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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 11/12/2002

Average...

That's exactly what the Patriots are. When is 5-5 not average? As I touched upon in my last column, the feeling surrounding the 5-5 2001 Patriots was a lot different than the current state of affairs.

Losing to a good Raider team in Oakland in not the problem. Not showing up is. Just as in their losses to Miami, Green Bay, and Denver, the Patriots left little doubt that their opponent was the better team. Knowing that the Raiders were going to throw, throw, and throw some more, the Patriot defense still could not generate a pass rush, and their intermediate zone coverage was always a step behind. The Raiders got 10 yards when they needed 10, and 1 yard when they needed 1. It's hard to believe that these are the same guys who befuddled the Rams in New Orleans.

On offense the Patriots were able to move the ball between the 20's for the most part, but went into a shell when they approached the red zone. As we have also seen too many times this season, the offense was unable to come up with any big plays at critical junctures. Failing to gain a 1st down on consecutive 3rd and inches and 4th and inches plays late in the game was very telling. I sure hope our border patrol is doing a better job of keeping the bad guys on the other side than Matt Light. Light was beaten so badly on another crucial 4th down play that I actually missed Grant Williams.

A big play at the end of the game by Kevin Faulk on the return was too little, too late, and ultimately did nothing more than make the final score belie the true competitive aspects of the game.

It's hard to criticize Brady's play when he was given so little time to throw, but his fumble on the Patriot 7 at the end of the 1st half was devastating, and his missed opportunities down the field early in the game could have dramatically changed the course of the game had he been able to hit open receivers. Antowain Smith was once again a non-factor, but mostly because he was taken out of the game plan after showing some early promise.

While it's true the Patriots were outclassed, Bill Belichick is not understating his teams performance at all when he sums up the loss as simply, "they made more plays than we did." It really is that simple. Had just three plays on either side of the ball gone a bit differently, the game could have taken on a much different direction. The 2001 Patriots made such plays, and were able to prevent their opponents from doing so at the same time.

People want to talk about the "Tuck" call in the Snow Bowl, but what of the defense's huge stop on the Raiders previous offensive possession to get the ball back in Brady's hands? What of Wiggins numerous circus catches? Remember the 4th down conversion to Patten on the game winning drive in overtime? Walt Coleman's reversal had a lot to do with the Patriots victory over the Raiders last January, but let's not forget the number of big plays the Pats made on both sides of the ball that day that just weren't there last Sunday.

The glass-half-full version does show that the Pats went 2-1 on a tough road trip following a 4-game losing streak, but is the team that returns home to Gillette Stadium to face the Vikings much different that the one that lost to Denver 4 weeks ago? Heading into next Sunday against a 3-7 team that hasn't won a road game since November of 2000 will tell us a lot.

Rasputin...

At 5-5, the fat lady still isn't singing on the 2002 Patriots. Call me the eternal optimist, but the Patriots still have a very legitimate shot at winning the AFC East. Problem is, however, so do the other 3 teams in the division.

With a 4-4 conference record, and having already lost to the top three teams in the AFC West, the Patriots will be hard pressed to qualify for a wild card spot unless they run the table to finish 11-5. Remember that there are just two such slots available this season, and right now the outlook for runners-up in the West and South looks a lot better.

This is going to read like a bit of a cut-and-paste from my last column, but stick with me here. "Should" is the most dangerous word in the NFL, especially for a 5-5 team in search of consistency, but I dare say the Patriots "should" win their next two games over the Vikings and Lions to get to 7-5. They'd still be 2-1 in the division with 3 of their final 4 games at home against the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins.

Next week the Jets host the Bills. One of those teams will suffer their 6th loss of the season, and worse, their 3rd loss in the division. It's very safe to say that the loser of that game would be on life support for the post-season, narrowing the Patriots competition to the winner of that game and Miami assuming they take care of their own business against the Vikings.

The following week, win or lose in the Meadowlands, the Bills will face a must win at home against the Dolphins in a game that will likely mark the return of Miami QB Jay Fiedler. Unless the global warming concerns are a lot worse than we suspect, it's reasonable to expect that Orchard Park will be very un-Miami like on December 1. Should the Bills "circle the wagons" and complete the season sweep of Miami, the Dolphins will have taken a huge dagger to the heart of their playoff chances, and that's even assuming they are coming off a home win against the Chargers the previous week.

That same week the Jets will be in Oakland on Sunday Night football in another 2002 playoff rematch for the Raiders. This time, however, it's the Jets who will be seeking revenge. The Jets have been playing the best football in the division the past few weeks, but a win in Oakland, as we know all too well, will not be easy to come by.

The worst case scenario for the presumed 7-5 Patriots heading into Bledsoe Bowl II is that they'd still trail the 8-4 Dolphins, which would put the Bills at best 6-6. I can't see the Jets winning in Oakland, but assuming they do, they too at best would still be tied with the Pats at 7-5, meaning Buffalo had dropped consecutive divisional contests and would officially be playing out the string heading to Foxboro.

Heading into December with 7 wins, the Patriots would be in full control of their own destiny. It would become a 4-game season. The painful losses suffered earlier in the season will be distant memories. The Patriots will be favored over the Bills, even if Buffalo enters the game at 7-5 after effectively crippling the playoff hopes of the Jets and Fish.

The Monday Night game in Tennessee is a "must" in three cases. It becomes a must win should the Patriots have lost to the Vikings, Lions, or Bills. Not to the same extent, but the game also takes on more importance if Miami has managed to remain a game up on the 8-5 Patriots with consecutive wins over the Chargers, Bills, and Bears. Third and final, a win in Tennessee could put the Patriots legitimately back in the wildcard hunt, but even at 9-5 they'd probably still need help if they failed to win their division.

Entering that game at 8-5, a win in Tennessee would likely matter little toward the Patriots chances of winning the division, for they'd still need to beat the Jets and Dolphins the following weeks regardless. The Patriots will still own all division tiebreakers, so being a game behind either the Jets or Dolphins with two weeks to play is as good as being tied for the lead with both of those teams coming to Foxboro to close out the season.

It's difficult to predict one week let alone lay a blueprint down for the final six, but even if you accuse me of looking too far ahead, you can't really say that I'm nuts here. Should the Patriots lose to either the Vikings or Lions they would really back themselves into a corner, but I honestly feel the Patriots are primed for a run, and that's only in part due to the records of their next few opponents.

Of all the guesses I'm making here, there is one thing I know for sure. More sure than I am of a win over the defenseless Vikings or Lions, the Patriots without question will defeat the Dolphins at home on December 29th. Be they 10-5 or 5-10, the Patriots will not lose that game. If the Pats can take care of business and get themselves to the point where that game matters, they're home free. As far as I'm concerned, the Dolphins would do just as well to stay home.

Should Miami go 5-0 leading up to that game, thus making the New England game likely irrelevant, then they'd well deserve to be division champs. I for one don't see that happening.

Should the Patriots finish 10-6 with a divisional record of 5-1 or even 4-2, they will likely win the AFC East. With visions of grandeur still intact, however, I won't go so far as to predict a win over the Vikings. Unless the Patriots improve on the play they've displayed in 7 of the last 8 quarters, the Vikings will get their first road win since Thanksgiving Day of 2000 and the previous half dozen or so paragraphs become dribble, assuming they aren't already.

Be afraid.

See you next week...