by Scott Benson

This week, the Patriots travel to Lambeau Field in Green Bay for a intra-conference matchup with Brett Favre and the Packers.

A win is imperative.

New England badly needs one after a horrendous two-week slump that has seen the Pats fall back to the pack in not only their conference but in their own division as well.

With the 2006 season nearing the homestretch, the Patriots trail the AFC-leading Colts by three games (four when you count the head-to-head Colts advantage) and Denver by one (again, due to their head-to-head advantage over the Pats, its actually two) for first-round playoff byes. Suddenly, two more teams have become a factor at 7-2: the Baltimore Ravens (with a better conference record, the next tiebreaker) and the San Diego Chargers (also a better conference record) both stand between New England and a first round pass.

Even their previously-thought-to-be-unimpeachable division lead is down to one game, with the Jets now at 5-4 (and a 3-1 division record, just behind the Pats’ 4-1). If they can’t reverse their slide soon, the Pats and their fans will spend December lowering their expectations while scoreboard-watching for results from places like Jacksonville and Kansas City.

The 4-5 Packers have seemingly improved under new head coach Mike McCarthy, winning three out of their last four, including last week’s road win over the Vikings. With (evidently) his enabler Mike Sherman out of the way, Favre has surprisingly become an effective quarterback again (13 td’s to only 7 int’s), though Green Bay ranks only 16th in scoring offense. The Packers defense continues to be among the league’s worst (27th in the NFL in points allowed), which has to be welcome news for the badly-slumping Tom Brady.

Thankfully, the game will be played on the road, where the Pats are undefeated at 4-0. Just as well. Lately, the Patriots win in Foxboro about as often as they win in Denver.

There, amidst the rubble of the last two weeks, resolutely stands the Row of Chairs. What’s up, panel?

Last Sunday, a few veteran Patriots made on-the-record postgame comments that suggested the team had not only been outplayed, but outcoached. Last week, players seemed to publicly question the offensive playcalling. Never mind whether the public criticisms were appropriate (they weren’t); do they have a point?

Greg: Patriots players tend to mimic the language and phrases Belichick uses, I have noticed. And he always includes coaching as something that needs to be better or they were outperformed in when they lose. I believe they were just once again describing it as Belichick would and often does.

Bruce: Well, Belichick said the same thing, and I think he meant it. As for the comments, I don’t think they bothered the coach too much…I think he’s more concerned about the fact that they WERE outplayed and outcoached than he is about Seymour or anyone else stating it.

Scott: Yeah, they did. Bottom line – it’s November, and the team is scraping bottom. The convenient thing is to blame people like Ben Watson and Ellis Hobbs. The buck doesn’t stop there. The offense is flagging (in many respects because of its approach), and the defense (though pretty steady) still suffers some maddening third-down breakdowns. Things are getting worse just as they’re supposed to be getting better. He’s a great coach having a not-so-great season. That said, I was really happy to hear that BB had the team in pads all week, indicating a return to basics.

The Patriots have gone in the tank since we instituted the Roundtable Game Balls. That’s their problem, I guess. You guys care to hand any out this week?

Bruce: I think a lot of people are starting to realize that Reche Caldwell isn’t as bad as they thought he was. The guy has been solid. He’s been getting each week and had his best game of the season against the Jets. The knock against Caldwell was supposedly that he was soft (leading some to call him “paper” Reche), but I’ve seen a receiver who can make the big third down catches and the play that he scored the TD on against the Jets required more than a little heart and determination to the make the play. He’s my pick.

Scott: I’m giving mine to Billy Yates. It was out of necessity, but he came off the practice squad and stepped right into the starting lineup, where he handled himself like a pro. Then he breaks his friggin’ leg. I hate football sometimes.

Greg: Has to be Reche Caldwell, who easily had the most inspired game out of any Patriots player last week. He has turned out to be a lot better signing than the panic mongers like Michael Felger were claiming in pre-season.

Just three weeks after his brilliant display in Minnesota, Tom Brady is struggling. Most of it has been attributed to other areas (new receivers, an injured offensive line, a slumping running game). Is it that simple?

Scott: No, it isn’t. It’s funny we’re discussing this just as the Pats head to Green Bay, where they can always find someone other than the quarterback to blame. We don’t want that, do we? I didn’t think so. I know a lot has been placed on Tom’s shoulders, this season more than any other, but I’m worried about his fundamentals (a few of us noticed last week that he’s gone from Meryl Streep to Sharon Gless as far as selling his play action fakes, and of course, his failing accuracy could be traced to his throwing fundamentals) and frankly, his perspective (for the first time in his career, he’s throwing up patently stupid prayers instead of thinking better of it). Whether its frustration or confusion, he’s not exactly playing smart football, at a time of year when you expect nothing less from him. Like Charlie Pierce said during his visit to BSMW this week – at some point the ‘new receiver’ excuse doesn’t cut it anymore. As far as the injury theory – isn’t most everyone beat up by now? We’d have to be crazy to think that isn’t an intrinsic condition of being a pro quarterback playing in November. Unless somebody can cite something specific, that seems like just more lazy thinking, the kind that enabled Brett Favre to play some goddam lousy football without ever answering for it.

Greg: Honestly, I’m at a loss. It certainly is at least part of those reasons. But is that it? I can’t say. I know not the most insightful answer in the world, but I really can’t explain why Tom Brady is having his worst season since he became a starter. I wish I had the answer or knew he’d turn it around, but I’m not sure any longer. He was not good the last two weeks and there have been too many of those weeks.

Bruce: Yes. It’s not like he suddenly lost the ability to play quarterback. The only other option is that he’s hurting, which might lead us into the next question.

On Tuesday, the Patriots signed 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde. Why?

Greg: I am thinking as a de facto quarterback coach. He’s a veteran. He’s played in this offense. He can give tips to Tom Brady. He may eventually want to get into coaching. And, in a pinch, he can manage a game and get them through a crisis.

Bruce: Isn’t it obvious? The last time Bill Belichick brought Testaverde to a team he was the head coach of, he replaced the longtime starting QB of his squad, who was a local favorite, with ol’ Vin. History repeats itself folks, the writing is on the the wall. Brady is DUN. Actually, he’s just here as an insurance policy and I hope he never sees the field.

Scott: Guy is an incredible dresser. I mean really sharp. The best suits. Most of the Patriots now are slobs, running around in those matching track outfits. I heard that’s why they signed him – they were worried they were going to get caught short by Mr. Blackwell. They were just trying to class the joint up a little. Seriously, what I said about Brady’s perspective before? I think that’s where Vinny comes in. Think of him as a consultant, giving the situation a fresh pair of eyes. By the way – I’ve always liked this guy, and I’m glad he’s here.

Unfortunately, on Tuesday the Patriots didn’t stop at signing Vinny. They also ripped up the grass field and express ordered a new Field Turf surface. Is this for the good, or have the Patriots given up some of their home field advantage?

Bruce: I don’t think it was the mud and grass that won those playoff games in the past. The surface is a small factor in the outcome of a football game. It may give some sort of mental edge, but again, that advantage would be minuscule. Plus, the field was pretty embarrassing to see on TV. I think the combination of better footing and better appearance is a good move.

Scott: Count me as one that couldn’t have given two shits how the field looked to the fans. How about the complacent fans work on making some freaking noise for once and leave the groundskeeping to Dennis Brolin? Well, you know what I mean. ‘Home field advantage’ includes ‘field’, which is why the Patriots held on for so long in the effort to maintain the grass. My term for this is ‘indiginous advantage’ (snappy, huh?) and in my opinion, the Patriots (a Northeast foul weather team) gave some away here. It remains to be seen what the long-term impact will be. Until then, I’ll exercise my Constitutional right to make a fuss.

Greg: If it stops me from having to listen to more story in the press about the turf, then sure. Go for it. And, what home field advantage?

Scott: Now THAT’S a hell of a point.

Okay, back to the Big Board of Predictions for another week. Why are we doing this again? Anyway, we’ll start with the Chicago Bears visiting Coaching Legend Eric Mangini and the Jets. Then we’ve got Atlanta at Baltimore, Oakland at Kansas City, Indianapolis at Dallas, San Diego at Denver, and the Giants at Jacksonville.

Scott (5-1 last week, 36-22 overall): Time is running out in this pennant race, so I’m digging into my pocket and buying Dave Kingman or somebody for the stretch run. The Bears will beat the Jets, though I expect Eric Mangini will coach magnificently anyway. Who do you take if you’re starting a team – Mangini, Lombardi, Noll, or Walsh? Tough call. I’ll take the Ravens, the Chiefs, and the Broncos at home, and the Giants on the road. In a strategic move (see below), I’ll go with the Colts remaining unbeaten.

Greg (5-1, 32-26 overall): Bears. They impressed me last week taking out the Giants and the Jets aren’t as good as the Giants. Baltimore is about to go 8-2? Yep. Kansas City beats up on the horrible Raiders. Dallas finally takes out the Colts. Denver beats San Diego and the Giants beat Jacksonville, who is inconsistent.

Bruce (3-3 last week, 40-18 overall): How could we possibly pick against Mangini? You’d have to be a fool to do so. I’m that fool. Chicago. I’ll take Baltimore, Kansas City, Denver, the Giants, and in the upset of the week – The Cowboys.

The Frozen Tundra…..Lombardi……The Ghost of John Facenda must know! Packers, Pats. What say you?

Greg: It won’t be easy, but I’ll say the Patriots regroup, make enough defensive stops and cause some turnovers to turn back the Pack 24-17.

Bruce: The Patriots have to break out sometime here, right? The NFC has been kind to them, so hopefully this is the week. Patriots 31-13

Scott: As you can tell from my entries above, I’m wildly optimistic at this point. In a move that’s only part reverse psychology and superstition, I’m going to pick the Packers, 23-13. I don’t know if the slide is over, or in progress. By the way, I seem to remember Corey Dillon running all through the Packers the last time the Pats were in Green Bay (05 pre-season), so Josh, you might consider having your guy mix a hand off somewhere in there amongst the double fake screens.

Lastly, and I do mean lastly, our Mediots of the Week.

Bruce: So was there a rule against changing surfaces in the middle of the season or not. We were told there was, even an NFL Spokesman confirmed it. But it turns out he was wrong. Or did he LIE? Where are our intrepid reporters on this? Even though rumors about changing the playing surface had been reported before, it still came as a surprise announcement to many.

Scott: Gerry Callahan basically said that the Patriots lost Sunday because Bill Belichick ‘hates’ Eric Mangini. That’s pretty idiotic if you ask me. Didn’t Belichick ‘hate’ Parcells too, Gerry? Whatever happened to that? I don’t see football as THAT complicated of a game, but these guys go to the ends of the earth to write about anything but.

Greg: I’d go with Hector Longo, but he is barely media and not worth commentary. So, lets go with Gerry Callahan who went from ridiculing Eric Mangini for months with “rib boy” comments, jokes about his age and a lack of general respect for in all his reporting on the guy since he was hired by the Jets to turn him into the second coming of Vince Lombardi. All based on one game in which the Patriots did not play well, and neither did the Jets particularly, in which the Jets sneaked off with a close, but not real impressive win. Mangini has done a decent job. Callahan, on the other hand, has gone from one overstated extreme to the other in covering the guy, as opposed to actually providing decent, accurate analysis. What should we expect at this point, I suppose?

Scott: Callahan wins in a landslide!