Ask Vic: Patriots aren't getting any additional help

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Question: I'm writing to you in response to your recent article in which you refer to the Ravens' players, unhappy with the officiating, telling reporters after the game that they believe the NFL is orchestrating a conspiracy to make certain that the Patriots win a fourth Super Bowl. It may sound silly and maybe you're just being a "company guy," but it does seem a bit eerie. ... It seemed like the referees were not going to stop throwing flags until the Patriots scored. It very much seemed they were ordered to make sure the Patriots won. It might sound crazy, but it's certainly the perception of most fans who watched the game. Oh, and your point that the league punished them severely for breaking the rules in the "Spygate" affair? What punishment? They still have a first-round pick and "Mr. Personality," Belichick, got hit hard in the wallet. Big deal. This isn't even a speed bump to this team. -- John, New Jersey

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I stand by everything I wrote. You mentioned that the perception the officials were "ordered to make sure the Patriots won" might sound crazy. It does because it is.

What possible gain would there be for the NFL to have any reason to help the Patriots more than any other team? Last time I checked, there were 31 other clubs in the league. If the owners of those franchises truly believed there was a conspiracy to provide some sort of competitive advantage to one of their fellow owners, it would be promptly addressed at the highest levels. Beyond the spouting of some frustrated Raven players, there is nothing to indicate that that is even a remote consideration.

It isn't easy, but the NFL has traditionally done a better job than other major sports leagues of striving to create and maintain competitive balance, even if teams such as the Patriots and Colts have, through superb talent acquisition and coaching, consistently performed better than the rest.

Think about it. If the goal were to select a particular team to win it all, why would there be forces in place like the salary cap and unrestricted free agency designed to level the playing field for all clubs? If anything, you should be trying to make the case -- which would be equally ridiculous -- that the NFL would push to have a "fresh" team in the Super Bowl rather than one that has already collected three Vince Lombardi Trophies in this decade.

And, yes, the punishment for "Spygate" was severe. It was proper and unprecedented. I have gotten no sense whatsoever from anyone within the Patriots that this is a mere speed bump, as you put it. In fact, I seem to recall, when the Pats were routinely blowing out their opponents, the prevailing opinion voiced by numerous NFL analysts and fans was that that was their way of getting back at the league for its punishment. If that's true, it hardly seems like the reaction you'd expect to a mere slap on the wrist.

Question: Before the season started, the Patriots were "favorites." Then, after the Jets' game they were "cheaters." Then, over the next nine games they were "the greatest." Now that they have won two close games (they have a few key injuries, they're playing in cold weather, and they're tired) they are "lucky." Is the sports world fickle or do the Patriots have an identity crisis? -- Dave, Chicago

I'll go with the sports world being fickle. The reactions to the Patriots' perfect season have been incredibly wide ranging. About the only conclusion I've been able to draw is that pretty much everyone outside of Patriots Nation -- especially fans of opponents on the wrong end of those many blowouts -- has a common resentment toward their success, which is totally understandable. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Fans need a team that they love to hate every bit as much as one that they love to love.

The Patriots are the last team I would consider to have an identity crisis. They know precisely who and what they're about. They're a top-quality team that sets the highest performance standards for themselves. The head coach isn't the only one setting those standards. The players expect excellence from each other and apply internal pressure accordingly. That's the biggest reason the Pats have been able to maintain the incredible focus necessary to keep winning, whether by a lopsided margin or in the final seconds.

Question: Even though Kerry Collins cost us a shot at the playoffs last year, he showed that his style fits well with a running attack, much more so than Vince Young this season. With the stellar defense and running attack that they have this year, would the Titans would have a better shot with Collins as the starter, given that he has a much better arm as far as accuracy on the deep ball? -- Jonathan D.

No. Young is the Titans' best quarterback, hands down, and I firmly believe that he will go on to have a highly successful career.

The very reasons you said the Titans might be better off with Collins (a strong defense and rushing attack) are the same reasons that they can win with Young. Although Young has had his struggles, the biggest reason for Tennessee's three-game losing streak was the absence of their best defensive player, Albert Haynesworth, due to a hamstring injury. Receivers who have dropped several perfectly thrown passes also haven't helped Young, who, by the way, has a much better arm than you might think.

Also, Young's mobility and game-breaking running -- dimensions that Collins and most other quarterbacks don't provide -- make the Titans' offense that much more potent.

Question: I just read your article that included your thoughts on the 6-6 teams. I agree the Vikings seem like a viable wild-card team, but earlier in the season they seemed to be struggling to defend the pass. Do you think they have really improved in that area, or has their pass rush simply been so good that it's covering for their weak defensive backs? Also, what is your opinion of Tarvaris Jackson? He seems to have all the physical tools; any insight on whether the mental part of his game will keep improving? -- Mark Turner, Rochester, MI

It's quite possible that their pass rush has helped mask some of the shortcomings of their secondary, which isn't necessarily a terrible thing. Sure, you would prefer that all areas of your defense be equally strong, but in an era when teams struggle to keep quality players and build solid depth, that isn't always possible.

I've always believed that it is easier to overcome a weak secondary with a strong pass rush than it is to overcome a weak pass rush with a strong secondary. As tight as your coverage might be, a quarterback who isn't facing much pressure is bound to find an open receiver. That doesn't tend to happen as often with a quarterback who is regularly hurried or who winds up on his back. Most coaches and general managers will tell you that, when constructing a defense, the first building block is a top-flight pass-rusher.

On Jackson, I like the progress he is making. He was solid in the Vikings' big Week 13 win over the Lions, doing his share to complement the dynamic rushing duo of Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor. Jackson is still in the early stages of development, and I think the mental aspects of his game will continue to improve as he continues to play.

His greatest challenge, which is the same that all young quarterbacks face, is to learn to trust his playmakers to make something happen after the catch rather than looking to make plays on his own by trying to force passes into places he shouldn't. The 49ers won't make that challenge any easier because their talented cornerbacks -- Walt Harris and Nate Clements -- should be able to keep Bobby Wade and Sidney Rice in check. Consequently, it would make sense for Jackson to make an extra effort to get the ball into the hands of Peterson, Taylor, and tight end Visanthe Shiancoe on short and intermediate throws.

Have a question for Vic on anything NFL related? Don't just sit there -- send it to, and the best questions will be answered throughout the season right here on!

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