Monday September 8th, 2008

Who are the winners and losers now that New England quarterback Tom Brady is out for the season with a left knee injury? We thought you'd never ask....

• Who wins?: The San Diego Chargers. The defending AFC champion Patriots have had the Chargers' number the last two years, beating them three times in that span, including in the 2006 AFC Divisional round and in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. Without Brady pulling the trigger, the Chargers no longer have quite so much reason to fear the NFL's team of the decade.

And remember, San Diego was still in the game in the fourth quarter of the 2007 AFC title game in Foxboro, despite no LaDainian Tomlinson and quarterback Philip Rivers playing through his own knee ligament injury. This year, the Chargers' only shot at New England may wind up being their highly anticipated Week 6 regular-season matchup in San Diego. Who'd a thunk it?

• Who loses?: The NFL. There's no bigger star in the league than Brady -- sorry Peyton -- and it's a major downer for Roger Goodell's kingdom to lose the league's reigning MVP in Week 1. In a league that spends millions to project (and protect) its image, Brady has been the clef-chinned face of the NFL for a while now, a walking, talking billboard for all that the league is trying to sell. The absence of his unique star power in 2008 lessens more than just the Patriots, it lessens the NFL brand.

The games, of course, will go on, and the train always keeps moving in the NFL. But subtracting Mr. Glamour from the league's glamour team -- in Week 1, no less -- is the worst-case scenario loss for the glamour-loving NFL.

• Who wins?: The Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Tennessee Titans. I'm not ready to bury the Patriots' chances to defend their division title -- in fact, I still think they'll scrape out 10 wins -- but obviously the Bills and Jets now have legitimate AFC East title hopes where they once only figured to be factors in the conference's wild-card chase. The Patriots still have a very talented roster, but in an NFL that is always a quarterback-dominated world, they wouldn't be the first good team to be doomed by sub-par play at the game's most pivotal position.

Outside the AFC East, the way I plot it out, a team like the Titans that might benefit most from New England coming back to the AFC pack. Tennessee went 10-6 and made the playoffs as a wild-card team last year, and if you still believe that the AFC South will come down to a fight between Indianapolis and Jacksonville, then the Titans might be the team well-positioned to benefit from a Patriots' slide.

• Who loses?: Bill Belichick's coaching reputation. Remember, before Brady started a game in New England, Belichick's record with the Patriots was 5-13 and he was already hearing the drumbeat of speculation regarding his job security. Since Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 3 of 2001, he's 101-27 as a starter, including playoffs. With Belichick's reputation already having taken a hit last year due to Spygate and New England's shocking Super Bowl loss, being reduced to just another head coach forced to play out a season with his backup quarterback registers as another potentially damaging blow.

Either that or it's another chance to prove his coaching mettle, by answering the question we've all wondered about for years now: Whether Belichick's success with the Patriots had much more to do with Brady than anyone could ever calculate? We're about to find out.

• Who wins?: Matt Cassel. The ex-USC backup to Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart very nearly played his way off New England's roster last month with a horrible preseason showing in which he failed to lead the Patriots to a touchdown on any of the 17 drives he quarterbacked. But he snapped that streak on his first drive of the regular season against Kansas City on Sunday, and now he has the golden opportunity to at least pull off a minor version of what Brady himself accomplished in 2001, when he exceeded all expectations in relief of Bledsoe.

For a guy who hasn't started a meaningful game at quarterback since high school, what more could Cassel ask for than to inherit the reins of the Patriots offense, which obliterated a host of NFL records just last year?

• Who loses?: The Colts-Patriots rivalry. I don't know about you, but Week 9 in the NFL just won't be the same this year. For three consecutive years, the league has scheduled a New England-Indianapolis game for Week 9, and the NFL's premier rivalry has not disappointed. But who knows what it will mean by the time we get to early November this year?

For the first time, it won't be Brady versus Manning, and for all we know the game may not even feature a pair of playoff-bound teams. The Colts were humiliated at home against the lowly Bears Sunday night, and the Patriots needed a Dwayne Bowe-dropped touchdown pass in the final minute to avoid being taken to overtime at home against the even lowlier Chiefs.

And while we're at it, we just got cheated out of two games of Brady versus Brett Favre in the AFC East wars, which was the potential Super Bowl matchup that almost everyone seemed to be hoping for in February. Now? Depending on Brady's rehabilitation, and Favre's year-by-year decision-making when it comes to retirement, it's possible that No. 12 and No. 4 never meet again.

• Who wins?: Laurence Maroney, Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan. Without Brady leading the aerial circus in New England, look for the Patriots to marginally re-invent themselves as an offensive team that puts increased emphasis on the running game and less demands on an inexperienced quarterback like Cassel. That's where running backs Maroney, Morris and Jordan should benefit, with all of them getting a larger workload than expected this season.

The Patriots will likely prioritize a much more balanced attack than their pass-heavy approach of last season. And there's no way they'll put Cassel in the shotgun formation 70 percent of the time, as they did Brady last year. Later in the season, when the weather turns colder and the elements become very much a factor in the AFC East, we could see New England morph into more of a smash-mouth team that tries to shorten the game and lessen the passing game load that will rest on Cassel's young shoulders.

• Who loses?: Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Jabar Gaffney. No matter who's playing quarterback, the Patriots will still try and get the ball into Moss's big-play-making hands every chance they get. But without Brady looking for Moss first on almost every play, there's no way the 11th-year receiver will come close to matching his monster, record-breaking numbers of last year (98 catches for 1,493 yards, 23 touchdowns). Moss will be busy, but it won't be last year's magic carpet ride.

The two receivers who stand to suffer the most in terms of statistical slippage with Cassel at the helm are Welker and Gaffney, the team's No. 2 and No. 3 pass-catchers. Welker was a chains-mover extraordinaire last year, catching a whopping 112 passes for 1,175 yards, and making many of his receptions seem like little more than extended hand-offs. Gaffney too had his moments, albeit with a relatively quiet 36 receptions for 449 yards and five touchdowns. New England can't possibly make up for that kind of passing-game production with Brady down for the count.

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