logo 914by the Patriots Daily Staff

This is – by far – the hardest Roundtable we’ve ever done.

“Hard” is a relative term, of course; there aren’t alarms sounding, and we’re not exactly trying to hang on to the back of a ladder truck as it screams away from a firehouse here. Mostly, it’s clerical work – a lot of typing.

But anyway, as far as trying to have some laughs and talk some football, this week sucked. This Sunday night’s home opener with the San Diego Chargers is a marquee matchup on any schedule, and when the 2007 version was first released, the eyes of many Pats fans went right to that second game. Everybody knows the Patriots could have just as easily lost that nutbusting game last January, and with the added dimension of a catty post-game dance dispute, it kind of stood out. After all, there aren’t many 14-2 teams on the 07 schedule. There happens to be one this week.

And I haven’t given ten minutes thought to it.

I don’t know about the other guys, but I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything but what has unfortunately become known as Camera-gate.

And tonight, it all came to a close.

Late Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell found that the Patriots did violate league rules govering the use of cameras and listening devices for the purposes of stealing signals, and that he would fine the team $250,000 and impose a sliding scale penalty to guarantee the team will lose at least one draft choice.

Coach Bill Belichick was found to be culpable to the tune of a half-million dollar fine.

The Patriots will lose their first round pick in 2008 if they, as expected, make the playoff this season; if they don’t, they will lose their second and third round picks.

Strangely, the commissioner’s decision seems palatable at first blush, in that it seems to fall close enough to the definition of a fair compromise. There’s just enough there to piss both sides off.

The Patriots get whacked pretty good for ignoring the boundaries of what a three-time Super Bowl champion can get away with. I don’t know why you and I should care about the money (compassion? I didn’t think so), as it is coming from people that can probably afford it. In the end, the only thing that should matter to us, the fans, is those draft picks, and that Eric Mangini is a enormous touchhole.

Oh, yeah….I suppose that our team got a public rebuke as stinging as any in recent memory should matter too. But I’m not going to be a fawning drama queen about it; Goodell didn’t send ME a copy of the letter, so I’m going to try not to take all this too personally. If you want to wring your hands and wail, or rub your favorite fanboy’s nose in it, I hope you choke on it.

At the same time, though, even with the draft picks and the loss of bragging rights and all, there was no suspension, there was no basket of draft picks, there was no ridiculous notion that outcomes of games had been altered. In the end, there was no indication that Goodell was unduly influenced by the braying, whiskey-soaked jackals who stumbled outside his door all week and attempted to speak for him though he was not yet ready to speak.

I’m not making the guy a hero. I’m also not making him a villain. One thing I hope the commissioner makes clear in the coming days is if it’s cheating to nick signals without a camera or other electronic device. Because that’s one thing I never understood about this. Was this about all cheating, or just the kind you do in plain view?

In any event, Belichick and the Patriots crossed a line, considerably, one that in the commissioner’s view goes to the heart of fair play. Now they’re all going to pay for it. It began with Belichick’s public apology tonight, but perhaps none of the penalties they’ll face will be as harsh as the one that will call into question – perhaps forever – every move he and his team made during this historic decade.

I can’t think of anything worse than that. That is punishment enough.

It’s a good thing the rest of our Roundtable tried to focus on this weekend’s game with the Chargers, which suddenly takes on even more meaning with tonight’s news. Think of the following as a palate cleanser.

First, reaction on tonight’s news?

Tim Jordan: I m just glad it’s over and we can hopefully move on. It seems harsh, but it’s consistent with Goodell’s actions since he took over as commissioner. One thing that’s curious is the 2 and 3 if they miss the playoffs – that actually seems steeper than a 1. Now the question becomes “was it worth whatever it cost Mangini to do this?”.

Kevin Thomas: It’s a stiff penalty, especially since first round draft picks have been the lifeblood of the franchise’s success. Having the extra pick in ’08 mitigates it somewhat. I was expecting worse, frankly, especially after I heard that the going rate for illegally practicing in shoulderpads is a 3rd rounder. Not F’ing-around League, indeed. Reading the excerpt of Goodell’s letter (from Reiss), I find the language to be a bit cagey and lawyerly. It looks like the Commissioner’s biggest issue is with the “calculated and deliberate” violation of the rules (i.e. Belichick being obstinate and flouting Goodell’s authority). Note that Goodell never says what Belichick did was unfair or competitively dishonest (i.e. cheating)–only that the rules he apparently brazenly broke were directed towards the cheating issue (“designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition”). I don’t know, am I reading too much into this? Will we ever find out exactly what it was they were doing? Probably not. They’ll probably want it that way–keeping the rest of the league guessing the full extent of what they were up to.

I guess one question to ask is Belichick’s reputation around the league so bad in view of this that we don’t need to worry about another team hiring him away? Gauging the reaction around the media and interweb this week, it almost seems like it, as unbelievable as that would have seemed less than a week ago.

Okay, let’s move on to the Patriots and Chargers. There were some hard feelings when these two teams last met in January. How much should we expect this to impact the game this week?

Bruce Allen: The Chargers still seem to be talking, and putting quotes out there. I expect there to be some emotional displays on Sunday night. But mostly it seems that when clubs take the field, most of this stuff is forgotten.

Bill Barnwell: Probably see a couple of minor scuffles on special teams and that’s it. Both teams realize how important this game is and are disciplined enough to not give out personal foul penalties like so many gift bags.

Tim: This game will have the intensity of a playoff game. National Sunday night game with two teams with bad blood and legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Even with the motivation provided by a week of being called cheaters with tainted titles, I think the emotional edge belongs to San Diego. They have had this game circled since the schedule as released and had the entire offseason to reflect what might have been if they played smarter. Plus, who can forget the Patriots affront to Shawn Merriman’s celebration dance? There are some things you just don’t do and stealing a man’s celebration dance is probably atop that list. How would you feel if someone stole your dance? You’d be mad, probably mad enough challenge them to a dance off so you could serve them. I am impressed that Merriman had the restraint not to.

Let’s break down the matchups. First, how about the Patriots offense against the San Diego defense?

Scott Benson: This is the first real test of whether I’m going to say “run the ball down their throats” every week. That doesn’t seem like a very good idea against these guys. The Pats threw more than 50 times in their last meeting. Which means you have to deal with that pressure on every down, and it certainly had an impact on Brady last time (3 picks and a hell of a beating). But he was also able to move around in the pocket and make some (enough) plays, even with the pressure, and he has a better team around him now. I think like last year, it will be one of their toughest games of the season and I don’t doubt they’ll take their lumps, but at home, with a better offense, I think they’ll make enough plays to win.

Greg Doyle: Controlling Merriman is a key. They did a great job on him last year for the playoff game. Expect some wrinkles by San Diego to combat that and I am sure he’ll get some pressure on Brady. As long as its not consistent, that should be okay. They should be able to throw versus this team. Running will be tougher, but they have to be somewhat balanced. They can’t just let Merriman and Phillips pin their ears back.

Tim: The new wide receivers allow the Patriots to play complementary offense and take what the defense is giving them. Last week they looked like they had no discernible weakness on that side of the ball and moved the ball at will. Maroney’s speed may be something they try to use to slow the daunting Charger pass rush and maybe we will see Faulk in there more this week for screens.

Travis Graham: It was difficult to judge just how good the Chargers defense was from last week’s performance. On paper it looks like they dominated, but I’d bet even the Jets defense would look good against Rex Grossman. I bet Bears fans breath a sigh of relief every time he successfully takes a snap from center without fumbling it. San Diego is going to be difficult to run against due to their defensive line that is built similar to the Pats’. The 350lb. nose tackle Jamal Williams is one of the best at his position and they have two young studs on each side of him in Igor Olshansky and Luis Castillo. The Patriots O-line will have to do a better job at protecting Brady this time around. In my eyes this is the key to the game. If Brady’s jersey stays clean the Pats will win.

Bill: The weakness in the San Diego defense is their secondary. The Patriots won’t have as many matchups to exploit as they did with the Jets, as the Chargers have better cover corners than Justin Miller, but their safeties occasionally get lost and they should have a slight advantage with their wideouts versus any of the Chargers corners. The bigger problem, then, is keeping the Chargers linebackers off of Tom Brady. I’d expect to see a lot of Kyle Brady in the game as a blocking tight end to help out Nick Kaczur, and more Sammy Morris in the backfield.

Dan: This will be a much bigger test for the new weapons, and for the line. I expect Welker will have a big day as a checkdown option. Same goes for backs out of the backfield.

How about the Patriots defense against Ladanian Tomlinson and the Chargers offense?

Bruce: This might be the first game in which the Adalius Thomas signing becomes a huge factor. His size and speed will be at the front of the effort to slow down Tomlinson. I’m looking forward to watching him this Sunday night.

Kevin: One thing that I think plays to the Patriots advantage is that they are getting the Chargers early in the season. Even with the absence of Seymour and Harrison, the Patriots are probably at about as close to full strength right now than they will be all season. The inevitable injury bug hasn’t taken hold yet, and the older guys on defense are still reasonably fresh. Bruce mentioned Adalius Thomas as a big factor. Another one is Junior Seau, who I think can be a big help in slowing down his former Charger mates. There’s a lot that’s changed for the Patriots defensively from the last time these two teams met. Having Thomas and Seau along with Bruschi in the ILB rotation will also allow Vrabel to play at his more natural OLB spot. This is a significant upgrade from the playoff game last year, where Tully Banta-Cain did not have a strong performance at OLB.

Scott: In terms of catching the Chargers at a good time, that may also be true when it comes to LT, who got his first carries of the new year last week.

Travis: I agree with Bruce that Adalius Thomas will be a difference maker this week, but not for the same reason. Antonio Gates gave New England the most trouble in the passing game last year and I think Thomas is the perfect defender for Gates. This time around, the Pats have someone who can match up with his size and speed. I wouldn’t be suprised to see Thomas have his first pick as a Patriot this week.

Bill: There were points early in last year’s playoff game where it seemed like the Patriots had no answer for the Chargers’ offense. Absolutely none. This year, they should be able to do a better job on Antonio Gates with a healthy secondary and Adalius Thomas, but I said the same thing about Jerricho Cotchery last week, and he still had a big game. The front three, though, are still the key to this game for me. They won’t look as good as they did against the Jets offensive line, and they’ll need to get to Philip Rivers to make the linebackers’ lives easier.

Kevin: The last couple of times the Patriots have hosted the Chargers here, they were pretty thoroughly embarrassed by LT and the boys. This will be the first time they get to play the Chargers on the new turf surface at Gillette. Historically, Tomlinson has performed worse on artificial turf than on grass, by a fairly decent margin (4.57 ypc on grass vs. 3.75 on turf), although last year that split was reversed (5.6 on turf vs. 5.1 on grass). Not sure how relevant that is to Sunday’s game, but it is kind of interesting. The flip side, of course, is that Brady and the Patriots generally excel on artificial surfaces, and have yet to lose on the new Gillette turf.

Greg: I am not as impressed with San Diego as most people. I see them as not nearly as talented as portrayed. Their wide receivers may be the worst crew in the NFL. Their line is good, but not great. And I am not real impressed with Phillip Rivers. Sure, he had a pretty good year last year. But at times he seems shaky and immobile. He’ll throw into coverage and get rattled. Obviously controlling LT and Gates are the hard part of facing San Diego. Easier said than done. But if they can keep LT to around 100 yards and not double Gates on third downs, San Diego has nowhere else to turn. I think the Pats will do a decent job of that.

Tim: The Bears did a very good job of containing LT last week, particularly in the first half. It’s pbviously a different defense, but I think the weaknesses that made the Ptriots susceptible to the Chargers last year have been addressed in the offseason. However, it woudbe nice if the Patriots were at full strength. LT has owned them in virtually every game they’ve played. Stopping him is the priorty, but we said that last year and he still ran wild in both games they played. I am more concerned about their defense, but they present many challenges on offense.

Is Norv Turner-Bill Belichick as much of a mismatch as it may appear?

Greg: Slam dunk for Belichick here, but I suppose you have to wonder about the distraction factor given the events of this week.

Bruce: I don’t think so. Turner is a very good offensive mind, who just hasn’t had the horses in his previous stints as a head coach in Washington and Oakland. With this team, he’s going to look a whole lot better. Belichick respects him as an offensive mind, and I think he’ll show this season that he might be a better coach than people think.

Travis: I wonder if this week’s “Water-tape” will rally the troops around Belichick. Especially when players like Vrabel and Colvin get asked questions like “Your critics may say that the only reason you won those Superbowls is because of cheating… thoughts?” That’s got to piss them off.

Scott: That’s not just a this-week thing – that’s a this-year thing. Smooth move, Mangenius. The ticker-tape parade that Gary Myers of the Daily News is promising you will probably be the only one you’ll ever get.

I think the tendency is to underestimate Turner because of his underwhelming head coaching stints, but at one time, he ruled the best offense in the land (with many of the best players, including three Hall of Famers). They lined up 11 on 11, no surprises, yet still won three Super Bowls. Obviously, there’s no more Emmitt, Michael or Troy, but he does have perhaps the league’s best player in LaDanian Tomlinson, and Turner has ridden great players to great success in the past. This is no cakewalk for Belichick and his staff.

Kevin: Substitute “defense” for “offense” and “Banks, Carson, Taylor” for “Emmitt, Michael, Troy,” and this sounds like something that once could have described our own head coach. Not to say Turner is the next Belichick, but he is an NFL lifer who has been given control over what most observers believed was the most talented group of players in the NFL last season. I agree that this is not really a “mismatch,” and whatever coaching advantage the Patriots might have, it’s probably not going to decide the outcome of this one. The last time these two coaches hooked up, in the opening week of the 2005 season, I thought Turner’s Raiders played a much closer game than they deserved to, based on the respective talent level of the two teams, for whatever that’s worth.

Bill: Mike Tanier wrote about this pretty extensively in our book this year, and the short answer is: yes.

Dan: I’m still in awe Marty Schottenheimer went for it on fourth-and-11. Can Norv Turner really be worse than that?

Tim: Hell, Steve Spurrier beat Belichick so anything can happen. This game is going to be decided by the players more than the schemes. Also, I just spent 10 minutes saying “Norv” repeatedly for a throwaway “Norv sounds like something you’d….” line and it’s just not happening. In fact, after this exercise, I like the name – it’s better than its’ cousin “Norm” and it’s probably fun to yell. I’ve never been upset at anyone named “Norv”, but I think it would be pretty hard to stay angry at a guy named “Norv”.

Let’s have those predictions.

Dan: Be more specific. Do you mean with the use of the Belichick Blimp, the predator drones and the computer chip microphone surgically inserted into Nick Hardwick’s tuckus, or without? Our guys are gonna *&#$%@ murder their guys!! 34-10. OK, technically not “murder”. Defeat the well-respected opponent in a rollicking enjoyable endeavor, with good sportsmanship and fellowship displayed by all. Then home for tea. What’s the rulebook say on murder, anyway?

Scott: Considering the circumstances, I’d love to say the Pats will hit the field in a fury and waste the Chargers by 28 points. I would wish for nothing more at this point, unless it would be for them to waste the Chargers by 35 points. Instead, I’ll try to calm down here and say this will be one of the toughest games of the season, but the home field advantage and the Pats new offense is enough to get by, 24-21.

Greg: I’ll go with Patriots 30-16. They are a better team and will force Rivers into some mistakes.

Bruce: I expect a pretty fired-up Patriots team to take the field on Sunday night. Patriots 31-21.

Kevin: After the playoff game last year, I thought the Chargers were probably the better team. I think the Patriots have improved some since then, and after this past week, I really can’t say the same for San Diego. Considering the home field advantage, I’ll say Patriots 28, Chargers 26.

Tim: I do this at work as a self defense mechanism and I have to do it this week – Chargers by 10. They’ve shown that they can win at Gillette, they are as talented as any team in the league, and they have the aforementioned chip on ther shoulders. This week was as bad as I can ever remember, certainly the worst one the Patriots ever had after a blowout win. The only thing that comes close is the Lawyer Milloy week preceding the Buffalo demolition to open the 04 season. I think this was worse though and I think it’s going to show on the field on Sunday. SD is a probably the last or second to last team I’d want to have on the schedule this week. Truthfully, though, I’ll happily read about the loss if it means the end of these cheater stories. I can’t take it anymore.