How does one celebrate the perfect football team? By waiting until the team is truly perfect.
In other words, not yet. So hold the champagne for the New England Patriots. And if any 1972 Miami Dolphins are looking in, we know you're still waiting to pop the cork on your stash. The NFL doesn't give trophies for winning every game of the regular season. Football teams don't drink champagne over it, either.
Don't be fooled by mass media proclivities to slap logos and product names on news stories like the Patriots, who were branded as "Perfection!" in newspapers and television broadcasts across the country the morning of Dec. 30. On the night preceding, the Patriots finished their 16-0 season with an historic, 38-35 win against the New York Giants at Giants Stadium, site of more NFL games than any other yard in history.
The Patriots played like champions. Trailing 28-16 early in the third quarter, the Patriots scored the next three touchdowns and trapped the Giants into coming from behind within minutes.
The most telling sequence occurred early in the fourth quarter when the Pats still trailed, 28-23. From his own 35, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady slightly under-threw wide-open wide receiver Randy Moss at the New York 18, and Moss couldn't make the fingertip catch bending over. On the next play, Brady went back to Moss, who was again open, for a 65-yard touchdown.
With that touchdown pass, the Patriots took the lead, extending it to 31-28 with a two-point conversion. With that touchdown pass, Brady reached 50 this season -- the all-time NFL record. With that touchdown catch, Moss reached 23 for the season, the all-time NFL record. With that play, the Patriots were on their way to 589 points this season, the all-time NFL record, a remarkable 36.8 points per game.
We can't knock 16-0, but if the Patriots stumble in the playoffs, you can bet we will. Nothing mocks a spectacular regular season like a loss in the playoffs, which is why all the accolades offered to the Patriots are premature, even if they are the first and only team to finish their schedule 16-0. Today's perfection is tomorrow's choke job.
The Patriots are not, as yet, the equal of the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who blew through the Super Bowl with a 17-0 record. They're not even the 1985 Chicago Bears, who finished 18-1 and won the Super Bowl.
Indeed, they're not even the 2006 Indianapolis Colts or the Patriots of 2001, 2003 or 2004 because all of those teams have won Super Bowls. The NFL is about one goal and one goal only. It's about the Super Bowl. If any team other than the Patriots wins the Super Bowl, then that team will become the true hero of this football season, and the Patriots will be the dogs of January.
Seldom, if ever, has an NFL team entered the playoffs so heavily favored and yet with so much to prove. Seldom, if ever, has a head coach come along who was at once so respected and reviled as Bill Belichick: winner of three Super Bowls, architect of the only 16-0 NFL team and condemned cheater.
Then again, seldom has a football team so close to winning it all suffered such an obvious flaw as last year's Patriots, who could have won the Super Bowl with one more good wide receiver. Furiously, the Patriots collected three wide receivers in response, led by Moss as the deep threat, Wes Welker for possession and Donte Stallworth just in case.
Already loaded for a run to the Super Bowl, the Patriots began a grudge match against the entire NFL this season after Commissioner Roger Goodell penalized the coach and the franchise following the infamous "spygate" caper.
For the next two months the Patriots punished any team with the temerity to line up against them. Then, after beating the Patriots became a season-making mission for every other team in the league, the Patriots hung on week after week.
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These times of steroid uncertainty have rendered perhaps the most difficult set of issues in the history of balloting for the baseball Hall of Fame.
However, this year's roster of first-year candidates has rendered one of the easiest votes in memory. A voter in perfectly good conscience can just vote again for his selections from last year, subtracting the players who won induction (Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken, Jr.) along with those who fell off the ballot for receiving too few votes (in this writer's case, that's Albert Belle and Eric Davis).
The left-over candidates once again have checkmarks next to their names on this writer's ballot going back to Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) secretary Jack O'Connell. That means Jim Rice, Goose Gossage, Bert Blyleven and Dave Concepcion.
However, as it appears, Gossage is your only Hall of Famer, if there is one. Gossage has rallied in recent elections, all the way up to 388 votes last year (71.2 percent with 75 percent needed for election). Given the present revulsion with one-inning saves, which grows louder and louder with each summer, a new appreciation for Gossage has set in among the voters.
Don't be too surprised if Gossage goes into the Hall of Fame this summer. Be very surprised if anyone else does.
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