There are some fun and interesting parallels between the Patriots loss of star kicker Adam Vinitieri and the Bruins’ loss of Bobby Orr, thirty years ago.
- Both players wore number 4.
- Orr came from the frigid, northern central region of Ontario. Vinitieri hailed from the frigid, northern central state of South Dakota.
- Orr joined the Bruins in 1966, and left in 1976. Vinitieri joined the Patriots in 1996, and left in 2006.
- Orr’s Bruins played in seventeen playoff series. Vinitieri’s Patriots played in seventeen playoff games.
- Orr’s Bruins ended decades of fan frustration by winning two Stanley Cups. Vinitieri’s Patriots ended decades of fan frustration by winning three Vince Lombardi trophies.
- Orr’s Bruins won the first of their championships on a game ending goal by Orr against St. Louis, in which he flew through the air. Vinitieri’s Patriots won the first of their championships on a game ending field goal by Vinitieri against St. Louis, which sailed through the air. Pictures of both plays are autographed and sold to this day.
- Orr is frequently touted as perhaps the greatest defenseman in NHL history. Vinitieri is frequently touted as perhaps the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history.
- Orr was a handsome, popular local pitchman for area businesses such as BayBanks. Vinitieri was a handsome, popular local pitchman for area businesses such as Papa Gino’s.
- Orr left the Bruins to join the Blackhawks, a perennial, star-studded contender that kept making the semi-finals and finals before falling short. Vinitieri has left the Patriots to join the Colts. Enough said.
- And last but not least, both players achieved their greatest glory on the ice and snow.
Let us hope, for Adam Vinitieri’s sake, that the parallels end here. Orr was injured immediately after arriving in the Windy City, and he was never the same.
Before we get back to talking baseball most of the time, we’ll share some final thoughts about the Super Bowl.
Yes, the officials did not help the Seahawks. There were several shaky calls:
- Ben Roethlisberger has admitted he did not get the ball across the plane of the endzone. But the referee had no choice but to uphold a bad call by the line judge, since the television angle fell just short of conclusive. The problem, as I saw it, was that the referee was reviewing the wrong decision by the line judge. He focused on the middle part of the play, when the ball was in the air and Ben was still moving forward. The line judge, however, clearly called for a touchdown at the latter part of the play, based on Ben’s placement of the ball across the goalline after he was down. That was a bad call. Period.
- The pass interference call in the endzone was ticky tack. The defender moved in the other direction because he was faked out, not because he was pushed.
- The holding call on Hasselbeck’s pass down to the one yard line was terrible, while the illegal block call on Hasselbeck after his interception was beyond belief.
Having said all that, here’s a good rule of thumb. If you want to say that the officials made mistakes that cost you a game, you should play a clean game yourself. And the fact is, the Seahawks did not.
- Bad punting. The Seahawks kept missing chances to pin the Steelers back, landing it in the endzone repeatedly.
- Bad offensive line work. The Steelers successfully blitzed the Hawks several times.
- Bad clock management. The Seahawks were inefficient at the end of the first half and were inexplicably dumb at the end, failing to kick the field goal to shorten the lead to a touchdown.
- Bad pass receiving. Many dropped passes cost the Hawks big time.
- Getting burned on big plays. Football games often come down to big plays, and allowing a 75 yard touchdown run, a 40 yard pass on third and 28 and a 50 something yard TD pass on a gadget play hardly qualifies as a great performance.
One big Apple writer today published a story predicting next year’s Super Bowl, and he has the Patriots beating the Cowboys 30-20. Interesting piece.
Meanwhile, there is a lot of speculation about where Terrell Owens will land.
Why not with the Patriots? Think about it. The club is not the bunch of goodie- two-shoes some people think it is. Corey Dillon came on board with a bit of a reputation, and in 2004 coach Bill Belichick made peace with then malcontent Ty Law, who had threatened to hold out and cause trouble if he contract was not restructured (and it never was). Law and company went on the win another title.
Bringing in T.O. would give the receiver a chance to play on a serious Super Bowl contender with a great coach, great system and – most important – a truly great quarterback. Even T.O. would have to keep his mouth shut if Tom Brady managed to throw the ball to someone else on occasion, and at the same time he would love all the Sunday and Monday night appearances.
Old warhorses like Willie McGinest, Rodney Harrison and company would set T.O. straight. They would tell him that in their locker room, self-centeredness is not permitted. Its all about team. And T.O., probably feeling a little embattled, might see this as a chance to prove he’s all about football.
I know there are many arguments the other way, I just think its worth thinking about.
Jim likes the Steelers. He thinks they are the better team, with the better quarterback. On the other hand, he is rooting against them. Why? The Patriots and the Steelers are rivals; indeed, Roethlisberger and Brady might be the two best quarterbacks in football, at least when measured by winning percentage. Anything that beats the Steelers down, stifles their confidence, is a good thing.
For the last twenty years a gambling site has published a system for determining the Super Bowl winner. It works about 90% of the time. I applied the formulas and it looks like the Steelers are the better bet. One of the big historical factors against the Seahawks is that they are playing in their first Super Bowl. Historically, first-time franchises tend to lose. The reason seems clear enough – they are just happy to be there.
The Steelers have another thing going for them – they are basically playing at home. The "word" is that about 75% of the fans will be in the Steelers’ corner. The Hawks had an almost unfair home field advantage in their playoff wins. They will not have one in Detroit.
Nevertheless, I am a little reluctant to pick the Steelers. First of all, I am a believer in quarterback matchups and I happen to think Matt Hasselbeck is pretty good. He is a good "west coast" offense quarterback that knows how to quickly read defenses. The Steeler defense will pressure him, but he probably will make some plays anyway. I would not assume he will "cowher and shake" (pun intended) ala Peyton Manning and Jake Plummer. (And remember, the Steelers won the first playoff game more or less by default when the Bengals lost their quarterback in the opening series.) In short, Matt might be the best QB the Steelers have faced.
The Seahawks won a lot of regular season games, earned the number one seed and took care of business handily in the playoffs. They have some playmakers, Lofa Tatupu on defense, Alexander on offense, and a gigantic offensive line. I am not convinced that the Steelers win this game easily.
Ok, so I guess I have to make a pick. My heart is with the Seahawks, mostly because I have family out there. So I am going to ignore the system, ignore the public and say Seahawks 27, Steelers 16.
STEELERS/BRONCOS – (Jim) The Patriots like to play the “no respect” card. Well for two years the Steelers have been the second best team in the AFC yet people just haven’t thought they were a viable Super Bowl contender. Last year they were 15-1 and Ben Roethlisberger had not lost a game heading into the AFC Championship game with the Patriots. This year they were 9-3 in games he started and he is a much better quarterback. Much has been made of the Steelers being a 6th seed but they’re not a normal sixth seed. If Ben was healthy all year the Steelers may have finished better than 11-5 and earned a higher seed. As always they are a very tough team, having won in Cincy and Indy. And Ben, like Tom Brady before him, seems to have the ability to make big plays, avoid sacks and do what it takes to win. The Broncos on the other hand should not be here. Yes, it sounds like sour grapes but their vaunted running attack gained 96 yards against the Pats. Never mind one back being held under 100, the entire team was. Yes, the Broncos took advantage of the Pats turnovers – and they deserve credit for that. They also got every call – including the underreported Troy Brown muff which was missed. (He was hit before the ball hit the ground after calling for a fair catch. This is a muff not a fumble and the Pats should have been awarded the ball. The Steelers did the same thing a few weeks ago and the ball returned to the receiving team.) By no means is this game a lock but I like Ben over Jake, the Steeler defense over the Broncos’ and the Steelers are tougher – a big factor in any playoff game. Now I know what you’re saying – what about home field advantage? Well, Bill Cowher is 1-4 in AFC Championship games at home. Maybe the Steelers need to get away from Heinz Field to send The Terrible Towels to Motown.
SEAHAWKS/PANTHERS – I’ve written in this blog for two weeks that the Panthers are the best team in the NFC. Why change now after two wins on the road in the playoffs. They dominated the Giants and easily defeated the Bears. Jake Delhomme is 5-1 in the postseason losing only to Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl and is another QB who just seems to have the knack for making the big play. And toughness? I refer you to Richard Seymour’s recent interview on WEEI where he stated that the Cats were the toughest team he’s ever faced. Foster being out hurts, and if Peppers can’t play that’s a severe loss. The Seahawks are a fine team playing at home, but they have a real problem with special teams which is never good in the postseason. So, it’s the Panthers duplicating the Steelers and the 1985 Patriots in being a wild card team, winning three straight games on the road and moving on. Two very tough teams matching up against each other in the Super Bowl.
BOTH GAMES REVIEWED – (Paul)
If recent NFL history teaches us anything, it is that home field advantage means little in a conference title game. The Patriots, for example, have won three AFC title games on the road in the last twenty years, while the Steelers have lost four in their home field. Other clubs, like the Eagles, have struggled at home as well. Certainly, one would rather play at home, with the twelfth man and all, but when all is said and done, it does not appear to mean much. Both the Broncos and Seahawks have great home field advantages, but I do not see them being much of a factor this Sunday.
Indeed, these are interesting matchups. None of the four teams really qualify as world-beaters. There is no 14-win team, the much-vaunted Colts are missing and the Patriots and Eagles – two teams that have dominated in recent seasons – are absent as well.
The games feature teams that, statistically, are good at opposite things. Using NFL yardage ranking as our guide, in the AFC we have a great offensive team – the Broncos (4th in offense but 15th in defense), versus a great defensive team – the Steelers (16th in offense but 4th in defense). The same holds true in the NFC, where we have a great defensive team – the Panthers (16th in offense but 3rd in defense), versus a great offensive team, the Hawks (2nd in offense but 16th in defense).
Looking back at recent title games, it’s hard to see a trend. The Patriots beat the number one defensive team in the league – the Steelers – on the road last year, and the third best offense in the league at home – the Colts – the year before. In 2002, the better offensive team prevailed in the AFC title game – the Raiders beating the Titans, while in the NFC title game the better defensive team prevailed – the Bucs over the Eagles.
There’s not much to go by when you compare the coaches. Every coach still standing has taken a team to a Super Bowl. In fact, I believe every coach – except possibly Cowher – has been to a Super Bowl as an assistant as well.
Given all that, I look at these games as being decided by quarterback matchups and overall strength. In the AFC, the Steelers have the better quarterback – Ben Roethlisberger. I would put my money on him rather than Jake Plummer. And I kind like the way the team plays. Be aggressive early, and then run the ball with the lead. Its simple, but it works for them. On the defensive side, as I always say, when a team sets out the stop the run they can generally do it, as we saw with the Patriots last week. The Broncos much heralded running game was stymied. There is no reason why the Steelers cannot stop it as well. And if Jake Plummer is forced to throw, that spells trouble for the Broncos. Steelers win.
I am troubled by the Seahawks game. I have spent a lot of time in that area recently and sort of have a rooting interest. But right now, I cannot see them moving on to Motown. The Panthers may be the toughest team still standing, and better still they may have the best player – Steve Smith – in the playoffs. I am more impressed with Matt Hasslebeck than Jake Plummer, but Jake Delhomme is better than all of them when it comes to postseason play. As any Patriots fan can attest, he can really get in a zone (recall the Super Bowl). I heard Chris Collingsworth on HBO say “the Seahawks just have to shut down Steve Smith.” Duh. The fact is, it’s much easier to shut down a running game than a great receiver. Witness T.O. in last year’s Super Bowl. Simply put, I don’t see the Seahawks shutting down Smith. Panthers win.
The pain of seeing both the Patriots lose to the Broncos and the Steelers beat the Colts will linger for years. I don’t buy the argument that the club’s recent success takes all the sting out of losing. Sure, it helps. But the fact remains, opportunities to play for the AFC title in your home field are rare (the Patriots have only done it twice in the Super Bowl era) and must be seized when they arise.
And don’t forget, not everyone on the 2005 roster has a ring. Ask Logan Mankins, Nick Kaczur and Ellis Hobbs – three rookies that did a great job – how they feel. Last year, they were college students. Ask the new staff members.
And yes, ask Bill Belichick, who is enough of an historian to know that coaching three consecutive Super Bowl winners would have put him some very elite company. That is, all alone.
But whining won’t get us anywhere. To help commence the healing process, it’s time to sit back and start thinking about next season.
Here are seven things the team needs to take care of, in no particular order.
- Keep their stud lineman. The Patriots must sign Richard Seymour to a long term deal. The Pats have learned to survive the loss of good players, but not since Curtis Martin headed for the Big Apple have they tried to survive the loss of a perennial Pro-Bowl playmaker in his mid-twenties. (Bledsoe, Milloy and Law all had lost a step or two by the time they moved on.) Check the stats – when Richard was out the team could not stop the run. When the Big Guy played the opponents could not run at all. He’ll be costly, but like Tom Brady he is worth it.
- Sign Adam Vinatieri. Adam has been franchised now for a couple of seasons and he is starting to get antsy for some big money. The thought of this team heading down the stretch come playoff time next year with some hack replacement is unbearable. Vinatieri has enough jewelry, so he’ll be looking for some big bucks, but between his Papa Gino’s gig and the inevitable post-career analyst job (I predict he’ll replace Gino in the booth or join a local news team) it would behoove him to give a little hometown discount. This should get done.
- Say goodbye to David Givens – if they must. Givens is one tough dude. I love the way he has always played with a little chip on his shoulder, resenting the fact that he was drafted late and setting out to prove the other 31 teams wrong. But if he seeks really big money, the team would be wise to use it somewhere else. Deion Branch is the number one receiver – period. They cannot afford two number one’s – especially if it puts the team at risk of losing Seymour or Vinetieri.
- Hire some new, veteran coaches. Now that Eric Mangini apparently has bolted to take the head coaching job with the Jets, the team has lost arguably its four most important assistant coaches since the Super Bowl win over the Panthers (Rob Ryan, Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis being the others). I am glad to hear that twenty-something Josh McDaniels is coming along fine, but even Bill Belichick can’t do it without some experienced cohorts. Promoting the kids on the staff year after year is great, but with the talent drain the club has experienced that just won’t cut it. If someone currently looking for a head coaching job – Dom Capers, for example – is disappointed and enters the assistant market, I would consider grabbing him.
- Develop a serious back-up quarterback. I like Doug Flutie. I loved the drop kick. I wish I had a tenth of his athleticism. But next year, he will be in his mid-forties and it would be insane for the club to put the back-up job in his hands. If the team concludes that Matt Kassel is the guy, then fine. I trust Bill to make that judgment. (We all certainly liked what we saw in the Dolphins game.) But if the USC grad is not the guy, its time to get a serious, veteran back-up quarterback who could possibly do the job if the unthinkable occurred.
- Rebuild at running back. Ron Borges of the Globe takes a lot of heat for his ridiculous, relentless negativity toward a franchise that has been to six AFC semi-finals and four Super Bowls in the last ten campaigns. But he wrote the most interesting and influential article of the year when he chronicled the fact that running backs lose their steam after they reach age 30. All he did, really, was state the facts. But Corey Dillon went nutty, taking it all much too personally. Dillon could have made Borges look foolish by rushing for 1200 yards or so but he didn’t. Instead, he was almost a non-factor as he suffered through an injury-plagued campaign, making Borges look like Nostradamus. If its true, as reported, that his cap hit will be around $6 million if he returns, count him out next year unless his contract is significantly reworked. As for backup Kevin Faulk, he has his fans. According to Chiefs assistant coach Gunther Cunningham, he is a “great, underrated football player.” But he is more of a third-down type than a starter, and he also fumbles, as we all saw this past weekend. The time has come to spend a pick, or some capital, shoring up this spot.
- Fix the stadium noise problem. For years, Foxboro Stadium was unkind to opponents. The fans were on top of the field, and loud as all get out. Gillette Stadium, nice at it is, is quiet. The reason, no one seems to realize, has little to do with the fans and more to do with the acoustics and event presentation. The stadium puts most of the crazies in the upper deck, splayed out away from the field without a roof. Their noise dissipates. In Qwest Field, for example, where I recently attended the Seahawks-Redskins game, the upper deck – though frighteningly high – seems closer to the action (think old versus new Garden) and is covered by a roof. Consequently, it can be deafeningly loud in there – almost unbearable. There is not much the Patriots can do about that, short of putting a roof up. But they can fix the presentation problem. Their music system is too loud. It drowns out the fans. They can’t hear themselves, so they stop cheering. By league rule, the music must come down when the quarterback approaches center. At that point, the fans have not revved themselves up adequately, and it is too late. I strongly urge the club to experiment with some different crowd control techniques. Corny as it seems, the twelfth man is very important in big games.
Jim: Home field was 2-2 this weekend. It’s now 3-5 for the playoffs, yet you will hear pundits all week cite how important it is.
Paul: You are right, Jim, that for the most part home field has been overrated. But for the Patriots, home field historically has been much friendlier. The Pats have played in eight AFC semi-final games in the last 30 years. They 4-0 at home (1996, 2001, 2003 and 2004) and 1-3 on the road (a win in 1985, losses in 1976, 1997 and 2005).
Jim: In basketball parlance, the Colts are soft. Manning can’t be counted on to win in the playoffs nor get it done on a final drive. Vanderjagt is no Vinatieri and the defense can’t be counted on to make the big stop. And please spare us the excuses for the Colts – off too long, etc. When the Pats went out it was set up perfectly for Indy and they couldn’t get it done.
Paul: As you know, Jim, I did not like Indy’s chances going in. Back in late December, I researched all the Super Bowl winners from the last 25 years. Teams that win the big one historically play over .800 ball in their last four regular season games, versus .750 ball prior to that. In other words, champions play their best ball in December. The Colts stumbled to the finish line, and again were shown to be a vastly overrated team at crunch time.
Jim: We officially declare the Brady-Manning debate over. The debate now becomes whether you’d take Roethlisberger or Delhomme over Manning.
Paul: Yes, but Brady had the worst big game of his career the other night. He has one weakness – he is prone to turning the ball over near the goal line. He threw the inexplicable interception in the Super Bowl against Carolina, lofting it into the endzone when a field goal would have put the Pats up by eight. And he fumbled the ball at the five against Philly in last year’s title game. Yes, Champ Bailey made a nice play on the ball, but a field goal in that situation cuts the lead to one, with about 20 minutes left in the game. No reason at all to force it in there.
Jim: The Colts and Pats losing in the second round was like the Red Sox and Yankees going out in the first round this year. The matchup the network wanted didn’t happen.
Paul: The AFC matchup is a little more intriguing, as Denver and Pittsburgh have long traditions as conference powers. Both coaches have a little bit of a reputation for not getting it done of late. Cowher is 1-4 in conference title games and Shanahan has one playoff win (Saturday night) since Elway left. That promises to be a big media focal point in the days ahead. The Seahawks-Panthers matchup won’t get the same attention.
Jim: I said it before and I’ll say it again – Carolina is the best team in the NFC. If Peppers and Foster can’t play next week though they will be severely hampered.
Paul: Carolina is good, and you were right Jim to root against them in the KQS picks last week. If the Pats had made it, they would have been the last team I would have wanted them to play.
Jim: A horrendous weekend for the refs. The blown call on the interference against the Pats. The false start on the field goal. The failure to reverse on the fumble out of the end zone. And to top it off reversing the interception in the Steeler game. What is going on? (Note – the NFL today admitted that the Pittsburgh call was blown. See http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory?id=1511623&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312)
Paul: The interference call against Samuel was the worst of the lot. He runs stride for stride with the receiver, looks back at the ball, and only makes contact with the receiver after the receiver reaches over him. Ridiculous.
Jim: Tom Brady finally losing a playoff game with Bill Belichick coaching once again reminds us in the long history of professional sports there is only one postseason constant. With Red Auerbach coaching and Bill Russell standing at the end, the Boston Celtics never lost a playoff series. In twenty series, a remakable 20-0.
Paul: Can’t argue with you there Jim. The Patriots’ mistakes – the fumbles, the picks, the false start penalty at the five yard line (prior to Bailey’s pick), all of these terribly uncharacteristic plays will linger in fan’s memories for years. But to me, there also seemed to be a weird karma about the team the other night. Brady seemed uncharacteristically juiced up, hopping up and down, jawing with opponents, throwing the ball too high – he just was not himself. And what was with Bill? At one point, he was seem clearly yelling some serious cuss words at the officials, and when Troy Brown fumbled the punt the usually stone-faced coach hurled his clipboard to the ground. Later in the game, Willie McGinest and Larry Izzo argued to the point of blows, and when Samuel was called for his penalty he moped like he just lost the Super Bowl.
Maybe this cliche applies: on Saturday night, the Patriots were not ready to play.
Deniver has not always been kind to Tom Brady and the Patriots. Back in the kid’s rookie year he suffered that horrific interception-laden meltdown on the way to a loss, and earlier this year he had another poor performance – before mounting a furious second-half comeback that fell short.
But I’m picking the Patriots to win anyway, for four very simple reasons.
One, this Patriots team – the one coached by Belichick and led by Tom Brady – has never lost in the playoffs. They win the close one’s (four of their ten victories have been earned with a late field goal, and two have been won by a touchdown). They win on the road, and they win in neutral sites. They win in cold weather and in domes. As a wise gambler once said, never bet against a streak.
Two, the team rarely loses a rematch. Yes, Denver handled the Patriots with relative ease earlier this season. But Bill B. and company are 6-0 in this historic run when playing teams that beat them earlier in the season, and 18-3 in rematches overall. They simply adjust their schemes and take away what worked the first time. (In this case, it will be the big plays that resulted in easy touchdowns for the Broncos.) Recall the Super Bowl victory over the Rams, which came just a few weeks after Warner and company smoked the Pats in Foxboro. In the rematch, the Pats took Marshall Faulk out of the game to upset the offensive rythym.
Three, Denver is always overrated. Like the Dolphins, the team has managed to earn itself a spot among those elite clubs the media loves to talk about. But Mike Shanahan has no playoff victories since John Elway left town 100 years ago.(Actually, it was 1998, but it seems like 100 years.) I would imagine he’s under tremendous pressure to win and win now.
Four, and this is very important, the Pats are just playing real well right now. In their last six games, the Patriots have allowed three or fewer points in half of them. Their offensive skill position players are relatively healthy. They are so good, when they win 28-3 they find reason to complain about their performance. That’s the sign of a team that has it collective heads on straight.
I imagine that if you polled the general managers of all the playoff teams, with the possible exception of the Colts the Pats would be the last team anybody would want to play. If you are a Patriots fans, its ok to be nervous. Nothing in sports is truly guaranteed. But this game, exciting as it probably will be, is very winnable.
Final score – Patriots 27 Denver 19.