by Scott Benson

The Patriots will travel to the Meadowlands for the second time in three weeks Sunday when they face off in an early season AFC East matchup with the New York Jets.

The game – seen by many as a likely New England win, even as recently as last week – now seems to have taken on a surprising urgency in the past few days.

First, while they staged a veteran-style second-half rally to get past the Buffalo Bills, the Patriots simply did not play that well last Sunday. The offensive line had alarming breakdowns against blitzers and speed rushers, and while they ran like the 1978 Patriots, the passing game netted three first half yards.


The defense saved the day with its second-half play, but even they struggled to get off the field in the first 30 minutes, allowing JP Losman to direct two scoring drives. Everybody – players, coaches, upstairs, and the fans – was relieved that the Patriots came away with the win, but no one was tearing down any goalposts either, if you follow me.

But it’s not just last week’s meager 19-17 win that has New England (us, not them) nervous. Of course, earlier this week the Patriots tore the scab off the Deion Branch situation, and now we’re pondering Life Without Weapons. We’re looking nervously for a quivering lip on the quarterback. We’re wondering about the strangers that are supposed to make us, and him, forget. We’re a bundle of nerves.

If the Pats throw up three passing yards in the first half this week, I’m leaving the country. Because I won’t be able to take the dull (literally) roar that will follow.

Naturally, we’ve also got the Lawyer Milloy Theory at work here. Popular player leaves clubhouse suddenly, money involved, players confused, hurt, even bitter; get their ass sewed to their face 31-0 the following weekend.

Oh, I imagine someone will mention it.

It’s not like it’s out of the realm. I was surprised to hear Tom Brady’s candid comments regarding his state of mind heading into last week’s game. I admire the guy’s honesty and integrity in owning up, but really, I’m truly surprised that Brady allowed that to happen. He’s not a young kid anymore, and he probably should have known better. But as usual, I like Brady’s resolve to learn from it.

Notice how I haven’t even mentioned the Jets themselves. We all had the Jets finishing dead last in the AFCE in the roundtable last week, and we were hardly alone on that sentiment. Now there’s a certain apprehension they’ll become the bullies standing on the neck of the suddenly vulnerable Pats this Sunday. Give us a few more days, Eric, and we’ll have your guys running away with the conference.

Lastly, we have the pending grievance by the Patriots regarding New York’s sign/trade offer during the Branch Open House. This has led to the reintroduction of the always tiresome “Border War” reference, made mostly by sportswriters that are just cracking themselves up. Yawn.

Let’s fire up the giant question machine:

Let’s spend a few more minutes on Branch. Why the hell don’t the Patriots try to avoid these fractures with players by heading a few off at the pass, negotiating new deals with certain key individuals instead of forcing them to play out their rookie contracts? You’d think Deion Branch would be one of those guys. What gives?

Greg: I’m sure they do try to avoid them. Perhaps they misunderstood Branch’s willingness to actually honor a contract he signed and misjudged his character. If Branch had left after his contract was up, I’m sure everyone would say that is his right and wished him the best and appreciate he bid his time and deserved his big payday, at least. But who knew he was so money motivated and wouldn’t live up to his own commitments? Given the fact he was apparently misjudged, they did what they had to do by trading him.

Bruce: Who’s to say they haven’t tried? I’m sure they have, but for whatever reason, more often than not it seems, they have been losing players recently. But of course, you can’t neglect to mention that their two biggest potential free agents were taken care of well in advance. Tom Brady and Richard Seymour are miles ahead of anyone that the Patriots have lost, and the most important thing to the future of the team is that both of those guys will be part of it. Perhaps they misjudged Branch’s fortitude in this matter, thinking he wasn’t going to cave. But I’m pretty sure this didn’t sneak up on them.

Scott: Let’s speak to Branch specifically. The claim is they took unnecessary advantage of Branch’s favorable rookie contract, and it came back to bite them, just as it allegedly had with David Givens. With the help of Miguel’s salary cap page, I looked at Deion’s production (over his career) as it related to his compensation at the time. The question was: at what point should the Patriots have locked up Branch to a new deal, signing bonus and all, as many suggest they should have done?

Obviously, 2002 is out. They’re not going to re-do the deal they just did ($430,000 in salary and signing bonus) for 43 catches. So that brings us to 2003, when he had 57 catches and a tremendous Super Bowl ($505,000). I suppose they could have done something here, but they have a good young player in his third year for modest money, which is a real advantage to the team if you buy the large middle class theory. Criticize the Pats for not acting here, but at the same time, do you want a management team that is this quick (2nd year of deal) to act on long-term commitments to young players that have had one outstanding season? That quick to give up an advantage? I don’t know if you do. Besides, Miguel estimates that the Pats were under the cap in 03 by only $8,300.

I think 2004 is another dicey question, because Branch had another tremendous Super Bowl, and was voted MVP of the team’s second straight championship win. But he missed seven games with a leg injury, and finished with only 35 catches ($590,600), rekindling previous durability concerns. What do you do? The guy was frigging fantastic in the playoffs (if he wasn’t a star who was?) so I guess I might say at this point, if they could have done something, it could have been in the spring and summer of 2005. And Miguel says that the Pats were about 1.3 million under their cap at the end of the 04 season. Sounds good to me. Except there was another priority named Seymour that required attention at that time, and when Miguel added up the numbers for 05, the Pats were but $44,000 under the cap. So when, exactly, should the Patriots have been addressing Branch prior to spring and summer of this year? And how? Write me if you know.

So what’s the next shoe to drop? Who’s the next young star to become disillusioned with his rookie contract and follow Branch’s blueprint out of Foxboro and into a fat new deal somewhere else? And what about Daniel Graham, Dan Koppen, and Asante Samuel, whose rookie contracts come due after this season? Are they on their last Patriot legs? Will this become a vicious circle?

Bruce: Wait a minute…what’s up with these real questions? We’re supposed to be a “ridiculous Patriots fanzine” here, aren’t we? You can’t be asking those questions. I refuse to respond to this line of questioning.

What…you’ll dock my check this week? All righty then. As the team drafted Thomas and Mills, it makes me think that they might be preparing for the departure of Graham. That would be too bad in my opinion, as I think the guy plays a much bigger role on the team than the casual observer might realize. I think the Patriots are always going to have a fluid roster, but as long as they can keep the core guys and continue restocking around them, they’re going to be a contender.

Scott: I’m told by some that Ben Watson’s already packed his bags, but I have to ask if he’s going to stay around and do something first. And which year does he plan to hold out? 07? 08? 09? As far as the rest of them, I’m sure that somebody’s going somewhere and soon. I have to accept this as a fact of life in Patriotville USA, which I’ll gladly do, as long as I can continue to see them play in February. So far, so good, overall. When there’s been a substantial change in this arrangement, let me know. Until then, I’ll resist jumping to any mortal conclusions.

Greg: I think we’ll be surprised. One or all of these guys could move on. But, as I said above, that’ll be their right. They’ve already demonstrated they’re different and have better character than Deion Branch by being at the same crossroads in their contract and not holding out, by continuing to work hard, by doing their job and living up to their obligations and then cashing in. Not the other way around. Daniel Graham was drafted higher than Deion Branch. He is fulfilling his deal. He isn’t whining and stomping his feet and refusing to honor his own signature. He is playing out his deal and knowing he’ll deserve what he gets next year whether it’s with the Patriots or elsewhere. And if he moves on, I can respect Daniel Graham and the honor he is displaying in his commitments. I predict at least two of these folks will stay in town as the Patriots will recognize that and go the extra mile for them. And they’ll deserve it.

Tom Brady spoke this week about the need for practice time with his receivers and the importance of an instinctive relationship between the quarterback and his targets to their ultimate efficiency on Sundays. Yet Doug Gabriel and Chad Jackson have been limited by injuries, particularly the rookie, who has barely practiced. How will Brady and the Pats passing game hold things together long enough to get everyone on the same page?

Scott: I suppose he’ll rely on the vets like Faulk and Brown, the tight ends, and even Caldwell, who he hit with a big throw last week. The newly robust running attack is certainly the biggest help. It seems probable that the new guys will need several weeks once they get active, though a big catch here and there might get the ball rolling faster. Right now, they just need to get on the freaking field as soon as possible. A longer delay and I fear the strain on the others is really going to start showing up.

Greg: They’ll improve this week. I would think at least one of Jackson and Gabriel will be back. They’ve had longer to practice together now. It’s not like Jackson didn’t participate in mini-camps and now two weeks of practice. He’s been immersed in the offense for some time. He’s worked with Brady, I’m sure, for months. It’s not the same as game time working together, but that process will start every week and you’ll see improvement. Jackson and Gabriel are both talented guys and by season-end, I think will contribute and the passing game will be fine.

Bruce: It’s not going to happen all at once, but I think as the season goes on, things are going to improve. There are going to be some tough moments along the way, there’s no doubt about that, but until these guys can build the chemistry and feeling with Brady, there is going to be a lot of trial and error. I think there is some talent here, it just needs some time to come together, and unfortunately, the learning process is going to have to take place during the fire of the regular season.

All right, it’s time for our picks in the games involving potential AFC playoff teams. It’s another six pack – Buffalo at Miami, Cleveland at Cincinnati, Houston at Indy, Kansas City at Denver, Tennessee at San Diego, and on Monday night, the world champs at Jacksonville.

Bruce (4-2, missing on Denver/St. Louis, and Dallas/Jacksonville): Miami should be able to handle Buffalo pretty easily, I see Cincinnati taking a tougher than expected intrastate battle with the Browns, the Colts in a cakewalk over the Texans, the hated Broncos dispatching Kansas City, the Chargers ALL over the Titans and the toughest game of the week, Jacksonville holding the fort at home against the Steelers on Monday night. That seemed way too easy though, there’s got to be an upset or two in there, but darned if I can see it.

Scott (4-2, missing the same): I’ll take Miami at home, though it sickens me. Buffalo was good at times last week, but I can’t see them catching the Dolphins the same way on the road. I’ll take the Bengals again, this time at home. Indy, too. The only way the Texans beat the Colts is in Houston, not Indy, and that’s only if a bunch of different planets line up. I’ll take Denver, beating Kansas City at home, because don’t they usually do that anyway? I’ll stick with the Chargers again, and I’ll take Jacksonville to beat Pittsburgh on Monday night.

Greg (last week, 0-5; Greg mitigated any further damage by refusing a guess on the Jets at Tennessee): I would have picked Tennessee, so feel free to make it 0-6 or 1-6 as at least I had the Pats winning. This week, I like Miami to win at home. Buffalo is improved, but last week’s disappointing loss and two straight road games is tough. They’ll let down this week and possibly get blown out. Cincinnati will manhandle Cleveland as I’m sure Carson Palmer will get untracked after a slow week 1, Houston at Indy….this isn’t fair. Who draws up these schedules every year for Indy, Bill Polian? Joking. Indy wins easily. KC at Denver? Herm Edwards strikes again. Denver wins. Tennessee at San Diego. Was San Diego as good as they looked Monday or is Oakland that bad? Probably a combination of both, but San Diego should get by a bad Tennessee team, though it may be closer than expected. I also like a Jacksonville team that looks to be more seasoned to take out Pittsburgh at home Monday.

The easy Pats win predicted by Greg and Scott last week never materialized. Bruce came the closest, predicting a relatively slim eight point winning margin. Let’s try this again – 1-0 Pats at 1-0 Jets, 4:15 Sunday, in the Meadowlands.

Greg: The Pats won last week playing not as well as they can against a team I feel is better than the Jets. The Jets won against a weak opponent. It’s a division game, so important. The Pats have a great shot to be off to a 2-0 division record. I don’t think they’ll blow it and are simply better than the Jets. I like the Pats 27-10 and I think they throw the ball a lot better as well.

Bruce: Another tough game for the Patriots within the division. The Jets are going to be fired up in their home opener, and with Mangini at the helm there’s going to be a wrinkle or two targeting something he’s seen on the Patriots, or even Brady. I think it might be a similar game to last week, but without the safety being the margin of victory. Patriots 20 -16.

Scott: I’m prepared for the worst 60 minutes of my life. Just kidding. I wouldn’t be surprised now if we had another game like last week; one of those grinders you sweat for the whole three hours, always one big play away from it going the other way. In my heart of hearts, I want the Patriots offense to come out like they did in pre-season and move the ball come hell or high water. I think the Patriots defense can manage Chad Pennington. The offense needs to get a lead and build on it so the boys can pin their ears back. That’s what I want. What will I get? Maybe 20-17, Patriots.

Who is this week’s Worst Mediot in the World? (Apologies to the cranky Keith Olbermann):

Scott: How about all the media, and all of us, the fans, for not realizing until Thursday that Junior Seau had a pretty good game Sunday. His coach went out of his way to praise little, game-winning things that we apparently overlooked. He got a game ball for eight tackles that we all mocked. Maybe we need to pay a little closer attention next time.

Greg: It’s kind of sad to see what’s happened to Michael Felger. He went from a pretty decent, down the middle, beat reporter to what he is today. And that’s not good. Since he got heavily involved in The Big Show crew, and now on his own show (which he dishonestly claimed wasn’t going to be about Manny peeing in the wall….a pledge he lived up to for maybe 2 or 3 months), he really has mailed it in more and more often in all aspects of his professional career. Last week’s column in the Herald’s special NFL preview pullout section I thought was a particular mail-in job.

Witness this atrocity from last week by Felger:

“Some of the departures have been shocking (Adam Vinatieri, Lawyer Milloy), others merely sad (Joe Andruzzi). The Pats have lost some good people (Damien Woody) to big-money, free agent offers, and also some bad ones (Ted Washington).”

So, let me get this straight….Ted Washington is a bad person????? Why? Because he wouldn’t speak to Felger and the rest of the media?

Obviously I don’t know Washington personally (and I’m sure Felger doesn’t really either). But I do know this; he is married with four children. Three girls and a boy. I am not aware of him ever being involved in an off the field incident, criminal or otherwise. He has been a nominee several times for the NFL Man of The Year award for community involvement. He was once a nominee for the NFL’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award which goes to the NFL player who does the most in his community. When he was with the Bills, he started a fund called “Ted Tackles MS” in which he would donate money for every tackle he had to curing MS. He started the “Ted Washington Foundation” to benefit local youth charities in Buffalo. For his entire career in Buffalo, he donated his allotment of 30 tickets to home games to youth groups for children to attend the Bills games. He was involved in the United Way and had his entire family appear in a commercial on their behalf in 1998.

Now, like I said, I don’t know the guy. But does Felger have the right to take a cheap shot at him in the paper when he likely doesn’t really know him either simply because he chooses not to talk to the press? And if Felger claims he was “disruptive” in the locker room and that is what he meant…..well how freakin’ disruptive could he have been? They went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl the one year he was here. Felger is just an ass in this particular case, there can be no disputing it.

Bruce: I think it’s time to show some love (disdain?) for the crew up in the Merrimack Valley led by the fearless (and clueless) Bill Burt. While their Red Sox coverage is very good, football isn’t that paper’s strong suit. Main NFL (and High School) writer Hector Longo this week somehow tried to make the argument that when the Patriots signed Tom Brady to the contract extension a couple years ago, that only “Patriots sycophants lauded the deal”. He weakly tried to connect that statement with the Patriots having cap room and not signing Branch. Meanwhile, his boss Burt was composing a column made up of answering imaginary questions that the voices in his head dictated to him.

Scott: Uh, Bruce, about that ‘imaginary questions’ line…….

Greg: Uh, Scott, someone posted in GDRV on Tuesday morning Junior Seau had a solid game last week. Ahem. Just sayin’…..