Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Why 16-0 Matters

John Kinkade spent the 11:00 hour this morning on ESPN radio to play "What If" in regards to the Patriots attempt to go all out in their quest for 16-0. What if Tom Brady gets hurt? What if the Pats lose out on a chance for their fourth Super Bowl ring? What if a plane crashes into Gillette Stadium and the entire Patriots team is engulfed in a giant ball of fire?

Kinkade's Patriot bashing reached the height of absurdity with a make-believe monologue from the future, chastising Bill Belichick and praising Giants coach Tom Coughlin for having the foresight to sit his players for the playoffs. As Popeye would say, "It's all I can stands and I can stands no more!"

In calling for the Patriots to rest their starters Saturday night against the Giants, Kinkade and the other commentators like him have missed the boat in their single-minded focus on possibility of a horrible tragedy. The Patriots have every reason to go out and play this game, reasons that I will list below:

1- If you asked the Patriot players if they'd rather go 15-1 and win the Super Bowl or go 16-0 and lose in the first round of the playoffs, they'd probably wonder why you're not giving them the option of 19-0. At this point of the year, the Patriots realize that they're playing not just for another Super Bowl Championship, but for their place among the greatest teams of all time. Of course they want that championship, but they want more. They realize they're on the brink of being the greatest team of all-time and why would you not want to play for that every bit as much as playing to win that championship?

2- To go along with point number 1, individual records do matter. Brady and Moss getting the touchdown records matters because of what that does for the teams place in history. Do Brady and Moss want those records? Of course they do. But let me tell you who wants those records even more than they do- each and everyone of those offensive linemen. As a guy who played on the offensive line in high school, blocking for a back who smashed any number of school records, I personally know what these records mean to linemen.

3- You don't take your foot off the pedal. Just ask the Colts. Two years ago, they were flying along at 13-0 before they eased up- they won one of their last 3 regular season games, took a week off in the playoffs and proceeded to get beat at home by the Steelers. History is full of similar stories - Not just teams letting up, but teams using momentum from the end of the regular season to propel them to the Super Bowl. That's not to say this is a be all end all proposition, but just ask yourself- when was the last time you remember an important player getting hurt in a supposedly meaningless late season game?

4- The difference between playing the next week and getting a week off and the difference between healthy and hurting. The Giants have to rest their players against the Patriots because they're going to be playing a wild card game on the road the following week. They've had Plaxico Burress playing all season without a functional ankle and they have a number of other walking wounded. The Patriots, technically, could have sat their starters this past weekend against Miami- they didn't because the troubling possibility of an injury isn't nearly as bad as the thought of having a month layaway between meaningful games. The Patriots are also not in the same position as the Colts, who've valiantly fought their way through an injury riddled season to emerge 13-2. The point is that teams are in different positions. The Patriots want to continue their steam roller ride of a season, the Colts are doing all they can to get healthy for that Patriot rematch and the Giants are just looking for a slight breather before looking for Tom Coughlin's first playoff win on the road.

5- Perhaps most frustrating is John Kinkade's impression that this is all about individual records. Yes, the individual records matter, but that's not all the Patriots are playing for. As I mentioned above, there's a lot to be said for continuity, keeping your foot on the accelerator and taking each game as it comes. For John Kinkade to say the Patriots have turned away from everything they've done to make themselves great is just asinine. Just look at the history.

In 2004, with the number 2 seed in the playoffs locked up, the Patriots played the NFL's punching bag, the 49ers, the final week of the season- same situation, but no records and no perfect season at stake. For those of you who were wondering, the Patriots played their starters for about three quarters, with backup quarterback Rohan Davey taking over for Tom Brady in the middle of a drive that extended from the 3rd quarter to the 4th. That drive led to a Patriot touchdown, sealing the Patriots 21-7 win.

Last year, the Patriots played their starters into the 4th quarter of a game against Tennessee, a game that saw Rodney Harrison go down for the playoffs with a knee injury. In the end, as both the Patriots and Colts both won road games in the second round of the playoffs, the game could have played a role in determining the site of the AFC Championship game- had the Colts lost their game week 17, the AFC Championship would have been played in Foxboro, not Indianapolis. So at the time, the game did hold some meaning as the number 3 seed was still up for grabs, but before last year, no 3 and 4 seed had ever played for a conference championship. And as a Patriot fan looking back, Rodney Harrison might have meant a hell of a lot in that Colts game, especially considering that the Patriots are 5-0 in games he's finished against Peyton Manning.

The Patriots have a history of playing one game at a time, methodically going out each and every week and giving their all. It's not just about records, accomplishments or undefeated seasons it's the fact that this has been their method for greatness- they stay focused and play each and every game like it might be their last.

NFL commentators always like to talk about trap games- games where teams may look past weaker opponents to the more marquee matchups. The Patriots this year faced two such games this year, with the Dolphins and the Redskins, sandwiched in between games with the undefeated Cowboys and undefeated Colts. The Pats crushed the Dolphins, 49-28, rolling to a 42-7 halftime lead and absolutely demolished the Redskins, 52-7.

The Patriots play each and every game, focusing in on each and every opponent- they do this better than any other team in league history, so much so that most of the rest of the sports world is sick of it. Some of the "respect" they give their lesser opponents is certainly a load of bologna- but the hard work and preparation they put in is not for show. The non-Patriot sports fans gets sick of the seemingly egotistical Patriots talking about "humble pie," but that's really what this team is about. It's not that they don't recognize how good they are, it's that they recognize that you only get better with a maniacal drive toward self-improvement that scrutinizes each and every little mistake, an attitude that starts at the top with Belichick and Brady. This team takes nothing for granted and I'd expect nothing less in this last game of the season.


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