in the clutch, but he has a chance to be really good. And while I’m not saying it’ll happen, I won’t be shocked if he delivers a 12-catch 135-yard day.
Randy Being Randy: Again with all due respect to Welker, it’d be closer to the D word if Randy Moss had gone down. They don’t have anyone to stretch the field as Moss does and Edelman is a Welker play-alike. But that’ll be easier to do if the Ravens are worried by Moss. And since the phrase “When the going gets tough, the tough get going” doesn’t really jump out at you with him, Moss is the X-factor. Will he back down to greater physical play he’ll see with Welker out, or will he be the guy his teammates said he was after getting flak when the public thought he mailed it in against Carolina? If it’s the former, they won’t score 20. If the latter they’ve got a chance.
The Defense: A perplexing unit that’s shown flashes — like giving up fifth-best 17.8 points a game. But after seeing it happen again Sunday in coughing up a fourth-quarter lead for a fourth time — does anyone still wonder why Coach B went for it with Peyton Manning waiting in the wings? Still they’ve had their moments, and with Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren coming back from injuries I wouldn’t be surprised if they have a solid game.
The Coaching: Contrary to what many uninformed national announcers keep saying about this being Coach B’s “finest” coaching job, I don’t see it. And I’m not talking about fourth and two in Indy. They used to own the half-time adjustment game. Now they get killed by them. They were outscored in the second half seven times and have had some bafflingly bad offensive second-half efforts. And as I mentioned earlier, they’ve lost their balance between run and pass. They have the ability to run it — as evidenced by the 197 vs. Jacksonville two weeks ago when the line was together for the first time all year. But the question is: will they do it?
The Bad Guys: Good thing they don’t bring guns to the workplace like Gilbert Arenas — because with their propensity to shoot themselves in the foot, there could be real trouble as their 1,094 penalty yards tops the NFL. But they’re still really good defensively as they give up only 93 rushing yards a game and are third overall in total defense and points allowed.
The Belichick Jinx: It’s been a bad year for Coach B. Every time he made the controversial move it seems like it just didn’t work out — from fourth and two to playing Welker on Sunday, when the rumors were he was going to be rested. Not second guessing. Just saying he’s been snake bit this year. So you’ve got to wonder what’s next.
Prediction: On one hand they’re playing at home where they’re undefeated and one came against the Ravens. Of course, they totally lucked out in that one when Mark Clayton dropped an easy one in the final minute inside the 10 on fourth down. And streaks don’t mean anything to me when it’s down to one game. So putting that aside, I think Ray Rice has a big day, but so does Edleman, which opens things up for others. The defense gives up yards but goes plus two in turnovers and the Ravens kill themselves with mistakes to help the Pats squeak out a win 26-23.
Dave Long can be reached at email@example.com. He hosts Dave Long and Company from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday on WGAM – The Game, 1250-AM Manchester, 900-AM Nashua.