Here's the story on the Patriots, and I'm surprised no one has figured it out. It's the great equalizer, to make up for all the hard luck that has befallen the Red Sox. It's the Curse of the Bambino in reverse.
The Pats are the Yankees of the NFL. They know how to win. Bad things happen to their opponents, not to them. Edgerrin James fumbled on the goal line to deny the Colts a victory. Drew Bledsoe was taking his Bills to a tying score when he got hit with the trifecta--sack, fumble, return for a touchdown. The Seahawks were poised for the big upset on Sunday when a reserve receiver named Bethel Johnson climbed out of Bill Belichick's doghouse and made the catch of his life, a diving 48-yard reception that helped seal the victory.
Luck? Oh, no, it's not luck. James fumbled because safety Eugene Wilson stuck his helmet on the ball. Bledsoe fumbled because linebacker Tedy Bruschi timed his blitz just right. Johnson made the play of his life because he had to; the situation called for it. The club expects you to make big plays.
The Seahawks came into Foxborough awestruck, and before they had rubbed the stars out of their eyes, they were on the short end of a 20--3 score. Then all of a sudden, guess what happened? They realized, Hey, we can play with these guys. They launched a furious assault, and the Patriots sagged. New England turned over the ball on two straight possessions, and when Seattle running back Shaun Alexander waltzed into the end zone early in the fourth quarter, meeting only token resistance along the way, I figured, that's it. The Pats are done.
Maybe if the Seahawks were a more battle-hardened team, they would have pulled the game out, because that's what it's going to take to beat New England. It will take a club that has known its share of success, that has tasted battle at the highest level, that can match the Patriots clutch play for clutch play.
Do the 5--0 Jets qualify? They're next on the slate, and to their credit they came from behind on Sunday and beat a 49ers team that was poised for an upset. I'm more impressed with a team that wins when things aren't going right than one that just breezes through. New York was looking ahead, and now it's got its shot.
The Jets are young and opportunistic with a smart, talented quarterback in Chad Pennington, who knows how to work a game, plus a keynote runner, Curtis Martin, and an exuberant defense. But are they tough enough to come into Foxborough and win? Maybe, but I haven't picked against the Patriots all year, and I won't hop off the bandwagon just yet. New England's the choice.
I haven't been doing too well on my upsets lately, but I have a good feeling about the Falcons' blunting the Chiefs' attack at Arrowhead and putting enough points on the board themselves. Atlanta in the upset. Oakland quit cold against Denver; the Saints got overrun by the Vikings (but at least they played hard and scored 31 points)-- New Orleans wins it on the West Coast.
The Panthers are struggling, but I'll give them the home victory over the Chargers. Green Bay-- Dallas once was a match-up that quickened pulses. Now it's just a battle between two clubs that can't win at home. The game's at Lambeau, thus the Cowboys are my pick. Finally there's the Monday-nighter. Reuben Droughns, who runs with an urgency you seldom see these days, leads the Broncos over the Bengals.
-- Paul Zimmerman