A Tale of Two Franchises

When it comes to winning championships, there is little comparison between the New England Patriots and the Green Bay Packers. The Packers, founded in 1919, predate the Patriots by 40 years, and the Packers won six NFL titles during that time, including three-peating from 1929-1931. Then came the 60s, a decade in which the Packers won five more titles, including the first two Super Bowls. Add to it their victory over the Patriots and you get 12 NFL championships. The Patriots match the Packers with three Super Bowl rings, but three out of six (seven counting the 1963 AFL Title game) doesn’t compare to 12 out of 15. The Packers have won more, but they’ve had more time to do it. Let’s look at some of the other comparisons and contrasts between the Patriots and the Packers.

Lombardi vs. Belichick

Both teams were transformed under the tutelage of a sublime head coach. Vince Lombardi and Bill Belichick may be polar opposites in temperament, but otherwise they are much the same. Lombardi spent hour upon hour in the film room, analyzing other teams, scheming up new plays and strategies to turn his opponents’ strengths into weaknesses. He put so much time into his game-planning that it put a major strain on his wife, leading to alcoholism. The man in the hooded sweatshirt has approached football with the same mentality, and it’s had an equally damaging effect on his personal life. Lombardi once said, “Football is a game for mad men and I’m the biggest mad man of them all.” Belichick might be just as mad as Lombardi was, just less prone to cackling. When his career is done, Belichick will go into the Hall of Fame. When Comcast SportsNet updates its “Top Coaches in NFL History,” Belichick will be near the top. Analysts will debate endlessly (and perhaps needlessly) over who the better coach was, and nostalgia will probably keep Lombardi in the top slot. But no one will deny Belichick’s position as the second-best coach of all time. He drafts well, he finds castaways and turns them into Pro Bowlers, he raises his game every time he’s challenged, and he wins. The Patriots now are like the 60s Packers: a dynasty built on balancing talent with experience, with an unparalleled coach at its helm.

Lambeau Field vs. Gillette Stadium

The stark contrast between the Packers’ and Patriots’ stadiums reveals a difference in team philosophies. Despite its renovated and beautiful exterior, the actual stadium at Lambeau Field is as old-fashioned as Fenway Park. The bleachers are concrete slabs, with spray-painted numerals to differentiate the seats. The grass, though aided by artificial fiber, is essentially real. There is little luxury at Lambeau, a stadium that has tried to remain unchanged from the franchise’s peak years in the 1960s. But just as the cramped conditions at Fenway help produce what players over and over again call a “playoff-like atmosphere,” so too does Lambeau Field. Fans there are loud, energetic and active. They don’t sit down for three hours. They cheer. They yell. They cry. They boo. The town that owns the team comes out in full force every week, through rain, cold, wind and snow (or some combination thereof). It is less a football stadium than it is a shrine to seasons and eras past.

Gillette Stadium, on the other hand, is a towering symbol of the business of football, a modern concept. Even in the nose-bleeds, every attendee gets his or her own folding seat, more comfortable than those at most movie theaters. The field is artificial, a substance called FieldTurf that looks fake but improves traction and survives harsh weather. The stadium is ringed by flashing lights and screens, making each game a multimedia experience. And then there’s Patriot Place, which contains an upscale-hotel, several fancy restaurants (balanced against some fast-food joints), a deluxe movie theater, a health center, a retail mall with stores ranging from Victoria Secret to GameStop, and a CBS television studio. Not to mention the Patriots Hall of Fame. It is possible to entertain oneself for multiple days at Patriots Place without ever seeing an actual game.

But as much as Patriots Place has brought an influx of tourism to Foxborough, creating new jobs and helping sustain the local economy, it has also come under fire by football purists. Seating is very expensive, as is food and beer. Parking lots are so far away that tailgating seems difficult and somehow false. And the top seats are so high up that it looks as if Lego people are playing the game. In their efforts to maximize the profitability of the franchise, is it possible that the Krafts have actually shut out a major portion of their fans? The live game in unavailable to those without means (as critics say has happened at Fenway Park), and those lower- and middle-class fans who love the Patriots just as much have become relegated to their own televisions and local bars. When the Patriots bring home the trophy, who fills the streets, missing work or school to cheer them on? Watching a game at Lambeau Field is exactly what it sounds like: sitting with a bunch of rowdy fans and rooting for your team. The glitz and glamor of Patriots Place has lessened the experience of the actual game, and only time will tell if that will hurt the team or the fans.

Green Bay Packers, Inc., vs. the Kraft Group

Both teams are owned by locals, the Packers are just owned by more of them. The Packers are the only publicly owned sports team in this country. This is probably a mixed blessing. On the one hand, owning a share in your team probably breeds an additional degree of loyalty. Not only do these players represent you geographically or “spiritually,” but they also represent you financially. You are more likely to support something you have such a stake in. But at the same time, public ownership has perhaps kept the Packers in the football dark ages. They’ll never move from tiny Green Bay, and they’ll likely never fully modernize Lambeau Field, opting to construct around the field instead of perhaps constructing a new field. It remains to be seen how long a community as small as Green Bay can support as mammoth a structure as an NFL team. And if the Packers ever do move, the sense of loss may be so profound that the fanbase never recovers.

The Kraft Group, meanwhile, is a testament to what local ownership can do for a franchise. Bob Kraft, born in Brookline, MA (go Warriors!), bought the team in 1994 for $175 million, and the investment has paid dividends for both the fans and the team. Kraft has shown incredible business acumen in his ownership, no more so than in his securing funds for the new Gillette Stadium. Undaunted by initial difficulties with the state of Massachusetts, Kraft raised the stakes and pursued moving the team entirely to Connecticut. When Massacusetts realized it could actually lose a sports team to another state, legislators gave Kraft everything he asked for. The end result was shiny new stadium that, as much as purists might decry it, is a far cry better than Foxboro Stadium. Kraft loved the Patriots since childhood and, when given the opportunity to own his favorite team, transformed it from the butt of the league to the best franchise and a Super Bowl contender every year.

The Quarterbacks

The Patriots and the Packers have different team philosophies, perhaps symbolized in their starting quarterbacks. Tom Brady is the highest-paid player in the NFL. He carries himself with class and flair, wearing fancy suits and luxury watches, sporting a haircut that remind us less of a cowboy and more of a movie star. He is married to a supermodel. He is every bit as stylish and luxuriant as the Patriots franchise is, but he evokes this without giving up an unquestionable desire to win and be perfect. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, strikes you as working-man’s quarterback, rugged and humble. His 2009 salary ($8.6 million) ranks him 14th among starting quarterbacks. He dates a country singer. His playing style is more emotional than Brady’s, but more erratic. Rodgers’ quarterbacking is more human, more prone to the emotional peaks and valleys that define the sports fan and recall Lombardi’s psyche. Brady is fluid, smooth, but also mechanical. He gets the play, he executes the play, he wins. Maybe not quite as fun to watch, but you can’t argue with success. When the two teams meet, opposing philosophies will go at it just as much as opposing teams will. The Packers recall a bygone era. The Patriots represent the current one. Come Sunday, we’ll see which one is better.

Lo, How Things Have Changed

Being as big a nerd as I am a sports fan, I used to love shopping for school supplies before the new school year began. Before beginning the eighth grade, I needed to buy five different notebooks, one for each subject. I picked nondescript Trapper Keepers for the first four, then decided to live a little for the fifth. For Spanish, I selected a large blue three-ring with the New England Patriots logo emblazoned across the front. I thought it would make me look cooler, and it sorta did. Several people, including fellow students and my Spanish teacher, came up to me during the first week of class to complement me on it. Thankfully, they didn’t ask me who my favorite player was, or whether I thought they’d have a good season. Because, truth be told, I didn’t actually like the Patriots. You see, my parents grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We watched Wisconsin Badgers bowl games, and for local fare we went to watch the Harvard Crimson. I don’t think I learned the Boston College mascot until I was in high school. I wasn’t raised on Red Sox heartache. I never understood my first grade teacher’s obsession with the Celtics of the 1980s. I’d never heard of Bobby Orr. No, my sports education had an entirely different cast of characters. I grew up with Henry Aaron, Warren Spahn, Bart Starr and of course Vince Lombardi. We had no highlight reels of Carl Yastrzemski’s walk-off home run, but we had the Ice Bowl on VHS. And by the time seventh grade arrived, every Sunday we were watching Brett Favre.

So in 1997 I had no idea what kind of team I was showing false allegiance to by carrying its logo on my binder. I was too busy watching the Green Bay Packers to notice that the Patriots were actually good. A few of my friends were vaguely aware that I was a Packers fan (plus my dad talked about them in a speech at my Bar Mitzvah), but none of us were such big sports fans that it mattered. So as Drew Bledsoe and the Patriots were making headlines in the AFC, my interests lay 1,200 miles to the west. I was overjoyed when the Packers punched their ticket to Super Bowl XXXI. Who would they be playing? What hapless AFC team would take the field, mere cannon fodder for the unstoppable Favre and the equally unstoppable Reggie White? What? The Patriots? Oh shit! What should I do?

I considered rooting for the Patriots, or at least avoiding any outward semblance of Packers fandom. But to my own credit, I did not give in to every teenager’s need for acceptance by his or her peers. My allegiances lay with one team, not the other, and I would not give an inch. I knew my friends would be mad at me. I knew my classmates would question my choice of notebook. But I also knew the Packers were going to win, and I didn’t want to deny myself the joy of the first championship by a team I cared about. I was proud to be a Packers fan, damnit, and no one was gonna make me feel ashamed of that.

So I went to a Super Bowl party at some family friends’ house. I wore a hunter-green Packers sweatshirt with a giant yellow “G” on the front and donned a bona-fide cheese-head. My friends at the party were incredulous, to say the least, but they seemed impressed with my degree of devotion. One even offered to buy the hat off me, which I refused. I still own that cheese-head. It sits on the headboard of my bed. It’s probably time to throw it out, but I just can’t bare to.

Anyway, we all know how the game turned out. Drew Bledsoe was intercepted four times, the Patriots had no answer to Desmond Howard’s special teams magic, and Favre captained a high-power offense that had great field position all night long. Packers 35, Patriots 21. I was happy, and my friends were not. When I got to school the next day, the first thing I heard in homeroom was a girl complaining, “there’s no way Favre broke that pylon before going out!” When she saw me wearing the same sweatshirt I had worn the night before, she gave me a dirty look. I later found another classmate, a boy who had repeatedly taunted that Bledsoe would destroy the Packers, and asked him, “so who won the game?” All he could do was respond, “who tied the spread?” I don’t know much about sports gambling, but somehow tying the spread seems like less of an accomplishment than winning the Super Bowl. Even at religious school that night, the Super Bowl was the main talking point. I walked in to find two friends in denial, discussing Super Bowl plays that would have been great for the Patriots if they had actually happened. My personal favorite was when one said, “my favorite part was when they shot Brett Favre,” and my other friend responded, “yeah, that was great.” They refused all night to acknowledge that the Patriots had lost, to give me the satisfaction of admitting their team was inferior to mine. It was slightly irritating, only because sports fan love to revel in their opponents’ defeat as much as in their own team’s victory.

But as much as Super Bowl XXXI was a happy moment in my childhood, maturity has taught me that I loved the Packers because my parents loved the Packers. Had they raised me as a Red Sox fan, that would have been the team I cared about. But genetics can only take you so far. True sports fandom is built in a person over time, influenced by the experiences that person has, not the experiences of that person’s parents. And as I grew up in Boston, not Milwaukee, I came to love Massachusetts sports teams, not Wisconsin teams (except for the Badgers, they’re still my college football team of choice). As much as I learned some Midwestern values from my parents, for the most part I grew into a Bostonian. And the Boston athletes who become beloved in this town do so because something about them speaks to the experiences and values of those who grew up here. These values include grittiness, emotion and humility. Those who don’t play hard, play unemotionally, or seem to get to caught up in the glamor of their profession, all tend to get run out of Boston on a rail. Only the truly transcendent (Tom Brady) achieve folk-hero status without necessarily embodying the traits of the Bostonian. The rest, the so-called “dirt dogs,” survive in this town because they resonate with us.

So the boy who loved the Packers has given way to the man who loves the Patriots. I still am interested in the Packers, sure. I follow the team on ESPN, check to see their current power ranking, read articles about injuries. And they are still my preferred NFC team. If one team has to win it all, and it can’t be New England, it might as well be Green Bay. If the Packers are playing, I might watch. But when the Patriots are playing, I always watch. When the two teams are playing each other, the Packers shirt and cheese-head stay in my bedroom. They’ve been replaced by the free Patriots shirt from U-Haul and the gray, hooded BU sweatshirt. I’m no longer a kid, affecting an interest in a team that doesn’t seem like mine, no matter how close they are. I’m an adult, and I’m interest in a team that is mine. The Patriots are no closer to me now geographically than they were half a lifetime ago. But emotionally those players are closer to me than any Packer ever was. Lo, how things have changed.

A Patriots-Packers Retrospective

The New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers have played nine times since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Counting Super Bowl XXXI, the Packers have won five games. The two teams are split 2-2 for games played in Foxborough. Let’s look back at all nine match-ups, ranked semi-arbitrarily by order of importance and quality.

9. October 9, 1988: @Packers 45, Patriots 3

Easily the worst of the nine Packers-Patriots games so far. Patriots quarterbacks Steve Grogan and Doug Flutie combined to go 19-40 for just 195 yards, no touchdowns and a whopping five interceptions. But the inadequacies don’t stop with the offense. The Patriots defense allowed the Packers to rush for 207 yards and five touchdowns, including three by Green Bay running back Brent Fullwood, who picked up 118 of those 207 yards. All this while committing 11 penalties for 75 yards. What’s even more stinging about this loss was that it came at the hands of a Packers team that lost 12 games that season. The Patriots, on the other hand, finished at 9-7, one game out of a wild card spot. A dark day in Patriots history, one might say.

8. October 1, 1979: @Packers 27, Patriots 14

Another instance of a bad Packers team (5-11 in 1979, coming during the Bart Starr coaching era of 1975-1983, in which the Packers went 52-76) beating an ultimately 9-7 Patriots team in a season where the Patriots finished one game out of a playoff spot. Games like this are where the term “trap game” comes from, because the better team doesn’t focus mentally in the face of a mediocre non-conference road opponent, then loses, then the loss comes back to haunt them. In this particular iteration, Grogan went 17-33 for 255 yards, two touchdowns- both to tight end Russ Francis- and three interceptions. His late game replacement, Tom Owen, threw two more interceptions on just four passing attempts. The Patriots also fumbled the ball once, bringing the turnover total to six. Every interception was picked off by a different Packers defender, making it an all-around defensive beat-down.

7. October 13, 2002: Packers 28, @Patriots 10

The Packers hurt the Patriots on two levels in the 2002 season. First, they defeated the Patriots in Foxborough. Then, they finished their season by losing to the New York Jets. That left the Patriots, Jets and Miami Dolphins all tied for first in the AFC East, but tie-breaking procedures awarded the division title to the Jets and the last wild card spot to the Cleveland Browns (better conference record). Had either of those two games gone the Patriots’ way, they would have at least had a chance to defend their Super Bowl XXXVI title. But the Patriots lost a game that may be one of Tom Brady’s worst to date. Brady went 24-44 for just 183 yards and three interceptions. He also threw a touchdown pass, but it came during garbage time in the fourth quarter, with the Packers up 28-3. Brett Favre, on the other hand, played a low-throwing game, going 17-27 for just 147 yards. But when Favre threw he made it count, throwing three touchdown passes. Ahman Green was the Patriots-killer that day, picking up 157 all-purpose yards to go along with his two touchdowns, one rushing and one receiving. The only silver lining to this game is that the Packers’ loss to the Jets cost them a first-round bye, and they lost their wild card game against the Atlanta Falcons.

6. October 27, 1997: Packers 28, @Patriots 10

This game was billed as the rematch of Super Bowl XXXI, and the result was more or less the same. Favre went 23-44 for 239 yards and three touchdowns, and Drew Bledsoe went 20-36 for 248 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. The lone bright spot for the Patriots was wide receiver Terry Glenn, who caught seven passes for 163 yards. Both the Patriots and the Packers followed up their Super Bowl seasons in fine fashion. The Patriots, coached by the incompetent Pete Carroll, won the AFC East, ultimately losing in the divisional round of the playoffs. The Packers returned to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Denver Broncos, 31-21.

5. November 18, 1973: @Patriots 33, Packers 24

This was the first ever meeting between the Patriots and Packers, but there is little else to distinguish this victory. Both teams would finish their seasons with just five wins, well out of the playoffs. The Packers were already five years removed from their last Super Bowl win, and the Patriots were still 12 years from their first appearance. Neither team was good, nor would be good again for decades. The Patriots quarterback for this game was Jim Plunkett, who finished the game 18-32 for 348 yards. He rushed for a touchdown and threw for two more, including a 63-yarder to wide receiver Reggie Rucker in the third quarter. Plunkett was also picked off by Green Bay defensive back Ken Ellis in the third quarter, who returned the interception 47 yards for a touchdown. Overall, a forgettable game in a forgettable season.

4. October 2, 1994: @Patriots 17, Packers 16

Although Favre out-dueled Bledsoe twice in three games, in their first encounter it was Bledsoe who had the better game. Bledsoe went 29-53 for 354 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Favre went 25-47 for 294 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Neither quarterback was quite at the peak of his powers yet. Green Bay was leading 16-14 late in the game, but New England won on a last-minute 33-yard field goal by Matt Bahr. New England would go on to win the AFC East for just the second time in franchise history. Green Bay finished the season 9-7, secured a wild card, got to the second round of the playoffs and lost.

3. September 8, 1985: @Patriots 26, Packers 20

This time the higher-caliber Patriots avoided getting trapped against a Packers team that would finish the season just 8-8. The game was a defensive triumph for the Patriots. New England sacked Green Bay quarterback Lynn Dickey seven times, including three by Hall-of-Fame linebacker Andre Tippett, and three by linebacker Don Blackmon, once for a safety in the third quarter. The Patriots also dominated the ground game, out-gaining the Packers 208-59 in rushing (they each rushed for two touchdowns). Patriots quarterback Tony Eason had a competent game, completing 75 percent of his passes for 241 yards, a touchdown and an interception. The Patriots finished their season with an appearance in Super Bowl XX, where they were destroyed by the Chicago Bears, 46-10. Still, 1985 was easily the best season in Patriots history up until that point, and this game was emblematic of what made them so dominant all season.

2. Super Bowl XXXI, January 26, 1997: Packers 35, Patriots 21

Of the nine face-offs between Green Bay and New England, this the only one where both teams were playing at their peak of ability. The Packers were lousy from the mid-60s to the mid-90s, as were the Patriots, with 1985 as basically the only exception. But the 1996-97 season was the height of Favre’s career, long before it plummeted into team-killing, injury-dramatizing, alleged penis-texting mediocrity. And for the Patriots, this was Bledsoe’s best year, before he jumped off the stage at an Everclear concert and landed on a girl, forcing her to have emergency neck surgery. The Patriots put their best team in years up against the Packers, and it wasn’t enough. Favre hit wide receiver Andre Rison for a 54-yard touchdown pass on the Packers’ second offensive play of the game, and they never looked back. Favre went 14-27 for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Bledsoe threw two touchdowns of his own and put up comparable numbers (25-48, 253 yards), but he killed the Patriots offense with four interceptions. The Patriots also gave up three sacks to the legendary Reggie White, and Green Bay’s Desmond Howard was a special teams menace, returning four kickoffs for 154 yards and a touchdown, plus six punt returns for 90 more yards. But Super Bowl XXXI may have given Patriots fans a glimmer of what was to come: rookie Tedy Bruschi sacked Favre twice. The Packers finished off a tremendous season with a convincing victory, but their reign ended in the 20th Century. The 21st has belonged to the Patriots. Which leads us to…

1. November 19, 2006: Patriots 35, @Packers 0

A nice bookend to the #9 game. Never was the descent of one franchise so starkly contrasted with the ascent of another. Unlike 10 years before, this time it was New England that dominated on both sides of the line. Brady was on, going 20-31 for 244 yards. He threw four touchdown passes to four different receivers. The Patriots also ran for 122 combined rushing yards and a touchdown. The defense sacked Favre and second-year backup Aaron Rodgers five times, including 1.5 sacks each by Mike Vrabel and Ty Warren. And the defense held Favre and Rodgers to a combined 9-27, 105-yard performance. In winning this game, the Patriots snapped a string of three straight losses to the Packers, going back to 1994. It was also their first victory at Lambeau Field. The Packers finished the 2006 season 8-8, not good enough to make the playoffs. The 2006 Patriots made it to the AFC Championship, where they lost to the Indianapolis Colts. The loss highlighted the lack of receiving talent on the Patriots roster, and it paved the way for the featured-receiver offense the Patriots used from 2007 until Randy Moss was traded after Week Four in the 2010 season. With his departure, the Patriots have returned to the spread offense that won them three Super Bowls and seems likely to carry them to another this February. But first they’ll have to take care of business on Sunday against Green Bay.

Patriots-Packers Preview

Both the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots carry the burden of history on their shoulders. The Packers used to be one of the great franchises in sports history. They’ve won a combined 12 NFL (pre AFL-merger) and Super Bowl championships. They’ve produced Hall of Famers with names like Curly Lambeau, Bart Starr and Reggie White. And they gave us one of the greatest coaches of all time in Vince Lombardi, a man who so fundamentally transformed the game of football that they named the Super Bowl trophy after him. Green Bay was once the joke of the NFL, un-findable on a map. After Lombardi, it was nicknamed “Titletown.”

But Green Bay is no longer “Titletown.” Foxborough has replaced it- the only town that can boast three Super Bowl victories in four appearances over the last ten years. Once again a joke of a franchise has been transformed by a coach that could quite possibly go toe to toe with the great Lombardi. Bill Belichick may not have Lombardi’s fury, but he probably spends as much time in the film room as Lombardi did. And Belichick is every bit as good at taking unknowns and rejects and maximizing their potential, getting championship-producing performances from players cast off by other teams. As for the Patriots themselves, consider this: sportswriter Albert Kretchmer once called Starr the “symbol of its [football’s] potential for innocence and glory.” The Patriots have that too, plus his hair is way classier.

The Packers are coming to Gillette Stadium. It’s the first time in eight years that they’ve played here. A team looking to put a vice-grip on the AFC East and top seed in the AFC will try to handle its business against a team whose playoff chances are fading fast. Let’s see who’s who.

Green Bay Packers

Offensive Stars: Aaron Rodgers (if he plays), Greg Jennings. There’ll be no word until Saturday as to whether the Patriots will face the dangerous Rodgers or the ineffective Matt Flynn. Right now, Packers coach Mike McCarthy is saying they’ll air on the “high side of caution” with Rodgers as he recovers from his second concussion of the season. That’s bad news for Packers fans. Rodgers is a very good quarterback. He might actually be the second-best quarterback in the NFC. Rodgers is among the top ten quarterbacks in total yardage, yards per game and completion percentage. He’s sixth among quarterbacks in touchdowns with 23. And he’s fourth in the NFL in yards per attempt and quarterback rating. Whether or not the Packers can win, if Rodgers can play he’s dangerous. He’s also an under-rated running quarterback, and the Patriots have shown a small vulnerability to designed or broken-play quarterback runs this season. It’s not a huge deal, but it is there. And since the Packers can’t run the ball with their running backs, a healthy Rodgers might be able to extend drives and at least put some points on the board. Flynn, on the other hand, has yet to throw a touchdown pass.

Greg Jennings, meanwhile, is a very good wide receiver. He’s fifth in the league in receiving yardage with 996, third in touchdown receptions with 11, and eighth in the NFL in yards per game with 76.6. The Patriots will probably put Devin McCourty on Jennings. This makes sense on two levels. It puts the Patriots’ best corner on their best receiver, and it allows McCourty to try and exploit Jennings’ slight tendency to fumble. Jennings has already fumbled the ball twice, and McCourty showed against the Bears that he has some skill at stripping the ball. Without Rodgers and with Jennings neutralized, the Packers offense will not be able to hang with the offensive firepower of the Patriots.

Defensive Stars: Clay Matthews, Tramon Williams. Matthews guy is a beast of a linebacker. He’s already recorded 12.5 sacks for a combined 88 lost yards. He is dangerous, and that’s bad news for a Patriots offensive line that’s allowing over 1.5 sacks per game. The Patriots will probably shift their tight ends to more blocking schemes to try and neutralize him, or use running backs in check-down plays over the middle to keep Matthews from cheating up all the time.

At corner, Williams is a solid defender. He’s knocked down 17 passes thrown his way, good for third in the NFL. He’s also picked off five passes, forced one fumble and recovered two. But he can only cover one Patriot, and New England has had zero trouble neutralizing good corners by varying their passing attack on every play. He’ll get a ball or two, but the likelihood that he really gets more than a couple of play-making opportunities is low. But Matthews will be very hard to keep out of the Patriots backfield.

Keep an Eye On: Charles Woodson. The other half of the Packers’ cornerback duo. Not as dangerous, but Patriots receivers should be careful. He’s already forced four fumbles, and he has the second-most tackles among cornerbacks in the NFL. If the Patriots catch the ball on him, they’d better make sure they secure it, because Woodson will go after it. Meanwhile, his tackling skills may minimize the yards-after-catch that the Patriots rack up with such precision.

New England Patriots

Offensive Stars: Tom Brady, Patriots passing attack. Is there really anyone else? Brady is, simply put, the best quarterback in the NFL right now. Seventh in yards per game, sixth in yards (3,398), fifth in yards per attempt (8.00). Those are all nice. How about highest scoring with 29 touchdown passes? How about fewest interceptions among starting quarterbacks with only four? How about highest rating in the NFL at 109.9? Brady is pristine, and his passing attack is ungodly.

There’s no one star in the Patriots passing system, which is bad for statistics but great for game-plans. The Patriots never fall into an offensive pattern, so it’s impossible to scheme against them. They might run an out-route with a wide receiver, or they might run a slant route. Or a post-route. Or they’ll use a tight end. Or a running back. Whoever gets open gets the ball. That’s the offense that’s brought championships to New England, and right now it’s firing on all cylinders. It’s the highest scoring, and it’s the most efficient passing attack in the AFC (66.5 percent). Mike McCarthy’s an alright coach, but there’s no way he can game plan for this. And by the time he’s figured it out, Belichick will just come up with something new at halftime.

Defensive Stars: Devin McCourty, Jerod Mayo. McCourty has improved phenomenally across this season, and it’s been fun to watch. He’s learned not just how to be a cornerback, but how to be a great cornerback. He has the athleticism to stay stride for stride with his receivers, then turn around and cleanly play the pass without committing pass interference. The result: six interceptions returned for 110 yards, both tops in the AFC. This guy could legitimately win Defensive Rookie of the Year. At the very least, a Pro Bowl nod.

Mayo, meanwhile, leads all tacklers in the NFL with 148. We’d always hoped he’d blossom into the defensive force he was in college, but injuries kept holding back his development. Finally healthy, he’s showing everyone what he can do. Mayo also can handle his business on his own. Of his 148 tackles, 97 were solo tackles, highest in the NFL (he also leads the NFL in assisted tackles with 51). He’s not a great interceptor or pass defender, but if you try to run through him you’ll pay a heavy price. He’s also fairly sure-handed, having already recovered two fumbles. McCourty helps guard the sideline, and Mayo helps prevent big runs up the middle. That doesn’t leave much space for an opposing offense to work in, and it increases the likelihood of a big defensive play. The New England defense isn’t great (average against the run, terrible against the pass), but its capacity for big plays has created a lot of games where teams put up big numbers but few points. And when all is said and done, points are all that matter.

Keep an Eye On: BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Although he hasn’t put up many big-yardage games, Green-Ellis has been rock-solid in the red zone. He’s scored 11 rushing touchdowns, putting him in a four-way tie for second in the NFL. His specialty seems to be short-yardage power runs, meaning he’s not always so effective in the middle of the field. But get close to the end zone and his ability to push through tacklers and fall forward for a few extra yards makes him dangerous. If the Patriots get inside the 5-yard line, expect to see a few carries for Green-Ellis. New England has other backs to eat up the middle of the field and convert third downs; leave the scoring to Green-Ellis.

Prediction: Patriots 28, Green Bay 10

If Aaron Rodgers can’t go, the Packers’ score drops to six. But both Rodgers and Flynn are going to have a hard time reading a Patriots defense that has produced 27 turnovers. Additionally, even though Rodgers can run, he might not have time. The Packers’ offensive line is porous, having allowed 27 sacks already. The Patriots are going to bring pressure and try to make Rodgers throw up jump-balls that its athletic secondary can pick off. Or they might fake pressure, drop back into coverage, and intercept Rodgers/Flynn that way. But neither quarterback is going to have an easy time with this defense, and Flynn in particular is going to be playing under serious pressure, both from the turnover-hunting Patriots and from the Packers who need a win to stay alive in the playoff race. And whichever quarterback goes is going to have to throw a lot, because the Packers don’t have a good running back anymore. Which is too bad, because a successful running game is actually what hurts the Patriots. In both of their losses this season, the opposing team rushed for over 125 yards. If the Packers are forced to rely on the pass, they’ll rack up yards, but they’ll rack up turnovers too. And with each pick Flynn throws, his confidence is going to diminish more and more. Pick him off twice and he might completely fold.

Defensively, the Packers are going to have some success, but not enough. And they’re going to have to play a lot, because you need a running game to manufacture long drives. The Patriots controlled the ball for nearly 60 percent of the last two games, and that’s a testament to their tendency to score, force a quick turnover, then score again, and repeat this until the opposing defense is completely gassed. The Packers might get a sack or two, they might even force a fumble (but not an interception). But they won’t make enough plays to counter a Patriots defense that will eat their quarterback alive, whoever he is. Factor in Green Bay’s mediocre special teams unit (28th in the NFL in kickoff return yardage, 28th in the NFL in average punt returns), and you have another victory for a Patriots squad that seems destined for Dallas in February.

White Riot! Most Yardage This Season Powers Pats to Playoffs in Snowy Chicago

It was a snowstorm powerful enough to deflate the Minneapolis Metrodome. But it could not deflate was the New England Patriots offense. The Patriots set a new season high with 475 yards of total offense, more than enough to carry them to a 36-7 victory over the Chicago Bears and clinch a spot in the playoffs. Combined with a New York Jets loss to the Miami Dolphins, New England now enjoys a two-game lead in the AFC East and is tied for the best record in the NFL at 11-2.

Patriots Score on Six Straight Possessions

The Patriots went three-and-out to open the game, perhaps giving the Bears some hope that they could hang with terrifyingly efficient Patriots offense. But any hope they might have felt after one defensive stand was killed on the next Patriots possession. Tom Brady could not be fazed by the snow, the wind or the starting field position (their own 15). He calmly marched the team 85 yards, capping off a drive in which he went 6/8 for 68 yards with a 7-yard strike to Rob Gronkowski, putting the Patriots up 7-0 with just under six minutes left in the first quarter. Gronkowski ran straight at the always-crafty and menacing Brian Urlacher, stopped in front of him and turned around. It required perfect timing for Brady to find Gronkowski, made all the more impressive by the gusting snow that sometimes reached whiteout conditions.

The key play on that drive was a 24-yard strike to Wes Welker, who was able to keep his footing enough to drag Bears defenders for almost 9 yards while being tackled, finally going down at the Chicago 10-yard line. Although the Patriots sometimes struggled to tackle on special teams (the Bears managed 28 yards per kickoff return), the Bears were the far weaker tackling defense. Numerous times the Patriots runners barreled straight through the teeth of the Bears defense for extra yardage. Numerous times the wide receivers dragged the corners behind them after making the catch.

After the defense forced a second-straight punt by the Bears offense, Brady went right back at it, this time starting even deeper, at the New England 13-yard line. This time it was the running game that did most of the work. BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushed for 38 of his 87 rushing yards, including a 17-yarder from the Chicago 20-yard line that broke a tackle. Then Danny Woodhead punched it into the end zone from 3 yards out, putting the Patriots up 14-0 in the second. The Patriots running backs combined for 126 total yards and a touchdown.

The Patriots next scored six points on two successful Shayne Graham field goals, then got the ball back one more time before the half. On third-and-9 from the New England 41-yard line, the Bears defense lined up casually, figuring the Patriots would not risk a deep ball through the storm. But that’s exactly what they did, since the Bears defense had played so anemically in the first half that it was hardly a risk at all. Deion Branch made a move on cornerback Charles Tillman at the line, and Tillman let him go by without trying to jam him. Brady then lofted an easy, floating pass to Branch, who then had a clear path to the end zone. Branch beat the pursuing safety and put the Patriots up 33-0 (Graham missed the point-after) at halftime. Branch finished the game with eight catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. Brady finished the game 27/40 for 369 yards and two touchdowns.

The Patriots ended their streak of scoring possessions at six, on a 29-yard field goal to put them up 36-0 with just under 11 minutes left in the third quarter. They didn’t score again, but they didn’t have to.

Turnovers Kill Bears’ Chances

The starkest contrast between the Patriots and the Bears was in turnovers. The Patriots committed none (except one on downs), and Brady has now thrown 268 consecutive passes without an interception. The Bears turned the ball over four times, and it hurt the team every time. First, Devin McCourty stripped wide receiver Johnny Knox after a 1-yard completion to the Chicago 39 in the second quarter. Gary Guyton, playing more this game due to Brandon Spikes’ four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drug violations, grabbed the loose ball and ran it in for the touchdown, putting the Patriots up 21-0. Later in the second, defensive end Eric Moore stripped Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, and Jerod Mayo recovered it at the Chicago 17. This lead to the second field goal, a 25-yarder that put the Patriots up 27-0.

Even when the Patriots were not scoring off Bears turnovers, they were still using them to kill Bears scoring drives and keep Chicago from getting back in the game. After a 61-yard Devin Hester kickoff return set up a 1-yard Chester Taylor touchdown run to cut the Patriots lead to 36-7, the Bears penetrated into Patriots territory again on their next possession, which came with less than three minutes left in the third quarter. But on second-and-10 from the New England 26, Guyton dropped back into coverage and intercepted Cutler’s pass. The Patriots punted at the end of the ensuing possession, but by the time Chicago got the ball back they had just over nine minutes to score four times. That possession also ended in turnover, this time with Brandon Meriweather picking off Cutler in the end zone, after Cutler had been flushed and tried to throw it away. The Patriots took over, ran enough plays to put the game out of reach (including a beautiful 28-yard floated to Brandon Tate, who caught the ball in a fully extended layout dive), then knelt down three times to end the game.

Trap Evaded

This game had all the makings of a “trap game.” The Patriots were playing on short rest, on the road, in the snow, against a tough opponent, and having just defeated a division rival in a game whose atmosphere and intensity would be impossible to replicate. But the Patriots proved just how good they were, building up an insurmountable first-half lead and never looking back. The Bears managed three sacks and six defensed passes, but the third-ranked defense in the NFL never made a play that actually swung momentum back in their favor. The Patriots controlled the ball almost twice as much as the Bears (39:41 to 20:19), and the defense held Chicago to just 185 total yards, including only 42 on the ground (and half of that was from two Cutler scrambles). Any still-held belief that Chicago is somehow grittier because it plays in the snow was put to rest by a Patriots team that showed what real teams can do, regardless of the weather. The Patriots continue to chew up and spit out the other “elite” teams in the NFL. Week in and week out, they prove that no matter how good these other teams think they might be, the Patriots are still the team to beat.

The 2011 Red Sox Lineup

With Theo Epstein’s epic trade for Adrian Gonzalez, and just-as-epic signing of Carl Crawford, the Red Sox just got scary. Defensively, the Red Sox will put six combined Gold Gloves on the field between Varitek, Youkilis, Pedroia, Gonzalez (two) and Crawford. When Mike Cameron starts, that number bumps all the way up to nine. Offensively, they have a plethora of power, but how best to use it? Here’s my analysis of the best lineup the Red Sox can put on the field.

1) Jacoby Ellsbury: A lot of people think Crawford should bat lead, and that’s because of his power. Crawford is a more powerful hitter, no doubt about it. He’s had six double-digit home run years. Ellsbury’s had none. Crawford has had at least five seasons of 75+ RBIs. Ellsbury’s topped out at 60. Crawford’s total slugging is .441. Ellsbury’s is almost 40 points lower at .405. Crawford has more pop. Problem is, lead-off isn’t supposed to be a power position. There are some power lead-off hitters, but they’re not essential. In some ways they’re even detrimental, because power hitters tend to make outs more frequently than contact hitters, and not having lead-off guys on base negates your real power hitters ( your 3- and 4-hole guys), who have a far higher likelihood of hitting it with enough juice to score runs than the lead-off guys do. So in reality, you just want the better hitter, and that’s Ellsbury. While Crawford’s batting average (.296) is slightly higher than Ellsbury’s (.291), Ellsbury leapfrogs Crawford in on-base percentage (.344 vs. .337). A lot of that has to do with Crawford’s strikeout numbers, which are very high. Ellsbury’s highest strikeout total is 70, in 2009. Crawford has eclipsed that seven times since his 2002 rookie year. He’s eclipsed 100 strikeouts three times. He’s walked more in his last two seasons than Ellsbury did in 2008 and 2009 (97 walks for Crawford, 90 for Ellsbury), but strikeouts kill an offense a lot more than walks help it. As total hitting packages, Ellsbury has the edge if all you want is to get on base.

But what about once you’re on the bases already? Longtime Red Sox fans need no reminder how deadly a base stealer Crawford is. I think Varitek must have breathed a sigh of relief when Boston got Crawford, because he knew he wouldn’t have to try and throw Crawford out any more. But as good as Crawford is, Ellsbury is slightly better. Ellsbury stole 70 bases in 2009. Crawford has never stolen more than 60. And as smart a runner as Crawford is (he’s got Dave Roberts’ timing and knowledge), Ellsbury is actually slightly more successful. Crawford is an 82 percent base stealer. Ellsbury is an 85 percent base stealer. The bottom line is that both of these players can be elite lead-off men, but with Ellsbury you trade pop for a slightly higher likelihood of getting on base and taking extra bases. Power is nice, but the Red Sox have more than enough bats to drive home the lead-off and 2-hole hitters. The extra bases Ellsbury gives the Red Sox will translate to more runs than the extra home runs Crawford hits.

2) Dustin Pedroia: Dustin Pedroia is a prototypical 2-hole hitter: great at getting on base, with more power than the lead-off but less than the clean-up guys. And Pedroia won Rookie of the Year and AL MVP in that batting position. I don’t think you mess with that. Let Ellsbury get on base, let Pedroia move him to third with a single or a double off the Green Monster, then wait for someone else to drive them both home. Pedroia also has sneaky speed, an 82.3 percent base stealer himself. In a first-and-third situation with Ellsbury and Pedroia, a double-steal is certainly a possibility. Pedroia’s great on-base percentage (.369) mixed with his moderate power makes him a terrific second hitter. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

3) David Ortiz: Another case of a man making his bones hitting from the same position in the lineup year in and year out. Ortiz has also never been successful hitting in any other position. They’ve tried moving him to bat fourth, and it never works out. Ortiz does his best work when someone else backs him up and forces pitchers to give him something to hit. For most of his career, that person was Manny Ramirez. Then Kevin Youkilis took over the spot, with moderate success. Now, it will be Adrian Gonzalez (more on that later). But Ortiz stays where he is. You also have to keep in mind that Ortiz is going to be sore about not getting a better deal than his $12.5 million option. If the Red Sox also start moving him in the lineup, you’re going to start hearing a lot of grumbling. He might even ask to be traded if he struggles in the new batting order and doesn’t get his old spot back. Look, Ortiz has cemented his place in the uppermost echelon of beloved Red Sox. He’s entering the twilight of his career, so let’s give him what he wants, o.k.? Good, glad we had this chat.

4) Adrian Gonzalez: The fourth slot in the lineup is all about power. Nothing else matters. And with Gonzalez, it’s simple math when compared with Youkilis. Gonzalez has hit at least 30 home runs every year for the last four seasons. Youkilis has never hit 30 home runs in a season. In the last four seasons, Gonzalez has hit 419 RBIs. Kevin Youkils has hit 354. Gonzalez hits a home run every 18.9 at-bats. Youkilis needs 24.8. Gonzalez’s slugging is .504. Youkilis’ is .497. Even Youkilis’ vaunted walking ability is not so much better than Gonzalez’s. Youkilis walked 233 times between 2008 and 2009, his last two full seasons. But Gonzalez’s 212 walks in his last two seasons are nothing to sneeze at, either. So ask yourself, who’s your best chance to drive in runs? Gonzalez is the clear answer. But don’t worry about Youkilis: history has shown he can bat in multiple spots in the lineup without missing a beat. He actually batted better from the 5-hole (.326) over the last three seasons than from any other position.

5) Kevin Youkilis: Anyone else think a 3-4-5 of Ortiz-Gonzalez-Youkilis would scare the poop out of most pitchers? The fifth through seventh positions in an AL lineup tend to be increasingly weaker power hitters, saving any real speed for the last two spots. Hopefully the lineup turns over mid-inning, giving your power hitters a chance to drive in those baserunners. So who’s the best hitter of what’s left? That answer is clearly Kevin Youkilis. He won’t lost too many at-bats across the season by dropping a spot in the lineup, and he’s more than capable of driving in the power hitters who are in turn driving in the lead-off guys. A three- or four-run inning is more than possible with a lineup this deep in power.

6) J.D. Drew: Believe it or not, this is actually the last year of J.D. Drew’s contract. This is great in two ways. First, it means that Drew is on his way out, soon to be replaced by a better or at least more likable right fielder. Drew’s not a bad guy, but his even, unemotional attitude doesn’t play well in a town where grit is so highly valued (think Trot Nixon). Second, the only time Drew always does well is during contract years. His best year was in Atlanta, where he knew he was on a one-year leash. In Los Angeles, his home run total jumped from 15 to 20 in his last two years because of his contract status. And the same can be expected this year. Will he be amazing? No. But we might get some more flashes of the man who’s hit so many postseason home runs, whose coolness translates to a hot bat. But again, the sixth hitter is just a worse power hitter than the fifth and better than the seventh. And that’s what Drew is: the middle of the second echelon of hitters.

7) Jason Varitek/Jared Saltalamacchia: I had to think about this one, because if Jed Lowrie starts, he’s far more likely to hit a home run than either catcher (Lowrie hit a home run every 19 at-bats last season; Varitek’s career AB/HR is 26.8, Saltalamacchia’s 39.2 over his four healthy seasons). But once you get into the bottom three hitters, you also have to start taking speed into account again. Lowrie has stolen a couple of bases (literally), while Varitek hasn’t swiped a bag since 2007, and Saltalamacchia never has. So you save any speed or on-base ability for the 8-hole, and you keep your weakest power hitter in the seventh slot. That’s the catcher, whichever you get. And if Marco Scutaro starts at shortstop, this lineup still works. Scutaro actually can steal bases, and his career AB/HR is a dismal 55.3. He’s not a guy you want in any position where a home run is even remotely expected, so he’s stuck in the 8-hole. Which leads us to….

8) Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie: The eighth position in the lineup is kind of a no man’s land. There’s no real expectation of run production, nor is there a real expectation of getting on base. So in general you take your weakest hitter and put him there, then you hope for the best. And that’s what Scutaro and Lowrie are. I liked Scutaro last season. He played 150 games while dealing with recurrent shoulder and nerve pains. That kind of consistency and resiliency is commendable. And I still think you need to give Lowrie a full year at least on the major-league bench, if only to decide whether you’re going to trade him or make him the shortstop of the future. The best place to give Lowrie at-bats is from the eighth slot, where the expectations are the lowest.

9) Carl Crawford: It does seem a little like a crime to relegate a hitter as good as Crawford to the bottom of the lineup, especially when you’re paying him so much. But the 9-hole isn’t what it is in the NL. AL lineups are now built to string the ninth position back to the first and second. A lot of teams have a speedy hitter bat last, because if both he and the lead-off man can get on base, they can both score with a two-out double from the second or third hitter in the lineup. And that’s what the Red Sox have in Crawford and Ellsbury: a deadly duo that can get on base and swipe bags while they’re on the base path. That tandem will really be dangerous in the middle of the game, when the batters won’t be going 1-2-3, then 4-5-6, then 7-8-9. And if Boston gets any production from Drew, the catchers or the shortstops, Crawford will be in a great position to drive runs in while getting on base himself. Bat him last, then watch the fireworks. The Red Sox can already generate runs through the top and middle of its lineup. Crawford enables them to score from the bottom of the lineup, too. Shades of 2003.

So there you go. The lineup that I think maximizes run-scoring potential for the 2011 lineup. This could very well be different from what Boston goes with (Crawford’s salary and high profile might force them to move him up to second, for instance), but if they do use this lineup, remember that you saw it here first.

Now Witness the Full Power…

Many have called the New England Patriots the “Evil Empire.” Fine. That makes Bill Belichick Emperor Palpatine. Tom Brady and the Patriots are his Death Star. And the full power of Belichick’s fully armed and operational battle station was on display Monday night in Foxboro, where the Patriots reduced the Jets to nothing but atoms. Gone like Alderaan. Millions of voices (all New Yorkers) suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. Because despite the ending of “Return of the Jedi,” there’s really only one lesson to be learned from the master of the Dark Side: don’t… piss… him… off. Because just when you think you have him, he’ll shooting lightning out of his fingers and kill you. Happened in “Revenge of the Sith.” Almost happened in “Jedi.” Luke thinks he’s licked the Emperor, but in reality all he’s done is make him mad.

Besides a similarly autocratic coaching style and the same proclivity for hooded garments, Belichick shares that trait with the Emperor. If you piss him off, he will electrocute you. Monday night showed that Belichick still has vast reservoirs of untapped coaching prowess. How else do you explain what happened? Belichick decided that for this one game, he was going to completely out-coach Rex Ryan. Not just out-coach. Out-think. Belichick got pissed off, and the Jets paid the price. And why not? The Jets have been the darlings of the NFL ever since they mugged the national spotlight with their ridiculous “Hard Knocks” series, their charismatic and effervescent coach, and their stud-of-the-moment quarterback. And Belichick has felt they haven’t deserved it. Can you blame him? Look who they’ve beaten (besides the Pats): Miami, Buffalo, Minnesota, Denver, Detroit, Cleveland, Houston, Cincinnati. Combined record: 30-66 (31.3 winning percentage). No win against a team with a winning record or ranked even second in their division. In their two losses besides New England, they combined for nine points. The Patriots meanwhile, have beaten Pittsburgh, Baltimore, San Diego, and Indianapolis, the most dangerous 6-6 team in the NFL. How dare those fools from New Jersey steal Belichick’s spotlight? So Belichick got mad… and he struck the Jets down with all of his hatred.

Monday night, the Patriots used moves never seen before in Belichick’s tenure with the Patriots. None was more evident than Danny Woodhead’s 50-yard shovel run at the end of the third. Brady had been reading the defenses all night, and he lined up in shotgun. The Jets read it as a pass play and dropped back into coverage. Big mistake. Instead of dropping back to pass, Brady threw a 2-foot softball laterally to Woodhead, who had lined up next to Brady in shotgun formation. With all of those linebackers and safeties in coverage, all the offensive linemen had to do was create a seam. Woodhead, cast off like Anakin Skywalker from the Jets and welcomed to the Dark Side, burst through. By the time the Jets secondary reacted and got to him, he was at the 12-yard line. Two plays later, Belichick and Brady tricked the Jets again. Aaron Hernandez lined up on the line, threw one quick block and ran an out-route. Brady could have turned around and thrown the ball over his head, and Hernandez would still have had time to track it down and catch it. That’s how far away the nearest Jet was. And despite already being up four touchdowns with 15 minutes to go, Brady was ecstatic and emphatic. There he was, pumping his fists and jumping in the air. Forget crushing the Bengals or the Bills or the Lions. Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration.

All of the Jets’ bullshit postering pissed Belichick off, and he took it out in spades. Belichick took his coaching to a never-before-seen level. The Jets could do nothing with an offense that shifted and changed and morphed throughout the game, never settling into a definable pattern. Defensively, the team continued its return to the heyday of the Empire: bend, then break the other guy. Sure, Sanchez put up yards. But the Jets didn’t score. Their first field goal attempt sailed, in Bob Ueker’s immortal words, juuuuuuust a bit outside. A poor coaching decision by a coach who from the word “go” had no idea how to beat the Patriots. Their final scoring attempt ended in an interception. Just like the offense, the defense shifted and changed and morphed. Patriots linebackers and safeties would never settle at the line of scrimmage. Ryan and Sanchez had no idea how much pressure was coming, and even when they used timeouts they still couldn’t figure it out. By the time the interceptions started, Sanchez had such a poor read on the Patriots’ defenders that they barely had to move to pick him off. Brandon Spikes moved a total of 18 inches from where he started to make his pick. Two possessions later, James Sanders made a similar pick with a similar lack of movement. The defense was such a mystery to Sanchez that the safeties just faded into the mists of Dagobah, unseen until they strike.

Don’t make Bill Belichick mad. He has the level he usually coaches at, a level that still wins 72 percent of the time. But if you piss him off, there’s another level. When he coaches at that level, run and hide. Because then he’s not aiming to beat you. He’s aiming to kill you. To decimate you. To grind you into powder and let the winds scatter you throughout the country. To make you a warning to every other NFL team that there is something far darker and scarier beneath the grim visage of the senator from Naboo. Anger him, and you’ll get to see what lies beneath. And you’ll be lucky if you survive it.

45-3. No star system will dare oppose the Emperor now.

Patriots Obliterate Random D-3 College Team; Jets Nowhere to be Found

It was the match-up of the season: the New England Patriots versus the New York Jets, the two best teams in the AFC. The Patriots were unbeaten at home, having won 25 straight at Gillette. The Jets were unbeaten on the road this season. At stake: the lead in the AFC East and the best record in the conference. The stage: Monday Night Football. Problem is, the Jets never showed. Not on offense, not on defense, not on special teams. No players, no coaches. And whoever it was the Patriots did play, they simply were no match for a Patriots squad that played four quarters of almost flawless football. The end result: a 45-3 Patriots victory in Foxboro, setting a new record for consecutive home victories by a quarterback. You almost feel bad for these wannabe-NFL players. They just didn’t know what they were getting into when they stole the real Jets’ uniforms and tried to play with the big boys.

Offense: Unstoppable

Tom Brady saw through every defensive alignment the “Jets” could muster. They sacked him three times, yes, but that was their one claim to fame. Brady went 21/29, passing for 326 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. The “Jets” could not fool him, no matter what they tried. If they blitzed, he dumped it off underneath, like when he hit Deion Branch (three catches for 64 yards and a touchdown) for 19 yards on third-and-22 from the “Jets” 44-yard line. The Patriots went for it on fourth-and-3, and Brady hit Branch on a quick slant route over the middle. Branch picked up the first, but clearly these “Jets” never learned how to tackle, as Branch easily broke two “defenders” to run it in for the score, putting the Patriots up 17-3 in the first.

Brady also consistently fooled the “Jets,” and not just with his bread-and-butter play-action pass. On second-and-10 from the New England 21-yard line, Brady lined up behind the center, and the “Jets” read it as a run play. Brady faked an end-around route, then threw a screen pass to Wes Welker (80 yards receiving and a touchdown), who cut inside for a quick 11 yards and a first down. Two plays later, on third-and-4 from their 38, Brady lined up in shotgun, and the “Jets” read it as a passing play. Instead, Brady shoveled the ball to Danny Woodhead (game-high 104 receiving yards), who burst through a gap on the left side of the line and sprinted towards the sideline. He was finally dragged down at the “Jets” 12-yard line. That drive ended on a 1-yard touchdown out route by Aaron Hernandez, putting New England up 38-3 to open the fourth quarter.

The Patriots offense had an answer to everything these wannabe-NFL players tried. They scored on seven of 10 possessions. They went three-and-out only twice. And inside the red zone, they were lethal. BenJarvus Green-Ellis did the lion’s share of the running, rushing for 72 yards on 18 carries. More importantly, he scored touchdowns from 1 and 5 yards out, using his strength to power right through the teeth of the vaunted “Jets defense.”

When the Patriots weren’t out-thinking the “Jets,” they were out-maneuvering and over-powering them. Every time a tackle was made, it came only after the Patriot receiver or rusher had fallen forward for at least four extra yards. On second-and-9 from the New England 41, Brady hit Hernandez for a quick slant. Hernandez then juked two defenders, cut back from the left to the right side of the field, and powered his way for 35 yards, all the way to the “New York” 24-yard line. Two plays later, on the 18-yard line, Brady hit Welker for a quick slant along the left sideline. Welker then barreled his way into the end zone, dragging “cornerback Drew Coleman” with him. The touchdown put the Patriots up 31-3 with just under five minutes to go in the third.

Defense: Big-Time Plays from Big-Time Playmakers

Sure, the “Jets” rushed for 152 yards. And sure, the Patriots only sacked “Mark Sanchez” once. But just as Brady over and over again fooled this highly touted “defense,” the defense over and over again fooled whoever had stolen Sanchez’s uniform and taken the field. The Patriots picked “Sanchez” off three times. The first came with the “Jets” facing second-and-8 from the Patriots 9-yard line with just under 10 minutes left in the third. Brandon Spikes crept a few steps closer to the line, then dropped a few steps back when “Sanchez” dropped back to pass. Barely moving, Spikes easily intercepted the pass, killing “New York’s” last serious scoring opportunity. That interception led to the Welker touchdown pass.

Devin McCourty also intercepted “Sanchez” on a deep pass from the New England 45-yard line with four minutes left in the third. McCourty was in single coverage against “Braylon Edwards,” running stride for stride with the wannabe-wide receiver. When the pass came their way, McCourty turned around and caught it easily. McCourty has improved tremendously at cornerback since the start of the season. Where once he would play the receiver and get flagged for pass interference, he now turns and plays the ball, either knocking it down or picking it.

The Patriots’ third interception came early in the fourth quarter, on the third-and-7 from the “Jets” 42-yard line. “Sanchez” dropped back to pass, but somehow never saw James Sanders, despite Sanders standing in the same spot for about 15 seconds. Sanders picked the pass off easily and returned it to the “Jets” 28-yard line. The ensuing drive ended with Green-Ellis’ second touchdown, putting the Patriots up 45-3 with just under 10 minutes left in the game. Green-Ellis also converted a fourth down on that drive, picking up 10 yards of straight power running in the process.

Special Teams: Not the Good Kind of “Special”

The “Jets” incompetence manifested in all aspects of the game, special teams included. On their first drive of the game, the “Jets” marched all the way to the Patriots 35-yard line before stalling out. With the Patriots already up 3-0, having scored on a 41-yard field goal to start the game, the “Jets” opted to try and tie the game with a 53-yarder of their own. Unfortunately, they didn’t have an actual NFL placekicker, and the kick was shanked wide to the left. On the ensuing Patriots drive, the Patriots went up 10-0 on Green-Ellis’ first touchdown. They were helped out by a 36-yard pass interference call against “safety Eric Smith,” who could do little more than shove Rob Gronkowski to the ground in the end zone. The ball was spotted at the 1-yard line, and the Patriots punched it in.

On their next possession, the “Jets” went three-and-out from their own 20-yard line. But their “punter” only managed to boot the ball 12 yards, to their 32-yard line. It took the Patriots just four plays to go up 17-0, on the fourth-down touchdown completion to Branch. The “Jets” averaged just over 30 yards per punt. The Patriots averaged nearly 47. The starting field differential, especially in the first half (43 vs. 21.5-yard line), gave the Patriots a definitive edge.

Coach: “They Kicked Our Butt”

“Rex Ryan” failed to manage the game as badly as his “players” failed to execute it. On third-and-1 on their opening drive, “Sanchez” tried a quarterback sneak and was ruled down a half-yard shy of the first down. “Ryan” challenged the spot of the ball, but the call was upheld. Curiously, “Ryan” opted to go for it on fourth down anyway, leading many to question what the point of wasting the challenge and the timeout was.

This failed challenge came back to haunt the “Jets” in the second quarter. On second-and-goal from the “Jets” 4-yard line, Brady completed a sideline pass to Brandon Tate in the end zone. Tate fell out of bounds as he caught it, and after a lengthy period the referees ruled it a touchdown. Having already wasted one challenge, “Ryan” did not have the luxury of automatically challenging this controversial call, and the Patriots went up 24-3. But given that there were no controversial Patriots plays in the second half, in retrospect the smart move was to challenge the touchdown call. But because he only had one challenge left in the game, “Ryan” couldn’t take the chance.

Even in the second half, “Ryan” was having problems with timeouts. On their first possession after the half, the “Jets” faced second-and-6 on the New England 20-yard line. “Ryan” tried to substitute in “wide receiver Brad Smith” to run the wildcat offense. But a mis-communication forced the team to call a timeout, and “Smith” was stopped two plays later before he could gain the first down. That drive ended in the Patriots’ first interception.

All in all, whoever it was the Patriots, it sure wasn’t the Jets, with their unflappable quarterback, shut-down defense and creative coaching. We’ll never know if the Jets just missed the bus from New Jersey, or if something more sinister happened. But whatever occurred, the Patriots are now on the inside-track to home-field advantage in the playoffs.

Robinson Starts and Stars: Celtics Blow Out Nets in New Jersey

Nate Robinson made his presence known from the very first shot of the game- a three-pointer from the top of the arch, which he drained. The message to the New Jersey Nets: don’t think this will be easy just because Rajon Rondo isn’t playing (sore hamstring). Given the starting opportunity, plus extended minutes due to a lack of available point guards, Robinson excelled, scoring 21 points while collecting six rebounds and six assists in a 100-75 Boston Celtics victory Sunday over the Nets. It was the Celtics’ seventh win a row, and their ninth consecutive win at the Prudential Center. Robinson tied a season high with 66.7 percent shooting, coming just shy of his season high for scoring, which came when he scored 22 in a losing effort against the Toronto Raptors on November 21.

Bench Comes Alive

The Celtics bench had come under fire for blowing a big lead to the Chicago Bulls on Friday, forcing the starters to play extra minutes (four starters had to play 32+ minutes). Against the Nets, however, they showed that not only could they maintain leads, they could also extend them. The Celtics began the second quarter leading 27-25. By the time the second quarter ended, the Celtics were leading 57-37, and they coasted through the rest of the game. The second quarter was highlighted by terrific play by Celtics reserves on both ends of the court.

After nearly two minutes of scoreless basketball, Glen Davis scored on a layup, and then Von Wafer (eight points, one rebound, one steal, one block in 18 minutes) followed suit, pushing the score to a more comfortable 31-25. Later on, Marquis Daniels drove to the line and got fouled. After making both free-throws, Daniels grabbed the ensuing errant inbound pass by the Nets and scored an easy layup, pushing the score to 37-27. Daniels also stole a pass off a Nets defensive rebound in the fourth quarter. He missed the layup, but Avery Bradley, playing backup point guard to Robinson, tipped it in, pushing the score to 94-66. Bad passing was a consistent problem for the Nets, who committed 18 turnovers in the game, which led to 16 Celtics points.

Daniels and Davis were also involved in a nice defensive play in the second. Davis deflected a Nets pass just beyond the three-point arch, which bounced right to Daniels, who drove straight at the basket. Daniels missed the shot, but Davis collected the offensive rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws, pushing the score to 48-29 with 3:35 left in the second. Davis finished the game with 16 points, including a 20-foot two-pointer as time expired in the second, and nine rebounds.

Daniels’ signature play came in the fourth quarter. Robinson brought the quarter-opening inbound pass up the floor, while Daniels hovered unguarded in the right corner of the court. Daniels then sprinted to the basket and leaped into the air. Robinson made a perfectly timed pass, and Daniels slammed it, pushing the lead to 82-53 to begin the final quarter. Daniels finished with 10 points, two steals and a block. He was one of five players to finish the game with double-digit points, along with Robinson, Davis, Ray Allen (13 points, five rebounds, four assists), and Kevin Garnett (13 points, 14 rebounds). It was Garnett’s second consecutive double-double, and his tenth this season.

The bench was so dominating that Doc Rivers was able to rest his starters for most of the second half. Playing time was split exactly 50-50 between starters and reserves.

The starters did have one exciting sequence midway through the third quarter. Caught behind the action, Robinson sprinted up-court as Garnett stole the ball. Garnett’s pass hit Robinson in the back, but it bounced right to Allen. Robinson continued running towards the basket, and Allen passed the ball behind him. Robinson had to stop and turn to find the ball, but he was still able to turn around again to face the basket and lay it in before the Nets could get back defensively.

Overpowering the Nets

The Celtics hold a considerable size advantage over the Nets, especially at center and power forward, and they used it on both ends of the court. The Celtics owned the Nets in the paint, outscoring New Jersey 52-28. The Celtics were stronger and faster, often beating their marks to the basket for the layup. In the second quarter, Ray Allen caught a Robinson pass and dribbled into the key. All five Nets swarmed him to contest the shot, but he still managed to squirm his way through for the easy 2-footer. All the Nets managed to do was hurt each other, with small forward Damian James smacking power forward Derrick Favors in the face. It was emblematic of the generally inept play by the mediocre-at-best Nets.

The Nets do not have a strong defensive center in Brook Lopez, nor a strong defensive power forward in Kris Humphries. This allowed the Celtics to box-out the Nets inside the paint, collecting eight offensive rebounds in the process. The Celtics abused Humphries in particular, with both Garnett and Davis able to push him around as they drained easy baskets.

Defensively, the Celtics consistently denied the Nets any inside presence, forcing New Jersey to consistently settle for long jump shots. The Celtics out-rebounded the Nets 49-36, and they only allowed New Jersey five offensive rebounds. The Nets could only get one shot for most possessions, and they shot only 37.5 percent when they did. That’s an easy way to win games.

Ten Fantastic Coaching Meltdowns

There’s nothing like a great rant by a coach or manager. It takes a specific combination of a bad loss, a bad question, and general craziness to create a truly momentous blow-up. But when they happen, it’s like mana from heaven for sports reporters. Professional athletes and coaches these days are so guarded, so careful to never let their true feelings show. Reporters have to try to bleed every ounce of color from their pre-screened, unemotional, stock answers. Now, perhaps reporters could ask better questions, but even a well thought-out question usually gets nothing good. So when a truly awesome rant is unleashed upon the unsuspecting media, it has the power to outlive a coach forever. With that said, here are my favorite ten tirades. With links!

Honorable Mention: Kevin Borseth, Michigan, 2/28/08. The rant itself isn’t that funny, but it’s one of the most jarring starts of a press conference you’ll ever see. I won’t spoil it, so just watch the opening 30 seconds, then click on to something better. But this particular rant comes after a loss to the Lady Badgers, so I had to throw it in there somewhere.

10) Roy Williams, North Carolina, March 2001. I liked this one because it involves monkeys. Seriously, you watch this and you have to watch it again. It’s truly bizarre. Usually you can figure out the context of a crazy coaching rant (a loss, a bad call, a bad question or article by the press). But this one you just wonder, “what the hell was that all about?” There’s not much context available for this, but I did find this New York Times article that might help explain it. Still, this is a man who works with college-aged boys full-time. You’d think he’d know better than to say what he says. This clip makes you wonder what happened next, and I can’t put this higher up without that information.

9) Herm Edwards, New York Jets, 10/20/02. Not a bad rant, but it comes after a Jets victory, so it’s kind of out-of-place. It’s not that he says “you play to win the game.” It’s the face that he makes while saying it, the posture he adopts, like it’s so patently obvious. Well if it’s so obvious, why are you saying it, Herm? There’s also some weird vibrato going on when he says “play” that kind of reminds you a little of the Old Dirty Bastard from the Wu-Tang Clan. But overall, this rant is “o.k” at best, and it hasn’t really replaced Edwards’ legacy as the worst clock-manager in NFL history. The whole rant just makes Edwards seem like a lame guy. If you’re gonna be smart, be smart. If you’re gonna be crazy, be crazy. But don’t be cliched, which is what this whole rant is. It’s the seriousness with which Edwards spews these cliches that make this rant miserable, like he actually thinks it’s revelatory to say that football’s goal is victory (so maybe there’s the answer to why he said it). Unlike what? Capoeira?

8) Dennis Green, Arizona Cardinals, 10/16/06. O.K., I actually can’t really make fun of Dennis Green for this. His Cardinals had just blown a 20-point lead in just over a quarter of play, and now he has to stand up in front of the press to answer questions. Think how devastated you would feel in that situation, how angry and cheated you would feel that you couldn’t keep your emotions to yourself, instead having to tell the world why your team lost. And history has vindicated Green a little, in that the Chicago Bears team the Cardinals played went on to the Super Bowl that season. So the loss can be at least partially attributed to the talent of his opponents, not just the ineptitude of his team. Still, this is a pretty funny rant, capped off by someone calling off-camera, “thanks, Coach,” at which point Green walks off the stage. You watch it and you get the feeling that you only got a taste of Green’s craziness. If the person who called that was the Media Relations director who then walks on camera, as I suspect it was, then in all likelihood Green would’ve gone even more crazy if he’d been allowed to stay at the podium. We’ll never know, so I can’t place this rant as high up as some of the others, where coaches are really given free reign to go as absolutely crazy as they want.

7) Bobby Knight, Indiana, March 1993. No rant list would be complete without some mention of Bobby Knight. The man has so many wonderful moments of absolute insanity. In this particular clip, Knight is asked about a player’s potential for next season. Knight responds by turning his water glass into a crystal ball, and he keeps up the gimmick for a solid minute and a half. Even the reporter starts playing along. Unintentionally funny is Knight’s “stroking” motion of the crystal ball, which should remind every man of his favorite pubescent activity. And Knight is just stringing the reporter along, thinking everything’s nice and playful, then he quits fooling around right at the end. Classic. Also classic is Knight’s chair throw against Purdue, 2/23/85. It’s a five minute clip, but you can pretty much get all of it by just watching from 1:00 to 2:00.

6) Joe Mikulik, Asheville Tourists, 6/25/06. I saw this tirade on SportCenter one night, and thought it was the best thing ever, until I saw guy at the top of this list. This is still a pretty awesome coaching meltdown, especially because from moment to moment, you just don’t know what this guy is going to do. Case in point: early on, he covers home plate in dirt, indicating that the ref couldn’t see it. But later on, after a solid bat-throwing routine, he comes back out and cleans off home plate. With bottled water, no less! This guy is like the Tracy Jordan of minor league baseball managers. Add to it some very clever musical selections by the PA guy in the stadium (my favorite is Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First?” as Mikulik steals one of the bases), and you get a solidly entertaining three and a half minutes.

5) Wally Backman, South Georgia Peanuts, 2007. You really can’t beat minor league baseball managers for fantastic meltdowns. And this one gets the added bonus of terrific sound and picture quality, since it’s an extra on a DVD. Anyway, this a truly classic manager rant, rife with so many expletives that Jay and Silent Bob might even ask “jeez, Wally, maybe tone it down a bit?” It also answers a question that many of us have asked from time to time: how many spare baseballs and bats are in a dugout? Answer: a lot. But, to be fair, Backman isn’t just a crazy a-hole. He is clearly concerned for player safety, as shown by his yelling “catcher, get out of the way” before throwing his 2,639th bat (numbers slightly elevated). And you can tell that Backman really put his heart and soul into this particular rant. He’s audibly winded by the affair, so much so that he and his ejected outfielder have to then go get a beer. I don’t think you’ll find this rant on too many other rant lists, but it really ought to be. I think I might start going to more Spinners and PawSox games just in case some weirdo manager flips out like this.

4) Jim Mora, Indianapolis Colts, 11/5/01. I have to throw this one in there, if only because it’s the most memorable. This will forever be what defines Jim Mora. I have no idea what his career winning percentage was. He coached the Saints and then the pre-Manning Colts, so my guess would be “not good.” But I bet that outside of New Orleans and Indianapolis, 95+ percent of all people who’ve heard of Mora at all only know him for this rant. First, he calls out his team, which is fine. They committed five turnovers. Had he stopped talking 20 seconds earlier, this likely would not have been a memorable rant (or one that analysts applauded him for, since he called out his team for horrible play). But then you have the classic case of a journalist asking exactly the wrong question. And what we get is “Playoffs?” It’s the parrot-like screech in Mora’s voice as he shouts this that makes it so memorable. “Play-offs.”It ‘s not really the funniest, nor the craziest rant in coaching history, but it’s so grating that once you hear it, you never forget it. Mora could cure cancer, make First Contact, and broker peace in the Middle East, all at the same time, and the thing he’ll be remembered for is “playoffs?”

3) John Chaney, Temple University, 2/13/94. Most crazy coaches are crazy in a benign sort of way. Think Grandpa in “The Simpsons.” They’ll say funny stuff, ramble, explode from time to time, but you never think they’re dangerous. Well…. meet John Chaney. This particular gem of a rant comes after a game against UMass and their coach John Calipari. I’ve never seen rants come to blows before, but this one nearly gets there. If Chaney hadn’t been restrained, he likely would’ve physically assaulted Calipari. As it is, he can barely be contained. You can hear him scream, “I’ll kill you,” “when I see you, I’m gonna kick your ass,” and “I’m gonna tell my kid to knock your (bleeping) kid in the mouth.” He’s probably talking about his players, but what if he’s talking about his actual progeny? Forget crazy, Chaney is downright scary, and that’s what makes this rant so priceless.

2) Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State, 9/22/07. Very rarely does a coach specifically go off on a single journalist the way that Gundy goes off on Oklahoman sportswriter Jenni Carlson. Many have questioned whether the latent discomfort that many athletes and coaches still feel at the presence of female sports journalists in the locker room caused Gundy to come down so hard on Carlson. But this rant is more than just misogyny disguised as outrage over journalistic integrity. It’s the way that Gundy manages to keep getting madder the entire time. He comes out, and you think things will be o.k. Then you seem him bring out the article, and you think there will be a rant, but you don’t know how bad. But with each sentence, Gundy gets madder and crazier. Even though he bashes the article, he kind of backhandedly bashes his quarterback (the subject of the article) too, saying that he gives his all at practice but doesn’t necessarily deliver on Saturday (you know… when it matters). And then it all builds to this glorious, ridiculous, hilarious shout of “Come after me! I’m a man! I’m 40!” There’s something about those last three lines that’s just so satisfying. By the end, you’re practically begging for some kind of absurd climax to this, and you finally get it in those three lines. Succinct, to the point, and bat-shit crazy. My favorite rant, but there’s still one tirade that’s even better.

1) Phil Wellman, Mississippi Braves, 6/1/07. Ok, technically, this isn’t exactly a rant. It’s more like a work of art. The Mississippi Braves are the AA affiliate of the Atlanta Braves. Playing against the then-independent Chattanooga Lookouts, Wellman gets ejected from the game for arguing with the umpire. What follows is really an homage to classic manager/umpire fights, with Wellman taking the time to show everything that previous coaches have done. He steals bases. He covers the plate with dirt, then outlines it. He pretends to eject the umps. It’s the “Shaun of the Dead” of coaching meltdowns. That in itself would be great, but then Wellman manages to take the crazy to never-before-seen levels. Wellman must have served in a war, because his pantomimed crawling through the mud, complete with hurling the rosen bag as a grenade, is just spot on. And then, as he’s leaving the game with not one but two bases (and one of the Lookout players is cracking up the whole time), he blows the crowd a kiss. Magnificent, Phil. Magnificent.

So there you go. Ten (12, technically) rants that hopefully put a smile on your face. Who knows where the next great rant will come from? My guess would be Rex Ryan. I’ll end this with one last link. I have often dreamed of either learning something like ProTools, Antares or GarageBand, or working with someone who already knows those programs, with the intention to create a techno remix of all of these rants. I thought it would become an instant hit, similar to the “Bed Intruder” song that remixed an interview with Antoine Dodson. Unfortunately, someone beat me to the bunch. Luckily for me, only 10,000 people have seen this, so I’m glad I didn’t waste a lot of time on the project. But as a summary of all the links that came before, here you go.