by Scott Benson

The 9-3 Patriots can clinch their fourth straight division title this Sunday if they beat the Miami Dolphins and get a little help in the Meadowlands.

A Patriots victory combined with a Buffalo Bills upset of the Jets in Jersey would give New England a playoff berth at no worse than the fourth seed.

They’re still in the ballgame with 10-2 San Diego and 9-3 Baltimore for the second seed and a first round bye. Things tightened up last week with Baltimore’s loss to the Bengals, and both the Chargers and Ravens face playoff contenders this week. The Pats could still pass them both, with some luck.

In the event of a tie, the first hurdle is conference record, where the Pats 5-3 record trails San Diego’s 8-2 and Baltimore’s 6-2. The Chargers have the edge here (they play just two more conference games, KC and Denver, hosting both), while the Pats and the Ravens still have four conference games apiece to sort things out.

If they don’t, they move on to record vs. common opponents (Buffalo, Cincinnati, Denver and Tennessee), where the 3-1 Pats win out over the 2-2 Ravens, but still trail the 4-0 Chargers. They each have a common game left (NE at TEN, DEN at SD, and BUF at BAL).

After that you have something called Strength of Victory, and if you can find that on the Internet, let me know.

Maybe it’s presumptuous to be talking about playoffs that don’t begin for a month when the Patriots are just a few days beyond an unimpressive win over the Lions. Though the Patriots are a 9-3 team with a chance to clinch this Sunday. Your call, I guess. Let’s see what the Panel thinks.

Bill Belichick reportedly ran one of his toughest weeks of practice before last Sunday’s narrow win over the Lions. Yet his players came out listlessly, nearly losing at home to one of the worst teams in football. Does this say anything to you about the team and its prospects for the rest of the season?

Bruce: I almost think that some sort of letdown was inevitable, no matter what the staff did. A letdown doesn’t explain the turnovers though. I really don’t see that game as an indictment of their chances the rest of the way. Let’s not forget, the Patriots are still regarded around the league as the “gold standard” of the NFL. Every week they’re going to get the top effort of the opponent. The Lions would’ve made their season with a win in Foxboro.

Scott: I’m wondering if that wasn’t a respectable coaching job by the staff last week. Maybe it wasn’t a question of if the team would let down, but how much. Maybe they mitigated it just enough to get the win. Just a thought. No, I don’t suppose the mental egg laid last week makes any meaningful statement about the rest of the season; their problem isn’t motivation. It’s execution.

Tim: It’s been proven many times that it just doesn’t work that way. The best example being the 04 Miami game where the team uncharacteristically unraveled in the final 8 minutes to lose to a 2 win team. It was such a harbinger of doom that all they did subesquently is go on and win their 3rd Super Bowl in four years. My pet theory is that the players busted their asses during the week on orders, but still had a hard time getting up for the game against a team like the Lions that has some talent, but no idea how to finish a game. If that’s the case, they were exactly right, weren’t they? Win or lose, they’ll be plenty fired up for Miami this weekend. I don’t see any lethargy carrying over.

Greg: I don’t think so. It happens. They have had a few of these late season blips to bad teams and gone on to win a Super Bowl before. Buffalo in 2001, Houston in 2003, Miami in 2004. So why would the fact it happened this year be conclusive proof of anything? Its the NFL, there are going to be close games between a good team and a bad team occasionally.

Tom Brady completed 14 of 15 fourth quarter passes Sunday to lead a Patriots comeback. Why isn’t anyone talking about it?

Scott: This is probably heresy, but its probably because it was a bunch of dump offs to Kevin Faulk. It wasn’t exactly gunslinger-esque. The most memorable throw for me was a 6 yard, 3rd down pass to Reche Caldwell on the winning touchdown drive. Let’s face it, the guy’s been a central figure in some pretty memorable games. Its going to be tough to slide a sharp fourth quarter against 2-10 Detroit in there alongside the Super Bowl winning drives. He was great in that 4th quarter, though (as well as at the end of the first half). We’ve indeed been blessed.

Tim: I am not exactly sure, but my guess is that it’s a story that’s been told before and the “opinion makers” were looking for a fresh angle. That was a pretty sweet last 8 minutes to that game, huh? Lots of great plays, but two stand out: Pass’s 16 yard screen play and Brown’s nifty slant to tie the game with a two point conversion. Contrary to most written accounts, that was actually a really entertaining 4th quarter for New England fans.

Greg: It was overhadowed by almost losing to a horrible team. A blowout win was expected. The fact they needed Brady to stand on his head in the fourth quarter is not going to calm the masses.

Bruce: Because we and the media are a collection of spoiled dolts. Scott, you didn’t quite commit heresy, but you just can’t minimize what Brady did because it was the Detroit Lions or because the passes weren’t all 30 yard lasers across the field. The very fact that we’re sitting here at 9-3 coming off a fourth quarter comeback and people are too busy telling us how flawed the team is just shows how spoiled we’ve become. Think about Brady’s first year as starter when he led the club back in the San Diego game. That was huge. Now, it’s no biggie, or even worse, expected. I’m not looking forward to feeling about these Patriots the way I feel about the 1980’s Celtics.

How much does the loss of Eugene Wilson set back the team’s title hopes?

Tim: Wilson wasn’t having the best year before the injury, but he will be missed and the depth in the defensive backfield is once again a concern. Every freakin year we are counting DB’s like change in the couch cushions. I am baffled by this. All I can say is “Artrell!” (God bless you). Hawkins has been perhaps their most valuable member of that unit this year and he’ll need to continue his strong play for the team to have a chance at a deep playoff run. If only we knew more about his singing voice……

Greg: Well, it doesn’t help, but he has only played in a handful of games now anyways. And Artrell Hawkins and James Sanders are playing pretty well. Once Rodney Harrison gets back, Wilson won’t be missed too much.

Bruce: To be honest, I’m so pleased with Artrell Hawkins, I thought it was possible that Wilson wouldn’t even get his starting job back. He would’ve been a great “flex” piece to have in the defensive backfield though, as I think he would’ve been swung between corner and safety the rest of the year depending on matchups. His skills and experience are going to be missed, but Hawkins might’ve taken his job at the safety position. James Sanders has also been decent since he started playing in the regular defense again. The Broncos game and subsequent benching might’ve been a wake up to him. If the rest of the guys can stay healthy and we can get Rodney back, I think there’s the makings of a strong secondary in place for a January run. I like the pickup of Mickens, it probably means Troy Brown can concentrate more on receiver and let Mickens take the nickel back duties.

Scott: I can’t see it would have a big effect now, since Wilson’s been out for most of the last two months. Think of when Ty Law went out for the season against Pittsburgh in 04; there was enough time afterwards for the team to adapt to, and cover for, the loss. The Pats have adapted again. Credit for that goes squarely to Artrell Hawkins, and the front office that brought him in a year ago. God forbid anything else happen though.

How did the first game with the new linebacker lineup look to you?

Greg: Not too bad. Mike Vrabel had a good game. Tully Banta-Cain was quiet outside, but let’s give that another week. I didn’t see any immediate causes for alarm, however. Like big gaping holes in the middle during runs or anything.

Bruce: It was a game of adjustment, but I think there were encouraging signs. Banta-Cain is going to need to get used to playing every down, but Colvin was strong on the strong side and Vrabel and Bruschi were fine inside. I think we all held our breath though when Vrabel took the hit after the interception. He’s one of the guys on defense that they cannot lose.

Scott: This group certainly gets it share of scrutiny. I wonder how much of it gets blown out of proportion. This defense is at the top of the league in fewest points and yards allowed. These guys represent more than a third of that defense. How big of a problem can linebacker be, really? Banta Cain’s play was a disappointment; he was easily pushed away from the quarterback for most of the afternoon. He’s been good in spots so far this year, so I was surprised he didn’t do more with his starting opportunity. That will be something to keep an eye on.

Tim: I am going to just throw my cards on the table here. I am woefully unqualified to evaluate linebacker play, especially in a Belichick defense. I was screaming at Bruschi for being too slow in the last Super Bowl win about 30 ticks before he made a game changing interception. I think others were doing the same to Vrabel this past Sunday too. With this in mind, I’ll take a pragmatic approach: it’s all about repetitions and how comfortable everyone is in their new roles. Vrabel shouldn’t need much time getting acclimated to the inside, but TBC will probably need more to get adjusted to his increased workload on the outside. He’s shown flashes in situational duty in the past and I am comforted by the fact that he’s been in the system for four years.

Let’s hit the Big Board for another week. This time, we’re packed with direct matchups between AFC playoff contenders – along with the Pats and the Dolphins, there’s Baltimore at Kansas City, Indianapolis at Jacksonville, and Denver at San Diego. Let’s fill it out with teams at the back of the Wild Card race: Buffalo at the Jets, and Oakland at Cincinnati.

Bruce (2-4 last week, 46-24 overall, .657): I like the Chiefs being able to hand the Ravens their second straight loss. Indianapolis will bounce back in Jacksonville, though that’s a place where they’ve had troubles the last few years. San Diego will take out the fast fading Broncos at home. The Jets will handle the Bills and the Bengals will run it up on the Raiders.

Scott (5-1 last week, 48-28 overall, .631): It feels like a playoff week, which means I’m probably going to choke. It’s why I’ve developed this empathy for Peyton Manning, I think. Anyway, I’m hopeful that Baltimore will continue to fade in Kansas City, who gave one away last week. I feel good about the Chiefs here. Is this a meaningful game for the Colts this weekend? They could be dropping out of the first seed, so I guess the answer’s yes. I’ll take the Colts on the road – besides, I just don’t like the Jaguars. Give me the Chargers over Denver – how will history judge the decision to go to Jay Cutler the first week of December? Not well, I suspect. The Jets will stave off division elimination with a win over the Bills, and I can’t see myself ever picking the Raiders.

Greg (2-4 last week, 43-33 overall, .565): Kansas City will beat the overrated Baltimore, I’ll call for Jacksonville to hand Indianapolis its third loss (and they could have much more than that), San Diego beats a reeling Denver, the Jets take out Buffalo at home and the Bengals beat up on hapless Oakland.

Tim (3-3 last week, 5-7 overall, .416): Hold on. We are keeping track of the picks and aggregating them? Nobody told me my answers would be part of my permanent record. Let it be known, that the following picks are being made under protest and that I will be picking my winners based on the physical demeanor of each head coach. First up, it’s Edwards versus Billick. This one is close, but I am going with Edwards even though he looks like an aging Alvin Ailey dancer. Billick’s just got too much middle school administrator in that hair style for me to endorse the Ravens this week. Next we’ve got Dungy, whose voice reminds me of the elderly pedopohile that lusted after Chris Griffin in the first season of Family Guy versus Del Rio whose piercing eyes both frighten and excite me all at the same time. Let’s go with Dungy here so I don’t have to explore these feelings any further. This next one’s a classic match-up, Sphincter-Face Shanahan versus Mary Schottenheimer who reminds me of a WorldComm executive at a fantasy camp. I am givng the nod to the man with anus features and the defense that may be fast enough to contain LT2. Dick Jauron is pretty non-descipt once you get past the sickly skin color and he’s a big favorite over Eric Mangini, who conjures up images of the fat troubled kid that likes to stuff bottlerockets up frog’s asses. Shell versus Lewis is a tough one. Neither one has any glaring weaknesses physically. I have to go with Shell in a tight one because the man just looks like a football coach while Lewis looks like he could do corporate if he needed to.

The Patriots have certainly had their troubles in South Florida. This week they face an improved Dolphins team, who lost last week but have won four of the last five. What do you make of this game?

Scott: The Patriots are 2-11 lifetime in games played in Miami in December. Tom Brady is 2-3 at Dolphins Stadium. The Pats are coming off a down effort. I don’t care. The Dolphins are just doing what they did last year – staging a furious ‘rally’ after playing themselves out of any reasonable contention before the season is half over. It’s like a salary drive. Pats win 23-13.

Tim: I’ll be at this game in Miami and I am really excited to go. At the same time, I am nervous, mindful of the challenges this team faces whwnever they travel south to the sunshine state. I think this game is a coin flip that will be decided by one or two defining plays late in the game. With that in mind, the fact that the Dolphins don’t have Brown and they do have a coach rumored to be leaving for Alabama may proive to be the slight advantage the Patriots need. They will be sky high for this one, that’s a definite. I am going with a 1 point win, say 10-9 or 14-13.

Greg: My initial instinct was the Patriots would be in for a tough game. And some credence has to be given to the fact they generally don’t play well down there. But on the other hand, I think they are a better team. Particularly with Miami probably without Ronnie Brown. And the old Miami defense isn’t what it once was. I’ll go with Patriots 27-13.

Bruce: I feel good about the Patriots in this one, which scares me to death. I’m going 24-13, Patriots.

Are there candidates for Mediot of the Week?

Tim: I am enthusiastically endorsing the Chinless Chia, Dan Shaughnessy, this week for his typical tripe. Two terrible, terrible football columns in the space of 48 hours seals it for everyone’s favorite Curly Haired Boyfriend. How about this gem from his 12/4/06 column?

“The savvy media throng immediately recognized Bill was not in the mood to reveal any truths and with Belichick still at the podium — just getting started taking questions — the room emptied more quickly than the Laugh Factory during a Michael Richards standup routine.”

I am just going to ignore the Laugh Factory line. It’s typical Dan Shaughnessy trying too hard to be topical and funny, but how about that opener, huh? The media is too SAVVY to sit through another press conference devoid of spoonfed storylines and sensational bunk. They can’t be duped, especially by the likes of Belichick. I am going to try this at work to see if it works across industries. “Yeah, boss, I went to the meeting, but I was way too savvy to sit through that nonsense. I left during the guy’s opening comments to get my swerve on and clean the pecker tracks off my trousers.”

By the way, if this is how the local media is going to deal with Belichick and his guarded answers, then who wins? I’d say this is exactly what Belichick would want. Walk out so he doesn’t have to waste his time telling you to leave.

Greg: Let’s go with Fred Smerlas and Glen Ordway for their idiotic statements in trying to explain away their reselling of Patriots tickets. If you didn’t hear, the Patriots took away Smerlas’ season tickets, upwards of 40 of them, because they have deemed he is basically reselling them for a profit. You heard every twist and turn in the book from these guys in the wake of the scandal. Smerlas claimed there was a “gray area” in much the same way someone would argue “it depends what the definition of is is”. Ordway twisted and turned claiming he had no “ownership interest” but would simultaneously go into detailed explanation of the business and the inner workings of it. Meanwhile, one has to scratch their heads at the Patriots who gave the duo special treatment in not taking their tickets away immediately and waiting until next year. If this was just some average Joe Fan, they’d have their tickets gone immediately. Why the special treatment from the Patriots? It hardly seems fair.

Bruce: On Wednesday old friend Ron Borges was on the radio with Felger saying words to the effect of when Belichick does things that work out (an example being practicing the team in pads last week), everyone says “Bill Belichick the genius” and when he does something and it doesn’t work out it’s somebody else’s fault. He’s been beating this drum for quite awhile now, usually lumping Scott Pioli in with Belichick. I’ll agree that Belichick does get tons of credit. However, Borges seems to imply that Belichick is the one spinning things one way or another. My question is this: where is the evidence? Where, exactly, is Belichick spinning? Who does Borges actually think is doing this public spin job to slant everything in Belichick’s favor? Nobody is doing it, (unless it is Borges’ colleagues in the media) it is a by-product of championships. When Brady makes a mistake, everyone rushes to blame the receivers or the offensive line. It’s the same thing with Belichick.

Scott: I don’t know how many articles I read this week that said “they won’t beat a good team playing like that” just seven days after they beat a good team playing like that.