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Sam Farmer ON THE NFL

Not much stands in Patriots' way

November 23, 2007|Sam Farmer

Humor me. Stick with me as I detail some of the reasons that one of New England's final six opponents could spoil the Patriots' bid for a perfect season.

Then, I'll tell you why those teams don't have a prayer.

But first, the six teams. They're Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, the New York Jets, Miami and the New York Giants. Of that group, only the Steelers and Giants have winning records; the rest are a combined 11-29.

It looks as if the Patriots, who are on pace to shatter the NFL single-season scoring record by more than 100 points, can just throw it into neutral and coast all the way to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Ariz.

Maybe so. Remember, though, that few people thought the 1985 Chicago Bears would lose before Miami beat them in Week 13, ensuring the 1972 Dolphins would remain the only team ever to finish with a perfect record.

And only two years ago, Indianapolis flirted with perfection by winning its first 13 games before a stunning loss to San Diego at the RCA Dome. Those Colts didn't even make it to the AFC championship game.

So strange things can happen. Few would be stranger, though, than Philadelphia putting up a good fight Sunday night at Foxborough. The Eagles look overmatched in every way. But I promised to give a reason why every opponent has a chance, so here goes:

The Eagles not only have to play football, they have to play keep-away. Their best chance of staying close will be if they can control the clock by running Brian Westbrook. He had 32 carries against Miami last Sunday, more than any running back in the Andy Reid era.

Whenever Donovan McNabb is hurt -- as he is now, with thumb and ankle injuries that could sideline him Sunday -- the Eagles seem to discover they have a running back. And, over the last year, Westbrook has gone from an excellent run-catch hybrid to one of the league's elite backs.

That said, Philadelphia will get smoked.

On to Baltimore. Now this is one of New England's two remaining road games, so that weighs in the Ravens' favor. Short of them serving some bad crab cakes to Tom Brady, however, their chances of an upset are next to nil. They have lost four in a row, and in the last three games have committed 14 turnovers, more than one a quarter.

To beat the Patriots, the Ravens have to go back to what they did in their most impressive victory of the season against Arizona.

Arizona?

Oh, never mind.

Next, the Patriots play host to the Steelers. Now that could be interesting, considering the way Ben Roethlisberger has looked in most of his games this season. His one-season improvement has been as dramatic as any player in the league.

Pittsburgh also has league's top-ranked defense, although that could change now that safety Troy Polamalu is going to miss one week and maybe more recovering from a knee injury he sustained in Sunday's stunning loss to the Jets. (See? Upsets happen!) Receiver Santonio Holmes is hurt too.

Also, Pittsburgh has been a far better team at home than on the road. Still, at Heinz Field and away from it, the Steelers are a good team, one the Patriots won't take lightly.

Then comes the Jets, and that raises one question: Can the Gillette Stadium scoreboard register triple digits? If you think the Patriots were merciless in running up the score on other opponents this year, you might want to cover your eyes for this one.

The way the Patriots see it, the Spygate scandal would never have happened if not for the Jets -- and Coach Eric Mangini, formerly one of their own -- tipping off the NFL. Right or wrong, that's how they see it. So look out.

What do the Jets have going for them? They won at Foxborough last season by blitzing like crazy, although the Patriots fixed that in the playoffs and Brady picked them apart. It also helps that the Jets have Kellen Clemens at quarterback. He's more of a threat to throw deep than Chad Pennington, whom the Patriots owned. So with Clemens at quarterback . . . oh, who am I kidding? Patriots in a rout.

Next up, Miami.

Next.

The finale comes at the Giants, and the big question will be whether the Patriots play Brady, and, assuming they're still unbeaten, go for regular-season perfection. Or do they turn to backup Matt Cassel, and let him play against New York's ferocious pass rush?

Brady never takes his foot off the accelerator, so you know he'll lobby to play. But a perfect regular-season record means nothing to Coach Bill Belichick if it comes with the cost of potentially losing in the playoffs. In fact, it's hard to tell what a perfect record would mean to him. Everything he's done suggests he's unmoved by what people think of him.

Which brings us to the reason the Patriots will not only go 16-0 but 19-0, and will hoist their fourth Lombardi Trophy.

Their us-against-the-world mentality might be more focused and intense than any team in NFL history. Every week that someone such as Don Shula mentions Spygate, or questions the legitimacy of those three New England championships, the beast is fed. Whereas some teams might get into a war of words over those accusations, the Patriots only get more focused, more intense.

In the last month, New England could have mailed in performances against vastly inferior teams such as Miami, Washington and Buffalo. Instead, the Patriots won by 21, 45 and 46 points.

The best that can be said of the six teams left?

Well, we can humor them.

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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