The Patriots' Game: No Mercy, They Rule
CINCINNATI They've been great for a while now, three Super Bowls' worth of great. But only this season have the New England Patriots become The Show, the must-see team of stars, pretty boys and reformed bad boys. Suddenly, the Patriots are not simply great; they're compelling, fascinating, appearing to be almighty and a touch lawless.
They'll cheat if possible, or beat your brains out strictly by the rules; it hardly matters. The Patriots didn't bother with swagger to start this NFL season; they went straight to defiant. Either you're one of them or you're about to get crushed. They beat the New York Jets by 24 points to start the season, San Diego by 24 points in Week 2, Buffalo by 31 in Week 3, and the Bengals by 21 here Monday night.
The last time a team opened the season with four straight victories by such runaway margins was 1920, some team from Buffalo that pro football historians would have to dig deep to find. "You know Bill won't let us get into that stuff," Patriots linebacker Rosevelt Colvin said in a locker room that was so circumspect it was tough to discern whether they had won or lost.
They won without their best running back, with Tom Brady throwing to the best wide receivers he's ever had, with two defensive stars (Rodney Harrison and Richard Seymour) expected back in the coming weeks.
Through the first three weeks the Patriots gained more yards on offense than any other team and allowed fewer yards on defense than any other team. They came to the Queen City for "Monday Night Football" not just to win, but to pillage.
Because Commissioner Roger Goodell dared to punish the Patriots for violating league rules by spying on opponents, it seems the Patriots feel the need to punish anybody who gets in their way. They can throw it to Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth, hand it to Laurence Maroney or Kevin Faulk. On defense they can stone you, chase you down, confuse you or hurt you. They've trashed their first four opponents with a combination of brains and brawn that keep what might just be a little bitty sneer on Bill Belichick's face.
Any slight they'll take and run 100 yards. Spygate gives them cause to do what great teams love to do, rail against the world. If you say they're the best team, they'll curse you for not saying it loudly enough. Though quiet by today's athletic standards, the Patriots have a ruthless quality not even the champion Colts have at the moment.
And as a result there are those who think the Patriots, as long as Brady is healthy, are not just the team to beat but a team capable of going undefeated, 19-0, the full monty. You won't find any support for that position here, not with a visit to Dallas on Oct. 14, a visit to Indianapolis on Nov. 4, a visit to Baltimore on Dec. 3, and a visit from the Pittsburgh Steelers the very next Sunday after a short work week.
There's a reason no NFL team has gone undefeated since 1972 when the Miami Dolphins did it -- it's too hard. It requires not just greatness, but perfection.
Nobody, in fact, has ever gone 16-0 in the regular season and 3-0 in the postseason. The Dolphins, remember, won 'em all back when the schedule was 14 games in the regular season. It's too much to ask that the Patriots win at Dallas, at Indy and at Baltimore.
Yet, they're good enough for people to start making the case and not get laughed out of the room.
This is where their newfound ruthlessness might serve them really well.
It's not good enough to just win anymore; the Patriots want to beat you down. On a first-and-goal play they sent two linebackers, Mike Vrabel and Hall of Fame-bound Junior Seau, in to block. Brady threw to Vrabel for the touchdown. The player who set it all up was Sammy Morris, the backup running back to Maroney, who missed the game with an injury. Morris ran 49 yards to the 2. With a minute still to play in the first quarter the Patriots were already up 10-0.
Players who were big problems elsewhere come to New England and thrive. Moss did little to nothing for two years in Oakland. His lack of interest was appalling. One would understand if the Raiders sued him for fraud. He couldn't have been a bigger dog out there. But with the Patriots? He's pure gold again, as good as he ever was in Minnesota. It's as if problem children (see Corey Dillon) put on the uniform and are immediately transformed. Morris, the backup running back signed in the offseason after his own troubles with the NFL, had rushed 17 times for 110 yards midway through the third quarter.
Colvin talked specifically about some of the newcomers, former bad boys and choir boys alike, who are contributing, especially on offense. "Donte', Randy, Wes Welker. We've been playing pretty well in all the facets of the game," Colvin said. "But the guys on offense have been holding the ball for six, seven minutes consistently. We're pretty fresh as a result."
What a disappointment, by comparison, the Bengals are: frustrating underachievers, a team that only sporadically plays to its potential. Marvin Lewis could be heard postgame cursing his team, imploring them to play hard or get out. The Bengals' prideful and professional right tackle, Willie Anderson, said of the Patriots, "They're grown men who take football seriously." Clearly Anderson feels his teammates don't. The Patriots beat the good teams and embarrass knucklehead teams like the Bengals.
Surely the league's other coaches and players were sitting in their offices and home theaters Monday night trying to figure out what to do with the Patriots. Whether anybody can successfully figure it out between now and the first Sunday in February is what will make the Patriots' season so very irresistible.