The State of the NFL
If we're all going to the AFC Championship Game, then it appears that we're all going to Indianapolis. Beating Denver and New England on the road in consecutive weeks is as tough a parlay as there is in the NFL, and the Colts accomplished it by being (slightly) better down the stretch than either the Broncos or the Patriots. This despite having a run defense that would embarrass a lot of Texas high-school teams. (We will discuss what New England should have done about that in a moment, but let's just say Bill Belichick didn't have the smartest night in the history of sweatshirts on Sunday.) So, Indianapolis is a long way toward ensuring that they will play all their postseason games in the comfort of the IrsayDome, aka the Pillage-the-Public Stadium, and won't have to cope with either the Denver altitude or the New England winter. This should be a considerable advantage, although that's usually enough in the playoffs to turn the Colts into a Marx Brothers routine.
As for the quarterbacks, the days leading up to the game once again turned into the Dance of the Archetypes: Peyton Manning's commercials vs. Tom Brady's rings. But that ended on the very first series, when Manning got his team out of a third and long with a completion on which he was pretty much buried by New England's Rosevelt Colvin. This was a Very Brady Play and belied (for the evening at least) the notion that making commercials for every product except George Allen and Sherrod Brown somehow makes you less football-manly. Manning was a very tough quarterback all night.
As was Brady. He just wasn't a very good one. His timing and touch were both lousy. (At least one of those deflection interceptions came on a pass that he threw much too hard.) Moreover, the pick that he threw on the first New England series, when the Patriots were pushing the Indianapolis defense all over the field on the ground, was a bad idea poorly executed, a go-get-it into triple coverage that never had a shot. Which brings me to the ill-clad genius on the sidelines.
New England—and Bill Belichick—don't seem yet to understand what a treasure they lucked into in Laurence Maroney, a rookie running back from Minnesota, who is so far and away the best first-year player in the league that someone ought to be up to the "M" on the Rookie of the Year trophy by now. He's strong and so fast that he's already got two kickoff returns longer than 70 yards. (Having your prize rookie out there with the special-teams maniacs is the kind of gamble you get to take when you've won three Super Bowls, much the same as the one last year when Belichick lost All-Pro defensive lineman Richard Seymour for a couple of weeks to a leg injury after bringing him in as a fullback in a goal-line situation. A lesser coach gets barbecued for that.) He has the kind of vision in the hole that Walter Payton used to have, and he has a stiff arm that belongs in one of those NFL Films packages from the 1960s. He's allowed Corey Dillon, a fractious veteran who appeared to have lost a step last year, to function the same way Jerome Bettis did last year for Pittsburgh—as the short-yardage hammer. For the first time in their careers together, Belichick and Brady have a better-than-legitimate running game.
Which is why it seems strange that they don't appear to have the kind of confidence in it yet that they should have. It was plain on Sunday that New England stood a better chance of winning the game beating the Colts over the head at the line of scrimmage. Instead, Maroney carried the ball four times in the second half—this can never happen again, by the way—and the Patriots went for a whole bunch of foolish trickeration, including a fake-reverse-screen-pass that looked like they drew it up in the dirt 11 seconds earlier. I don't mean to sound like one of the Gillette Stadium lunch-buckets here, but, Jesus, man, run the damn ball!
What's more interesting is that I am very sure that Brady would have no problem with Maroney getting 30 carries while he threw the ball, say, 25 times. Last season, it was plain that the burden of carrying the entire offense was breaking him down, physically and emotionally. His entire competitive persona—which he fashioned on his own, without a lot of help, especially at Michigan—is based upon being a vital part of something bigger. He's a fundamentalist about being a teammate. It was the way he first set himself apart from other, more heralded players, and it was a persona that suited his personal athletic gifts perfectly.
That's the critical difference between him and Manning, I think. For all his gifts, Peyton's had a silver-spoon career—one that he's richly deserved. (I've done lengthy magazine work with the Mannings on two occasions, and without question, Archie Manning is the nicest person I've met in this business.) He was fully defined as a competitive athlete by the time he got to Tennessee. Brady had to define himself, and the way he did it was to be a teammate. And he did that believing, with the fundamental conviction that most great athletes have, that he was a better quarterback than the guys who had the advantages over him, whether that was Drew Henson at Michigan or Drew Bledsoe in New England. That's a difficult feat of locker-room diplomacy, but he managed it well on both occasions, particularly at Michigan, where he really did get a raw deal.
So, that first interception was rather jarring. It almost looked as though Brady was convinced that he had to out-throw Manning in order to win the game. He smacked himself around for it pretty hard in his postgame media session and again during his weekly appearance on Boston's sports-radio talker Monday morning. Maybe he just doesn't like Indianapolis for the holidays.
As to Brady's relative relationship with what the nuns used to call the Seven Deadlies, I'm sure that he's familiar with most of them—most especially, after Sunday night, Wrath. But all we can expect of most of these guys is that they act with a decent and civil regard for their fellow citizens. This he does, in spades. As for the rest of it, time and the tabs will tell, I guess.
Now, on to your brief. The most finely wrought minidrama last Sunday was the return of Adam Vinatieri to Foxborough in the wrong uniform and the fact that, had Kevin Faulk's hands not petrified on the last New England drive, he might well have been the goat for having missed a couple of chip shots in the second half. (The first miss looked like one of my wedges—high, wide, and utterly useless.) Vinatieri's résumé is, of course, a remarkable one, and I was wondering: a) whether the other kickers hold him in any kind of awe based on his Super Bowl kicks, none of which were as good as the 45-yarder through the snow that he hit against Oakland in the 2002 "Tuck Rule" AFC playoff game, which is the greatest kick I've ever seen; and b) do kickers worry about losing it overnight, the way pitchers often do?