WHEN PATRIOTSquarterback Matt Cassel walked off the field in San Francisco following a30--21 victory over the 49ers on Sunday, New England owner Robert Kraft waswaiting with an outstretched right arm. Rather than accept the congratulatoryhandshake, Cassel smiled broadly and wrapped Kraft in a firm hug.
Perhaps thatscene best illuminates just how drastically times have changed for the Pats.They used to be about long winning streaks, Super Bowl victories and treatingthe regular season as a means to an end. Joyous hugs were reserved forvictories on the last Sunday of the postseason, not the first Sunday inOctober.
Yet there wasCassel, giddy over beating a franchise that has not had a winning season since2002. What's going on? "We had a loss last game," defensive end RichardSeymour said of New England's 38--13 defeat against Miami on Sept. 21, whichwas followed by a bye. "Anytime you lose and then you can come back and geta win in a hostile environment when you were down in the first half14--7...."
He paused brieflyand then added, "Anytime you get a win in this league, it's tough."
With his decisionto keep the team in California all this week, coach Bill Belichick might bemaking it even tougher on the Patriots for Sunday night's game at San Diego.Several key starters who were asked about the decision said they supported itbecause they believe it will allow their bodies to be fresher than if they hadmade three cross-country trips within eight days, but the last team to stay onthe road between games did not fare well.
Last month coachKen Whisenhunt, seeking a remedy for Arizona's abysmal record on East Coastroad trips—the Cardinals had lost 11 of 13 games against teams in easternstates since 2002—kept his team in northern Virginia between back-to-back gamesat Washington and New York (against the Jets). That didn't help. After theCardinals lost to the Redskins 24--17, they were routed 56--35 by the Jets,falling behind 34--0 at the half and surrendering six touchdown passes to BrettFavre.
"It wasapparent to me last year that we were a much more sluggish team when we playedEast Coast games," said Whisenhunt, who has yet to win on the East Coast inone-plus seasons as Arizona coach. "The decision to stay on the road wasgeared toward feeling better on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I believe our teamfelt better when we stepped on the field, even though it's hard to make thepoint because of the way the game went."
None of theCardinals used the trip as an excuse for the team's play, but several said theywere thrown off by the break in routine, including the nearly hourlong busrides each way to practices, being unable to shower until they got back totheir hotel and, in most cases, not having their families around.
"Good luck,Patriots," says playful Arizona defensive lineman Darnell Dockett. "Iunderstand why we did it, but players are creatures of habit. That means lyingin my bed at least five times a week, seeing my children every day. They get onyour nerves, but it makes you want to hurry up and get to practice in themorning."
Perhaps it was nocoincidence that the Cardinals, back to normal at home last week, whipped thepreviously undefeated Bills, 41--17, in Glendale.
The league doesnot keep track of how often teams stay on the road between games, and recentexamples unrelated to natural disasters are inconclusive. For instance, in 2004Miami lost at Seattle, then won at San Francisco after spending the interveningweek in California. In '00 Atlanta lost at Oakland and at San Francisco after aweek on the West Coast. And in 1998 the Giants split their games at SanFrancisco and at Arizona after spending the week in Tucson.
If any team canhandle life on the road, the Patriots should be the one. They're a veterangroup that has played in four Super Bowls in the last seven years, each ofwhich required them to spend the week of the game in the host city. Theirrecord in those games: 3--1.
In fact, the Patsappeared to be in Super Bowl mode already last week. Belichick and the footballoperations staff declined interview requests to discuss the logistics of theirWest Coast stay—the team will practice at San Jose State before heading to SanDiego on Saturday—and a club official asked several of the team's beat writersif they would relocate to another property after learning that the reportershad reservations at the team's Bay Area hotel. "We're just trying to createthat same type of work environment that we have at the Super Bowl," saidPats spokesman Stacey James.
Players say theclub is doing everything possible to make the week seem routine: permittingthem to bring their families, massage therapists, nutritionists—you name it.Free time will be similar to what they're given at home. Perhaps every Patriotshould be giving Kraft an appreciative hug. We'll see on Sunday.
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Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback.
JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES (BELICHICK)
FIRED UP Belichick and the Patriots (inset) were more animated than usual in a win over the 49ers on Sunday.
JEFF CHIU/AP (PATS)