by Scott Benson

So this is the time of year that I start thinking about things like playoff seedings, and this morning I learned that if the playoffs started today, the Patriots would host the Kansas City Chiefs* on Wild Card Weekend.

*Up until this morning, this read ‘Denver Broncos’, but that was before the Chiefs beat them at Arrowhead last night. For those scoring at home, that’s two in a row (and three of the last five) for the mighty Broncos, who have dropped from possible second seed to sixth in the matter of a week or so. Giddyup!

I know what you’re saying. “You’re starting already with this stuff?” Already? There’s only six weeks left. Don’t people do the same thing for pennant races?

Besides, I think it provides a nice benchmark. We know that as long as the Patriots maintain their hold on the division, they can’t seed any worse than fourth, and a first round home game. But they can certainly do better (namely, seeds three, two and one).

Holding down the 2nd and 3rd seeds today are Baltimore and San Diego, who lead the Pats by a game. With no head-to-head action between the clubs, conference records would break any ties between the teams. Right now, the Ravens have one conference loss to San Diego’s two, and New England’s three.

This week’s intra-conference game with 9-1 Chicago can do nothing for New England’s AFC record, but its no less significant as a win over the Bears would keep the Pats (at minimum) on pace with the Ravens and Chargers for another week, as the weeks dwindle to a few.

I suppose the Bears game is also significant because it represents a true “test” for the Patriots, who “can’t beat the good teams.”

Normally, I’d agree with that. There’s no defending the record. I just know that if the Patriots were to Berry the Bears this weekend, you’d see some serious backpeddling around here as to how good Chicago really is. I’m not falling for the banana in the tailpipe, man.

But at the same time, I don’t want to be the Patriots on Monday if they lose another home game to a team with a winning record. That wouldn’t be good for anybody.

But here’s something that’s good for everybody – it’s our pal from the BSMW message board (and noted denizen of Gillette), Box Score. Box is here on this rainy Thanksgiving filling in for Boss Allen, who’s yucking it up on the Left Coast, probably drinking smoothies and clubbing with show biz cronies like Eli Roth.

Anyway, Box is quick with a joke and a light of your smoke, and after we get through with him here, there’ll be someplace that he’d rather be.

The Pats played a pretty thorough game last week in throttling the Packers, 35-0. Yet the result was quickly discredited, on the basis of severe malfeasance on the part of Green Bay. Even if the Pats didn’t ‘prove’ anything last Sunday, was there anything in that shutout win that raised your hopes for the coming weeks?

Greg: Just that they played well. Yes, the Packers were bad Sunday. But the destruction was thorough and if you really looked at it, the Patriots all played and functioned very well in every area of the game. They would have beat almost any team Sunday. Granted, it would have been closer against a good opponent, but one shouldn’t take away that they played a great game.

Box Score: Per usual, this team can’t catch a break with the coverage they receive. Either they get “dominated” in their (close) losses or they win thanks to their opponent’s shortcomings. The Green Bay win was exactly the type of game you hope for, but can’t expect, as a fan when you sit down for the pre game on Sunday. It was the surgical domination of a team on their own field. The most encouraging thing about the win was seeing the players enjoying themselves so much. There was alot of enthusiasm and exuberance on display throughout the game. That’s always encouraging.

Scott: I think there were a lot of things to feel good about last week, like the patient, balanced approach on offense, and the thumb-screw job the defense did even without three-quarters of its secondary. I like how they practiced in pads all week and came out hitting. But it comes down to consistency at this point. It’s got to be every week from now on, and I think we’re still waiting to see if they can do that, particularly offensively.

Wrapping up the Packers win, who gets your Roundtable Game Ball for last week?

Box Score: My runner-up is the unheralded Ellis Hobbs, who was quick enough to avoid the medical cart carrying Brett Favre and his ailing humorous. I liked his field awareness in stopping short at the very last second, but I was most impressed with his indignant glare at the oblivious (“I’ve got BRETT FAVRE here, people! Clear the way! This man is having funnybone trauma!”) driver after the near crash. My game ball goes to Ty Warren. The entire defense played a great game and the defensive line keyed the performance after a disappointing effort against the Jets. The difference was Ty Warren. He seemed to be involved in every sack (finished with 1.5 on the day) and brought a lot of energy to the defense. The line keyed the dominance and he keyed that line.

Scott: I’m going with Laurence Maroney, who had 82 yards on the ground and another 35 through the air (4 catches, and a nifty TD). The Patriots’ offense handled itself beautifully Sunday, and Maroney was a steady producer from start to finish, even though he’s got to be getting close to Nick Cafardo’s Dreaded Rookie Wall. If they can get 18-20 carries for Maroney and another 12-15 for Corey Dillon every week, I think we’ll be very happy with the results.

Greg: Tom Brady. He finally looked like his old self and his accuracy was special. Lets hope he can finally string a few games like that together. They have a tough one coming up this week and his personal house of horrors in Miami a few weeks after that.

Surely as there are teams that emerge at this time of year, there are players that do the same. I’m thinking of the late season and post-season heroics of Brady, Vinatieri, Law, McGinest, Bruschi and Branch, among others. Their play made the difference. As we begin the season’s eleventh week, are there any current Patriots that can elevate their games similarly?

Scott: Obviously, the above list contains the names of at least a couple of active Patriots, so I suppose we look to them first, and Richard Seymour too. I’ll throw out a couple of names – Mike Vrabel and Daniel Graham. Vrabel’s been kept pretty quiet at times this year, but on Sunday he was his old self, all over the field. He’s back in the offense again too, and he might have made the best catch of the day by anybody. Graham, of course, has had injury problems again this season, this time in the final year of his contract. But he’s back for the stretch run, and every Pats fan knows that the Pats offensive line is always better when Graham is on one end of it. He also reminded us last week that he represents a decent option in the red zone. Speaking of the Pats offensive line – how about those guys too? You’ve got three old pros there (Neal, Light and Koppen) that ought to know the way from here.

Greg: Roosevelt Colvin. I have been somewhat disappointed with his play this year after a very good year last year. He’s had his moments, but its been inconsistent. Lets see if he can raise his play the rest of the way out. He was good last week.

Box Score: On offense the difference maker remains Brady, he is always the guy most likely to elevate his game when it matters the most. Joining him this year would be Ben Watson, Laurence Maroney and, yes I am going to say it, Reche Caldwell. Watson and Maroney are the big play threats for this offense and one or two of those big gains is going to come at a memorable time as we approach the stretch run. As for Caldwell, if there is 85 seconds left on the clock and the Patriots need to get into FG range who else do you trust to make the adjustments and be in the right spot for Brady? For the defense, Artrell Hawkins has shown a knack for making plays at the right time. I think Seau is a good candidate too. He’s always around the ball and I’ve been especially impressed with the way he plays TE’s in the flat. He’s fast for a samoan facing menopause.

Let’s get to it. 4:15 PM on Sunday night, the Bears and the Patriots on a brand new field in Foxboro. Whaddaya think?

Greg: I have to go with the Patriots. The Bears are a good team, but the Patriots have handled the NFC easily so far this year. I’m thinking maybe this particular Patriots team is better fit for field turf and perhaps the slow track did slow down guys like Maroney and Ben Watson and Brady’s accuracy. I’ll take the Patriots to beat a Bears team on the road for the third straight week 24-6.

Box Score: Great game that comes at a great time in the season. They are both physical teams with great defenses and inconsistent offenses. The difference being that New England’s defense seems to be improving with each game, while Chicago’s seems to be slipping a bit from their dominant early season play. This coincides with the Bear offense being forced to go to a more conservative ball control approach on offense. It’s worked, but they haven’t looked as dominant as they did in the first 6 or 7 weeks of the season. Grossman will struggle against multiple fronts and Thomas Jones ain’t running free against our front four. As for the multiple fronts, one thing I really like about this game is that the Patriot coaching staff has the Jets game to use to prepare for Chicago. New York frustrated the Chicago offense for most of the game and held them to under 300 yards of offense. This bodes well for the NE defense. The question remains, can the Patriots score when they need to? This is the best defense they’ve faced on paper and the Patriot offense hasn’t done much against good defenses this season. I am hopeful for a great game for the ages. Add some mystique to the rubber grass we have now.

Scott: If they go out there and patiently and methodically play ball control, ball protection offense, as they did (for the most part) last week, then I think they win, maybe even easily. If they go out there and try to out run these guys by spreading them out and throwing it all over the place, then I think they lay the ball on the ground and probably pay big for it. Chicago’s ranked #1 in virtually every defensive category, except run defense – where they’re ranked 10th (YPG, with 99.3; the Patriots run defense is actually 2nd in the league with 76.2 YPG). I’m going with my first scenario – Pats play December (almost) football and win 23-16.

In a late week surprise, the Patriots re-signed Ken Walter, their punter on two Super Bowl winners. Josh Miller is hurt (shoulder) and appears to be out. Any concerns here?

Scott: I’m less concerned than I was Sunday. It’s startling to see Miller’s kicking suddenly become a liability, but it was that against the Packers. He’s clearly not right. I’ll always remember Walter fondly for his expert holds on all those epic field goals (he never got enough credit for how clutch he was) more so than his punting, but he’s probably a reasonable alternative given the time of year, and his past experience here. He’s at least healthy, so we got that goin’ for us.

Box Score: I am just glad that Hank Poteat found someone to cover the mortage at his Foxborough townhouse. The punting game will obviously suffer and I am sure they’ll need to compensate for it in other areas, but let’s give Ken a warm welcome back to New England if for nothing else, then to remind us of the 2004 season. A quick note: quietly the Special Teams group has had a good year despite a ton of injuries to key members of the group, Mel Mitchell, Tebucky Jones, and Willie Andrews (with Miller joining them at the backgammon table this week) have all missed a considerable amount of time. Maybe Pierre Woods can punt? Against the Packers he looked like he could do anything he wanted on special teams.

Greg: Yes, because Walter isn’t that good. He had a good year in terms of placing it inside the 20 in 2001. But then has been horrible or out of the league in subsequent years. Lets hope he can revisit his 2001 form, though at age 34 is that realistic?

OK, Box, step up to our Big Board of Predictions. You get to pick for Bruce. If you happen to pull an 0-6, or even a 1-5, let’s just say no one’s the wiser. This week we’re tracking Cincinnati at Cleveland, Houston at the Jets, Jacksonville at Buffalo, Oakland at San Diego, Philly at Indy, and Pittsburgh at Baltimore.

Box Score (Bruce 4-2 last week, 44-20 overall): Picking games is a fool’s errand. I have no idea, anyone who reads this has no idea, and the players and coaches have no idea. Seems like the only ones in the know live in the desert and spend week nights at the Spearmint Rhino. With this in mind, here are my picks: Cleveland, Jets, Jacksonville, San Diego, Philly, and Pittsburgh.

Greg (4-2 last week, 36-28 overall): I think Cleveland suffered a devastatingly tough loss last week in a game they should have won. They won’t regroup and the Bengals will take them out as they are still fighting for playoff chances. The Jets should dispatch Houston, though it wouldn’t shock me if Houston gave them a pretty good run. Jacksonville will beat up on Buffalo, San Diego take out the horrid Oakland, Indy beats up the Donovan McNabb-less Eagles and Baltimore takes out Pittsburgh.

Scott (3-3 last week, 39-25 overall): What are you saying about the Spearmint Rhino? Anyway, I’m taking Cincinnati and Jacksonville on the road, and the Jets, Chargers and Colts at home. I would dearly like to believe that the Steelers can rise up and win on the road in Baltimore, but alas, I see THAT is the true fool’s errand. So I’ve got the Ravens.

Where but the bottom would you find our Mediots of the Week?

Greg: How about Michael Irvin? His buffoonish act as a commentator on ESPN really is pathetic. He offers little insight, little legitimate commentary and he is strictly there to raise the clown level of the show and, apparently, the belief among media geniuses who run these shows is this will raise viewer interest. I don’t get that. Irvin was a great NFL receiver, I can’t take that away from him. But listening to him just trying to be outrageous and talk about the NFL today is less enlightening than listening to George Bush spin the Iraq war. And that’s pretty bad.

Box Score: I was traveling last minute to Toronto this week and didn’t get the full chance I wanted to lie in the feces of EEI, the Globe, or the Herald and detail it here. I’ll go back to last week’s post game coverage to highlight Bob Lobel’s incessant use of the imaginary nickname he coined for Tom Brady. Tom “Bread & Butter” he’d mutter over and over with the smirk that only a lush with a charmed life can wear. Nevermind that it makes no sense and has no context. The most annoying thing about it is thinking about Bob hatching this idea during the game and thinking it is his next big catch phrase during the 5th Quarter. While we are at it, let’s just point out that Steve DeOssie is the most folically confused public persona in the history of the Boston airwaves. This past week it was a dramatic transformation to the “Twisted Caeser”. I can’t wait to see what’s in store next week, it’s almost as exciting as the games themselves.

Scott: I can’t say I’m a big fan of the Herald’s new column for Pats fans, Tony Massarotti Pisses On Your Parade. What a nag. This whole trend of Tony Mazz and Buckley weighing in on the Pats – very disturbing. How many days until spring training?