North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Wherein the AFC East gets a clearer, but only by a little – NFL Notebook

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With their backs against the wall, the Patriots played dynamite, sharp and looked as good as ever – but it could all be for naught.

The AFC East is crowded and good, maybe the best division of the decade, and 11 wins could not even be enough now. Three of it’s four teams played for their seasons today, all three tied with identical records – and the fourth had a chance to play spoiler, facing a team with the same record; the AFC West leading Denver Broncos.

At home, the Patriots took on the NFC West champion Arizona Cardinals. On paper, a good match for New England – the Cards were good, but not that good. They clinched their division with games to spare – but their division looked like this:

Arizona: 8 wins, 6 losses
San Fransisco: 5 wins, 9 losses
Seattle: 3 wins, 11 losses
St. Louis: 2 wins, 12 losses


The Patriots have a better, a more dynamic offence. A better defence, too: they allowed a little over 300 points so far this season, nearly 100 less then the Cardinals. They played better, too, putting on a clinic for the Cards.

In poor weather, Don DeLillo once wrote, always take the underdog. Poor weather neutralizes advantages. But during a snowstorm, the kind of weather that has always been an asset for them, the Patriots demolished the Cardinals. I can’t stress this enough – it looked like a junior varsity team taking on a state champion at times. Not just big plays, either (although there was their share), but little ones, things that added up.

Item. Last drive of the first half. Less then two minutes left, the Patriots get the ball on their own 29 and lead 28 to nothing. Cassel passes quickly out to his left, a 14 yarder to Gaffney. Three plays later, another one up the left to Gaffney for 16. Both times, Gaffney was in single coverage and ran a quick route – a medium hook, with him turning around to meet the ball – and a step out of bounds. Simple, fast, smart football. Two after that, 20 yards to Welker, same idea on the right side. In about a minute, the Patriots have moved from their 29 to the Cardinals 20 – without using a timeout. They kick a field goal and go ahead 31-0 as the clock expires.

That was a perfect two minute drill, ran against a division champion. And the Patriots made it look easy, like it was an inter-squad game. It didn’t even mean anything, really. The outcome wasn’t in doubt by this point. It was practice for the playoffs. By a team that could miss them, against a team bound for them.

But getting there isn’t just in their hands. If the Patriots are to sneak in, they’ll need some help. All throughout this blowout, the ticker keeps flashing updates from the Kansas City/Miami game, which by all indications, appears to be a shootout. Tied as they go into the fourth at 31, this game is a surprise: have the Dolphins fallen back to Earth? They were six-point favourites over the Chiefs, a two-win team. And they’re tied? At 31? The Dolphins would score a major about halfway through, though, and held on to win, keeping the deadlock on top of the AFC East alive.

So, as the Jets took the field in a snow-blown Seattle, they dropped to third, just a half-game back; the Dolphins surged to first, as they held the tiebreaker over the Patriots.

And it couldn’t have looked good for the Jets. A cold, windy day is not ideal by any means, but for a quarterback like Brett Farve, it’s even worse: inaccurate at the best of times, these conditions have to be be hell for the aging QB. Still, a win over a two-win Seattle would set up one final game for the season, played between the Jets and the Dolphins, a game that would almost be a title game in all but name, with the winner going into the playoffs.

But as the game – a mostly dull, defencive affair, dominated by the weather – winds down, I have only one question: does he have it in him? Does Brett Farve, who all but defined clutch quarterbacking in his career, have another comeback left in him?

Down by a major and at their own 12, the Jets get the ball back. They need a win, just to keep pace, just to keep their season alive. Herein follows the drive:

– Farve sacked. The pocket collapses up the middle.
– A quick reception up the middle to Coles, in a pass from the Jets own end zone
– Farve drops back in the shotgun, pumps, waits, moves, pumps again, has all kinds of time but can’t get anything going and throws an incomplete pass
– 4th and four, on their own 20, the Jets go for it. Farve drops back, waits, dodges a hit, pump fakes, throws downfield, a long bomb into double coverage, Gus Johnson yells and… the pass hits Coles in the numbers, a perfectly thrown pass, but he can’t hang on and it falls to the ground, incomplete

There goes the game, right? This is where it falls apart, isn’t it?

Or was it earlier? When the Jets kicked a 45 yard FG that was called back on a false start, and instead of going for the kick, five yards longer but with a kicker who just nailed a kick up the middle, punts it away. Was it there, when the Jets could have made the game 10-6 but didn’t, that the game ended? Perhaps not officially… but in an abstract sense? Well…

Maybe it was just a typical trap game. Holmgrin’s last home game as a head coach. Held in a stadium where the Seahawks are said to have an advantage (the crowd’s noise). With the weather in the Seahawks favor.

Remember DeLillo’s advice on games held in poor weather.

Other notes: The season can sometimes be cyclical – the Chargers host the Broncos next week, a rematch of the week two game that the Broncos just barely won on a blown whistle… The Cowboys are in complete free fall after a loss to the Ravens on Saturday night – a game they should have won. They can still sneak in (a win over Philly is all they need) but at this point, can they do it? If I had to bet, they get in and lose in the Wild Card game… Atlanta soundly wins a pivotal one against Minnesota. They’ve clinched a spot – and if Chicago loses on Monday, so do the Vikings.

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