The Patriots are dead, but not dead for good. They're dead like that dude from Terminator. They're dead like Jason. Dead like Morten Andersen.
Dead. But not dead.
Despite losing to the Colts in the AFC title game Sunday, the Patriots will be back. Back and most likely better next season. From a pure talent standpoint, the Patriots weren't all that good this season -- only defensive lineman Richard Seymour made the Pro Bowl as a starter or reserve -- and still they came within 60 seconds of reaching the Super Bowl.
|Oh, cheer up Tom Brady ... the Patriots will get you some new toys to play with. (AP)|
This year and last year, that was New England's blip. It was an inconvenience. A pause. The Patriots aren't finished with three Super Bowl titles since 2001. There are more rings to come, and soon.
Please, don't get me wrong. Whether New England is good or bad, I'm indifferent. Could care less. And actually, Patriots owner Robert Kraft gives me the willies. He walked past me twice after the Patriots' 38-34 loss Sunday, and he's this tiny little grim-faced goober who despite his massive wealth and fame, still has toadies who point frantically at the screen whenever the TV camera peeks into their luxury box. Kraft could oversee the Patriots' massive collapse and it wouldn't cost me a lick of sleep. Same goes for coach Bill Belichick, whose disdain for attention would be neat if he came off a little less like a cadaver.
So maybe I'm not indifferent. Maybe I'd prefer the Patriots to pack up their pre-eminence and go away for a decade or two. It happens to everyone in this NFL age of the salary cap, with teams mortgaging tomorrow for a shot at today.
But here's the thing about the Patriots. Their most valuable employee isn't necessarily Belichick or Tom Brady. It could be their personnel director, Scott Pioli. You know that salary cap hit that all teams inevitably take? The Patriots took theirs this season. And still reached the AFC Championship Game.
Next season, according to reports, the Patriots have roughly $30 million in cap space. They have two first-round picks in the 2007 draft. Giving Pioli $30 million and an extra No. 1 pick is like giving Shawne Merriman an extra syringe. Expect massive results.
The knee-jerk reaction to the AFC title game would be to notice the Colts' 38 points -- 32 in the second half -- and their 455 yards of offense, and assume that Pioli needs to fix the New England defense. Not so sure about that. The Patriots were second in the NFL in scoring defense this season, setting a franchise record at 14.8 ppg allowed. What happened Sunday could have happened to anyone. At home, with quiet from the crowd and quick turf below their feet, the Colts are volatile, capable of exploding against anyone. And the Patriots were playing without star safety Rodney Harrison, whose absence was exploited by Colts tight end Dallas Clark.
Even though the Patriots scored 34 points, they need another receiver or two. Reche Caldwell had two horrible drops, and while the Patriots scored 10 points on those possessions, his poor game highlighted the hole on this roster. Caldwell is a solid No. 3 receiver, but his 61 catches for 760 yards and four touchdowns led New England. Anyone who ever wondered if Tom Brady is great -- not just a gifted leader, but a gifted quarterback -- can stop. Throwing for 3,529 yards with an 87.9 passer rating with that collection of receivers is astounding.
Watch Pioli use the Patriots' first-round draft picks to get a receiver, whether trading up to get Georgia Tech's Calvin Johnson or Southern California's Dwayne Jarrett, or dealing a pick to a team with a glut at receiver. Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald? New Orleans' Devery Henderson? Not sure. But Pioli will get something done.
And then the team will be turned over to the two coldest SOBs in football: Belichick and Brady.
When he's done, Belichick will go down as Vince Lombardi incarnate, the best coach of his generation and every bit as despised. If Belichick weren't a coach he'd be a corporate raider, buying up companies and laying off workers and reacting to the human carnage with some fava beans and a nice bottle of Chianti.
Brady is cold in a more charismatic way. He is a revelation in person on a day like Sunday, when 60,000 furious people are trying to rattle him and 11 defenders are trying to hurt him, and Brady is strolling around the field like a prison warden. This is his turf. Your presence is immaterial.
Brady is just 29. Tailback Laurence Maroney is 21. The average age of the offensive line is 27. The defense is older -- though the defensive line is young, as is NFL interception leader Asante Samuel at cornerback -- but Pioli can address that this offseason. And besides, Belichick could turn 11 sports writers into a serviceable defensive unit.
Sports writers don't like Belichick, but then, nobody likes Belichick. Tough. Belichick isn't going anywhere. By the time he's finished, we'll have to pry four or five Super Bowl rings from his cold, dead fingers.