Some say it's a killer instinct. Others view it as running up the score. Whatever you call it, the 10--0 Patriots' penchant for going for it on fourth down with big leads this season isn't surprising if you consider what happened last January. With 25 minutes left in the AFC title game, New England led Indianapolis 21--6. Over the Colts' next seven possessions they had four touchdowns and a field goal. Final: Indy 38, New England 34.
Ever since, says Patriots center Dan Koppen, coach Bill Belichick has stressed the importance of playing a 60-minute game, regardless of the score. "From what happened last year against Indianapolis," Koppen said, "guys are really zoned in this year."
My take: All's fair in love and the NFL—through three quarters. If you've got a five-touchdown lead with five minutes left in the third, I'm all for making it six. It's fair to put the game mathematically out of reach, even if it seems that the Patriots are rubbing teams' noses in it. I say they've run it up only once this year—throwing the ball five times early in the fourth quarter on an 88-yard drive against Washington, on the way to expanding a 38--0 lead to 45--0. Sunday night in Buffalo? Sorry. Trying to score with a 32-point lead late in the third quarter might seem cruel, but teams have scored four touchdowns in 20 minutes, even those that looked hopelessly out of it. In addition, though it seems unlikely now, New England will probably have to play a 60-minute game to win sometime between now and Super Sunday. If the offense is removed after 35 or 38 minutes every week, does that serve New England's championship interests?
The Patriots have their critics, many of whom rightfully point at the hefty sanctions imposed on New England for illegally videotaping the Jets' defensive coaching signals in Week 1. Belichick (above) wins more joylessly than any other coach in the game. There is a growing inevitability to the Patriots' season, with the weekly rout and some frigid postgame handshakes helping make New England the team people love to hate. But for the most part, the Pats aren't doing much that other dominant teams haven't done before them.
DAVID BERGMAN (BELICHICK)