I’ve always thought that a large part of what they call the Sports Illustrated “jinx” is simply faulty analysis. For instance, the cover of last week’s issue of SI featured New England’s 325-pound offensive tackle, Vince Wilfork, and a story by Peter King on “why New England Won’t Be Stopped.”
This is not a knock on King, one of the best pro football writers around, but simply to point out that when a team gets rolling, people are often too anxious to ignore their obvious weaknesses and see them as strengths. The Patriots’ large and often immobile offensive line was one of the primary reasons they got whipped by the Jets on Sunday – New York’s much more agile D-Line ran around, through, and sometimes over the Pats’ behemoths.
Another, which is no more glaringly obvious than this time last week, was summed up in the header to King’s analysis: “These Pats are complete. They’re young, with just enough veteran influence and the game’s best on-field leader.”
That relative youth and inexperience – relative, that is, to the surprisingly more postseason-honed Jets, is one reason New York will be playing in the AFC championship game Sunday. Another, perhaps, is that many of us have been too willing to conclude that both Belichick and Tom Brady might be a bit overrated.
I say might, but if you go by the last four seasons, you’d have to say “definitely.” In fact, let’s go back to the 2005 Super Bowl, in which the Patriots beat the Philadelphia Eagles 24-21. It’s now been six long years since New England won a Super Bowl, yet the mystique from their first three championships was so strong that just about every year since, analysts name them as the team to beat in the postseason – and that’ exactly what the other teams have done.
Going into last Sunday’s game with the Jets, the Pats were just 5-4 in their last nine postseason games and had outscored their opponents just 216-187. That’s 24 points to 20.8 per game, if you’re counting, and that’s perilously close to mediocre. And here is the really odd thing about that: in every game except the AFC championship game for the 2006 season against the Colt at Indianapolis, the Patriots have been favored.
It’s about time we ask a couple of simple questions. Is Bill Belichick past his peak as a big game coach? And have we all agreed to rate Tom Brady – who has never overcome a deficit of at least ten points in the postseason — a little bit higher than we should? Brady has now lost his last three playoff games by a total of 29 points.
Last Sunday and in the week preceding the game Rex Ryan played Belichick like a poker player who was wearing X-ray glasses. You could see it just before the end of the first half when the Patriots tried that trick play out of punt formation and the sideline camera zoomed in on Ryan laughing out loud. No one asked him after the game, but if they had, I’m sure he would have said, “I laughed because I knew that if they had to try a trick play so close to the half, we had them.”
Or maybe it was just a combination of Rex’s bravado and Belichick’s losing his mojo.