I think the worst thing that could have happened to the Patriots on Sunday was the way Seattle lost to St. Louis. The Seahawks knew they were a good team. Going into the season, they knew that the only thing that might keep them from the Super Bowl that many people were predicting was the lack of a big league defense. But through three games, and then 31/2 quarters against the Rams, undefeated Seattle had the top-ranked defense in the league. Then the sky fell in.
St. Louis turned loose one of those furious assaults that coach Mike Martz likes to talk about, and the Seahawks' 17-point fourth-quarter lead went up in smoke. Now, going into a road game against New England, Seattle is not just a good team, but a good team that's mad.
The game in Foxborough will be a landmark one for the Seahawks. If they win it, they'll be part of history, the club that ended New England's 19-game streak, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. They'll regain their place on the pedestal with Philly as the NFC's front-runners for the Super Bowl. They'll have taken the next step. If they lose, they'll just be another 3--2 club wondering how good they really are.
The Rams' spirited comeback came by way of the air, naturally, but the interesting thing was that the bulk of the payoff plays at the end were accomplished by relative unknowns--Shaun McDonald, Mike Furrey, Brandon Manumaleuna. And those plays weren't at the expense of the star cornerbacks, Marcus Trufant and Ken Lucas. They came off the coverage of lesser lights such as strong safety Terreal Bierria and nickelback Bobby Taylor, the former Eagle.
I think the Patriots will flood the field with pass catchers and try to beat the Hawks' third- and fourth-best defenders with their third and fourth receivers. Of course, the downside is that in so doing, New England becomes vulnerable to the blitz. But Tom Brady is a master at beating it, and Seattle gave up the Rams' winning touchdown in overtime by going big-blitz and then suffering as Marc Bulger calmly went long, so the Seahawks might be blitz-shy now.
Just who those Patriots pass catchers will be remains a mystery. Deion Branch and Troy Brown were out of commission against the Dolphins on Sunday. Bethel Johnson was deactivated as part of a "coaching decision," which sounds like somebody was being taught a lesson. So strapped was New England that its third wideout became Kevin Kasper, who had been signed four days before the game. That may help explain Brady's meager stats.
The Seahawks still have to show that they can beat a team with a winning record on the road, a feat they have accomplished only once since the start of the 2000 season, and that was two years ago against Atlanta. I don't think they'll do it this time. The Patriots are the pick.
My favorite upset on the board is Cincinnati winning at Cleveland. Buffalo will get its first victory, against poor Miami, and the Chiefs, coming off their bye, will beat the Jaguars in Jacksonville. The Lions always play the Packers tough in Detroit, so I'll give them a slight nod. Can the Cowboys lose two straight at home and to a rookie QB? I don't think so. Dallas will beat Pittsburgh.
Denver takes the grudge match in Oakland, the Vikings have too much firepower for New Orleans, and finally, only because I always pick the Monday-nighter, the Rams--surprise!--will beat Tampa Bay. --Paul Zimmerman
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Dr. Z writes exclusively for the web every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at si.com/nfl.