Perplexing Perfection – Lethbridge

Just a bit of a preamble before I get into some thoughts about the end of the NFL regular season.  I’m going to scale back the dollar values in my “For What it’s Worth” blog entries.  I’m not going to exceed $100.  Just so there’s some sort of scale that better represents what I really think what my rants are worth.  So, from this point onward, the top of the scale is $100, the bottom .01 cent (of course, I reserve the right to break this rule at any time, and remember, FWIW’s are in Canadian Dollars, unless otherwise specified).

For What it’s Worth: $54.18

The New England Patriots are one game away from writing a new chapter in the NFL history books.  As of this writing Bill Belichick and company are one victory shy of a perfect 16-0 regular season.  And despite this tremendous accomplishment, I’m not awed by the Pats like many football fans.

As we all know, the 1972 Miami Dolphins is the only team to win all its game in a campaign, going 14-0 in the regular season.  The ‘Phins then won all 3 of their playoff match-ups, beating Washington 14-7 in Super Bowl VII.   This was before my time, so I can’t really say if this club is the greatest team in NFL history, but due to it’s accomplishments, it’s in the conversation (although I’m sure I’d have loved to cheer on Larry Czonka, Mercury Morris and Nick Buoniconti…what a set of names!).

There’s no question, this edition of the Patriots is a great side.  The incomparable Tom Brady leads the offence.  Randy Moss has re-established himself as the league’s greatest deep threat at wide receiver.  The offensive line is amazing, allowing Brady the time to throw deep balls, and still opening up holes for the run game that’s averaging 4.2 yards per attempt (tied for 9th in the NFL-not bad for a club that’s not know for it’s run game).

The defence has its playmakers.  Asante Samuel is one of the top corners in the league.  Mike Vrabel has 12.5 sacks to lead a veteran linebacking crew.  The Pats are fourth in the NFL in team defence, allowing 286.5 yards per game, and are tied with Tampa Bay giving up a league low 15.9 points per contest.

Yet, I believe the Patriots will lose somewhere in the NFL playoffs.  And despite running the regular season table (I’m giving New England a Week 17 win over the New York Giants-the G-Men can’t improve their playoff standing with a victory and will sit their starters for most of this game, while the Pats are going for 16-0 baby!), the Pats story will be the ultimate tale of peaking too early.

New England’s resume includes its share of impressive victories.  A come-from-behind victory over the defending Super Bowl champs, Indianapolis in November.  A 48-27 pummelling of NFC regular-season titlists Dallas in October.  Plus, w’s against playoff bound Pittsburgh and San Diego.

However, the Pats got fat on the rest of their schedule: two wins apiece over Miami (1-14), the New York Jets (3-12) and Buffalo (7-8) in the AFC Least.  In fact, the Pats 15-0 mark has come against opponents a combined 23 games under .500. 

New England’s looked pretty mortal in the past 5 weeks.  Narrow victories over Philadelphia (led by back-up quarterback A-J Feely, who threw a fatal late game interception) and Baltimore (Brady’s last second TD, helped by a controversial penalty on fourth down, keeping the Pats last drive alive) had plenty of red flags.

Here’s the crux of the matter: the Patriots have a fatal flaw.  The team has difficulty stopping the run.  Look at the stats, and New England’s ranked 9th against the run, allowing less than 100 yards per game. Very respectable.  However, most teams early in the campaign abandoned running the ball against the Pats because they were behind by 20 before the kick-off.  In the last month, teams have averaged 125 yards per game.  In the near-loss to Baltimore, the Ravens gashed the Patriots for 166 yards on the ground.

It all comes down to the match-ups in the post-season.  Looking at the AFC draw, I believe the Pats would have no trouble trouncing the Steelers (who have defensive issues), Chargers (who have coaching and quarterbacking issues), and whoever grabs the final wild-card berth-Titans/Browns (who each have not-enough-talent issues).

However, Jacksonville can give the Patriots a game.  Knowing New England’s weakness, the Jaguars can exploit it.  The dynamic duo of Maurice Jones-Drew and Fred Taylor (who should combine for over 2000 yards of rushing goodness) can pound the rock with the best of them.  But if the Jags quickly fall behind the Pats, there’s no way David Garrard will lead them back throwing the football.

The best bet (still) is Indianapolis.  Is Tony Dungy’s crew the least appreciated Super Bowl champ of all-time?  The Pats pursuit of perfection has completely overshadowed Indy’s 13-2 campaign.  The Colts are getting healthy at the right time.  Indianapolis’ 3rd ranked offence welcomes back Marvin Harrison.  The all-pro wide out is recovering from a knee injury, which has sidelined him for 10 games.  As impressive as the Colts offence is, the defence is becoming one of the NFL’s best.  It’s ranked third in the league as well, despite losing top pass rusher Dwight Freeney to a season-ending foot injury. 

I see Indy heading to Foxboro late next month and pulling out a close victory thanks to a healthy dose of Joseph Addai and the ability to stonewall any Patriot running attack.  Call it 31-28 Colts in the AFC Championship game.*

So, a 16-0 regular season is great…but an undefeated post-season is much, much better.

*A word of caution, I’ve rarely predicted anything correctly.  It’s known as the B.K.D. (Baceda Kiss of Death).  So don’t go and bet the mortgage on the Colts winning the Super Bowl.  In fact, the Patriots will probably win in a walk.