With the fourth episode of Firefly, we are finally hitting something resembling character development. It might just be a red herring, but for once it seems that things are finally happening to shake up the crew of Serenity. Things are actually…you know…happening? It’s about two episodes too late, but I guess we can forgive a bit of tardiness if it has a reason. That remains to be seen.
In “Jaynestown”, Mal’s crew visits a planet that specializes in the manufacture and sale of mud. Because this is a sci-fi show where western themes are shoehorned in, it is replete with your typical wild west cliches: filthy taverns harboring all manners of dirty-looking people, all manners of cruel and unusual punishments for criminals, and so on. It’s like a bad episode of Bonanza meets Star Wars every week. It turns out that Meathead visited this planet with his partner named Stitch four years before the events of the episode, stealing sixty thousand hillbilly dollars from the town magistrate. As he was attempting to get away from the planet with his ill-gotten gains, his ship was having maneuverability problems and they were forced to jettison everything, including Stitch and their plunder. Stitch was caught by the magistrate, arrested, and placed into a box for four years (how he ate, slept, kept himself strong enough to toss Mangina around like a ragdoll, and voided himself of waste matter is never explained). Meanwhile, the money that Meathead tossed off the ship found its way to a town of “mudders”, the indentured servants who work in the mud fields. As a result, the folks consider Meathead a hero, even dedicating a song detailing his legendary escapade. What was a simple robbery to him was an act of profound charity and goodwill to them.
I need to give credit where it’s due. The premise is interesting enough: what happens when someone is morally torn about using an egregious misconception to ease his way toward his objectives? What is the right thing to do? I could see this going somewhere, but it really doesn’t. The potential is spoiled because Meathead is a two-dimensional cardboard cutout whose emotional and mental range goes from stupid and angry to stupid and snarky.
The selling point of this series was supposedly the witty banter and themes of camaraderie amongst the crew of the Serenity. What does this mean to Joss Whedon?
“You’re like a trained ape! Without the training!”
HURR. HURR. HURR. Stop it, Joss, my sides are hurting!
Whedon’s trademark preaching about the evils of religion continue in “Jaynestown”, only this time it’s our resident nutcase River sounding the call for universal atheism, and Book serving as the Alan Colmes strawman to her arguments. An opportunity for Whedon to actually explore the themes of religious faith in the light of its own illogical conclusions is smothered by his need to expound his opinion as the only one worth hearing.
So, this episode also goes on about a supposed budding romance between the ship’s mechanic and Mangina. Of course, Mangina’s about as smooth an operator as…well, as I am, so he manages to bag Kaylee and then sufficiently piss her off enough that their relationship toward the end is left to interpretation (or fulfillment in future episodes). I guess it’s a workable sub-plot, but it seems shoehorned in, since the two characters have hardly had much opportunity to get to know each other on-screen since the series began.
What grinds my gears, though, is that I still have yet to receive a reason to care about the cast. The characters range from infuriating (Meathead, Mangina, Nutcase) to just plain boring (Shuttle-Whore, Mal, Reverend Colmes). There doesn’t seem to be any larger themes behind their travels other than to create chaos and steal from the governments of all these different planets they visit. It’s quickly becoming repetitive as well as disheartening. There’s no impetus to empathize with the crew at all, period. On the surface, they’re cold-blooded outlaws who are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. When you dig deeper…they’re still cold-blooded outlaws who are willing to kill anyone who gets in their way. The only difference is that sometimes they engage in that aforementioned witty banter that’ll have you rolling down the aisles!
An amusing thing that I hadn’t realized before now is that this series single-handedly ended the careers of the entire main cast except Fillion, who now stars on the ABC series Castle. Rightfully so, c0nsidering he’s the best actor on the show by a huge margin. The curse of Seinfeld has got nothing on the curse of Firefly. Gina Torres has had one supporting role on a show that didn’t last one year. Alan Tudyk, whose acting I praised last episode, has had nothing but voice-acting roles and bit parts since 2002. Morena Baccarin has suffered the same fate. Adam Baldwin is on Chuck and still chewing entire sets of scenery, but before that he was more-or-less out of work. Jewel Staite can’t find work outside of the Syfy Channel backwater. Sean Maher’s been hit especially hard, having failed to land even one role lasting longer than one episode anywhere. I knew Summer Glau from Sarah Connor Chronicles before I knew her as Nutcase, and that show got terminated toot-sweet. Old Ron Glass got his first role in three years in Death at a Funeral. Joss Whedon still gets work, but none of his shows since Firefly has lasted longer than two seasons. Despite the claims of “rampant success,” this series hindered the careers of everyone involved in it.
I will continue my adventures in shit-tastic Firefly-land next week. Stay safe, kiddies.
Oh, and Devin McCourty better be a damn good corner.
With the draft less than 48 hours away, we now know the order of the Pats’ opponents for the 2010 season. The schedule is the sixth-hardest in the league, with all five other AFC playoff teams slated to oppose Tom Brady, Vince Wilfork and company.
The season kicks off September 12 with a home game against the AFC North champion Bengals. After that, a stretch of all three divisional opponents lasts from Weeks 2-4. The Jets, Bills, and Dolphins will all look to make a statement against the defending AFC East champs. After the bye week, the Pats get a chance at revenge against the Baltimore Ravens, who recently handed New England their first home playoff loss in 31 years. The Chargers and Vikings, teams that both secured division championships and playoff byes with their high-octane offenses, come next.
The Pats then take the road to start November against the Browns and Steelers. The Pats then come home to face Peyton Manning’s Colts for the eighth straight year. Win or lose, only three days separate that game from a sojourn to Detroit to play the Lions on Thanksgiving break.
On the next Monday night, the Jets come to Foxboro in December for a rematch followed by games against the Bears in Chicago and the Packers at Gillette. The season ends with a stretch against the Bills and Dolphins. The Pats are 35-7 in December under Bill Belichick.
The schedule is undeniably difficult, with the Patriots needing to improve upon their 4-2 divisional record from last year as well as forget their awful 2-6 road mark if they want to return to the playoffs. The Patriots with Tom Brady at QB have not lost a home game in the regular season since November of 2006, but that streak may be coming to an end with the Vikings, Colts, and Packers coming to the Razor in 2010.
With the decade over, NFL Films has put together a compilation called “Best of the Decade”, which I can only presume is now airing on the NFL Network. In it, they have declared the New England Patriots the Team of the Decade for their achievements. No team won more Super Bowls than the Pats in the 2000s. The Steelers came close, and had it not been for a dominant 2004 AFC Championship Game performance by the Pats, we may be talking about the Steelers’ dynasty right now. The Colts could have two rings right now, and if they did, their entry into the conversation would be difficult to deny. But the Patriots have defeated those foes time and time again in the playoffs, and in doing so established one of the most successful runs any team has ever had.
When the decade began, the Patriots were coming off of an 8-8 record in 1999. The team had not performed to expectations under head coach Pete Carroll, who was fired after four years of mediocrity. Their search for a new coach led them to the front door of Bill Belichick, a man whose previous stint as head coach of the Cleveland Browns had ended with a 36-44 record and a solitary playoff win against the Patriots in 1994. The Patriots traded a first-round draft pick to the New York Jets in exchange for his rights, and team owner Robert Kraft bequeathed full control over football operations to the once-derided Belichick.
The team stumbled at first: it was a rebuilding year. A 5-11 record gave New England the draft position they needed to select defensive tackle Richard Seymour from Georgia, who would stick with the team until the 2009 season and serve as a staple of the defensive line.
In 2001, expectations were as low as ever for New England. The team started off slow, and disaster struck when franchise quarterback Drew Bledsoe took a vicious hit in the second half of a Week 2 game against the Jets. The hit sheared a blood vessel in his chest, sidelining him for the rest of the season. In his place stepped second-year signal caller Tom Brady, a sixth-round draft pick from the University of Michigan. Patriots fans were skeptical at first, but Brady proved himself up to the challenge. At first, his job was only to manage the game: he didn’t throw a touchdown pass until his third start, and runningback Antowain Smith was tasked with being the engine of the defense while Brady got up to speed. He bested Colts QB Peyton Manning twice, and ended the season with a six-game winning streak and an 11-3 record as a starting quarterback. In doing so, he earned the Patriots their first playoff bye since 1996.
The AFC divisional game was a harsh lesson for the young quarterback. The Oakland Raiders were coming to town and flying high after a 38-24 crushing of the Jets in the Wild Card round. The Patriots had all they could handle early and found themselves down 13-3 through three quarters. In the fourth, Brady got hot in the wintry snow, completing 10 straight passes and scoring a touchdown to close the gap to 3 with less than five minutes left. The defense came up with a crucial stop, and the Pats went to work again until Brady coughed up the football after a vicious hit by CB Charles Woodson. The fumble gave the Raiders the ball with the lead, but a booth review overturned the call. Brady’s arm was moving forward at the time of the fumble, thus it was an incomplete pass. The overturned call deflated the Raiders defense, and allowed the Pats to get into good enough position to attempt a 45-yard field goal. Kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked it through the uprights, and then kicked another in overtime to get a 16-13 victory, their first in the playoffs since 1997.
In the AFC title game, the Patriots were up against the 13-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that had earned its place in the game by besting the defending world champion Ravens in the Divisional Round. This time, the Pats were determined to keep the game from going to overtime. The Pats struggled on offense, but managed to force four turnovers while not committing any themselves. Tom Brady suffered an injury that allowed Drew Bledsoe to come in and throw his first pass in three months: an 11 yard touchdown to David Patten. The Patriots shocked the Steelers, and were headed to their third Super Bowl in their 41-year existence.
Super Bowl XXXVI was considered one of the greatest mismatches of the Super Bowl era. The St. Louis Rams, led by league MVP QB Kurt Warner and three-time Offensive Player of the Year RB Marshall Faulk, had earned the best record in the NFL and were 14-point favorites heading into the game. Unlike the Patriots’ close victories in the playoffs, the Rams had paved their way to the Super Bowl by crushing the opposition in the tournament. No one thought they had a chance, but the Pats knew what they had to do. The Patriots hung in tough, racking up a 17-3 lead in the third quarter. The Rams came roaring back with two quick fourth-quarter touchdowns to tie the game at 17. The Patriots got to the Rams’ 31 yard line to set up a 48 yard field goal attempt by Adam Vinatieri. As he had done in the two playoff games before, his kick was the final score of the game, sealing a Patriots victory, their first Super Bowl win in franchise history. Tom Brady earned MVP honors for his performance. Drew Bledsoe, who had spent the first eight years of his career with New England, would be signed by the Buffalo Bills after that year.
2002 was a strange year for New England. The defense was average at best all season long, forcing the Patriots to win shootouts with the Chiefs, Raiders, and Bears. Through fourteen weeks, the Patriots were 8-5 and looked to be in position for another playoff run, but consecutive losses to the Titans and Jets doomed their chances. They would finish the season 9-7 and out of the playoffs despite Tom Brady leading the NFL in touchdowns in only his third year in the league, with 28. That offseason, the Patriots made some changes. They got rid of star safety Lawyer Milloy, who would go on to join Bledsoe in Buffalo. In his place, the Patriots added the talent of Rodney Harrison. They also brought Ty Warren, Asante Samuel, and Eugene Wilson in the draft to bolster the defense, as well as Dan Koppen to beef up the offensive line. The additions would pay dividends of championship proportions.
In 2003, the Patriots opened the season against the Buffalo Bills. The Bills put on a clinic and handed Belichick the worst loss of his tenure as coach of the Patriots, 31-0. They’d lose again three weeks later against the Washington Redskins. It was the last game they’d lose all season. The Patriots set the league on fire, winning 12 straight to end the year. The last win was a repayment for their Week 1 defeat at Buffalo. The Bills came to Gillette Stadium and were routed by the exact same score: 31-0.
At 14-2, the Patriots earned yet another playoff bye. They clashed with the Titans, who took the Patriots to the wire. At 14-all, it was up to Adam Vinatieri to once again deliver the Patriots a playoff victory. From 46 yards, the ball split the uprights and secured a playoff date with the Indianapolis Colts in the conference championship.
The Colts were the league’s second-best offense, and had earned their way into the AFC title game by winning a shootout against Trent Green and the Kansas City Chiefs, who were the top offense. However, the Patriots held the Colts scoreless in the first half and held off their attempts to rally late. With a 24-14 win, the Patriots earned yet another trip to the Super Bowl to play the Carolina Panthers.
Carolina had one person to thank for their entry into Super Bowl XXXVIII: K John Kasay. The 12th-year veteran from Georgia had kicked 29 of the Panthers’ 72 playoff points. Another part of the Panthers’ success story was QB Jake Delhomme who, like Tom Brady before him, took over for a veteran quarterback in QB Rodney Peete and became a hero for the team, which had gone 1-15 the year before. Known for his gunslinger mentality, Delhomme wasn’t afraid to take big risks, and they usually paid off with big rewards. His receiving corps, starring WRs Steve Smith, Muhsin Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, was among the betters in the league. Regardless, the Patriots were favored to win over the insurgent Panthers by a 7-point spread.
The game began with both defenses playing tough. It was expected to be a Patriots’ blowout, but neither team scored until there were only three minutes left in the second quarter. Then, things erupted. Brady and Delhomme traded touchdown passes. Brady would then score again on a quick 78-yard drive that took all of 49 seconds. The score was 14-10 at halftime. One egregious wardrobe malfunction later, the teams were back on the field, but were once again held scoreless for an entire quarter. The Patriots expanded their lead to open the fourth, marching 71 yards in four minutes to make it 21-10. The Panthers didn’t lie down, and threw together two fast scoring drives to make it 22-21. The Pats answered with Brady’s third touchdown pass of the game, a 1-yard pass to linebacker Mike Vrabel. A two-point conversion made it 29-21, but the Panthers refused to go quietly. With three minutes left, Delhomme went 5-of-6 for 79 yards, capping off the drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Ricky Proehl.
The game was knotted at 29, and it was anyone’s contest, but a disastrous kickoff by John Kasay, who had been unflappable in the games leading up to the Super Bowl, sailed out of bounds. The penalty gave Brady and company the ball at their own 40 yard line with 1:08 on the clock and all three of their timeouts. It was more than enough. The Patriots moved into field-goal range and, once again, Adam Vinatieri got to play the role of the hero, kicking another spectacular field goal with mere seconds left to win his team the Super Bowl, 32-29.
In 2004, New England started the season 6-0, and then ran into the white-hot Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers took a 21-3 lead and never let up, finishing the game with a 34-20 win. The loss ended the longest consecutive win streak in NFL history at 21 games. The Patriots would only lose once more, on a last-second rally by the Miami Dolphins in Week 15. Throughout the season, the Patriots were the class of the league, shutting down opponents by an average score of 27-16. In the playoffs, the Patriots’ two largest nemeses would face-off against them.
The Indianapolis Colts of 2004 were the league’s top offense, led by Peyton Manning and his record-breaking 49 touchdown passes and season QB rating of over 120. To paraphrase what play-by-play man Gil Santos would go on to say at the end of the game, the Patriots held the offensive juggernaut to just 3 points in the AFC divisional game. Manning was visibly frustrated by the Pats’ defense, which managed to hold him scoreless. The 20-3 win set up a rematch with the Steelers in the AFC Championship.
The Steelers’ were the league’s top seed, a 15-1 defensive powerhouse with an awe-inspiring run game and an impeccably aware quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger. This time, it was New England that drew blood early and refused to let up. A 24-3 halftime advantage combined with their throttling of RB Jerome Bettis and the Steelers’ run game, forced Roethlisberger to throw more often than he was used to, baiting the rookie into costly and unseemly interceptions. When all was said and done, the league’s best defense allowed 34 points, and the Pats avenged their only big loss of the year, 41-27. For the fourth time in ten years, the Patriots were Super Bowl-bound and were squared up against yet another great team.
The 2004 Philadelphia Eagles were at the top of their game in the playoffs, earning easy wins against the Vikings and Falcons en route to their place on the world’s biggest stage. All season long, QB Donovan McNabb earned his place in the NFL’s elite with his accuracy and affinity with WR Terrell Owens. In the Super Bowl, it was Owens who would steal the show early, playing like his All-Pro self despite having multiple screws in his ankle after a horse-collar tackle left him brutalized. He led the Eagles receivers with nine catches and 122 receiving yards. The game was tied at 7 at halftime, then tied at 14 in the third quarter, with Brady and McNabb trading touchdown passes. Unfortunately, McNabb threw three picks despite having thrown only eight throughout the regular season and none in the playoffs. It didn’t take much for the Pats to capitalize on the costly mistakes. They were up 24-21 when McNabb had his last chance to drive the Eagles downfield to tie or win it, but his third and final pick was caught by Rodney Harrison, and the Pats became just the second team in NFL history to win three league titles in four years. The Eagles joined the Bills, Vikings, and Bengals as the only teams to lose two or more Super Bowls without having won at least once.
In 2005, the Patriots were forced to contend with the departure of both offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel. The team declined sharply, with the defense finishing below league-average for the first time since 2000. Finishing at 10-6, the team won its third straight AFC East title and pounded the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, scoring 28 points on a top-10 defense. Unfortunately, the team ran into the Denver Broncos and the suddenly mistake-free play of QB Jake Plummer. The Broncos allowed the Patriots to rack up nearly 500 yards of offense, but captured five costly turnovers including an end-zone interception by CB Champ Bailey that they then returned 98 yards to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by RB Mike Anderson. After taking a 24-6 lead in the third quarter, the Broncos held on for a 27-13 win. The loss was the first ever in the playoffs for Brady, snapping a ten-game playoff winning streak.
2006 saw a return to the championship form of two years prior. The Patriots lost Deion Branch and David Givens to free agency, but they were replaced admirably by Reche Caldwell and 35-year old Troy Brown, the only offensive player remaining from the 1995 squad that lost Super Bowl XXXI. The team ran roughshod over weaker teams like the Texans and Vikings, and eked out a 4-point win against the eventual NFC champion Bears. In the playoffs, the Patriots smashed the rival Jets 37-16, and earned themselves a match with the 14-2 San Diego Chargers and league MVP LaDainian Tomlinson, a popular pick to win it all that year.
On January 14, 2007, the Patriots came out to Qualcomm Stadium with an air of confidence, despite their status as steep underdogs in one of the most hostile playing environments in the NFL. The team had a single goal: stop the Chargers’ aerial attack. The Chargers ripped off a 14-3 lead in the second quarter thanks to their harrying ground game, but Brady took the team down the field in time to score on a 6 yard pass to Jabar Gaffney to close the gap to just four points at halftime. In the third quarter, the Chargers would manage no points, as Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski drilled a 34-yard field goal to bring his team to within one. The fourth quarter allowed Tomlinson to score his second touchdown of the day on a three-yard dash, but New England wasn’t fazed. Down 21-13, the Pats drove down the field and scored on a four yard pass from Brady to Caldwell. The Chargers were forced to punt the ball back to New England, who then punched in a 31-yard Gostkowski kick to send San Diego home empty-handed. For the fourth time in six years, the Patriots were headed to the AFC Championship Game. For the third time, Brady would square off against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
The Patriots started quickly, taking advantage of mental errors and turnovers to generate a 21-6 halftime advantage. It looked like business as usual for Manning, who just couldn’t seem to overcome the title of a choker who couldn’t win big games. However, the Colts stormed out of the gate at halftime and would outscore New England 32-13 in the second half. The Patriots and Colts traded shots throughout the fourth quarter until RB Joseph Addai ran into the end-zone from four yards out to take a four-point lead with less than two minutes to go. I’ll never forget the look on Peyton Manning’s face when Brady took the field. He’d seen this movie before, as the saying goes. Brady was known for winning close games with a combination of relentless precision, unparalleled vision, and ice-cold nerves. But it was this game in which he met his match, throwing an interception to CB Marlon Jackson and ending a season that had begun with such promise.
In the 2007 offseason, the theme was clear: Brady needed weapons to compete with the Peyton Mannings and Philip Riverses of the league. Scott Pioli and Belichick found him three: Wes Welker, an undersized slot receiver from Miami who’d made a reputation of being a dragon-killer against the Pats; Donte Stallworth, who had been cut by the Eagles for failing to abide by a substance abuse treatment program; and Randy Moss, a veteran once considered the second coming of Jerry Rice who had been disgraced after several years of poor performance for the cellar-dwelling Oakland Raiders. In addition, the Patriots snagged Kyle Brady, Sammy Morris, and Adalius Thomas.
The result was the greatest offense in the history of the NFL. Despite beginning the season by being humiliated with a scandal involving the recording of opponents’ playcalling signals, the Pats put on a show that nobody could stop, and became one of the greatest and most controversial teams of all time. Running what amounted to a pro-style spread offense the entire season, they ran up the score furiously and with reckless abandon on nearly every opponent. The average score of a Patriots game before the bye week was 39-16. Their closest win was a four-point contest against the Colts in Week 9. The Colts themselves were undefeated before that game, and it looked like another historic AFC Championship game between the league’s two best quarterbacks would be in the offing in January.
After their bye week, the Patriots’ picked up where they left off, dominating the rival Bills 56-10 in Buffalo. It was the most points scored by a road team in nearly 35 years. The team would then face daunting challenges from the Eagles and Ravens, beating both sub-par teams by three points each. Blowout wins against the Steelers and Dolphins left the Patriots 15-0 and awaiting their final game of the season: Week 17 at the New York Giants.
The 10-5 Giants had nothing to play for in terms of the playoff picture. Their division was already clinched by the 13-2 Dallas Cowboys, and their fate would be decided by the NFC’s other playoff contenders and how they finished. Coach Tom Coughlin decided to play his starters anyway, to force Belichick and Brady to play a meaningful game and earn their perfect season, not back into it. The game would be simulcast on three networks to potentially showcase the league’s first ever 16-0 perfect season.
The Giants gave the Pats all they could handle and then some. The game was 21-16 Giants at the half, the first time all year that the Patriots trailed at midgame. New England responded in their usual tremendous fashion, scoring 22 unanswered points to pound the Giants into submission. The 38-35 win was capped by Tom Brady breaking Peyton Manning’s record for touchdown passes in a season and Randy Moss breaking Jerry Rice’s record for touchdown receptions in a season on the same throw, a 65-yard bomb that signified a challenge: “We’re gunning for 19-0. We’ll take all comers. If you can stop this offense, you’ve earned your place among the 41 other champions, but we wouldn’t bet on it.”
The Patriots’ playoff run began in Foxboro, against the surging Jaguars. The Patriots were overwhelmingly favored, and Tom Brady looked peerless as usual. All game long, only two of his 27 throws were incompletions. Both of those were drops. QB David Garrard played at a high level, but it wasn’t enough to beat the Jaguars, who were sent home with a 31-20 loss.
The San Diego Chargers came to town after posting a shocking upset of the Indianapolis Colts, looking for their first AFC title since 1994, but were unable to find the end zone against New England. Four field goals and three interceptions of Brady weren’t enough, and the game ended with a 21-12 victory. The stage was set for Super Bowl XLII, to be played in sunny Glendale, Arizona. The 18-0 Patriots, the league’s showcase team, playing the 13-6 New York Giants, who had made it to the big game by besting the NFC’s two best teams in the playoffs. It was supposed to be a coronation for the Patriots, who had already beaten the Giants once before. The line for the game: New England, minus-14.
I’ve dissected the game to death in my head. I still have nightmares of multiple Giants linemen committing blatant holding while QB Eli Manning spins out of the worst sack attempt I’ve ever seen in the Super Bowl, then throwing a 32-yard bomb that gets caught in the most bizarre way as Rodney Harrison foolishly attempts to wrestle the receiver to the ground instead of attacking the ball. The game was decided by a mere three points, 17-14. The Giants got lucky: there were three fumbles in the game, all recovered by New York. Fumble recoveries are essentially random. The only interception in the game was thrown by Manning, and the Patriots failed to get points off of it. It was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever had to witness. New England hasn’t won a playoff game since.
2008 was supposed to be a year of redemption. The Pats were expected to steamroll the rest of the league again until, seven minutes into the first quarter of Week 1, Chiefs S Bernard Pollard slammed into Brady’s knee during a sack, shredding two crucial ligaments and ending his season. In his place came Matt Cassel, a career-long backup that never started a game in college or in the pros. Despite his inexperience and the total collapse of the Patriots’ pass defense due to the departure of multiple defensive starters, the Pats posted an 11-5 record that included blowout thrashings of the Cardinals, Broncos, Raiders, and Dolphins. It wasn’t enough, however, as the Dolphins posted a superior division record and earned their first AFC East title since 2000.
In 2009, questions lingered regarding how well Brady would recover from the brutal injury. For the first 55 minutes of the Pats’ season opener in Foxboro, he was inaccurate and unstable in the pocket, and the Buffalo Bills seized a 24-13 lead on the arm of underrated QB Trent Edwards. At that point, it was Brady and Ben Watson, a longtime staple of New England’s offense, who would deliver victory, with a little help from a boneheaded fumble by Bills KR Leodis McKelvin. The 25-24 victory was razor-thin, but it was enough to extend the Patriots’ streak of dominance over the Bills to 12 straight games.
In Week 6, Brady would look unstoppable in a snowy face-off against the 0-5 Titans. He threw for five touchdowns in the second quarter, an NFL record, and the Patriots would score 59 unanswered points. They’d continue where they left off in Week 7 in a London game against the winless Buccaneers, racking up a 35-7 win.
The team was high on life and confidence when they walked into Lucas Oil Stadium to play the undefeated Colts in Week 10. A win would put the Patriots in prime position to secure a playoff bye, as well as defend their record of 24 consecutive wins from the Colts, who needed just three more wins to break it. They started off quickly, posting a 24-14 halftime lead that would become 31-14. However, the Patriots would be outscored 21-3 in the final 18 minutes of the game, losing when a 4th and 2 pass to Kevin Faulk from their own 29 was stopped just short of the first down. They’d end the season 10-6, and lose at home in the playoffs for the first time in 31 years on January 10, 2010, against the Baltimore Ravens. Three first-quarter turnovers allowed the Ravens to compose a 24-6 halftime lead from which the Patriots would never recover.
The Packers of the 60s, the Steelers of the 70s, the 49ers of the 80s, the Cowboys of the 90s, and now, the Patriots of the 2000s. Team of the Decade. How sweet it is.
In case you were living under a rock for the last 16 hours, the New Orleans Saints rallied and defeated the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV. The game was, for the third straight year, a nailbiter of a contest that was in doubt all the way through to the final minute. Saints QB Drew Brees tied Tom Brady’s record for most completions in a Super Bowl with 32 (needing 9 fewer throws to do so), and was awarded the MVP award for his stellar performance.
So where do the Saints match up along the list of Super Bowl winners this decade? Here’s my ranking of the ten champion teams from 2000 to 2009. Go ahead and posit your opinions on the ESPN SportsNation poll here.
1. 2004 Patriots (defeated Eagles 24-21)
One of the best teams of all-time, and definitely the best Super Bowl champion of the decade. While the game was a close one, the Patriots were in control throughout. It’s the only reason Deion Branch can find work in this league anymore.
2. 2002 Buccaneers (defeated Raiders 48-21)
Even if you disagree with me that their defense was one of the best ever (and you shouldn’t), you cannot deny that their margin of victory over a favored Raiders team was highly impressive.
3. 2008 Steelers (defeated Cardinals 27-23)
The Steelers had one of the most serious flaws a playoff team can have in a very penetrable offensive line, but it didn’t matter. QB Ben Roethlisberger made up for it by being unflappable in the pocket. That defense helped quite a bit, too.
4. 2005 Steelers (defeated Seahawks 21-10)
Holding the year’s best offense to a meager 10 points? That’s impressive. Keeping RB Shaun Alexander under 100 yards at his peak in the biggest game of the year? That’s unbelievable.
5. 2000 Ravens (defeated Giants 34-7)
One of only two Wild Card teams to win the Super Bowl this year, they dismantled the Giants. I’ll never forget how they answered a Giants kickoff return touchdown with one of their own.
6. 2009 Saints (defeated Colts 31-17)
They were a very impressive team for the first fourteen weeks of the season, fell apart with nothing to play for, only to get right back on the horse (bad pun not intended) in the playoffs.
7. 2003 Patriots (defeated Panthers 32-29)
While a very talented team, it was with this squad that Brady earned his reputation for being ruthlessly efficient in comeback situations. It took all they had to beat a distinctly inferior Panthers team.
8. 2006 Colts (defeated Bears 29-17)
It took a lot of luck for this team to even get to the Super Bowl. When they got there, they turned the ball over three times and let RB Thomas Jones and CB/KR Devin Hester run all over them. QB Peyton Manning was mediocre but won MVP.
9. 2001 Patriots (defeated Rams 20-17)
While they did manage a win over a superior opponent in the big game, the entire team was close to the edge all season long, and Raiders fans today still feel cheated over their Divisional game loss decided by the “Tuck Rule.”
10. 2007 Giants (defeated Patriots 17-14)
Possibly the lousiest Super Bowl winners ever. A downright mediocre team that got hot and lucky at the right time…and they still almost lost their last three playoff games. No sour grapes from this Pats fan, but this team wouldn’t hold a candle to the other champs.
And here are the Super Bowl losers ranked 1-10:
1. ’07 Patriots
All this fan can do is throw his hands up at what would have, could have, should have been.
2. ’05 Seahawks
This team thought they were unstoppable, and then they met the Steelers.
3. ’02 Raiders
Another high-octane offense downed by a tenacious defense in the big game.
4. ’01 Rams
Probably should have won, but the other team played 60 minutes of near-perfect football.
5. ’04 Eagles
A great team with a few key players met a juggernaut with playmakers everywhere, with predictable results.
6. ’06 Bears
Any team starting Rex Grossman at quarterback should predict turnovers aplenty in the rain.
7. ’09 Colts
They won more games than anyone else this decade, but Manning couldn’t take home a second Lombardi despite his best efforts.
8. ’00 Giants
Beating the Eagles and Vikings in the playoffs is like beating up a six-year-old; it’s fun, but trying the same tricks on someone your own size will get you killed.
9. ’03 Panthers
It’s a shame that QB Jake Delhomme’s performance this year is the reason that the team kept starting him in 2009 despite being Interception Man all year long.
10. ’08 Cardinals
They got blown out so many times, but WR Larry Fitzgerald could make even the Lions a winner.
Deadspin’s Dashiell Bennett posted a fine collection of quotes from sportswriters across the country today regarding the fall of the Patriots fortunes since the halcyon days of 2004. Two years ago, they were the 16-0 AFC champions that seemed all but unstoppable. One year ago, a backup quarterback who hadn’t started a game since high school played well enough to position the Pats just short of a playoff run. This year, the franchise quarterback comes back, plays inconsistently, and manages to destroy the entire season in ten awful, heart-rending minutes of poor performance. “The end is nigh!” say both glum sportswriters in Boston and ecstatic fans of the up-and-coming Jets and Dolphins.
People are assuming the Patriots are on their way to their first losing season in 10 years. In their eyes, Belichick is already singing “Viva la Vida” to himself in the shower.
I personally don’t agree with the pessimism. I understand it, and I agree that New England will have to make another deep playoff run before they are treated with the same fear and respect that they were given in, say, 2004, but saying that this team is going to be the second-coming of the late-90’s Cowboys just doesn’t resonate with my inner stat-geek. Hell, it doesn’t resonate with what I saw on the field. We didn’t hear any of this talk about Indy when the Colts didn’t even win their own freaking division last year. Sure, the Patriots got slapped around by a scary good Baltimore team (9-7 doesn’t do them justice, for sure), but it was almost to be expected. Without Wes Welker, the Patriots were stuck in neutral offensively and the Ravens were free to tee off on Brady and the rest of the New England receiver corps as well as use exotic blitz packages to throw the pass and rush off-rhythm. Baltimore is exactly the kind of team the Pats have stumbled against all year: tough running (HOU, MIA) with a quarterback who avoids mistakes (NYJ, DEN) and a defense that forces costly turnovers and defend the deep field, forcing the offense to try and move up and down the field 5-6 yards at a time (NO, IND).
Should one (admittedly year-ending) loss define a season of solid play? Besides that game, this year’s Patriots generally played even better than they did in 2008. Anyone pining to have Cassel back is fooling themselves. The schedule was MUCH harder this year, with no Rams/Seahawks/49ers/Raiders/Chiefs to beat up on. This was as obvious a “rebuilding year” as any the Pats have had since 2000. Any Pats fans who were expecting Brady to step out of a career-threatening knee injury and party like it was still 2007 were delusional. He came out and played like Super Bowl Brady, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the recurring stream of endgame collapses on the defensive side of the ball. In case you think I’ve got my nose too far up Brady’s ass, just look at the stats from his Super Bowl years and compare:
2001: 63.9% COMP, 2,843 YDS, 18 TD, 12 INT, 1.4% DVOA
2003: 60.2% COMP, 3,620 YDS, 23 TD, 13 INT, 5.4% DVOA
2004: 60.8% COMP, 3,692 YDS, 28 TD, 14 INT, 33.2% DVOA
2007: 68.9% COMP, 4,806 YDS, 50 TD, 8 INT, 56.9% DVOA|
2009: 65.7% COMP, 4,398 YDS, 28 TD, 13 INT, 44.1% DVOA
By conventional stats, Brady was better than he was any year that he won the Big Game at the End of the Season. By DVOA, 2009 was the second-best year of his career. As long as the Pats have Brady and Belichick, they’ll remain a formidable opponent and a perennial contender, same as the Chargers with Philip Rivers’ cannon and the Colts with fetus-face Peyton Manning.
Four years ago, I read the same kind of doomsaying when the Patriots came off their third Super Bowl win, went 10-6, barely won their division, and got trounced by the Denver Broncos in the divisional round. That 10-6 team was a lot worse than this one. Instead of losing one blowout, they lost several, including 20+ point thrashings by the Chargers and Colts. Did they win a Super Bowl since? No, but they’ve made the playoffs three out of the last four years, including a Super Bowl appearance. As much as the rest of the football world would like to think so, the sun is not setting on these Patriots.
(UPDATE: Here’s a fantastic interview with Boomer Esiason of CBS, where he goes in-depth regarding the Patriots’ woes this season. Despite his position as a neutral observer, he’s very astute in his knowledge of this Pats team. Color me impressed.)
As a Patriots fan, I’ve become a bit used to playoff disappointment. The last Pats playoff game I witnessed was the epic Super Bowl XLII, in which my team watched their dreams of perfection slip away thanks to one of the most bizarre catches in NFL history. That said, the Pats had not lost a home playoff game in over 30 years.
Today, I just finished watching the Ravens go into Gillette Stadium, run a completely one-dimensional offense, turn the ball over twice, and complete four passes all day. This happens.
It’s been a bizarre season for the Patriots but, alas, it’s over. Brady ends a decade he dominated with a three-interception game in which every nightmare scenario that could be imagined by Pats fans came to life. RB Ray Rice was unstoppable, RB Willis McGahee was just effective enough to keep drives moving, and Flacco avoided the Pats’ miserable pass rush with just enough efficacy to avoid mistakes despite only four completions.
It was the worst 60 minutes of football New England has played since they got blown out by the Saints at the Metrodome in Week 12. Quite honestly, it’s the worst playoff performance I’ve seen from the Patriots since Super Bowl XXXI.
But, the season is now over. The 2010 New England Patriots begin today, 0-0.
There are many question marks around this Patriots team as they enter the offseason.
- Will Bill Belichick hire an offensive coordinator? This year saw a considerable drop-off in New England’s offensive efficiency as Belichick decided to enter the 2009 season with no offensive coordinator, as Josh McDaniels left Foxboro to become head coach of the Broncos.
- Will Dean Pees be retained? All season long, the Pats’ defense fell apart in the fourth quarter, contributing directly to losses to Denver, Indianapolis, Miami, Houston, and icing any chance the Patriots had to come back against the Ravens today. This may be a playcalling or conditioning issue, but considering that the Pats have not had a top-flight defense since Eric Mangini, I have to think that Pees is on the hot seat and will be gone either this year or next if the team continues to struggle.
- What needs are most pressing as the Patriots enter the draft? You could make a case for several positions. On defense, Leigh Bodden is a good defender, but Shawn Springs is an aging veteran well past his prime, and it will be up to Jonathan Wilhite and Darius Butler to step up and be the next Asante Samuel-Ellis Hobbs combo to stymie the pass. The run defense fell apart in the second half of the season, with Arian Foster steamrolling the Pats in Week 17 and Ray Rice doing the same in the Wild Card contest. On offense, Laurence Maroney has probably played his last game as a Patriot after several fumbles in critical situations put him in Belichick’s doghouse. Julian Edelman shows promise as a slot receiver, but Sam Aiken has underperformed.
- Will Randy Moss return? His monster 2007 season is far in the rear-view mirror. This year, Moss put up solid numbers and led the league in touchdowns but was inconsistent, as a lack of other passing threats led to double-teams. That is to say nothing of the heady rumors regarding his alleged lack of motivation, which are fueled by his lack of performance toward the end of his stints in Minnesota and Oakland.
- How will Wes Welker look recovered from injury? The same injury that fell Brady in Week 1 of 2008 sidelined Welker. Unlike Brady, Welker won’t have a 16 week headstart to get healthy before the 2010 season begins, and it is likely he will be on the Physically Unable to Perform list several weeks into the season. As the true engine of the Patriots offense, it will be rough going without him.
- Is it time to consider life after Brady? Tom Terrific will turn 33 before the 2010 season starts. While Brady has claimed in interviews that he’d like to play until he’s 40, it may be time to consider drafting a successor, unless Belichick has it in his mind that undrafted free agent Brian Hoyer is the quarterback of the future.
And, to avoid the appearance of sour grapes, I will say this: the Ravens earned that victory. Stiff defense and a relentless running game was the recipe for success this time around. I look forward to seeing if the same combo can fell the mighty Indianapolis Colts. Congratulations, Baltimore fans, and see you in 2010!
In a game that would mean nothing to either team, the New England Patriots fell to the Houston Texans, 34-27, thanks to a 21-point Texans fourth quarter. The game was hardly the biggest loss for the Pats, though: the devastating injury to receiver Wes Welker is what is currently lighting up the football blogosphere.
After the Texans scored on their first possession, the Pats put a drive together in an attempt to respond. During the drive, Welker made a catch on 3rd and 4 and attempted to make a cut to evade S Bernard Pollard. During his move, his left knee buckled underneath him. He fell after a gain of 12 yards and had to be carted off the field, his head buried in a towel. Later tonight, it was confirmed that he tore his ACL and MCL, the same injury that sidelined Tom Brady for the entire 2008 season. His season is definitely over; he finished with 123 receptions, 1,348 yards, and 4 touchdowns.
In his place, the rookie Julian Edelman stepped up and played admirably. He had 10 catches for 103 yards to lead all receivers. In a move perhaps intended to get Edelman acclimated to the first team offense, Tom Brady remained in the game for almost its entirety, only leaving for the final drives of each half. He completed 17 of 26 passes for 206 yards and an interception. He ends the season with 4,398 yards, 28 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions.
Brian Hoyer, the Pats backup quarterback, went 8 of 12 for 71 yards. Fred Taylor scored twice for the Patriots but also fumbled in his own end zone, gifting the Texans with a touchdown. Texans RB Arian Foster had a great game, taking 20 touches for 118 yards and two scores as he took the Pats’ shaky rush defense to task.
The Texans won the game and were feeling bullish about their playoff hopes, needing only the Ravens or Jets to lose to qualify for the postseason. Unfortunately for them, both teams won their games over the Raiders and Bengals, respectively, and made the playoffs over them due to superior conference record. It may be small consolation, but the Texans finished the season 9-7, their first winning season in franchise history.
The 2009 New England Patriots will enter the playoffs at 10-6. Their first opponent comes Sunday afternoon, and it’s a familiar one: the 9-7 Baltimore Ravens. The last time these two teams met was Week 4, when the Patriots foiled a last-minute Ravens drive to come away with a 27-21 win. The Ravens have never beaten the Patriots since Bill Belichick took over as coach, and no team has ever defeated the Patriots at home in the playoffs in 31 years, a testament to the overwhelming advantage the fierce weather and fiercer home crowd gives New England when a potential Super Bowl appearance is in the offing. With the #3 seed, a Patriots win also guarantees they will play the 13-3 San Diego Chargers in the Divisional round.