THIS NFL SEASON
is something altogether different now. Sometime in the middle of Sunday evening
it ceased to be the annual carefully constructed exercise in athletic
socialism—in which drafting, scheduling and free agency ensure that many teams,
however flawed, can smell the Super Bowl in December—and devolved into a widely
televised and very lucrative game of king of the hill. One team stands at the
top, and other perfectly serviceable challengers struggle upward, fruitlessly.
It's difficult to pinpoint the telling moment, but this one will suffice: Just
before halftime in Buffalo, Tom Brady threw his fourth touchdown pass to Randy
Moss, giving the New England Patriots a 35--7 lead over the helpless Bills en
route to a 56--10 blowout and a 10th straight win. This was hours after the
wounded Indianapolis Colts, the defending Super Bowl champions, had escaped
with a desultory 13--10 home victory over the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. And
after the Pittsburgh Steelers, so impressive in winning seven of their first
nine games, had fallen to the terrible New York Jets 19--16 in overtime at the
The Colts (8--2)
and the Steelers (7--3) had loomed as roadblocks. Indianapolis, after all, had
led the Patriots deep into the fourth quarter just two weeks earlier (before
losing the game, and a week later, losing defensive end Dwight Freeney, the
franchise's second-most important player). Pittsburgh had looked much like the
2005 Super Bowl champion, with a stout defense and a very solid Ben
Roethlisberger at quarterback. Both teams now look distinctly
"We come in
here, we've won three games in a row, everybody's saying we're the second-best
team in the league," said Steelers veteran wideout Hines Ward after the
loss to the Jets. "Then we go out and lay an egg like this. It's humbling.
It brings everybody back to earth. There's going to be an adjustment
elsewhere in search of a team to play the role of Hickory High to New England's
South Bend Central. To the NFC, where Dallas has lost only to the Patriots and
on Sunday rode the Romo and T.O. Show to a win over Washington. Where Brett
Favre and Green Bay won their ninth game on Sunday, a workmanlike demolition of
the free-falling Carolina Panthers. Where the New York Giants went to Detroit
and handed the Lions their second consecutive loss. Or maybe even back to the
AFC, where the Jacksonville Jaguars continued to define winning ugly in a
24--17 victory over the disappointing San Diego Chargers.
Those teams must
all grow accustomed to having their performances measured not only on the
scoreboard but also, in some larger way, against what New England is doing. Now
it is not enough to win; teams must do so in such a way that it inspires belief
in the possibility that they can defeat the Patriots between now and Feb. 3. It
is that, or tempt irrelevance.
And they all know
it. Four days before losing to the Jets, Pittsburgh's All-Pro safety, Troy
Polamalu, stood near his cubicle at the Steelers' practice facility and
assessed the games to come. "To tell you the truth," Polamalu said,
"I don't even know who we play after the Jets."
New England, Dec.
9 in Foxborough?
aware of that one," said Polamalu. "But I'm not looking forward to that
game. Who would be getting excited about playing them right now?" Yes,
Polamalu was smiling, and no, he doesn't fear any football team. But his point
is clear. No rush to face a force of nature.
THE COWBOYS might
be excited about it, though. Before there was Super Bowl 41 1/2—the Patriots'
24--20 win over Indianapolis on Nov. 4— there was a mini-showdown in Dallas on
Oct. 14. New England punched in a late touchdown to make a 48--27 victory look
more convincing than it was. The Cowboys will remember leading 24--21 early in
the third quarter and killing consecutive drives with penalties (including a
brutal fourth-and-one holding call), while the Patriots answered with a
touchdown and a field goal to take control of the game.
plays on them," says Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "We
had two series where we could have gotten the lead back or tied the game, and
we hurt ourselves both times."