Clint's Corner Archive

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The source for back issues of Clint's Corner. Forget a trade? Were Clint's predictions correct? Here's every edition, verbatim.

For 1/29/2002

Unfinished business...

Even though this is the third time the Patriots have been to a Super Bowl in New Orleans, you can already tell things are much different this time around.

In 1985 and 1996, one got the sense that the Patriots and their fans were just happy to be there. Sure both teams talked about winning the game, but there was already a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Although this 2001 edition has overcome more obstacles than the previous two AFC Champion Pats teams, there is a greater sense that this team still has work to do.

In 1985, the region was ecstatic simply that the team had qualified for the postseason. After shocking the football word on consecutive weeks in New York and Los Angeles, the team's and the fans' enthusiasm seemed to be building toward ending the "Orange Bowl Jinx" in Miami. The Pats dramatic 31-14 victory in Miami that season was their Super Bowl.

In 1996, the Pats won back-to-back home playoff games, having been favored in each contest. Although the Pats were representing the AFC in the Super Bowl, the consensus was still that the Denver Broncos were the best team in the AFC. The Patriots did not have to play Denver to advance, so they were never afforded the respect they deserved in becoming AFC Champions.

This year is different. The AFC East Champion Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl by defeating the AFC West Champion Raiders at home, and then going on the road to upset the #1 seeded AFC Central Champion Steelers. Unlike 1996, the Patriots are not only AFC Champions, they are clearly the best team in the AFC. Unlike 1985, the best team in the AFC is not about ready to rest on their laurels.

There are just enough core players remaining from the '96 team who remember all too well what it's like to lose a Super Bowl. There are just enough veterans on the team who know this is likely their last shot at becoming a champion. While the team and their fans deserve to celebrate the tremendous accomplishment of defying all logic to become the 2001 AFC Champions, their accomplishments to date still leave the team, its owner, and Patriot Nation with a sense of incompleteness.

The 2001 Patriots are not entering this contest simply hoping to win. This is the first time the Patriots have entered the Super Bowl refusing to lose.

Part of the game...

Those who say the Patriots defeated the Steelers last week thanks to their special teams were not paying attention. Was it the special teams who shut down the Steeler running game? Was it the special teams who harassed perhaps the league's most mobile quarterback in the pocket all day long? Was it the special teams who maintained possession of the football longer than the NFL's #1 rushing offense could? Was it the special teams who saw their leader for 15 weeks go down to injury, yet continued to move the football and make the big throws to move the chains in the 4th quarter? Was it the special teams who twice thwarted would-be game-tying drives with an interception?

I'll take another punt return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. I'll take another blocked field goal returned for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. Heck, I'll take 8 safeties for 16 points in the Super Bowl. The Patriots, however, do not talk of individuals. They do not talk of their defense, their offense, or their special teams. This team redefines the meaning of the word "team." The Patriots, not a portion thereof, beat the Steelers last Sunday 24-17. Which unit was on the field when the scores were rung up didn't matter last Sunday, it hasn't mattered all season, and it won't matter on February 3rd.

The 1996 World Champion Packers rode a special teams touchdown to get to the Super Bowl, and a special teams touchdown to win it. Their MVP was a special-teamer, yet all anyone seems to remember is Brett Favre throwing touchdown passes and Reggie White sacking the quarterback.

I remember Desmond Howard all too well. I was sitting in section 621 in the Superdome that day. Scoring special teams touchdowns did not seem to diminish the celebration of the hoards of jubilant Packer Fans I passed on my way back to the bus, my chin against my chest.

It doesn't add up...

Although the point spread is higher this week, fewer people were giving the Pats a chance last week in Pittsburgh than are giving them a chance this week in New Orleans. I scoured the sports Web sites looking for someone, anyone, who was bold enough to pick the Patriots to win. I found not a sole. Randy Cross went out on a limb on the CBS pre-game show in picking the Pats, but you got the sense that the producers put him up to it. CBS couldn't allow all four hosts to pick the Steelers, and Cross likely drew the short straw.

The only variations in all the prognosticating were the final margin of victory, and whether the Steelers would run the Patriots into submission, or utilize their talented wide receiver tandem to light up the scoreboard. Since the Steelers were able to manhandle the defending World Champs the previous week, the Pats were indeed simply a necessary "to do" on their way to the Super Bowl.

All the math, even my own, pointed to a Steeler victory. I, however, learned around week 10 to set aside the abacus when trying to determine how the Patriots will fare against their next opponent. If the Patriots tried to run, the Steelers #1 defense could do this. If the Patriots tried to pass, the Steelers #1 defense could do that. How would the Patriots 20-something ranked defense contain a rested "Bus?" How could they prevent a born-again Kordell Stewart from running all over them?

If you haven't noticed up 'till this point, the whole of the 2001 Patriots is much greater than the sum of it's parts. Someone is going to have to reinvent the formulas, for they no longer apply to this team. How did the Patriots defense limit the running backs of the NFL's #1 rushing offense to just 19 yards on 13 carries? Quarterback Kordell Stewart did turn a would-be sack into a 34-yard gain in the 1st quarter on his first rush of the day, but mustered only 7 yards on his next 7 carries. That sounds impossible even in hindsight.

The math doesn't add up, you say? The Rams are unbeatable? If you crunch the numbers, the Pats should be 7-9, just as I boldly predicted in my August 29, 2001 edition of Clint's Corner. This team was not supposed to beat the Colts even once, let alone twice. The Pats were not figured to beat the "smash-mouth" New Orleans Saints who came to Foxboro in November with their sights still set on the NFC West title. No way were the Pats going to beat the 7-3 New York Jets in the Meadowlands in early December. Impossible that they'd knock off the defending division champion Dolphins at home to clinch a playoff berth.

No way the Pats would go through Pittsburgh to get to New Orleans. The Patriots now have not a chance in hell of upsetting the heavily favored Saint Louis Rams. The experts who said the Patriots "luck" would run out in Pittsburgh are now predicting the glass slipper to break in New Orleans.

Not "who?," but "who cares?"...

Bledsoe or Brady? Ride the strong arm of the accomplished Pro Bowler fresh off his emotional and memorable performance in the AFC Championship game, or go with the crafty newcomer, making his first Pro Bowl appearance in two weeks because all he ever seems to do is win football games?

This is not a tough choice. Tough choices have a right and wrong answer. This decision is one that cannot go wrong. I honestly could care less who starts this game. I'll forever be a huge Drew Bledsoe fan, and my sentiment rests with him in this decision, but how can you not start Tom Brady, assuming he is healthy? Either way Lovie Smith will have his work cut out for him.

The Rams defense is a great one, but after playing in a blizzard two weeks ago, and facing the NFL's #1 defense on the road last week, the offense is probably looking at facing a solid Rams defense on neutral climate-controlled turf as a welcome reprieve.

Brady has not set the world on fire this season, but you cannot argue with his 12-3 record as a starter, going 8-1 in his last 9 games in losing only to these same Rams. Brady has run the offense very efficiently all season, rarely asked to make the big play, but seemingly always able to put his offensive teammates in perfect positions to make the plays for him. Brady is the master of the play-fake, and his subtle body language in and outside of the pocket is a critical yet overlooked aspect of the Pats very successful screen packages. Who will ever forget Tom Brady putting the offense on his shoulders two weeks ago in the 4th quarter against the Raiders?

What can you say about Drew Bledsoe coming off the bench, guns-a-blazing and completing 3 straight passes for 36 yards and a touchdown while running the hurry-up offense? Three-quarters of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL cannot complete the TD pass that Bledsoe threw to David Patten in practice, let alone in the AFC Championship game after a 4-month layoff. The 18-yard pass to Troy Brown on 3rd and 11 to keep a crucial 4th quarter drive alive was one of the prettier throws you will ever see an NFL quarterback make.

Bledsoe only completed 10 of his 21 pass attempts, but he came up huge when he had to. Pittsburgh came alive in the 3rd quarter on consecutive touchdown drives to cut the Patriots lead to 21-17. Knowing they couldn't run the ball, Bledsoe orchestrated an 11-play scoring drive taking 5:17 off of the clock, followed by a 9-play drive consuming nearly 4 minutes. The Pats had turned the momentum back in their favor. After not playing in nearly 4 months, Drew Bledsoe may have enjoyed his finest hour as a member of the New England Patriots.

Who should Belichick start next Sunday? Flip a darn coin and let's get on with the show.

Going on record...

It should not come as a surprise that I'm predicting the Patriots to win the Super Bowl. I am not flying down to New Orleans because I think they have no chance. The Rams are indeed the greatest show on turf, but they did lose twice this season, both times at home to one team that didn't even make the playoffs, and to another that fired their coach after failing to win a playoff game.

Two weeks before the Patriots went down to Carolina and clinched the AFC East with a 38-6 victory, the Panthers sorry offense lit up the Rams for 402 yards on 24 first downs in taking the Rams to the brink, losing 38-32.

The Rams beat the Dolphins and Colts at home. They beat the Falcons, Jets, and Panthers on the road. So did the Patriots. The Rams lost to the Saints at home 34-31. The Patriots beat the Saints in Foxboro four weeks later, 34-17. Three of the teams the Patriots beat this season the Rams were fortunate enough to face twice on their schedule, going 5-1 in those games.

On November 18th, the 7-1 Rams defeated the 5-4 Patriots in Foxboro 24-17. With 2:22 left in the first half, the Patriots faced a 1st and goal at the 4-yard line, up 10-7. Antowain Smith took the handoff and hit a big hole up the middle. He was down at the one, but the ball popped loose and was recovered by the Rams. I still say his knee was down, but in any case the play was ruled a fumble, and the Rams defense avoided having to face 2nd and goal at the 1. The Rams took over and drove 99-yards for a touchdown to close out the half with a 14-10 lead.

That's a 14-point swing in a game that was ultimately decided by 7 points. The Rams outplayed the Patriots on that day on both sides of the ball, and deserved to win the game. The 5-4 Patriots took some measure of success in keeping things close and playing a physical game. The Rams finished the 2001 season outscoring their other AFC East opponents by a combined score of 118-41 in beating the Dolphins, Jets, and Colts.

The Patriots have not lost a game since November 18. While in the 2nd go-around the Rams are equally as dangerous, the Patriots are no longer a 5-4 team looking to find themselves. The Patriots are not looking to take solace in keeping things interesting.

The last time the teams met, Bill Belichick and his staff poured over miles of footage and devised a way to slow down, if not stop, the potent Rams attack. This week, Bill Belichick has something he didn't have back on November 18 - film of the Rams lining up against his own defense.

I'm done doing the math. It's impossible for me to give you a sound reason as to why the Patriots are going to beat the Rams. I'll simply tell you next week how they did it.

See you on Bourbon Street Friday night!