If you know Bill Belichick, you can bet the Patriots' coach is going to stand up in front of his players this week, hold up the team's game schedule and say something like, "Can you believe what this league is doing to us? The NFL doesn't want us to win, and here's the proof."
Belichick will be talking about the five-game stretch that begins on Sunday at Carolina (7-9 last year) and continues through Oct. 16 with games at Pittsburgh (15-1), at home against San Diego (12-4), at Atlanta (11-5) and at Denver (10-6). According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no other NFL team has ever had a five-game run in which four games were on the road and the five opponents averaged 11 wins or better in the previous season.
That brutal slate of games has some New England players thinking there's a conspiracy against them. "The league doesn't want us to threepeat," says safety Rodney Harrison. "What type of schedule has anyone ever had like that?"
"[The league] wants parity," adds linebacker Mike Vrabel, with a snicker. "We got the memo on that one. I think Paul Tagliabue delivered it himself."
The late NFL scheduling czar, Val Pinchbeck, liked to pit good teams against good teams and mediocre against mediocre early in the season, to keep as many clubs as possible in the playoff hunt. But that's not what happened this season, according to Howard Katz, the league's senior vice president of media operations, who oversees the team of NFL officials and computer consultants in charge of configuring the schedule. Katz describes a perfect storm of circumstances that led to the Pats' tough first two months. "There was absolutely no conspiracy against the Patriots," he says. "Was there ever the sentiment, 'Let's make it tough for them'? I can promise you there was not."
For instance, the way divisions are rotated in the schedule formula, AFC West teams had the AFC East and NFC East as two scheduling partners this year, meaning those West Coast clubs have to make multiple cross-country trips. Teams want those trips spaced out over the season, and the best schedule Katz & Co. could devise sent AFC West champ San Diego to Foxborough on Oct. 2.
"I wish I could tell you it's an exact science," says Katz. "But the schedule is a huge jigsaw puzzle, with many solutions. How do we solve the puzzle by making a TV schedule that maximizes ratings and has competitive balance fair to the teams? That's what we try to do."
A difficult start to the 2002 season helped doom New England's first attempt to repeat as NFL champion. In the first six weeks the Patriots played teams with a combined '01 record of 57-39. New England struggled to a 3-3 start, finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs. This year, at least, the Pats had a Week 1 breather, a 30-20 win over the Raiders at home last Thursday night. Still, if they want home field advantage in January, they likely will have to win at least three of the next five games.
After that, New England has only three games against teams that won 10 or more in 2004, one with the Colts and a pair against the Jets.
Larry Johnson is making it very hard for Kansas City's Dick Vermeil to remain a one-back coach. When Vermeil's workhorse, Priest Holmes, missed the second half of last season with a knee injury, Johnson got a shot and ended up rushing for 498 yards over the last five games (averaging 5.0 yards per carry). Holmes was back in his old spot against the Jets on Sunday, but it was Johnson who stood out, rushing for 110 yards and two touchdowns on only nine attempts. Pretty tough to ignore the firepower of a Holmes-Johnson combination: 31 carries, 195 yards and three TDs in a 27-7 win over New York. "It's not ideal for either guy," Vermeil said of the shared load, "but both are pretty darn fresh late in games." ... San Diego's 5'6" Darren Sproles might be the most exciting rookie in the league. The running back out of Kansas State had 171 return yards in the 28-24 loss to Dallas and soon will be a third-down weapon for coach Marty Schottenheimer.... While everyone talked about the Lions' potentially explosive offense before the season, the performance of Detroit's defense is what stood out in Sunday's 17-3 victory over Green Bay. That's the fewest points the Packers have scored in Brett Favre's 226 regular- and postseason starts.
Belichick's ability to prepare his team will be sorely tested over the next month.