Picking apart the Pats

Publish date:

Never have I seen a team that enriched its, uh, supporters for eight straight weeks fall from grace so fast. I'm talking about the Patriots, of course, and if anyone ever sits down to write the definitive research opus on football betting, I'm sure New England will deserve a chapter of its own.

Two games did it, Philly and Baltimore, and now the word on the street is that the Patriots are a tired team and anyone younger and more physical will give them real trouble.

Thus we saw a freaky betting pattern this week, involving the New England-Pittsburgh game. It opened at 14½, although if you check the betting sites, they'll list 13 as the first price they posted. Not true. I check 'em all Sunday night, when I write my handicapping column for the magazine, and the opening price was 14 in some places, 14½ in others.

One gentleman who has great experience in this line of work told me that the first Sunday night number is an accommodation for the high rollers, and after the odds-makers see what kind of action it draws, it gets adjusted. And that's what becomes what they call their opener, the price that all the run-of-the-mill wagerers can bet into.

This week, the New England number got hammered, as the public has turned its back on the great cash register that the Patriots have been in 2007. The line has gone down to 10½, a significant drop in half a week. Very few people that I talked to like the favorite. They all give the Steelers a chance. Those who like to invest have turned their play toward the underdog. I predict that the line will be a single digit number by kickoff.

Jeb of Washington, and I thank you for what you said, asks, "Can you lay out a realistic scenario in which the Steelers can defeat the Patriots?" John of Boston wonders about the exotic blitz package the men of Steel might throw at Tom Brady, and is there any reason to believe that he won't deal with it the way he's dealt with every other attempt to unseat him as the King of 2007?

I'll answer both questions together. Biggest problem for Pittsburgh -- scoring enough points. A sturdy running game will not put all that's needed on the board, but it will soften up a front seven that was hammered unmercifully by the Ravens. But Pittsburgh must be willing to sacrifice a lack of immediate scoring for heavy long range damage. It's like a fighter who carries a body attack into the later rounds.

The problem with that scenario is if the Pats put a couple of scores up early, the natural tendency would be to go into a catch-up mode and try to answer back immediately. Patience would be needed. Tire 'em out and their pass rush dies. Pass rush dies and the completions will pile up after a while. Guaranteed that if the Patriots are getting hit hard on the ground, they'll move Rodney Harrison closer to the line, which would leave a hole in the secondary to exploit.

Defensively, everyone knows that you have to hit the Patriots with stuff they haven't seen before -- and maybe they haven't seen it because it's unsound. That's where imagination comes in. Dick LeBeau is imaginative. Don't forget he was the architect of the zone blitz. If it were me, I'd treat the Patriots to a furious blitz package involving smaller guys, players who can squeeze through narrower gaps in a hurry. Troy Polamalu is crucial, of course, but no one knows how his injured knee will be.

I've devoted almost two pages to just two questions. At this rate, the rest of the emails will run me around 40 more pages, and what I think I'll do will be to have them bound, and sell the hardcover version for $22.95.

OK, there is one hell of a competition going on for Emailer of the Week among three worthy candidates. First on the list is the kind reader who answered my query about how Sage Rosenfels got his first name. Paul Christoffer of Dyersville, Iowa, says his wife and brothers-in-law grew up within 10 miles of the Rosenfels family, and they reported that all the kids had odd names. There was one kid named Jaffa, for example. Then he has an indirect quote from Sage himself, explaining that the name was an inspiration of his parents, "who had something of a hippie lifestyle." This is all well and good, but it really isn't definitive. I gave your last name, Paul, to show you were a legitimate contender, but I'm afraid I can't go the whole way with you.

Contender No. 2 is a celebrity, a terrific actor named Norman Thomas Marshall who has become quite well known for his portrayal of John Brown in a show called Trumpet of Freedom. Here's his letter, which, in normal times, would be a slam dunk for the award:

"In 1969 you wrote a feature on me in the New York Post. I had been a semi-pro offensive tackle who became an actor in Gorilla Queen. We had lunch at Brew's Bar on 34th St. I am still treading the boards , for the last 11 years John Brown, Trumpet of Freedom. Gorilla to guerilla in one short career."

I remember Norman Thomas Marshall quite well, being originally drawn to do the piece because he was named after the man I voted for in the first two presidential elections in which I was eligible to vote. Norman Thomas was one of my early heroes. I remember big Norm as a guy who seemed destined to keep doing monster type roles, you know Frankenstein clones. He's grown a mustache now, let his hair get a little longer, and he kind of gives the appearance of a John Wilkes Booth type, a serious looking actor. Thanks for checking in, Norman, but I'm afraid you just missed out on this prestigious award.

Which goes to Steve (no last name given) of Ottawa, who wrote, "According to Variety, Jake Gyllenhaal will be playing Joe Namath (wonder who'll win) in a movie about his life. If you were in charge of casting, who would play the young reporter, Paul Zimmerman?" Wow! I gave The Flaming Redhead first crack at that one.

"Lassie," she said. I should have known better. Off the top of my head I'd say Ernest Borgnine, but thinking it through, I believe I'd go for Timothey Carey, who always was a personal favorite. You say you never heard of him. Big guy, kind of sloppy looking, with a demented way of talking and eyes that keep slipping out of focus. Was in The Killing, the Kubrick movie about the heist at the race track. He's the loony ex-army vet who shoots the racehorse as a diversionary tactic. Played a neighborhood drunk in On the Waterfront. Wildly miscast as one of the World War I soldiers executed in the Kirk Douglas movie, Paths of Glory.

"Talk about dating yourself," says TFR. "That movie is 50 years old."

From Jim of Mass (is that the state or the quantity of matter?). How would I rate Ray Lewis' leadership on the Ravens? Well, he makes a lot of noise, but when he's all wound up and doing one of his rants, I get a kick out of watching the players on the fringes and seeing how they're taking it. Most of them seem as if they're in a "let's pretend" type of situation.

Scott of Rochester, N.Y., has a theory about Brett Favre, namely that his habit of occasional bomb happiness is "a passive-aggressive response to a game plan he doesn't like." A rebellion in other words. I don't think so for two reasons: 1) he just looked too comfortable in that run 'n shoot thing that destroyed Detroit, and 2) if it were a case of open defiance, we'd have seen some angry sideline scenes between Brett and coach McCarthy.

From Patrick of Portland, Ore. In the days before instant replay, the officials would huddle to get things right. Now they let the camera do the work for them. Would I agree that the standard of officiating has changed? Gosh, I don't know. I do remember that there seemed to be epidemics of certain types of calls. One year it was a receiver's "failure to maintain possession,"on a sideline catch. Cost Houston a victory over the Steel Curtain Steelers in one playoff game. When the replay camera first came in, officials were very resentful I remember standing behind Ben Dreith, the referee, at a buffet dinner line during Pro Bowl week in Hawaii, and without introducing myself, I asked him how he felt about instant replay. He went off on it.

"They think they have the last word," he said. "We'll see about that. We've still got something up our sleeve. It's called inadvertent whistle." Sure enough, next year those calls descended like a plague of locusts. It became a joke -- until Pete Rozelle told them to cut it out.

You're right, Patrick, I still haven't answered your question. The answer is yes, officiating is different now. But one thing is the same and that is that it's still inconsistent.

Which brings us to some officiating and rule questions.

Tony of San Antonio, who claims to have named his pet otter, The Flaming Redhead, can't understand why they wont let the No. 1 or No. 2 quarterback re-enter the game if the No. 3, the "emergency QB," i.e., JaMarcus Russell, has made an appearance. It was originally put in, supposedly, to level the playing field, to keep a team better stocked at the QB position from outmanning an opponent. When this was explained to me, my question was, then why not impose a similar situation on offensive linemen, defensive backs, any unit? The only response I got there was, "Hmmm, interesting idea."

Lance of Monroe, Ohio, wants to know the rationale for not giving the defense the option of declining a false start penalty on certain occasions. If it occurs before the snap and halts the action, then a play hasn't been run, so what could you substitute for the declined penalty? The declining comes on a penalty that happens at the snap or after it.

From Andy of Lincoln, Neb. "Why is the forceout on the books? I just don't see the sense of it." Yeah, me neither, which was what I wrote in Tuesday's piece about Colts-Ravens game. The weakness of the rule is that it calls for supposition -- if this hadn't have happened, then this would have happened. Excuse me, Mr. Referee, sir, but how do you know this thing gonna happen?" (I appreciate what you wrote, Andy).

A big, fat New Jersey thank you to Chris of Davis, Calif., home of the country's leading school of oenology, or wine cultivation, for his kind words. Do officials ever get influenced by "story lines," i.e., helping a team achieve the destiny that seems ordained for it, that has made it what it is?

Yes, they do, but not so much in favor of teams but keynote players. I've seen Favre whack an enemy player who was particularly annoying, only to have the referee put an arm around his shoulder and tell him to take it easy. Some poor defensive tackle might do the same thing and get ejected, with both parents required to come to school.

From Mike of Pittsburgh: "Will you print a retraction to your 'dirty play' column, after the Miami Dolphins acknowledged that they do not think Lawrence Timmons meant to step on Ricky Williams?" Sure, if it'll make you happy. I hereby retract that it was a dirty play, and Timmons took a deliberate step toward Williams. Defensive players are always careless about stepping on the back of someone who's lying facedown with so much force that it ends their season. Just part of the game, right?

This gets the full ride, namewise, because this column needs a little class. Stefan van den Abeelen (boy, would I go places with a name like that) of San Luis Obispo, Calif., asks, "What's with the vanishing act of Randy Moss?" He likes to frolic through defensive backfields unimpeded. An early jam puts him in a bad mood. I think a memo will be forthcoming from the Patriots' office that, in the interest of what's best for the game, opposing players should be careful not to get him upset.

From a longtime reader, Dave of Raleigh, with many nice things to say, and I thank you-What do I think of the Vikings? Tarvaris Jackson is improving because you can't get much worse than he was early in the season. Super star runner, of course. I think the coaching is holding them back, but they'll still squeeze into the playoffs, if they can keep Peterson healthy... maybe even if they can't.

Now here comes a Viking fan who's a real Viking, John K. Hoversholm of Bergen Norway, who narrows it down to the offensive line. LT McKinnie is a more functional run blocker now, but his pass blocking still is weak. LG Hutchinson is overrated, although he really hasn't been rated much of anything this season. Good run blocker, sometimes gets clumsy on his pass blocks. C Birk is OK, but I never was as gaga about him as some of the other Vikings fans are. RG Herrera is a heart and desire guy. RT Cook is what I classify as a WGSK tackle. Will Get Somebody Killed. And thank you for what you wrote about my work.

Jacob of New York wants to know why the Jets don't give the ball to Leon Washington more. I ask that every time I see them play. If and when I know the answer I'll pop it into a future column. And thanks for your sentiments.

Matt of Charlotte, N.C., asks a question I've been asking for about 60 years. Why get away from a defense that's been dominating and fall back into a more passive, "coverage" type of operation. Fear, I guess. It drives me nuts. I've written two pieces about it this year, I'm sure there will be many more times I'll have occasion to write it, if I decide not to show my readers any mercy.

Eric of Huntsville, Ala., thinks that my claim that Gaffney didn't have control of the ball on New England's game winner at Baltimore, is just a sucker's holler. He's tired of the constant moan about the Pats being lucky. Baltimore lost it because they became undisciplined. I'll give you that last one. I'll even give you the one about too much "lucky Pats" stuff. But you'll never convince me Gaffney had control of that ball. How's that...how much will I what? Oh, how much will I take to come around to your way of thinking, and write it your way? Well, how much you got on you? That much, huh? I think something can be worked out.