THIS NFL SEASONis something altogether different now. Sometime in the middle of Sunday eveningit ceased to be the annual carefully constructed exercise in athleticsocialism—in which drafting, scheduling and free agency ensure that many teams,however flawed, can smell the Super Bowl in December—and devolved into a widelytelevised and very lucrative game of king of the hill. One team stands at thetop, and other perfectly serviceable challengers struggle upward, fruitlessly.Laughably.
It's difficult to pinpoint the telling moment, but this one will suffice: Justbefore halftime in Buffalo, Tom Brady threw his fourth touchdown pass to RandyMoss, giving the New England Patriots a 35--7 lead over the helpless Bills enroute to a 56--10 blowout and a 10th straight win. This was hours after thewounded Indianapolis Colts, the defending Super Bowl champions, had escapedwith a desultory 13--10 home victory over the mediocre Kansas City Chiefs. Andafter the Pittsburgh Steelers, so impressive in winning seven of their firstnine games, had fallen to the terrible New York Jets 19--16 in overtime at theMeadowlands.
The Colts (8--2)and the Steelers (7--3) had loomed as roadblocks. Indianapolis, after all, hadled the Patriots deep into the fourth quarter just two weeks earlier (beforelosing the game, and a week later, losing defensive end Dwight Freeney, thefranchise's second-most important player). Pittsburgh had looked much like the2005 Super Bowl champion, with a stout defense and a very solid BenRoethlisberger at quarterback. Both teams now look distinctlyunthreatening.
"We come inhere, we've won three games in a row, everybody's saying we're the second-bestteam in the league," said Steelers veteran wideout Hines Ward after theloss to the Jets. "Then we go out and lay an egg like this. It's humbling.It brings everybody back to earth. There's going to be an adjustmentperiod."
Attention turnselsewhere in search of a team to play the role of Hickory High to New England'sSouth Bend Central. To the NFC, where Dallas has lost only to the Patriots andon Sunday rode the Romo and T.O. Show to a win over Washington. Where BrettFavre and Green Bay won their ninth game on Sunday, a workmanlike demolition ofthe free-falling Carolina Panthers. Where the New York Giants went to Detroitand handed the Lions their second consecutive loss. Or maybe even back to theAFC, where the Jacksonville Jaguars continued to define winning ugly in a24--17 victory over the disappointing San Diego Chargers.
Those teams mustall grow accustomed to having their performances measured not only on thescoreboard but also, in some larger way, against what New England is doing. Nowit is not enough to win; teams must do so in such a way that it inspires beliefin the possibility that they can defeat the Patriots between now and Feb. 3. Itis that, or tempt irrelevance.
And they all knowit. Four days before losing to the Jets, Pittsburgh's All-Pro safety, TroyPolamalu, stood near his cubicle at the Steelers' practice facility andassessed the games to come. "To tell you the truth," Polamalu said,"I don't even know who we play after the Jets."
New England, Dec.9 in Foxborough?
"Oh, I'maware of that one," said Polamalu. "But I'm not looking forward to thatgame. Who would be getting excited about playing them right now?" Yes,Polamalu was smiling, and no, he doesn't fear any football team. But his pointis clear. No rush to face a force of nature.
THE COWBOYS mightbe excited about it, though. Before there was Super Bowl 41 1/2—the Patriots'24--20 win over Indianapolis on Nov. 4— there was a mini-showdown in Dallas onOct. 14. New England punched in a late touchdown to make a 48--27 victory lookmore convincing than it was. The Cowboys will remember leading 24--21 early inthe third quarter and killing consecutive drives with penalties (including abrutal fourth-and-one holding call), while the Patriots answered with atouchdown and a field goal to take control of the game.
"We madeplays on them," says Dallas offensive coordinator Jason Garrett. "Wehad two series where we could have gotten the lead back or tied the game, andwe hurt ourselves both times."
The Cowboys haverun off four straight wins since losing to the Patriots, and they lead theGiants by two games in the NFC East (with a season sweep in hand, almostguaranteeing a division title). Their defense has improved with the return tofull health of cornerbacks Terence Newman and Anthony Henry and the addition ofdefensive tackle Tank Johnson. "We're playing much better, and we've gotall our guys back," says Dallas linebacker Bradie James.
Yet the Redskinsran up 423 yards in offense against the Cowboys in a 28--23 loss on Sunday atTexas Stadium, a terrifying number when contemplating a rematch against theclinical Pats, who scored on their first seven possessions against Buffalo andappeared to be playing flag football. Dallas, however, might be the one teamwith a true puncher's chance against New England. Quarterback Tony Romo threwfour touchdown passes on Sunday, all of them to Terrell Owens, the onlyoffensive player in the league as dangerous as Moss. Owens has caught eighttouchdown passes in the last four games.
The Cowboys willfirst be tested on Thursday night, Nov. 29, at home against the Packers, apotential preview of the NFC Championship Game. Green Bay has enjoyed a suddenand unexpected revival. The Packers were 4--12 two years ago and 4--8 in earlyDecember last year (coach Mike McCarthy's first season) before a season-endingfour-game winning streak gave the franchise life. They have won five straightthis season since losing to the Bears on the first weekend in October, andBrett Favre has restored his game to a Hall of Fame level. On the Thursdayafternoon before the win over Carolina, the dressing room at Lambeau Fieldhummed with a winners' vibe. Second-year wideout Greg Jennings paused his gameof dominoes for an interview, and when he mentioned Favre, the graybeardhimself came by to listen in.
"When you'relosing, people get out of here and go home to get away from the bademotions," said veteran wideout Donald Driver. "But now, people stickaround. They want to be part of it."
Defensive endAaron Kampman added, "We're just trying to stay under the radar, little oldGreen Bay. The season is like a poker game; the hands get bigger later in theyear."
TO HANG withDallas and stay in the running for a shot at New England, the Packers mustbuild a more consistent ground game behind Favre. Jennings is developing into adeep threat, but he is neither a Moss nor a T.O.; Green Bay needs balance. ThePackers are 30th in the NFL in rushing yardage at 80.0 yards per game."Technique and execution, that's all it is," says center Scott Wells."But once it gets cold, we have to pound the rock." There is reason foroptimism in the form of emerging rookie back Ryan Grant, who averaged 91.5yards over the last four games.
The Giants, whohost New England on the last weekend of the season (Saturday, Dec. 29 at GiantsStadium), are the NFC's enigma. After winning six consecutive games, they fellapart late in a 31--20 home loss to Dallas on Nov. 11, evoking memories of lastyear's second-half meltdown, in which they went 2--6 after midseason. Yet theyrecovered to beat the Lions on Sunday, putting those comparisons momentarily atbay.
The Giants leadthe NFL with 34 sacks; it is their most effective weapon and a plausible onewith which to attack the Patriots. "When Indy had Freeney and [Robert]Mathis coming off that edge, I don't care who you have [at wide receiver] andwhat routes you're running, you've got to account for those two rushers,"says one AFC offensive assistant. "The first play [against New England],bang, Mathis came off the edge and hit Brady, and that has an impact." Yetthere was grim news on Sunday. Giants pass rusher Mathias Kiwanuka broke hisleft leg in the Detroit victory and is likely lost for the rest of theseason.
Indianapolis isthe NFL's ultimate rhythm team, and with several key offensive starters—linemenTony Ugoh and Ryan Diem and wideouts Marvin Harrison, plus Harrison's backupsAnthony Gonzalez and Aaron Moorehead—missing all or part of Sunday's struggleagainst Kansas City, that rhythm is gone. "We need to make it work with theguys that are out there," said quarterback Peyton Manning after the game.Where once a rematch with New England was enticing, it looms as ugly unless theColts quickly get healthier.
Jacksonville,meanwhile, has quietly crept to within a game of Indianapolis in the tough AFCSouth. Yet the Jaguars are an unthreatening bunch. They rely on a steady groundgame with Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew, but quarterback David Garrardisn't exactly Daryle Lamonica in the pocket. Jacksonville has scored more than28 points just once in 10 games; New England averages more than 41, and as oneAFC defensive assistant said, "Scoring points is going to be important ifyou're going to beat the Patriots."
Pittsburgh is thenext major contender to get a shot at New England, after the Steelers—5--0 athome and 2--3 on the road—host winless Miami and the crumbling Bengals.Pittsburgh came to New Jersey on Sunday leading the NFL in total defense by awide margin, having shrugged off the salary-cap dismissal of linebacker JoeyPorter by plugging in fifth-year pro James Harrison, a 6-foot, 242-pound effortmachine who outplays his measurables (in addition to being short, he ran only a4.88 40-yard dash as a senior in college) on every snap and then goes home towatch old-school Looney Tunes cartoons on television.
Harrison is oneof the Steelers who was charged by first-year coach Mike Tomlin with helpingthe team improve on last year's 8--8 record. "He called me in and told meI'd be playing a big role," says Harrison of the youthful Tomlin."That's motivation, because Coach Tomlin is one of us."
ON SUNDAY eveningTomlin was an angry one of them. "In all three phases of the game, we fellwell below the line of what's acceptable today," he said. Roethlisberger,who had been sacked fewer than three times per game this season, was taken downseven times by the Jets. Key passes were dropped, the running game never gotrolling, and the overall effect was to scrape some of the fresh luster offRoethlisberger, whose 2005-style play had been central to Pittsburgh'sstart.
Still, theSteelers should have put away the Jets. Playing in a stadium ringed with fanswaving Pittsburgh's familiar Terrible Towels, the Steelers came back from a10--0 first-quarter deficit to lead 16--13 with 8:46 to play. On two subsequentpossessions, with a chance to finish off the win, they failed to get a firstdown. "A good team finds a way to hold on to the ball in the last fiveminutes," said Ward afterward. "We didn't do that. We let them hangaround, and they beat us."
This is honorablerhetoric, in that it doesn't offer up excuses for a miserable performance. Butthe Patriots have shown no indication that they will perform poorly for anyreason. And they will ruthlessly dispose of any team that does.
Pittsburgh, andall of the contenders, now turn to the calendar for solace. "Still a lot offootball to play," says Steelers linebacker James Farrior. "It'searly." There are six games left in the season. It is, in fact, no longerearly, and the gap grows wider by the week.
"I'm not looking forward to that game,"Polamalu says of Steelers--Patriots on Dec. 9. No rush to face a FORCE OFNATURE.
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Photograph by Peter Read Miller
BETTER NEXT TIME The Dallas defense has improved since facing New England but yielded too many yards to the Skins.
RAY OF HOPE Owens's scoring prowess offers the Cowboys a puncher's chance in a potential rematch with New England.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
I'VE FALLEN ... Manning's injury-riddled Colts, who've stumbled since losing to the Pats, need to get healthy in a hurry.