The stage of Monday Night Football is just big enough for tonight’s AFC matchup. It features two thoroughbred teams that are rounding the corner to the homestretch neck and neck. Both teams have clinched a postseason berth, and despite a few hiccups, look to be running full speed ahead. Sports pundits, radio hosts, fans, and even players all talk about the questions they have about certain quarterbacks, or the implications that particular games have on future games. The only question I have is…
Who will win tonight?
If history is supposed to teach us something, then I must point out that the regular season rarely has a “Game of the Year” that actually features the conference championship teams or the Super Bowl teams, yet that’s all you hear and see from sports talk and television. In recent years it’s been the team that has squeaked into the playoffs that has made the most noise in January or even February for that matter. It sure seems like it’s the teams that have the most to prove on any given Sunday, whether it’s in the postseason or regular season that takes home the win. It may even be a result of having a chip on their shoulder from that sort of pundit talk that discredits a long season or hard work. Let’s just look at the Lombardy Trophy winners from the last 5 years.
2007: The New England Patriots broke records left and right on their way to a 16-0 regular season and were all you heard about as they trotted into the playoffs and got their fingers sized from Super Bowl rings. Their eventual opponent New York Giants were overshadowed in the NFC East by a surging Dallas Cowboys team that battled with the Green Bay Packers as the favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl. After a first round win against a Tampa Bay team that many thought they would lose to, the Giants proceeded to beat a Cowboys team that had their thumb on the Giants all year. Something that pundits and fans alike thought would never happen with Eli, a quarterback who was not “elite.” New York then edged a high-flying Packers team in OT, holding them to 20 points before keeping an even more record-breaking and high-scoring Patriots team to 14 points via incredible defense and some epic Eli Manning drives in the Super Bowl.
2008: The Giants did not exhibit a Super Bowl hangover, posting the best record in the NFC and sending Dallas to third in the NFC east as they won their division. Conversely, how the mighty did fall as the Patriots missed the playoffs via winning one less conference game then the AFC East Champion Miami Dolphins. Sports talk boasted about how they expected a repeat performance before the Giants got “Oopsed” by the Eagles early, and it was a Warner-Slinging Cardinals team that ended up facing and ultimately losing a close one to the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
2009: The Steelers were not themselves posting an almost identical season the Houston Texans and both teams were postseason snubbed by Baltimore. The talk was about Peyton Manning and his record breaking season as the Colts went 14-2. They also predicted that New England would contend for the familiar Manning-Brady AFC Championship, but they were sent home by Baltimore early. Two oldies-but-goodies in Brett Favre and Kurt Warner gave the Saints trouble along the way but a C’mon Man-esque pick in OT sealed the Skol fate. In the end the Saints scrappy opportunistic defense and high-octane passing game proved too much for the Colts.
2010: Some of the same faces, and yes, some of the same old early exits as the Saints and Colts both reached the playoffs and were sent home in Wild Card games. There was so much crow being eaten by sports analysts that weekend that I’m sure there was little time to talk about Rex Ryans wiry Jets bringing it down on division rival New England before being stopped by Pittsburgh who was on their way to facing and ultimately losing to the Green Bay Packers who finally put it all together and didn’t decide to play like fools for a week here and there.
2011: Last year featured some bizarre playoff games. First off, the Lions were there…not only that, they were a well put-together team, and drew a short straw by facing the Saints. Second, the Falcons scored only a safety in an embarrassing loss to the Giants. Third, Tar Heel T.J. Yates led the new kids on the block Houston Texans to a solid playoff win and a close loss to Baltimore. Fourth, Timmy Tebow took Pittsburgh to OT and then beat them on the first play from scrimmage on a long pass (Yes, I said PASS). Fifth, Harbaugh’s roughneck 49ers bested Brees and then literally handed over the NFC Championship on special teams. After all of that hoopla, it was Déjà vu at the Super Bowl as Brady and Eli stepped onto Lucas Oil which hadn’t seen his brother Peyton all year. It was Déjà vu all over again as the underdog Giants took down the Patriots on an 88-yard two minute drill.
All in all, the bottom line is that sports pundits and fans like myself should keep postseason predictions to what the coin flip will be. Even further, talk about the Super Bowl should never enter the conversation during the regular season. That being said, let’s stop calling this Texans-Patriots game an “AFC Championship preview” or “A look at the two teams that will be playing to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.” Let’s instead call this one “one of the best games so far this year, under the brightest of prime time lights.”
What the Patriots have to prove: The Patriots are an angry bunch. Years of being ever so close to rings, after years of plenty of rings, has some of the veterans, including Brady, pretty salty. Everyone acknowledges that the Patriots are good, but have stopped putting them in the stratosphere of godliness…finally.
That their offensive line can defend a serious pass rush: Logan Mankins may return tonight to keep the Smith-Watt left right combo away from Brady. The Pats line may be huge, but they are young, without Mankins they are anchored by guard Dan Connelly and have been holding (no pun intended) their own. They were edged by Baltimore earlier this year, and were taken to OT by the butt fumble Jets, but seem to have a good chemistry going, which they will definitely need against Houston and SF next week.
Brady/Bill can keep the team focused: There’s nothing worse than being great and then acting out of character to earn you a loss. This is exactly what has kept rings off Tom’s fingers in recent years and I’m sure that it is boiling his blood. Say what you want about Brady, but what he lacks in arm strength and athleticism, he definitely makes up for in his tenacity and bone-deep competitive edge. His Patriots in the past have gotten wrapped up in stats, rivalries, and hype and have dropped the ball (literally) in the postseason.
They can defend the pass: The Patriots are still a potent offensive team, but they aren’t exactly holding other teams down. Their opponents have tossed over 3500 yards on them this year for 22 scores…that signifies trouble when facing one ‘Dre Johnson.
What the Texans have to prove: If I were an NFL player (I know…stay with me) especially a quarterback, I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t care what sports “experts” thought of me. Texan’s fans are still edgy as to why their team is still not given enough credit. They’ve had a couple of bad games against a couple of teams with bad records, but doesn’t a 11-1 record speak for itself? I guess not.
They can perform well on the road: Tonight will be a question of whether the Texans will come out like they did @ Mile High, or @ Ford Field. It’s incredibly hard to beat the Patriots in Foxboro. It’s a place where they click and keep clicking, it’s really just a matter of whether Houston can throw a wrench in the well-oiled machine.
They can win against a team that is both well-coached and talented: The Texans have had some narrow wins against teams that are well-coached, and some even narrower wins against teams that are very talented. New England will be a major test as they are both. They beat the Broncos in week three, but would they beat them now in week 14?
They can make half-time adjustments: I really dislike Bill Belichick, but the man is an incredible coach and schemer. Kubiak is very underrated football mind, as most of the coaches who didn’t dangle from the branches of the Parcells tree. One of the most impressive things I’ve seen of Belichick is what he does at halftime. The adjustments coming out of halftime are the ultimate chess move in the NFL. This has the trappings of a game knotted up at half written all over it. If Kubiak can out-strategize Belichick at half, then the Texans talent should win the game.
Again, let’s stop talking postseason and start talking about Monday Night Football. It’s bound to be a great one to watch, with a lot of big plays on both sides of the ball. Texans brush the chip off their shoulder in a rare win in Foxboro 34-24.