In the long run, given all their ups and down, the way the season ended up was probably the best the 2002 Patriots could have hoped for.
Longtime veteran Ted Johnson was quoted as saying that he felt that the thrilling 27-24 victory over the Dolphins ďfinally broke the Stadium in.Ē Indeed, what transpired on Sunday was eerily reminiscent of the Oakland playoff game of a year ago. The Patriots did not play an overall solid game for three and a half quarters but then suddenly turned it on when all hope was in doubt. Like that game, they were given a fortuitous break in the form of a questionable pass interference call at the Miami 2 yard line. They seized on this opportunity and then made at least ten big plays in a row to pull the improbable victory out of the fire. If the Patriots did not make one of those ten plays, the game would have been over. However, playing with the pride of last year, the Patriots didnít fold the tent. Instead, they made Patriots fans everywhere forget all of the frustrating plays that did them in over the course of the season. For most fans, Sundayís game will be the lasting memory of this season.
Once the Packers laid an egg in the Meadowlands to dash the Patriots playoff hopes, reality set in. But this reality is not necessarily a bad thing. Letís play out a playoff-bound scenario. Say the Jets lost to the Packers on Sunday. That would have meant a trip back to Foxboro for Payton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. Given the way that the Patriots and Bill Belichick have owned the Colts over the years, it is entirely plausible that the Patriots would have won next weekend. Their reward would have been a trip to the Black Hole in Oakland and a date with, letís be honest, disaster. In the long run, would they have been better off under this playoff scenario than what transpired yesterday? Probably not.
Of course, we are all disappointed that they didnít make the playoffs and played inconsistently all season long. Making the playoffs would have made it a lot easier to defend the Patriots Super Bowl victory as a ďlegitimate championshipĒ to fans of other teams. At the end of the day, with Sundayís win and a 9-7 record, itís safe to say that they have acquitted themselves as a decent football team. Last year, they had career years from a number of very good, but not superstar, players. Couple this with a fierce desire and attitude and there is your Super Bowl championship. As a Patriots fan, you have nothing to apologize for. This team showed up every week this season and gave as good of an effort as they could have. Sure, they didnít execute when they needed to and did not show the discipline of an excellent football team. A lot of times, they just got plain beat by a better, more physical team. There is no shame in that.
Under the ďno playoffsĒ scenario, the Patriots will probably gain four or five spots in the draft order. My guess is that people in the game will tell you that there is a big difference picking 18th as compared to 23rd. Packaged with their pick from Buffalo, the Patriots will have two picks in the top twenty draft slots. If used wisely, these picks can fill two big holes on draft day. It also places them in a better position to wheel and deal on draft day if a blue chip prospect can be had in a trade up the draft board.
Another benefit of not winning the division is that they will not have to play a first place schedule next year. While Iím at it, do not let anybody try to tell you that the AFC East is not the toughest division in football; because it is. Three 9-7 teams and one 8-8 team is not mediocrity. In fact, itís four teams who kicked the daylights out of each other over the course of the season. As a comparison, letís look at a team like Green Bay. They had Chicago, Minnesota, and Detroit in their division. Given those six cream puff games, they should have easily qualified for the playoffs like they did. In the AFC, the playoff-bound Colts and Browns had the benefit of playing the Bengals, Texans, and Jaguars twice. For the Patriots, there was no such break when playing their AFC East rivals.
The old adage is true that misery loves company. To start with, the Patriots ended the Bills playoff hopes when they got smacked around in Foxboro a few weeks ago. Much sweeter though is the fact that the Dolphins somehow, some way missed the playoffs because of the Patriots victory on Sunday. On Sunday, the Patriots eliminated the best Dolphins team in years from the playoffs. If you need a quick pick me up over the next day or so, go to the Miami Herald or Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel websites and read the coverage about the Dolphins collapse. Trust me, it will make you feel like you saw the Patriots win a playoff game on Sunday. Itís amazing how two teams who finished at 9-7 could feel so differently right now, isnít it?
If you are the Miami Dolphins, where do you go from here? All the pieces were in place and they donít have any real glaring holes. This has to be a much more alarming position than the one that the Patriots now face. By comparison, the Patriots will have to reload a hard working, average team that showed on Sunday that it can still win a big game when it has to. More likely than not, the Patriots will have an excellent chance to improve for three reasons: the extra draft picks, a decent salary cap position that will allow for the pick up of solid impact players, and the experience of playing a season when every game is a big game. All this adds up to a much more enjoyable offseason than the Dolphins will have. If you are associated with the Patriots, that has to be encouraging.
In some circles, Iím sure this column will be viewed as typical apologetic fandom. Iíll stand by my coverage throughout the season (Editorís note: Please, Mr. Rousseau. The stable called. Your high horse is ready). Readers will recall my track record of being critical of the Patriots when it has been warranted this season. In many columns, I took them to task for questionable play calling, lack of discipline, and not winning the battles on the line of scrimmage and on third down. The point I am trying to make in this article is that, given all that transpired, what happened on Sunday may have been the best thing that could have happened to the Patriots as they prepare for the 2003 season.
As an aside, I am planning on continuing to write throughout the offseason as events transpire. I know this may come as a disappointment to some of you who are forced to read this excuse for a column on a regular basis. This goes for (among others) Bill Penta, Tony Danza, Kim King, Suzy Kolber, Dick Peters, Mario Lanza, Walter Steeves, Bill Plumpton, Mike Morgan, Alexander Haig, Tim Varney, Chuck Woolery, Gregg Goggin, Allan Bartlett, Reddjac, Tony Blair, and, last but not least, the very lovely and talented Mrs. Rousseau.
As a special thanks to you, the loyal Zinger reader, Iím offering end of the season savings on Zingers. Today, Iím giving you twice the Zingers for the same low price. What a bargain!
Well, itís happened again. Every year, I make an early season appearance by Tom Farwellís desk and declare my unconditional allegiance to a NFC team to all that will listen. Last year, my endorsement went to the Detroit Lions who then proceeded to win two games. This year, I thought it was a safe move to go with the New Orleans Saints. As you know, they collapsed faster than the NASDAQ. Let this be a lesson to you kids. Donít let this happen at your work place.
Mrs. Rousseau offers one final zinger about life with me. Thirteen year-old Patriot glasses that were obtained free with an 8 gallon fill-up apparently make lovely additions to any dining room table.
I think Bob McElway, Sundayís referee, is one of the best referees out there. He always seems in control of the game and usually letís the game be played with minimal interference from the officials.
I donít know. I find those pre-game show segments where the studio talent line up and run through some play like they are unlocking a holy secret, well, quite silly.
Quietly this season, Kansas Cityís Trent Green and Clevelandís Tim Couch have set themselves as up and coming quarterbacks for next season.
Anyone else wonder how long the Angie Harmon-Jason Sehorn marriage will last now that he has been relegated to back up status? Sorry Angie, Iím spoken for.
While weíre discussing the Giants, anybody want to guess how long Offensive Coordinator Sean Payton will be around now that Jim Fassell took over the play calling and the Giants made the playoffs?
One thing to keep in mind as Bill Parcells re-enters the league is that he is not going to have access to many of his long time assistants. Bill Belichick, Pepper Johnson, Charlie Weiss, and Romeo Crennell are secure with the Patriots and Al Groh is busy coaching his alma mater in Virginia. When Jimmy Johnson came back to coach the Dolphins, many of his assistants from his days in Dallas were head coaches and employed elsewhere. Subsequently, he never had the success in Miami that he had in Dallas.
Does anybody else see the resemblance between Chad Pennington of this year and Tom Brady of last year? Donít be surprised if the Jets go deep into the playoffs this year.
We take him for granted, but Adam Vinatieri is worth every penny of his rare guaranteed contract.
I always enjoy a good laugh when a team takes the second or third best available player at a certain position in the draft and tells anybody that will listen: ďWe had him as the highest rated player on our board. This is the guy we wanted.Ē Sure.
Thanks for a great ride this season. I would love to hear from you at email@example.com>p>