Here are the two things I think we absolutely know for sure after watching the Patriots beat Iron Mike Sharpe and S.D. Jones over the last two weeks.
If the Patriots advance to the AFC championship game and faces the Titans at home in a blizzard, you should really like their chances.
And if they win that game and the Buccaneers await in the Super Bowl, get ready for a fourth crown for Belichick and Brady.
Since I’d rank the odds of either of these events occurring somewhere between “Ryan Seacrest winning the middleweight title” and “Eric Mangini losing 100 pounds, becoming a swell guy and winning six Super Bowls” on the old probability scale, I’m thinking we might still be in the dark when it comes to what the 2009 Patriots are.
There is no doubt that what they have done over the last two games is impressive. I don’t care if you played the cast of “Gossip Girl” two weeks in a row — a 94-7 edge is a 94-7 edge. More than a thousand yards of offense. Nine TD passes for Tom Brady. Twenty catches for Wes Welker. Welcome back to 2007, right?
And the defense? Faster, younger, better. Out with Big Sey, Tedy and Rodney and in with Mayo, Meriweather and McGowan. The unit is allowing just 14 points a game and hasn’t had what could be described as a full-out stinker yet in 2009.
Is there anyone that wouldn’t have signed for this kind of effort from the 'D' before the season started? If you told me that the 'D' would allow just 98 points (or four more than the offense has scored the last two weeks) through Week 7, I would have given a better than 50-50 chance that the Pats would be heading into the bye week undefeated.
But, to me, the truth is simply this: How you viewed this team two weeks ago is probably how you should view it today. I guess the Bucs and Titans will combine to win as many games in 2009 as Daisuke Matsuzaka (four), but that’ll be about it. No, the real 2009 season starts in 14 days. The next five games will tell you everything about where this team will be at the end of the season.
Home vs. Dolphins (Tough loss Sunday for the Dolphins, who were more than the equal of the Saints. I was wrong about these guys. I thought they were so dead after that 0-3 start that David Spade would agree to star in a commercial with them.)
At Colts (The best team in football right now.)
Home vs. Jets
At Saints (I’m thinking Drew Brees might play a little better than Josh Johnson or Kerry Collins.)
At Dolphins (You’d sign on for three division wins with losses to the Saints and Colts, wouldn’t you? That would put the Pats at 8-4 with the AFC East pretty much locked up.)
And again, maybe the Patriots have figured it all out over the last two weeks and just haven’t had a chance to show it against a team with any credibility. Totally possible. But until I watch then manhandle a playoff-caliber team, I have to put them in the lower half of the Six That Can Win It All.
(For the record, he's the rest of that group of six: Colts, Steelers, Saints, Giants and Broncos. No way can I put the Vikings in there after Sunday. I know the Vikings are 6-1 but if they decided to fire Brad Childress on Monday, I would completely understand. He killed them vs. Pittsburgh. Worst performance by a bald guy not named Vin Diesel that I can remember.)
That's not a bad place for the Patriots to be, but they haven't earned a promotion to the upper half — at least not yet. There will be plenty of chances to prove that they are still the standard. But until they do so, the last two weeks were just a chance to slap around a couple of also-rans. Nothing more, nothing less.
A quartet of questions to ponder while realizing that five teams (Browns, Rams, Raiders, Redskins and Titans) haven’t scored 94 points THIS SEASON …
IS IT FAIR TO ASSUME THAT WES WELKER IS HEALTHY AGAIN?
I’d say so. Turns out he IS the rich man’s Julian Edelman. Didn’t it feel like Welker caught closer to 20 passes on Sunday instead of 10? He's just an incredibly productive player. He’s been in New England for just 2-1/2 years but I don’t think you could name five receivers who have accomplished more in franchise history.
Welker has 46 catches through seven weeks, a fine total, on pace for more than 100 grabs for the third straight year. But keep in mind that he missed two games this season. He’s averaging 9.2 catches per game in 2009, which comes out to 147.2 over a 16-game season. Pretty good, huh? How good? The record for catches in a season is 143 (Marvin Harrison).
(I know I tend to get hyperbolic, but would you trade Welker and Randy Moss for any WR duo in history? I’m talking about specifically for this team, this offense? I’m not sure I would.)
I asked this same question after Laurence Maroney's big game last week against the Titans and wrote this:
Who knows? I’ll be honest: I would have predicted five TD passes from Brady in a quarter before I would have bet on a 123-yard rushing game from Maroney. I’m more than a little hesitant to jump on the Maroney train but maybe — maybe — this is start of something? I know, he carries the ball six times for nine yards next week and then we’re back to where we’ve been over the last couple of years. But he ran with the purpose of someone who had been told that it was time to do something.
I know his numbers weren’t great Sunday (13 carries, 43 yards), but in some ways I was just as impressed with Maroney this week. There was some of the east-west dopiness that drives you crazy, but there also was a handful of carries that reminded you of the guy who ran out the clock of the AFC championship game against the Chargers. Whatever it is, at worst, it’s two straight weeks that I haven’t wondered why this guy continues to waste a spot on the roster. That’s progress, I guess.
ARE THE BAD TEAMS REALLY THIS BAD?
They really are. Pats-Bucs was one of three games that actually didn’t even need to be played Sunday. Couldn’t we all have agreed on “Pats 35, Bucs 7,” “Colts 42, Rams 6” and “Packers 31, Browns 3” and just saved the travel expenses and possible injury risk? Someone (and it could be more than one team) is going 0-16.
But the question is: Why?
Maybe it’s the coaching. Let me ask you this: wouldn’t a Rod Marinelli/Todd Haley team be the first eliminated from “The Amazing Race”? Doesn’t that count for something? I know Marinelli isn’t coaching this year, but they seem like a perfect match to me. I can picture Haley yelling at Marinelli in Senegal after they forgot to bring the clue to the pit stop, complete with some crying and a disgusted look by Phil Keoghan.
It just seems that in years past that an 0-4, 0-5 kind of team would put up a fight once in a while against a heavyweight (at least at home). It just hasn’t happened this year. It could be that the quarterbacks for these teams are just lousy (I know helping Steve Sanders obtain the legacy key was wrong, but making Raheem Morris coach Josh Johnson is a pretty stiff penalty), but the distance between even the "bad but capable of being a pest” — a Buffalo type — and the truly awful teams in the league is huge.
Could you ever imagine the Bucs or Titans or Rams or Lions going into Gillette and giving the Pats the kind of scare that the Bills did in Week 1? Not. A. Chance.
(Oh, can I take a quick second to blast Morris for punting on fourth-and-6 from the NE 35 with 28 seconds left in the third quarter? Down 28-7? I know he knows that they aren’t winning, but you can’t coach that way. Weak, weak, weak. But at least the Pats didn’t follow the punt by driving 89 yards for a TD while taking seven minutes off the clock.)
HEY, DID YOU KNOW THAT GAME WAS PLAYED IN LONDON?
We got the memo, CBS. And we really don’t care. Though I do demand that next year’s “Best of Wembley Stadium” package include all six of Chris Hanson’s punts as well as the three-hour manhunt to locate Kellen Winslow.