You could feel the air go out of Patriots Nation when Sammy Knight picked off Tom Brady for the fourth time in the game, ending the Patriots comeback hopes in Kansas City. There was some optimism that the Patriots were getting ready to make a late season run but after falling 26-16 to the Chiefs, reality set in. The reality is after 11 games the Patriots are an average football team.
Average might be okay in places like Arizona and New Orleans where their teams haven't experienced a lot of success over the years but it won't fly for a team trying to win their third straight Super Bowl. So is it over? Is the dynasty dead? On paper, the Patriots look like a team that won't do much of anything even if they make the playoffs but games aren't played on paper. Even if New England's quest for a threepeat falls short, this team won't go down without a fight. And hey, the Patriots have Brady and Bill Belichick, so maybe, just maybe, there is still a glimmer of hope left.
The number the Patriots have on their side is 19-1. Belichick is 10-1 all-time in the playoffs and Brady is a perfect 9-0 as a starting quarterback. Past records don't necessarily mean the same thing will happen this time around. However, one advantage the Patriots have heading into the postseason is other than Peyton Manning, the other quarterbacks guiding the top teams in the AFC have very little experience in playoff games.
Carson Palmer of the Bengals, Byron Leftwich/David Garrard of the Jaguars, Drew Brees of the Chargers and Trent Green of the Chiefs have never won a playoff game as starting quarterbacks. The Broncos Jake Plummer and the Steelers Ben Roethlisberger each have one playoff victory on their resume but neither have the experience in big games that Brady has. When it comes to playoff experience, Brady and Manning are miles ahead of all the other quarterbacks in the AFC, so that's something the Patriots have in their favor.
Most importantly, the Patriots are going to be healthy come playoff time. Well, as healthy as any team that's started 43 different players through 11 games can be. The Patriots will never use injuries as an excuse for poor play but it can't be ignored that key components like Corey Dillon, Kevin Faulk, David Givens and Tom Ashworth will be back to help the Pats make a playoff push, granted they win their division.
Patrick Pass and Heath Evans have done an admirable job filling in for Dillon but defenses have to play the Patriots offense differently with a Pro Bowler in the backfield than they do when a special teams player and a street free agent are in the game. The combination of Faulk and a healthy Dillon could finally give the Patriots a legitimate ground game and help take the pressure off Brady and the Patriots struggling defense.
Givens is practicing again and may play against the Jets but him being out of the lineup has really hurt the Patriots offense in recent weeks. New England has a lot of speed at the receiver position with guys like Tim Dwight and Andre' Davis but Givens is the team's possession receiver. Other than Deion Branch, no receiver on the roster makes as many important catches as Givens does. Twenty-four of his 42 receptions have gone for first downs and that is an area the Patriots have struggled in without Givens on the field. Opposing defenses have been able to use more defenders on Branch, something they can't do as often when Givens is in the game.
With center Dan Koppen out for the season and The Boston Herald reporting left tackle Matt Light will have a second medical procedure on his broken right leg, ending his season as well, the return of Ashworth is vital for the Patriots offensive line. Brady has been getting killed all season long and it doesn't help when three starters aren't in the lineup. Ashworth is by no means a dominant offensive tackle but he is a reliable veteran and with Koppen and Light out, his experience and leadership is sorely missed.
There's a chance the injuries may be too much for the Patriots to overcome this year but if they make it into the playoffs, they will still have a puncher's chance to defend their title. And one thing is for certain; no team in the AFC is going to want to face Brady and the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in the first round of the playoffs. Hey, stranger things have happened and if any team can do the impossible, the New England Patriots are that team.
Edwards still focused on this seasonThe Jets were supposed to challenge the Patriots for the AFC East title this season but injuries and inconsistent play have New York coming to Foxborough with a record of 2-9 and out of the playoff hunt. Still, Jets head coach Herm Edwards isn't ready to throw away the rest of the 2005 season and look ahead to 2006.
"First we want to try and win some ball games," Edwards said during his Wednesday conference call. "The one thing injuries provide you, they provide the opportunity for some young guys to play…To their credit, most of the guys have done a good job of hanging in there and trying to get better. We are coaching them that way. We have to improve as a football team and get the players better so we can make a good evaluation. The first thing is we want to win ball games."
The Jets enter Sunday's game with Brooks Bollinger starting at quarterback. Bollinger began the season as the Jets third-string quarterback but when starter Chad Pennington and back Jay Fiedler were injured, the third-year pro was forced into action. Bollinger has a quarterback rating of 69.8 this season and is 0-4 in his career as a starter.
Belichick said at his Thursday press conference he is happy with the improvement of second-year tight end Ben Watson. "Ben is a guy in the last month who has really improved his game," Belichick said. "The whole aspect of it. He has really come on over the last few weeks."…Givens needs 15 receptions to set a single-season career high…Belichick told the media on Thursday it's probably not likely the team will fill it's open roster spot before Sunday's game with the Jets…The Patriots have won 12 of their last 13 divisional games.