logoIt’s a long December, and there’s no reason to believe that this year will be better than the last.

To be fair, it would be hard to top last year, with the AFC East clinched right after Thanksgiving, a first round bye secured two weeks later, and home field advantage wrapped up and under the tree with a whole seven shopping days left before Christmas.

Still, there’s a certain hollow feeling to this season’s remaining games, even though the Patriots are in a pennant race as the first perceptible snow flies. This year, the snow blankets ground already frozen by the fearful suspicion that the most pivotal games of the Patriots’ season lie not before them, but behind them.

Their inability to control those games leaves them with precious little control now, starting with a needed four-game winning streak when more than two has proven too much for them since a limping Tom Brady disappeared down the stairs and ill winds first began to blow on their season, even in the warm September sun. 

Lately I’ve been thinking of days when an 8-5 record and a shot at the playoffs would have put an extra buzz in the holiday air, in amongst the Salvation Army bells and ubiquitous Christmas music, and added an extra dash of anticipation to days that are, after all, about little else.

Seems quaint now, with all that’s transpired since, when we learned first-hand that football miracles aren’t gifted as much as they’re earned. That they’re guided by mortal, not divine, forces. That there are no miracles at all; just stone-cold truth.

That truth isn’t kind to these 2008 Patriots, who found a way to lose critical matchups to the Colts and Jets before crumbling to the Steelers on their own field. Now, all three are playoff seeds as we speak. If the Pats had won just one, or even two, which they could have…this will be our lament.

Thing is, even with losing Brady and Laurence Maroney and Adalius Thomas and God knows who else, the Patriots could be right in the thick of this if they – and you know this – weren’t more prone to plugging themselves than Plaxico Burress.

Seriously, what’s so impenetrable about the rest of the AFC? I admire the Titans’ mastery of the regular season, but they’ve had good teams that have lost in the playoffs before. In other words, show me. The rest of them? The Steelers and Colts have their charms, but their curses as well. The Jets, the Dolphins or Broncos? For the Super Bowl? Come on, now.

I maintain that opportunity knocked this season for the Patriots, even in their deeply debilitated state, and they fumbled with the doorknob, with phantom fumbles and sure-touchdown drops and pass rushes in hardening cement and blown coverages on a whole lot of third and fifteens.

The plays were there. They’re gone now, and only a long December remains.

Notes on a Matchbook Cover

It’s not like I’m watching Lifetime on Sunday afternoons, though. I did leave the room temporarily while Seneca Wallace marched the Seahawks up and down the goddam field until I was about to lose my mind, busying myself in the basement, but otherwise I saw some things:

  • LeKevin Smith, the entire 2006 Patriots draft class is riding on you. Aside from kicker Stephen Gostkowski (a good pick by any measure), Smith is the only position guy even suiting up anymore. On Sunday in relief of Ty Warren, he flashed some of the quickness and strength we’ve seen sporadically in pre-seasons past. The only problem he had rushing the passer was the offensive holding that repeatedly went uncalled.
  • I was pretty happy that Brandon Meriweather pulled the biggest play, because I think there are the seeds of a player there, and it was good to see him grab some highlight reel for all the grief he’s taken as the 24th pick. No, he’s not there yet, because he lags in too many coverages and he’s a notoriously bad/inconsistent tackler, but there’s a quickness there, and a competitiveness, and a whiff of an aptitude, given time. Watch him pre-snap; I see a guy who is getting it more every day. The Patriots don’t have so many good defensive players that fans can afford to write off a guy who has some ability. Bill Belichick’s staff has always been lauded for their ability to get the most of their players, and with Meriweather, there is something there to work with.
  • Kevin Faulk has been, quite simply, one of the most productive players in the history of the team, and the Patriots Hall of Fame will be littered with the artifacts of his career. But the next time he picks up a f**king blitz it will be the first time this year. If he’s their best pass blocking running back right now, no wonder they have five losses.
  • I’ll say it – I liked the Seau-Colvin-Lewis Sanders-Spann defense better than the one that preceded it.
  • Sad news with the passing of Matt Cassel’s father. Those of us who have lost a parent know what an emotionally difficult time it can be. Cassel has stood up to a professional challenge of the highest order this season; this is, of course, something else altogether.
  • That said, I really don’t know what to expect this weekend. When we lost my dad, the next several days seemed to fly by, and I can’t imagine trying to prepare for a professional football game in the middle of everything that happened that week. He’s missed a day of practice already, just to get his feet on the ground in Northbridge, CA, his hometown. I guess I’d be surprised if he didn’t play, but the question is how ready he can be.
  • One thing we know – this will lead to a flurry of soliloquies on that memorable night in Oakland in December of 2003.
  • Playoffs? Oh, man, too discouraging. Do you have any reason to believe that the Bills will beat the Jets in New York? No, you don’t. And I don’t like the Niners on the road in Miami either, even though Shaun Hill is now doing exactly what he did last December, before San Francisco hired Mike Martz and decided to bench Hill for J.T. O’Sullivan, which was about as good an idea as not focusing on Marshall Faulk in Super Bowl 36. I guess there’s Pittsburgh at Baltimore. Baltimore’s the other team (along with the Jets and Dolphins) where we need to root for locusts or something. They could conceivably tank with games against the Steelers, Cowboys and Jaguars remaining, although I already can’t believe I just held up the Cowboys and Jaguars as hope for the Patriots.

 Scott Benson is the Editor and Co-Founder of Patriots Daily. He can be reached at scott@patriotsdaily.com.