Monday, November 19, 2007

Patriot Games

I’ve watched a ton of sports in my life. Too much, really. I could have been walking in parks, sampling museums, or earning money (of which I currently have none), but I chose to vegetate in front of a television and experience vicarious glory and excruciation. I know sports. I have a feel for them. I intuit the expected and elucidate the odd.

The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls and 1998 New York Yankees were the only teams that escaped my comprehension, who respectively compiled 72 and 114 wins in ways that deviated from the natural flow of things. Their talent was so overwhelming, their coaching so sound, and their execution so impeccable that those two teams didn’t just win; they devastated and demoralized.

They made you wonder if their opponents would ever recover. In some cases, they didn’t—after losing to the Bulls in the ’96 finals, Seattle SuperSonics forward Shawn Kemp embarked upon years of weight gain and general apathy, earning an early exit out of the NBA. The Yankees, meanwhile, shattered Padres pitcher Kevin Brown in the World Series, and although Brown went on to sign a mega-deal with the Dodgers and played a while longer in the bigs (including a couple of seasons with the Yankees), he was never again his old, dominating self.

My sports acumen told me that I’d never see a team like that again, and certainly not in the National Football League. The NFL is, after all, the land of salary caps and parity, the one major market sport in which 80% of its teams begin the season with a legitimate shot at the playoffs. Some teams are usually good, other typically terrible, but the NFL is characterized by competitiveness. Everyone has a chance against everyone. Only the 1972 Dolphins completed an undefeated 12-0 season, and no one has turned the same trick since the NFL expanded to a 16-game schedule. The odds are stacked immensely against a 16-0 season: injuries, off days, hostile road games, sheer luck, and a thousand other forces collude in preventing perfection. Week in and week out, anyone could win and anyone could lose.

Consider, then, the following numbers:

31/39 373 5-0 146.1

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady amassed those numbers today's 56-10 dehumanizing of the Buffalo Bills. He completed 31 of his 39 pass attempts (a sterling 79.5%) for 373 yards, with five—five—touchdowns and zero interceptions. His quarterback rating, out of a possible 158.3, was 146.1. Many quarterbacks go their entire careers without a single game like that, but Brady has posted about seven just this season. Within the larger picture, Brady’s mastery is representative of the Patriots’ team-level success. At 10-0 and with six games to go, they look like they just might run the table. As was the case with the Bulls and Yankees, it’s not just that they’re winning—it’s how they’re winning.

Consider these numbers:


Those were the scores from the Patriots’ first 10 games, and the lone close one, the 24-20 squeaker over the Indianapolis Colts, might have been their most impressive win. The Colts, defending Super Bowl champions, the team that beat the Patriots in last year’s playoffs, and the only other undefeated team at the time, had a 10-point lead with about 10 minutes to play. The Patriots’ offense, silent all game, calmly and methodically scored two touchdowns in seven minutes for the win. As emphatic as 52-7 is, the statement they made against the Colts—in the Colts’ home stadium—was much more severe.

After today’s Bills game, NBC’s sideline reporter interviewed Brady, who delivered all the requisite platitudes: It’s a team effort. Coach has us playing hard. We’re taking it one game at a time. Everyone is contributing. The quotes remained unremarkable until he paused, smirked, and said, “The [Philadelphia] Eagles are our next test on Sunday night,” as if he realized, along with everyone else, that the Eagles will wake up on Monday morning with the same katzenjammer as the Bills. For all the professionalism and ho-humness that cloak these Patriots, they know exactly how good they are. How great they are.

The Patriots have two “test” games remaining: one against the Pittsburgh Steelers (whom the lowly Jets beat today) and another versus the New York Giants (who habitually fail to win big games). If the Patriots pull off a perfect season and win the Super Bowl, they will undoubtedly go down as the best team of all-time. They’ll probably be remembered the same way even if they lose one or two but still take the championship.

But on the off chance that they’re eliminated from the playoffs and another team lifts the championship trophy, at least I'll say this: in a sport full of ass kicking, I never saw anyone kick more ass than the Patriots.

Stay Stupefying, Patriots Road Wins
MC Moss

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