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It's time for the Patriots to face facts, which, because of the
great expectations brought on by their Super Bowl appearance
last season, is going to hurt (and that's without even
mentioning the New England Antichrist, Bill Parcells).

In their last 10 games, dating back to Super Bowl Sunday, the
Patriots are 5-5. When quarterback Drew Bledsoe stepped to the
line of scrimmage early in the fourth quarter in Minnesota on
Sunday, he was leading an offense that had scored one touchdown
in its previous 21 possessions. Having lost to Green Bay the
previous Monday, New England emerged from the Metrodome in its
make-a-statement week with consecutive losses to strong NFC
Central teams. The Pats are 5-4, and with six of their remaining
seven games against teams with winning records, the question is
not whether they can win home field advantage throughout the AFC
playoffs, it's whether they'll even make it to the postseason

Getting to the Super Bowl created a premier-team image that was
misleading. The Patriots see themselves as an excellent team
confounded by a few unlucky breaks in the season's first two
months. "Everyone in this room," running back Curtis Martin said
quietly but defiantly after Sunday's 23-18 loss, "thinks the
only time we can lose is when we beat ourselves." But the proof
is in the box scores. What the Patriots are is a good team--some
weeks on Green Bay's level, but most weeks closer to
Philadelphia's--that benefited greatly last January when the
Broncos lost to the Jaguars in the AFC divisional playoffs. To
get to the Super Bowl, New England beat Jacksonville, a matchup,
in January weather in Foxboro, that the Patriots would probably
win seven of 10 times. Playing at Denver anytime, New England
might win two out of 10. Witness the 34-13 whipping the Broncos
put on the Patriots at Mile High on Oct. 6, not to mention the
37-3 and 34-8 regular-season thrashings that were inflicted in
'95 and '96 at Foxboro.

"We came into the season feeling, It's not whether we'll win,
but by how much," tackle Bruce Armstrong said. "Now? We're not
fooling anybody. A three-game losing streak is very serious in
this sport."

The defense has played well enough to win most weeks, but the
offense is schizophrenic. "We're just so shocked we're not
getting more out of our offense," shaken first-year coach Pete
Carroll said on Sunday. Before unloading on Bledsoe--who should
shoulder his share of the blame here, but only his fair
share--critics should look at the running game. On all but one
of their 13 third-down situations through three quarters on
Sunday, the Patriots faced third-and-five or longer. That's
largely because the Vikings, who came into the game ranked 16th
in the league against the run, held New England to 27 yards on
17 carries.

Of course, questions remain about Bledsoe's play in pressure
games. And rightly so. SI picked 10 critical games in Bledsoe's
five-year career and totaled the numbers. They're ugly. He has
thrown six more interceptions than touchdown passes and has a
quarterback rating of 62.8. Compare that with the lifetime
ratings of Trent Dilfer (66.1) and Dave Brown (69.5), and you
see why Bledsoe is feeling his first heat from the formerly
fawning fans.

"What people fail to realize," Bledsoe said on the eve of the
Minnesota game, "is that the reason big games are big is you're
playing against good teams. The magnitude of the game doesn't
change the way I prepare or feel going into the game. But I
understand that criticism will be there with me and this team
until we step up and win some of these games."

Last week two more chances came and went.


The words come out of Bills linebacker Chris Spielman's mouth in
sharp, staccato bursts, without any trace of bitterness or
self-pity, even though he may have played the last game of what
could be a Hall of Fame career. They are words from another
time, a time when no one had heard of salary caps.

"If it's my time to go, it's my time to go," the 32-year-old
Spielman said last Friday, two days after learning he would have
to undergo neck surgery that could end his career. Now his voice
rose. "I will not go out on that field again and be the player I
despise--a player who's collecting a paycheck, who doesn't give
everything he has, who's afraid to stick his head in there. I
will not dishonor the game I love. And if it's over, I won't sit
in front of any TV camera crying, wallowing in pity. You know
why? Because I played every game like it was my last. I did it
the way it was supposed to be done. How can I regret anything?"

This week Spielman was due to have surgery to remove a herniated
cervical disk that was pressing dangerously on his spinal cord.
It's very similar to the injury that has sidelined Cowboys
fullback Daryl Johnston, who had surgery last Friday and doesn't
know if he'll play again. Four times during recent games against
the Colts and the Broncos, Spielman says his body went numb for
several seconds after hard hits. "I was living on borrowed
time," he says. "It could have been catastrophic." He'll resume
his career only if he and the doctors agree he won't risk
serious injury.


During an AFC wild-card playoff game last December, Colts
quarterback Jim Harbaugh lost a large piece of a front tooth on
a jarring hit by Steelers linebacker Jason Gildon, and what
remained of the tooth ripped through the tissue in his mouth. He
never found the piece of tooth, and he believes he may have
swallowed it. After the game Harbaugh shrugged when recalling
the incident. "That's football," he said.

These things happen in the macho world of the NFL, and the worst
label you can put on a player is that he's gutless, which is
basically what former Bills quarterback Jim Kelly called
Harbaugh on Buffalo TV recently. The remark led Harbaugh to
confront Kelly on Oct. 25 in the Colts' San Diego hotel. In the
brief scuffle that ensued, Harbaugh fractured a bone in his
passing hand. The Colts will dock his pay--$147,000 a
week--until he's ready to play, which he says will be this
Sunday against the Bengals. The $147,000 was money he could
afford to spend, Harbaugh said, and money well-spent. "Money I
have," Harbaugh said last week. "You can't buy your pride."

He went to confront Kelly, he said, but not to fight him.
Harbaugh says the physical part--he declined to be specific
about the fisticuffs--happened only when Kelly wouldn't admit he
was wrong when he said the Colts quarterback was a "baby" who
"overdramatized" his injuries. Kelly denies a punch was thrown.
"If I'd done nothing," Harbaugh said, "I'd feel a lot worse than
I do now. You've got to be able to look yourself in the mirror.
I can do that now."


Playoff contenders San Francisco and Washington fought to sign
defensive tackle Chris Zorich, who was released last week by the
then 1-7 Bears. Washington won, in part because Zorich wanted to
play against the Bears on Sunday....NFL commissioner Paul
Tagliabue calls "ridiculous" Oakland owner Al Davis's assertion
that he has some hold on the Los Angeles expansion territory, a
claim Davis made last spring. "There's nothing in the universe
that supports the idea," Tagliabue said....The Bengals have
decided to let underachieving defensive end Dan Wilkinson leave
in free agency after the season if some team throws more than $2
million a year at him, which is likely....The Packers are close
to signing strong safety LeRoy Butler to a $3 million-a-year
deal that will put him among the highest-paid safeties in the
game, along with the Cowboys' Darren Woodson and the Oilers'
Blaine Bishop.


Jets coach Bill Parcells has received more than 2,000 letters
and E-mail messages from members and supporters of PETA (People
for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), who are outraged at what
they believe is his matter-of-fact murder of cats. Here's the
story: Parcells is superstitious. He is deathly afraid of black
cats. He was recently quoted as saying that if he passes a black
cat on the road, he must back up past the spot where he saw the
cat. "That erases the cat," Parcells theorized. PETA supporters
interpreted that to mean he runs over the cats. "I never meant I
kill cats," Parcells said. "I've got nothing against cats."
Except, we assume, Jaguars from Florida.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER John Randle helped halt a second-quarter Patriots drive when he sacked Bledsoe for a 12-yard loss. [John Randle tackling Drew Bledsoe]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER O'Donnell is losing his grip on the starting job. [Neil O'Donnell in game]

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Favre likes calling his own plays. [Brett Favre in game]


The NFL record total of individual 100-yard rushing games in a
season is 120, set in 1985. With seven weeks left in the regular
season, the league's runners are on pace for 137 such games. The
traditionally pass-happy 49ers (56.1% of their plays on the
ground this year) and Broncos (52.2%) are running the ball more
than at any other time in the '90s. Says Eagles coach Ray
Rhodes, "With all of the pressure defenses that teams are
throwing at quarterbacks, the quarterbacks are taking a beating.
You have to go to the running game." The result is ground
attacks that are more productive than they have been in any year
since 1990. Below we take a look at the running game in this

Yards/team Yards 100-yard 200-yard
Year per game per carry games games
1990 113.9 4.10 74 3
1991 107.7 3.93 79 1
1992 110.5 4.03 91 0
1993 110.0 3.89 86 2
1994 104.3 3.72 82 1
1995 108.1 3.83 103 0
1996 109.0 3.85 103 1
1997 113.5 4.06 137* 5**

*Projected **Through Nov. 3


1. FRED WHO? Third-string running back Fred Lane rushed for a
team-record 147 yards and three scores in the Panthers' rout of
the Raiders and afterward added a bulletin board quote: "Coach
told us if we took it to the Raiders, they would lay down."

2. MUSICAL QUARTERBACKS For those first-place Jets, the last 37
Neil O'Donnell-led drives have produced four touchdowns. The
last eight by understudy Glenn Foley have yielded three TDs. Let
the back-page headlines begin.

3. NOT SO SPECIAL The Eagles' special teams are the worst in
football. In a 31-21 loss in Arizona, Philadelphia's units
allowed a 50-yard punt return and a 63-yard kickoff return,
committed seven penalties, missed a 37-yard field goal and
fumbled a fourth-quarter punt to set up the Cardinals' winning
score. "A ghost is haunting our special teams," said Eagles
cornerback Troy Vincent.

4. BAD NEWS BEARS Lousy enough that they lost at home to the
reeling Redskins by 23, a game in which wideout Curtis Conway
threw his helmet, like a baby, and was ejected for bumping an
official. Guard Todd Burger--on the field, mind you--pushed
teammate Tyrone Hughes angrily after a Hughes misplay.

5. BAD MOON SETTLIN' On pace for an 84-catch season in Kansas
City, wideout Andre Rison turns suburbanite. He buys Bo
Jackson's place in a tree-lined neighborhood. --P.K.


No-huddle Know-how

As he viewed tape a week before Green Bay's Oct. 27 showdown
with New England, Packers coach Mike Holmgren was enormously
impressed with the Patriots' effectiveness when they stunted and
blitzed. If he quickened the pace, Holmgren figured, he would
make it harder for the Patriots to mix up their defense and pin
their ears back against his battered line.

Holmgren has always thought the no-huddle was gimmicky, and he
doesn't like turning the play-calling over to his quarterback,
which the scheme requires. But he figured this was the ideal
team to run it against. His staff liked the idea, and
quarterback Brett Favre was thrilled. "I love having total
control," he said. "What quarterback wouldn't?"

Holmgren installed 12 no-huddle plays--seven passes, five
runs--in the days leading up to the game. A code word was
established for each play, making it easy for Favre to make the
call at the line of scrimmage. How did the system work?
Beautifully. Green Bay used it on 20 of its 74 plays, including
on every snap of a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the
first half of a 28-10 win. "You could see it was the last thing
in the world they expected from us, plus they were sucking
wind," Favre said. "But we won't have that advantage anymore.
Now everybody knows we might use it."

Running the no-huddle on every down, an offense Sam Wyche and
the Bengals brought into the league a decade ago, all but
disappeared from the NFL landscape last year after it was
abandoned by the Bills, the last team to use it regularly.
"We'll never be Buffalo," Holmgren said last Saturday, watching
his team go through its final paces before facing the Lions.
"But I really liked how it worked against New England, and we're
expanding it this week. We could use it a lot one week, then not
at all."

Sure enough, during a 20-10 win over the Lions on Sunday night,
Green Bay ran only one play out of the no-huddle, a Favre
incompletion. --P.K.

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