ATLANTA -- Depressing as it may sound, optimism appears in short supply around the National Football League heading into Thanksgiving Weekend.
Now, don't get me wrong. There is cause for some squads around the league to see glasses half full.
Take the Seahawks, for instance. They posted a rousing, satisfying home win over the unofficially extinct Chicago Bears in front of Seattle's vaunted 12th Man (by the way, the heretofore unknown 13th Woman is the sneakily babe-a-licious State Farm agent Diane Nichols, who apparently has an all-access pass behind the Seahawks bench every week). The Arizona Cardinals have to be feeling good about themselves too, improving to 5-5 by putting the bang-thing on the officially extinct Cincinnati Bengals.
The Houston Texans sit at 5-5 for the first time in their existence. Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson is back healthy and Mario Williams had a better day than Reggie Bush. And voila -- the Texans can call themselves a .500 team this late in the season for the first time ever. Huzzah for them!
Suddenly, that Thursday night Broncos-Texans matchup slated to kick off Week 15 of the season on NFL Network doesn't look too shabby. The Broncos are also 5-5, back from the dead thanks to two straight wins -- a monstrous division victory at Kansas City and a huge Monday night victory over the slumping Tennessee Titans -- a game that could have AFC wild card tie-breaker ramifications.
Before flying here for NFL Network's first game broadcast of the season on Thanksgiving Night, I went to Denver as part of my "Total Access" book tour (coming to Phoenix next Monday night, Dallas next Wednesday and Seattle on Monday, Dec. 3, for those scoring at home) and took in the Monday Night Football festivities.
The Broncos clearly played inspired football, showing off home-run hitting prowess better suited for Coors Field - a franchise-record four touchdowns of 40-plus yards. Jay Cutler played like the under-control quarterback Mike Shanahan has been envisioning since Denver surprisingly plucked him out of Vanderbilt. Cutler posted a career-best quarterback rating of 137.0; it was only the second multiple touchdown/zero interception game of his career. All of a sudden, lo and behold, the Broncos have a piece of the AFC West lead.
And while we're on a silver-lined cloud right now: Even Tennessee can take heart in the loss. How great did Vince Young look? That's a rhetorical question. He played smart and efficient, victimized by dropped balls once too often. He was dominant every time he left the pocket, all the while throwing for a career-best 305 yards. Sure, the Titans gave up bushels of yards on the ground for a second straight game. But Albert Haynesworth will eventually return from his hamstring injury and straighten all that out.
On the downside…
I also mention that because I'm about to lose the silver lining for the rest of this column.
As the Broncos faithful giddily left their Invesco seats and Denver awaited one big Monday night celebration, all your humble narrator could think was this:
What does it really all mean? Sure, the Broncos played their best football of the year. Sure, the Titans have a tremendous upside that could be fulfilled at any moment. But, would either of them, on even their best of best days, possibly come close to threatening the New England Patriots?
Through a mere 11 weeks, it's becoming clear that the 2007 NFL campaign might forever be remembered for one of two things: either a season for the ages or an upset for the ages.
Again. I don't mean to be a party pooper for most teams in the league.
With the way they are playing and have played and, barring injury, will keep on playing, these New England Patriots should not lose more than a maximum of one game this year. Take a look at their schedule and possible playoff opponents and show me where a second loss comes from. To me, the only question remaining is: When will that one loss occur? If at all?
Just look at the numbers. The Patriots can become just the fourth team since the advent of the 16-game schedule in 1978 to wrap up a division title by its 11th game with a home win this weekend against the Eagles or a Buffalo loss to the surging Jaguars. Tom Brady has all but sewn up the 2007 NFL MVP award with a ludicrous 38 touchdowns and four interceptions through 10 games. Think about that. Barring injury, Brady is about to lay waste to Peyton Manning's all-time single-season touchdown record for quarterbacks with Randy Moss about to do the same to Jerry Rice's record for receiving scores. It doesn't matter who runs the ball in New England, does it?
In Buffalo, New England went for it on fourth-and-1 twice in the second half and converted both times through the air. But, come to think about it, the Patriots weren't risking much by doing that - they were only up by 28 points and then 35 points when they went for it on fourth-and-short inside the Bills 20.
Rich on the road
In addition to traveling around the country for the NFL Network games that kickoff this week, you can catch Rich Eisen on his current book tour -- which includes some special guest emcees. Here are three upcoming appearances:
*Phoenix *Emcee: Anquan Boldin
*Nov. 26, 7PM *Barnes and Noble
**2100 N. Tatum Blvd.
*Emcee: Deion Sanders *Nov. 28, 7PM
*Borders *10720 Preston Road
*Seattle *Emcee: Matt Hasselbeck
*Dec. 3, 6PM *Third Place Books
That's right, chip-shot field goals are not in the Bill Belichick game plan these days. The 2007 Patriots are officially in the midst of a scorched-earth campaign, not merely beating their opponents but rather leaving them in a fetal position in the corner crying for their mommies to make it stop. And don't give me this stuff that they're not playing quality opponents. How many teams play down to the level of their opposition and lose?
How many teams lose focus over the course of a season and lose? It happens a lot. It has yet to happen to this New England team.
Mercury Morris, the '72 Dolphins' great who took umbrage to all the New England-going-undefeated talk, said the Patriots have a long road left to travel to 16-0 (and then 19-0 afer the Super Bowl). And in a normal year, he'd be right. The difference between 10-0 and 19-0 is, as we all know, monumental.
But, this is not a normal year. The Patriots are not playing normal football. Morris may say that we should call him when the 2007 Patriots finally arrive on the 1972 Dolphins' block and not before, but the way they're playing, the '07 Patriots are enveloping the '72 Dolphins' neighborhood like Stephen King's mist.
Speaking of... New England hosts the Jets in Week 15. I'm checking into the rumor that the Patriots have petitioned the league to see if they could possibly beat a team twice in the same game. If you think the Patriots are taking out Spy-gate on the rest of the league, how are they going to treat the team that first blew the whistle on them? Although, come to think of it, it would be quite the O Henry-like plot twist if the Jets were to be the team to derail the Patriots' undefeated season by shocking them in New England -- just as they did last year.
And that brings me to the one formula -- or antidote, depending on your view of the Patriots dominance -- for beating the 2007 New England Patriots. It's a consensus view of virtually every G.O.A.T. (Greatest of All Time) with whom I've been fortunate to have discussed this topic. From Marshall Faulk and Rod Woodson to Deion Sanders and John Elway (who I saw in Denver; I know - name dropper), they all say the same thing: The only team that has a chance to beat New England is a team that can put pressure on Tom Brady with just four guys.
The theory goes like this: No team in the league is able to match the Patriots point for point, so you've got to keep New England from either having the ball often or, somehow, someway, keeping them off the board. The only way to do that is to take Brady out of his figurative rocking chair back there in the pocket, where he also frequently seems to have time to light up a smoke and eat a sandwich. And that's by getting Brady off the spot or on his keester by rushing four guys so the rest of the defense can cover the Cylone-like attack from New England's spread offense.
Which teams have the ability to do that? Well, even with the loss of Mathias Kiwanuka for the year, the Giants may be one of those teams. Michael Strahan bagged Jon Kitna three times this weekend. Osi Umenyiora is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. They can bring the heat. In fact, I never thought I'd say this in public, let alone on the World Wide Web for all to see, but, with the way things seem to be playing out, I think the team with the best chance to knock off the Patriots could come from the NFC.
Yes, the so-called junior varsity of the National Football League.
Hear me out.
As we saw in the previous Game of the Century, the Colts had the Patriots right where they wanted them -- down by 10 with nine minutes to go. But Indianapolis' pass rusher extraordinaire Dwight Freeney came out of the game for a brief breather and Brady and the Patriots immediately struck - firing one halfway down the field to Randy Moss, a lengthy completion made possible by the lack of pass rush thanks to Freeney needing a dose of oxygen. Well, as we all know, Freeney is now done for the year. Should the Colts even get the rematch we're all anticipating, they will be severely handicapped to stop Brady. Even if they have Marvin Harrison in the mix at full strength, you could make a good case that the Colts team the Patriots see in the playoffs in New England may not be as good as the Colts team they saw - and beat - in Indianapolis.
Again, this is all theory and food for thought. I do not want emails flooding the inbox accusing me of being a Patriot lover and Brady glorifier (although us Michigan guys have to rally around something these days). I get it. I understand that you do have to play the game on the field and not on an NFL.com blog. And despite their head-scratching loss to the Jets on Sunday, the Steelers may just prove that in Week 14 in New England or in a big-time playoff game come January, most likely at Gillette.
To pull off that trick, they'll need defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to cook up something special to confuse Brady, who, Faulk tells me, is already being prepared for the possibility. Faulk says that each week during practice, Brady stays sharp by running the offense against the Patriots defense coordinated specifically by Belichick, who throws the book at the future MVP. Good luck.
I'm just saying that the way the Patriots are playing these days, it's going to take special circumstances to defeat them -- as in, an ultra-hyped affair beamed to over 250 countries around the world. No, I'm not talking about the next episode of CSI: Miami. I'm obviously talking about the Super Bowl.
A neutral field. Two weeks in between games. Constant media attention. Unique conditions. The slight chance of a wardrobe malfunction. Anything can happen.
And under those circumstances, perhaps, say, the Cowboys or Packers can play a perfect game and knock the Patriots from either the ranks of the unbeaten (imagine a team entering the Super Bowl at 18-0!) or hand in the biggest upset this side of, well, the Patriots beating the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Think about it. Both the Cowboys and Packers appear to have the firepower to stick with New England -- Dallas already proved it can do that for 35 minutes -- and each has a defense that, if gelling, has the ability to step up and execute.
I'll borrow from the Cowboys fan playbook on this one: Dallas had neither Anthony Henry nor Tank Johnson when it hosted the Patriots a few weeks back. Plus, the Dallas offense appears to be in better synch now. And forget applying pressure with just four guys. The Cowboys will bring at least five because that's the way Wade Phillips rolls.
Looking at the Packers, they can provide pressure with just four guys, leaving the rest to some of the best cover corners in the business - Al Harris and Charles Woodson. Plus, should the Packers reach the Super Bowl, they'd have some serious Brett Favre mojo working. In fact, the Packers may just be the only team that could bring better intangibles to a Super Bowl than New England, even if it enters the Big Game without a loss. Lots more discussion on this topic to come in this space over the next few weeks.
Get Rich, Quick
Care to add your voice to the discussion? Or cozy up to a guy with the ultimate in Total Access? Or simply register your vote in his latest contest? That's why they invented e-mail. Fire away at email@example.com.
I know. This whole column is getting ahead of itself. There is a whole other month to the season. Anything can happen. But I've never seen a team dominate the first 10 games of a season the way the Patriots have.
The Steelers may eventually beat them in three weeks. The Giants may get them on the last Saturday of the regular season. The Colts could beat them in the playoffs or the Super Bowl could provide a monumental upset for the record books.
Or we may eventually find out that there's only one person who can stop the Patriots juggernaut in 2007: State Farm agent Diane Nichols… and the umbrella insurance plan of my dreams. Talk about your good neighbor. Hey now!