Tuesday November 20th, 2007

As the New England Patriots methodically hand out beatings to the rest of the league, there's a tendency to overlook the Patriots' most significant drubbing thus far in 2007: what they've done to the barometer of public opinion called conventional wisdom.

Wasn't it just yesterday that fans and critics alike debated whether the acquisition of Randy Moss would ruin the Patriot Way, and whether New England's talent haul would end up being a Washington-like attempt to buy itself a title in the free-agent market? (One small self-interested disclaimer: I expressed no misgivings about Moss on draft day and declared the Pats champs in May). Moss is in the midst of the best year of his career. At this point, the Patriots don't even need the benefit of the doubt. There are no doubts.

However, the Patriots aren't the only team to defy conventional wisdom. There weren't just a few misses. There are gaping differences between what was expected and what has actually occurred. It wasn't so long ago conventional wisdom suggested that:

• New Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips was seen as just a puppet hire by Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who could then resume his penchant for making all the key decisions he was blocked from making during Bill Parcells' four years in Dallas. Phillips was summed up as just an amiable defensive coordinator who had failed in his previous head coaching stints, a virtual throwback to the Cowboys' less-than-scintillating Dave Campo era.

• The Bears still had quarterback problems, but their defense was so superior, so dominating Chicago would be right back in the hunt for another Super Bowl trip in the woefully weak NFC.

Chicago's defense currently ranks 22nd overall in yardage allowed (348.5 per game) and 17th in points allowed (21.7 ppg).

• San Diego and Baltimore were no flukes last season when they were the top two seeds in the only-the-tough-survive AFC. The Chargers and Ravens combined to go 27-5 in the regular season in 2006, and while they both lost their playoff openers at home in the divisional round, they'd be back knocking on the door to the Super Bowl this season because San Diego possessed an unstoppable offense and Baltimore's defense was impenetrable.

The Ravens and Chargers, who by the way meet in San Diego this week, are 4-6 and 5-5, respectively.

Terrell Owens was by his very psychological make-up incapable of fitting into a team concept in Dallas, and would inevitably drag the Cowboys down with his me-first approach. In the process, he'd walk all over the easy-going Phillips now that the taskmaster Parcells was out of the picture.

The 9-1 Cowboys aren't just the class of the NFC, with an explosive offense topped only by New England, they're the picture of team chemistry. Nobody has hit their marks, both on and off the field, better than T.O., which now stands for Team Only.

• The Jets went 10-6 and made the playoffs in Eric Mangini's first season in New York without much of a running game to speak of. Can you imagine how far they'll go now that they pilfered 1,200-yard rusher Thomas Jones from the Bears?

Not so far as it turns out. The Jets are 2-8, and while Jones has picked it up of late and is headed for a decent statistical showing this season, he hasn't come anywhere close to playing the pivotal-piece-of-the-puzzle role that many of us predicted.

And those are just the highlights of where conventional wisdom has failed us this season. Ah, 2007. So far, so wrong.

• Almost every December there's a team that seemingly comes out of nowhere to mount a late push to the playoffs, after being written off by the masses. Last year, it was the Eagles, who were 5-6 when December began, but won five games in the final month to climb over the faltering Giants and Cowboys and wrap up another NFC East title.

If I had to take my best guess as to who might fit the bill of mystery playoff team this season it would be Arizona, which is 5-5 and a game behind first-place Seattle (6-4) in the NFC West. The Cardinals' final six games includes winnable matchups with San Francisco, Atlanta and St. Louis at home. That should give them eight wins. If they can get one more victory in their three other games -- home against Cleveland, at Seattle, at New Orleans -- a 9-7 record should earn them the NFC's second wild-card berth (unless they win at Seattle and thus sweep the Seahawks, which could result in a division title for Arizona).

At the moment, the Cardinals trail the 6-4 Lions by a game in the chase for the final NFC wild-card slot. But if they catch the Lions, the Cardinals would win the tiebreaker by virtue of a 31-21 Week 10 win over Detroit.

• The winless Dolphins have lost half of their 10 games by a three-point margin, but their best shot at victory came in Week 1 at Washington, where they fell 16-13 in overtime to the Redskins. If Miami does go on to run the table in reverse, becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history, knowing they were ever so close to avoiding that fate right from the start of the 2007 season will make it all the more excruciating.

• Everyone keeps talking about the Steelers having the best chance to derail the Patriots in their Week 14 matchup in Foxboro, but I don't see where all the optimism is coming from. Pittsburgh has lost road games at Arizona, at Denver and at the Jets this season, and all three teams were under .500 when the Steelers faced them.

Mike Tomlin's team is solid, and it's going to the playoffs in his first year on the job. But it's not ready to knock off the Patriots on their home field. Not going to happen.

• The Jaguars are 7-3, just a game back of the Colts in the AFC South, and coming off nice wins at Tennessee and home against San Diego. But they best not get giddy. I wouldn't underestimate how much the loss of middle linebacker Mike Peterson could hurt Jacksonville down the season's backstretch. Peterson broke his right hand in several places in the win over the Chargers on Sunday, and it could take weeks for him to even be able to play wearing a cast, if he plays at all the rest of this season.

Peterson is the Jags' leading tackler and locker room leader, and his absence could be felt most when Jacksonville faces its showdown in Indianapolis in Week 13. Without Peterson in pursuit, containing Colts running back Joseph Addai will be even more difficult. In addition, the Jaguars' top cornerback, Rashean Mathis, suffered a strained groin against the Chargers and is at least a question mark the next few weeks. That's more bad news when you're heading to Indy.

One positive for Jacksonville: Pro Bowl defensive tackle Marcus Stroud will be finished with his four-game steroid suspension in time to play against the Colts, and the Jaguars got deeper at his position with the recent signing of ex-Falcon Grady Jackson.

• Attorney-speak of the week goes to Michael Vick's barrister, Billy Martin, who had this to say Monday regarding Vick's decision to surrender to U.S. Marshals and begin serving his jail time more than three weeks before his Dec. 10 sentencing:

"From the beginning, Mr. Vick has accepted responsibility for his actions, and his self-surrender further demonstrates that acceptance.''

Oh really? Ask Roger Goodell about that one. Because I seem to remember Vick telling the NFL's commish back in late April that he didn't know a thing about any dogfighting ring in Surrey County, Va., blaming relatives for the whole sordid mess. So in this case, Martin was defining the "beginning'' as that time right after Vick realized he had no prayer of beating the dogfighting charges and copped a plea deal.

• The Titans defense and punt coverage unit got burned by big plays in the loss to Denver on Monday night, but the silver lining in Tennessee's defeat was the way the Titans used quarterback Vince Young. He threw for a career-best 305 yards and a touchdown, but he also rushed for a team-high 74 yards and another score on 11 carries. The Titans amassed 28 first downs, 423 yards of offense, and had more than 35 minutes of possession time.

If the Titans are going to win this year, that's the dual pass-run threat Young has to pose, and that's the kind of help Tennessee's offense has to give its defense.

• Uh, oh. If the Patriots have a weakness right now, it's that they're banged up at running back. Sammy Morris was placed on injured reserve early this month with a chest injury suffered in Week 6 at Dallas. Laurence Maroney (foot) and Kevin Faulk (head) both left the game against Buffalo on Sunday night with second-quarter injuries. New England finished the game with fullbacks Heath Evans and Kyle Eckel, a rookie, taking turns carrying the ball.

Unless Corey Dillon comes out of retirement and to the rescue, you know what that means? The Patriots might just have to have to throw the ball more the next few weeks. Yow. Alert the authorities.

• How about that Nick Saban? He's still as grounded in reality as ever, citing 9/11 and Pearl Harbor on Monday in the course of discussing the challenge that his Alabama Crimson Tide has in rebounding from its own "catastrophic event'' -- a shocking 21-14 loss to upstart Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday.

This one requires no punch line.

• My gut tells me the worst is over for the Colts, and that it won't get any tougher than that ugly 13-10 home win they had to gut out against Kansas City on Sunday. I'm not predicting that Indy will go 6-0 from here on out and wind up winning the AFC, mind you.

But when all is said and done, I think you'll see the Colts: Win the AFC South, earn the No. 2 seed as we've expected all along, and lose to the Patriots in the AFC title game Jan. 20 in Foxboro.

• Two more tidbits that speak to the other-worldly dimension the Patriots are playing in this season: There are still six games left in the regular season, but there in my e-mail inbox Monday afternoon were the NFL's playoff scenarios for Week 12. The only one listed was of course in the AFC East, where 10-0 New England can clinch the division title with either a win at home against the Eagles (5-5), or a Buffalo (5-5) loss at Jacksonville (7-3).

And did you notice that Vegas likes the Patriots to make it 11-0 Sunday night against Philly? The early week spread is a cushy 22½ points. I say it's not enough. Take the Pats. Give the points.

• Washington's so-so season will end up being defined by the huge division losses it has so far suffered to the Giants, Eagles and Cowboys, but do not overlook the fact that third-year quarterback Jason Campbell is growing up before our eyes. Campbell's five touchdown passes the past two weeks -- at home against Philly and at Dallas -- have not produced victories. But they do portend bigger and better things for Washington's offense, and Campbell has shown that the Redskins' faith in him was well placed.

• If you like both quality football and symmetry, the AFC South is the division for you this season. Through 10 games, the standings look like a step ladder: Colts 8-2, Jaguars 7-3, Titans 6-4, Texans 5-5.

No other NFL division has three winning teams.

• I can't help but think the pathetic state of San Francisco's offense these days is merely karmic revenge for the 1980s and '90s, when the 49ers faithful were entertained by state-of-the-art offenses, year after dominating year. You got Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia to enjoy folks, so suffering through Alex Smith is called payback time.

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