I try not to be a hater. For those who may not know what a hater is, here is a link to the urban dictionary. When it comes to being a sports fan though, being a hater is part of the package sometimes. In fact, it’s safe to say that in sports, if you aren’t being hated on, than you aren’t being successful. Think about it for a second, feel good sports stories always involve underdogs. People can embrace their success, because they think it will be fleeting.
If being hated on defines success in the NFL, than the Patriots have certainly achieved that. They were a feel good story in 2001 when Tom Brady took the world by surprise. Bellichick went from recycled head coach to reluctant mastermind, and the Pats went away the next season without even making the playoffs.
Now it’s 2007, and Bellichick and Brady, sporting 3 rings each, just seem to be getting warmed up. Other than their success, I have no reason to hate the Pats. Being 9 when the Colts left, I couldn’t exactly embrace any of the Colts’ rivalries, as they were miserable for all of their time here that I can recall. The Patriots don’t play in our division, they have never eliminated us from the playoffs, and before 2001 they were simply the team who had been smoked by the ’85 Bears in the Superbowl.
In addition to winning 3 championships since 2001 though, the Pats have done everything right from an organizational level too. They have consistently traded back in recent drafts fleecing teams, including the Ravens for picks that they’ve used to fuel this dynasty. They acquired Randy Moss at a reduced salary for a fourth round pick this year, and also received a pick from San Francisco in this year’s draft which will likely have them picking in the top 3, despite losing their own pick to the Spygate scandal. And how is it that the Patriots have only lost 3 coordinators during their reign of NFL dominance? Yeah, it’s safe to say that if I were a Pats fan I’d love everything about it, but from the outside looking in, I just want to see it all fall apart.
Spygate makes them an easy target, but in the end Spygate did more to shake my faith in those who govern the league than it did to make me hate the Pats. Any team who has played the Pats more than once in the last 5 years or so should have already changed their defensive signals by now. The fact that they somehow, impossibly had an enormous amount of money to spend in free agency this past off-season, which they used to fuel this juggernaut even more, is another reason to hate I suppose.
Whatever it is, the Patriots must sure be doing things right because I am really hating on them this season. I still can’t say that I hate the Pats more than the Steelers, or Colts, or Bengals but I’d much rather see any of those 3 win the Superbowl this year than the Pats. I don’t hate the Pats as much as the Yankees or Red Sox, but I’d rather see either of them win the next 2 World Series than the Pats win the Superbowl this year.
Last year the Ravens had the second best record in the AFC, second to the San Diego Chargers. The Ravens picked up an emotional win over the Chargers early in the season; a game which many Chargers fans thought was given away by Marty Schottenheimer. Most fans on both sides were looking forward to a rematch in the playoffs. Neither team held up to their end of the bargain. The Chargers lost to the Patriots when Schottenheimer inexplicably continued to pass in running situations, the exact opposite of the game plan that had failed earlier against the Ravens and drew an inordinate amount of criticism for a 14-2 coach.
Having said that, as a Ravens fan, I wasn’t feeling much love for the Patriots or Chargers early in the season when I believed that my own team would be competitive. Yet when the Patriots hosted the Chargers in week 2, I was rooting for San Diego, at least for the 5 minutes that they looked like that had a chance. I can’t really say that I had a rooting interest in weeks 4 or 5 against Cincinnati or Cleveland as I didn’t think either had much of a chance.
Week 6 is when I started to realize just how much I had begun to detest this team. When Baltimore was without a team, I took to liking the Giants. There aren’t a lot of teams that I truly hate in any sport, before the Ravens came to town Cowboys and Redskins were right with the Colts, at the top of my hate list. In fact, I was hating on those teams before hating was even defined by the urban dictionary. Finding myself outwardly rooting for the Cowboys was the first red flag that the 2007 Pats were really getting under my skin.
Week 7 against Miami looked like a good story, but again it didn’t look realistic. Looking at the season to that point though, the Redskins had done a phenomenal job of defending the pass. It looked like the Redskins secondary was actually the best in the NFL at the time. I remember going on the air and stating that if the Redskins could score 24 that they’d beat New England. They didn’t score the 24, but Brady and the Patriots picked that secondary apart and 24 wouldn’t have mattered. But again, the Pats had me pulling for a team that I absolutely can’t stand.
The next week against the hated Colts, I knew I was finished. I was up and rooting for Manning and the boys; that can never happen again. If the Colts and Patriots meet for a trip to the big game this year, I may not be able to watch.
I was deflated after Philly’s narrow loss, and completely devastated after the Ravens’ own loss to the juggernaut. It was no surprise by the time the Steelers game came around that again I’d be cheering for a team that I hate. You’d think watching them run over every team that I don’t like would endear this team to me somehow, but it’s done quite the opposite.
I’d love to see the Giants end the quest for the perfect season, but I’m not holding out much hope. I am more intrigued now by the chance of the Patriots running the table in the regular season and then losing in the playoffs than any other scenario. Even so, it’s looking more and more like one of the teams that I really hate will have to be the team to do it. It’s really a dual edged sword. At this point, I think San Diego is the most realistic contender.
The Chargers, as I’ve said before, have the trend on their side. The last 2 Superbowl champs were the team who had the best record in the previous season, but went into the playoffs largely overlooked in their championship season. Furthermore, if you look at the reason why the Patriots can possibly be beaten, San Diego might be most up to the task.
The first is impossible to strategize for, but if the game is going to be close, you’re better off being down to the Patriots by a little than up by a little or even tied. Every Patriots win this season has been either a blowout or a fourth quarter comeback, the Patriots haven’t been in the position of trying to hold on to a narrow lead late. In the playoffs last season, they engineered a late comeback against San Diego, but were unable to hold a narrow lead late against Indianapolis.
I think that if the Pats have one fundamental deficiency, it’s their running game. This weakness hasn’t shown itself because they haven’t been put in the position of trying to grind out the clock. I also think, that at least to an extent, part of what the public perceives as New England running up the score is actually them masking their inability to grind it out in predictable running situations.
With all of that said, you can’t strategize to be slightly behind the Patriots in the last 5 minutes. You have to strategize to blow them out. If you are ahead by a little at the end of the game, you have to grind it out, that’s what championship teams do. If you are slightly behind though with 5 minutes to go, you may have the Pats right where you want them.
On defense if you are going to beat the Pats, you have to get pressure up the middle with the defensive line first and foremost. Brady seems to like to throw to the flats, or in front of him between the hashes. You have to get pressure in his face without blitzing every down. When you do blitz, mix up the edge rush and press the slot receivers. I am not sure why more teams aren’t successful with this, especially since New England goes so often without a running back at all.
On offense, you have to run the ball, control the clock and keep Brady and his crew on the sidelines as much as possible. In the passing game, you need to attack the middle of the field, and take advantage of the linebackers in coverage. Remember that the Patriots kept Adalius Thomas on the sidelines for most of the Colts game for a nickel back. The same Adalius Thomas who used to play gunner on punts and cover Chad Johnson for the Ravens and was coveted for his athleticism.
The last thing you need is luck. And to an extent you make your own luck. I think the team that can beat New England will have to be aggressive, and it wouldn’t hurt to catch New England sleeping a bit too. There is also at least one small faction of fans that believe that New England might not be built for the cold weather that we’ve come to expect in Foxboro in January. They certainly don’t play like any cold weather team we’ve seen in the past. Maybe home field advantage will come back to hurt them.
Again, given that prescription, I think San Diego is the most likely candidate. With Olshansky, Williams and Castillo providing the line rush and Merriman and Phillips on the edge they could bother Brady. Only 4 teams have allowed less passing TDs than the Chargers and they lead the NFL in sacks and are tied with New England for the AFC lead in INTs.
On offense the Chargers can attack the middle with Gates in the passing game and have lots of receivers to spread the field, although it remains to be seen if Rivers can consistently get them the ball. They can control the clock with LT, and after being blown out by New England once already they may catch them sleeping a bit too.
While I’m on this hate fest, let me say that I think the Patriots may have gotten less than they expected in Adalius Thomas. His numbers are marginally better than Jarrett Johnson who replaced him in most capacities. That’s even worse when you consider that he’s played most of this season in the middle. He’s in the first year of a 5-year deal, and again while coveted for his athleticism was on the sidelines for most of the Colts game.
They also have an aging linebacker corps in addition to Thomas, and Asante Samuel playing under the franchise tag. And Randy Moss is playing for peanuts this year, and looks like a genius for taking the pay cut to facilitate the trade. He’ll get ridiculous money as a free agent this year. I have no idea what the Patriots cap situation looks like for upcoming seasons, but based on the way they’ve been doing business up until now, I’m sure that they have it well under control. I still have to think that they’ll look much different next year so maybe their window is closing. At least I can hope, while I’m hating on them that is.