My two favorite football teams are in serious trouble through the first few weeks of their seasons. No, I’m not one of those weirdos who supports two NFL teams (no offense, weirdos). I support the Indianapolis Colts, who play American football, and I support the Arsenal F.C., who plays football (soccer) in the Barclays Premier League in England.
As a supporter of both for as long as I can remember, this is the first year that I’ve been simultaneously, seriously worried about the two. It’s strange. What’s even stranger is that the two clubs seem to be having parallel seasons with parallel issues.
Let me break it down for you.
Arsene Wenger, the manager for Arsenal, has always taken pride on building from within and not relying on the offseason transfer window to find superstars for his team. He believes in building from the Arsenal youth club and teaching those young players the Arsenal play style. It was a great system for a long time but with the new trend of rivals like Chelsea and Manchester City spending their entire budgets on superstars from other leagues, it’s become increasingly difficult to crack the top 4, let alone make a true run at the league championship.
Ryan Grigson, the GM for the Colts, apparently takes pride in pissing off the rest of the organization and not relying on free agency to get a decent offensive line to protect Luck or a secondary to ensure Luck isn’t throwing from behind every week. It’s never been a great system and rivals like the New England Fucking Patriots have a jaunty laugh every year when they demolish Indianapolis.
When the transfer window opened this past summer, Wenger was said to be changing his ways a bit, putting in bids for superstars like Real Madrid’s Karim Benzema. As a team desperate for a great striker, this was extremely encouraging for us Arsenal fans. But after wasting nearly a month of back and forth, it was reported that Wenger cancelled his pursuance of Benzema over 2 million English pounds. At that point, there was barely enough time to resume the striker search and Arsenal wound up with nothing that could truly help the team make a run at the championship.
When free agency opened this past summer, it looked like Grigson was an absolute genius. Quickly securing future possible Hall of Famers Frank Gore and Andre Johnson, it seemed as though the Colts were immediately in the running for a Super Bowl appearance. But after wasting the Colts’ first round draft pick on yet ANOTHER wide receiver, it was reported that Grigson was drunk and seemingly forgot that his star quarterback needed an offensive line, not another target to throw to.
See? The situations aren’t identical but they have some parallels. Stick with me.
Early Season Woes
The Arsenal and Indianapolis Colts seasons could not have started worse. Arsenal went out and lost to perennial middle-of-the-pack West Ham United and immediately ensued panic among the Arsenal faithful. The Gunners’ top striker, Olivier Giroud, started off the season woefully and has not looked good all year. If he can’t get in form, there’s absolutely no chance for the team to contend for the title.
The Indianapolis Colts went out and lost to perennial crazy person Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills and immediately ensued panic among the Colts faithful. The Colts’ best player, Andrew Luck, could not find any rhythm with his receivers and his offensive line never gave him enough time to do so. The Bills masterfully utilized their new starting quarterback, Tyrod Taylor, and the Colts’ run defense allowed some very inexperienced running backs to pound the ball and set up Taylor for some fantastic throws. If the defense can’t get on the same page and Luck can’t find protection from his offensive line, there’s absolutely no chance for the team to contend for the Super Bowl.
Arsenal hasn’t really bounced back from that early loss, opening up the UEFA Champion’s League with a loss to the Croatian club, Dinamo Zagreb. Mental errors and the loss of Giroud to a red card killed the already stagnating Arsenal side and Dinamo Zagreb capitalized, winning the first match in the Champions League group stage.
The Colts definitely didn’t bounce back from that first loss, opening up their home games with a Monday Night Football loss to Todd Bowles’ New York Jets. Luck’s mental errors and a supremely depleted secondary killed the already stagnating Indianapolis side and the Jets capitalized. New York teams have not been nice to the Colts so far but hats off to both of them for playing extremely well.
How to Get Back on Track
The sad part about the Barclays Premier League season is that Arsenal’s chances of winning the championship are already very slim and the season is only six games old. With a dominating Manchester City at the top, a lot of work is going to have to be done for Arsenal to have a chance of winning. The mental mistakes have to stop. Two straight games with red cards for Arsenal players cannot happen again. The team is not really talented enough to win a game without 11 men on the pitch. Olivier Giroud has to find his form again and score some goals when it actually matters. Arsene has to get off his high horse and actually go find a second option for striker during the January transfer window. If Giroud can’t snap out of it and the team can’t score goals, Arsenal has no shot of winning the league championship.
The relieving part about the NFL season is that the Colts’ chances definitely aren’t over. 0-2 through the first two games isn’t good but we saw the same song and dance last year. The Colts ended up winning five straight and eventually found themselves in the AFC Championship game. However, for this to happen again and for the team to have a chance to win that Championship game, the mental mistakes have to stop. Frank Gore first downs cannot be taken away due to bad holding penalties and Andrew Luck has to find his form again and throw some touchdowns when it actually matters. Grigson and Pagano have to figure their issues out and go find some free agent options for the secondary and offensive line. If Luck can’t snap out of it and if the line can’t protect him, the team has no shot of going to the Super Bowl.
So there you have it. My two favorite football teams are in serious trouble. Things can be done to get back on track but will they be done? For the sake of my sanity, happiness, and liver, I certainly hope so.
By Christian Schneider
OK let’s face it: If you’re a citizen of the United States, have been aware of the existence of the NFL, and remain unaffiliated with any team’s fanbase, the last year probably didn’t do much to win you over. Outside of the Blacksox Scandal in 1919, it’s hard to pick a single season that has been so crappy for a league. Between domestic abuse, concussions, early retirement for the sake of avoiding brain damage, and a really obnoxious cheating scandal involving the eventual Super Bowl champs, the NFL really wasn’t the sexy pick when you flipped on the idiot box. I watched the Super Bowl with a hybrid group of football fans and non-fans. I would say the primary focus of that viewing party (apart from, “Wow, Christian’s going to break something valuable if the Patriots lose”) was what on earth that one Dancing Shark was doing during the halftime show.
The good news? There’s a brand new season to be played and, let’s face it, there’s no WAY it’s gonna be as messy as last year. We may yet have a few converts and it is incumbent upon us at the 51-Yard Line to assist these potential recruits on how to understand the game and to select a team to support. We are here for you, my Community-watching, kale smoothie drinking, “Let’s-do-a-wine-tour-in-Santa Barbara-Labor-Day-Weekend” friends (by the way, those are all perfectly wonderful attributes, they simply don’t match the prototypical football fan).
First, a brief rundown of the league:
There are two Conferences, the NFC (the conference with the team that is going to win the Super Bowl this year) and the AFC (the conference with the team that won’t).
The Super Bowl is the last game of the year and features the two champions of those conferences. You probably know it as the Bruno Mars concert with a lot of funny ads and those obnoxious football interruptions. It’s also the world’s biggest Cheat Day. Example: my friend Zoe brought roughly 250 Taquitos to our last Super Bowl party and we got through nearly all of them.
The regular season is 17 weeks and there are 16 games played. Teams each have one week off called the “Bye Week,” usually spent doing all the things that you read about in Time magazine last year. It’s also the reason your football fan friends abruptly get furious with themselves for no apparent reason. The actual reason is that they have forgotten that one of their Fantasy league players has a Bye Week and they are still starting them that week. This means they will lose and have less of a chance to win the betting pool. It’s kind of like getting a mini parking ticket because of street sweeping.
There are 22 players on the field at a time, 11 defense and 11 offense. The Quarterback is the one that matters. He’s the one who throws the ball. You don’t have to learn the names of ALL the players, but you do need to know the QB (QB means the Quarterback, for all of you slow on the uptake). If you don’t know the QB, the other fans will know you are a newbie and they will hit you with the obligatory “Do you live under a rock?” rhetorical question.
You will notice that there are a lot of referees. A lot a lot. They are the villains. They throw yellow flags when a player commits a foul and you will note that this seems to happen quite frequently. The best tip I can give a new fan is to swear every time a flag is thrown. No one likes flags.
Catching the ball in the end zone is cool and gets you more points, kicking the ball through those poles that would be utterly pointless in any other capacity is not cool and gets you less points. Kickers, the ones who look like they could be selling auto insurance rather than playing a professional sport, are lame, unless their name is Adam Vinatieri. He kicked two goals in the snow in this one game and that was the only time a kicker was cool.
As far as fan etiquette goes, alcohol is a must. If you’re watching a game and not drinking SOMETHING people will not trust you. And don’t go the club soda route. That’s cool if you’re a DD on a Saturday night. It is suspicious on a Sunday afternoon. Beer is preferable, but whiskey drinks are perfectly acceptable.
Trash talk is tricky. A little friendly ribbing never hurt anyone, unless you’re doing it to an Eagles fan (they’re crazy, but more on that later). Really getting on someone when their team is losing is a bad idea, unless they are a Vikings fan (they’ll probably agree with you and go one step further, they have had their hearts broken so many times). As a new fan, you would do well to keep it under raps, unless you want to insult a player’s appearance (Andrew Luck, Odell Beckham Jr., and Nick Foles are names you are gonna want to remember if that interests you) because that doesn’t require football knowledge and opposing fans won’t be offended by that.
But all of this is of secondary importance. What really matters, what will define you every Sunday for the next 17 weeks (except for one, remember that Bye Week!) is the TEAM you choose to root for. Picking a team is a delicate and precise process. You need to find a team that matches your personality and background and that you will be able to love and make a multitude of excuses for. They’re like that problematic boyfriend/girlfriend you had; you keep justifying their shit because they’re yours and it’s your job to find the good in them.
So here are the teams (and team types) that you can choose from. Firstly, and most importantly:
The Home Team: The easiest and least controversial choice. No one’s gonna give you crap for rooting for your home city’s team. That’s what you are supposed to do. Even if the team is bad or has bad people on it, you are still representing your people and fans respect that. If you don’t live in a city with a team, then go with the one from your state. If you don’t have a team in your state, then do a Google Maps search and go with the one closest to your hometown. If you still can’t figure it out after that, then you are probably from Montana, Wyoming, or Utah and it’s a miracle you were able to read this far into the article.
Now, there are two notable exceptions to the Home Team Rule:
1) Los Angeles: Yes, I agree, it’s weird that LA doesn’t have a football team. Please return to this site in two years for the 2017 edition of this piece. If you desperately need a team, go with the one closest to your birthplace. And, yes, I know you weren’t born here.
2) Washington, DC: You can’t root for the Redskins. They are a steaming pile of donkey crap. They have an offensive name, a perennial losing record, a dickweed owner, and even their General Manager’s wife is mean. You should root for the Ravens. They have their own problems (see Lewis, Ray) but they aren’t nearly as bad as the ‘Skins.
Now, if you don’t want to go the conventional route, here are 15 of the best options for you:
(In Alphabetical Order)
Bengals: Are you a gamer, who just can’t seem to get past that one level no matter what you do? These are the guys for you. Also, if you are a ginger, they have one at QB.
Warning: People will tell you all year that they will lose in the first round and then they will do it.
Bills: Are you the kind of person who deals with long-term frustration by being loud and violent? This is the perfect team for those who blow off steam by aggressively popping the bubble wrap that comes with a newly delivered FedEx package. Also, their coach is famous for having a foot fetish.
Warning: Don’t mention the name Scott Norwood. Don't do it. In fact, forget I even mentioned him.
Cardinals: Did your housemates throw a really great party last year but you had to stay in bed and listen to the festivities because you had caught mono at a really inopportune time? Look no further than Arizona. Carson Palmer really gets you.
Warning: Your fellow fans will be white people from Arizona, which means they’re either retired, or jerks, or both.
Colts: Do you like Stanford-educated, insanely likeable, ultra-talented, lumberjacks? Does your no-shave November result in an abysmal looking neckbeard? These guys will treat you just fine. Also, they throw the ball a lot. Which is fun.
Warning: You’re gonna hear the numbers 45 and 7 a lot.
Cowboys: Did you wet the bed at a sleepover when you were 11 and your buddies never let you forget it, even though you've totally got your act together now? Tony Romo and "dem Boyz" are for you. Also, their cheerleaders are the hottest, their stadium is like an arcade, and their owner is the real life version of J.R. Ewing. If you hated Jessica Simpson circa 2007 then you will fit right in with Dallas.
Warning: They call themselves “America’s Team” but that’s because America hates them.
Dolphins: Are you well-adjusted, straight-A student, who doesn’t party on weekends, but has a bunch of BDSM equipment in her basement? Look no further than the Dolphins. Their bright colored jerseys and picture-book QB will fit right in with your goody-two-shoes façade, but your secret sadism will be satiated when Ndamukong Suh inevitably breaks someone’s leg on a really dirty hit.
Warning: They tend to let their fans down despite the expectation that they’ll get better because of the people they have. They’re kind of like the Hobbit movies.
Eagles: Do you primarily watch action movies and are impatient during the scenes with plot and character development? Eagles have all the excitement of a high powered offense with none of the boring malaise of defense.
Warning: Their fans threw snowballs at Santa this one time. It was pretty bad.
Giants: Are you from New York? Do you love making New Englanders sad? Are you a regular screwup who twice a decade gets really lucky in a big way, like win the lottery, or get to go backstage and meet Beyonce? Giants are for you. Also, Odell Beckham Jr.
Warning: It’s kind of like being on a really strict fitness regimen; it’s ultimately worth it, but it’s a LOT of crap to get where you want to.
Jets: Are you from New York? Do you love making New Englanders happy? Are you a regular screwup? J-E-T-S JETS JETS JETS!
Warning: They suck.
Packers: Have you ever considered committing yourself fully to an ideal? To lay your life on the line for something bigger than you, but joining the military or FEMA wasn’t really your cup of tea? Get your cheese hat now.
Warning: You’re gonna get a lot cheese and “Fudgepacker” jokes. Also, you need to have State Farm as your insurance provider.
Patriots (homer version): Are you a leader of men and God’s gift to sports fandom? Are you committed to excellence? Is your one flaw a psychotic addiction to winning? Grab your musket and meet me on the green. We are ALL Patriots.
Warning: You will be constantly forced to tolerate the jealousy of others. Just remember at all times that it’s important to pity those who are less fortunate than you.
Patriots (unbiased version): Were you the teacher’s pet who snuck a cheat sheet into pop quizzes and then became the valedictorian? Was Eddie Haskell your favorite character on Leave It To Beaver? Do you hope Roose Bolton winds up on the Iron Throne because he’s ruthless and his methods are effective? Are sweatshirt sleeves for wusses?
Warning: Everyone will hate you. And it’s largely your own fault.
Raiders: Do you just wish the game would end so you can get on with that murder you had planned for Sunday afternoon?
Warning: Team may be relocated to LA
Seahawks: Do you feel like you haven’t been given the credit you deserve at, well, anything? Did you always win the “Penis” game in school because you love to yell and don’t care what other people think? Did you have an incredible 4 years in college but had your fly unzipped when you went up to get your diploma, ending your last semester in the most mind-numbingly stupid way possible? Your new favorite number is now 12.
Warning: There is a chance that you just missed your shot getting the best possible return. It’s like selling your stocks one quarter too late. Also, you will be called a bandwagoner. A lot.
Texans: JJ Watt.
Warning: Their offense is pretty bad.
Vikings: Can you just never catch a break no matter what you do? Do you feel like *ahem* the roof could cave in at any second? Do you get the sense this year is gonna be better? Did someone important in your life do something really crappy and everyone was talking about it but you’re still prepared to give them a second chance? Is ketchup too spicy for you? Blow the horn baby, the Vikes are for you.
Warning: Have you ever seen or read The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Remember how their lives had been so downtrodden and miserable that the idea of freedom and success terrified them? Vikings fans are kind of like that. Also, the Scott Norwood rule applies to the Vikes with Gary Anderson.
Well that’s that. Hopefully, you will be able to pick a winner out of that bunch by tomorrow morning. I hope this has been of assistance to the 1% that make up the non-football fan portion of our readers and of amusement to the 99% that obviously watch. Football is back people! Happy viewing to all and enjoy your Sunday.
By Tyler Berry
I’m not one to play into media hype when it comes to my hometown teams. In professional sports, one mistake, one injury, one massive brawl in Detroit, and the season is ruined. That’s why it is truly scary for me to have to listen to the media calling the Indianapolis Colts favorites to win Super Bowl 50.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s also very exciting. For the first year in this decade, it truly feels like the boys in blue have a shot to win it all. But in no way will I sit here and write that the Colts are going to breeze their way through the NFL and hoist the Lombardi Trophy in Santa Clara.
It’s going to take a lot of work and it all starts with the offensive line.
The O-line has got to shape up. Good Lord, watching that line try to run block is like watching a bunch of frightened horses try to run block. They flail everywhere, letting defenses run right through them and can’t create any kind of holes for running backs. In the preseason, (yes, I know, preseason) the Colts averaged only 3.3 yards per carry, which is even worse than last year’s paltry 3.9 YPC. If we want this championship, the line has to help establish the run and give Frank Gore a chance to make something happen on the ground.
Does our run game really matter with Andrew Luck under center though? He does have the most passing yards ever for a quarterback in his first three seasons. And he threw for 40 TDs. And he’s got a great offensive coordinator in Pep Hamilton calling the right plays for him. Well, if the Colts want a better record than 11-5 and a shot at a title, some of the pressure needs to come off of Luck because teams know our modus operandi at this point. We throw. And we throw A LOT.
I’ll say it again. It all starts with the offensive line.
Luck’s interceptions were down considerably last year, which is fantastic. 40 TDs to 16 INTs is something I can live with. The problem lies in the 12 fumbles. That’s entirely too many for a QB and a lot of it lies in the pressure he faces from the pass rush. Defenses rush Luck a heck of a lot because they know our offensive line can be suspect. There have been flashes of greatness on the line but injuries forced the team to have 15 different starting line combinations. And it didn’t help that rookie Jack Mewhort had to switch positions multiple times instead of only concentrating on the right tackle spot.
If the starters can stay healthy and stay in their respective spots, our line has a chance to be solid. Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Khaled Holmes under center, veteran Todd Herremans giving us a needed upgrade at guard, and a more experienced Mewhort, all give Luck necessary protection and, hopefully, will give us the confidence to run Frank Gore and open up the offense more. Because let’s be honest, at this point, no defense is falling for the play action.
By Jake Willers
The Minnesota Vikings are as much a part of my family as the construction business my great-grandfather Ed Willers started in his hometown of Lake City, Minnesota. His son (my grandfather) Ken Willers, became a season ticket holder in 1972, and thus, started the tradition of shuttling the entire family up to the Twin Cities in the frigid winters, clad in snowmobile suits to gather with the rest of the state’s patrons at “The Old Met.” It is there that my father, Scott, would bear witness to the “Purple People Eaters” feasting on quarterbacks, as well as the great Fran Tarkenton improbably rambling and scrambling his way from sideline to sideline, leaving defensive lineman in his wake. All the while, Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant stands stoically watching on from the sideline. It’s a tradition that, through much heartache and tribulation, remains intact even as the Vikings prepare to enter their swanky new digs at the soon-to-be completed U.S. Bank Stadium. So as the Vikings prepare to take on one more season outdoors, I find myself reflecting on all that I have seen.
In being apart of this classic Willers’ tailgating, brandy-sipping, pigskin-tossing, long underwear-bearing tradition, I have witnessed some truly incredible moments myself as a fan of the purple and gold. I was there when Randy Moss lateraled to Moe Williams to score right before the end of the half. I saw Adrian Peterson’s first professional touchdown on a swing pass he bobbled, corralled, and then housed for 60 yards. I have even been blessed to witness the Vikings play the Packers twice in the Metrodome AND beat the Pucking Fackers each time (which is rare as of late). Of all the things I have seen in my 23 years of fandom, I now, more than ever, think the best is yet to come.
The Vikings are coming off a confusing, but surprisingly hopeful season. With the losses of Adrian Peterson to suspension and Matt Cassel’s season ending surgery, rookie Teddy Bridgewater took the lead and learned to win without superstars. He threw touchdown passes to players who never saw the top half of the draft. He handed the ball to running backs that went from under a gargantuan shadow, to filling the shoes of a Hall of Fame running back in the matter of one week. On top of that, the Vikings had a young, stout defense eventually find its identity after a year in which they turned out one historically disappointing season. The team, in general, last year was young, confused, and thrown into one of the toughest schedules in the league and yet, they still learned how to win. Thanks to head coach Mike Zimmer and offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the team slid by on great wins, learned that the smallest mistakes can earn even a good team losses, and made undeniable progress.
Now, with kickoff approaching the 2015 season, fans are seeing continued progress. The depth chart goes deep this year with plenty of young players ready to make an Adam Thielen-type impact. The return of Adrian Peterson has not seen its shining moment yet, but he appears to have not missed a beat. Teddy has shown accuracy and consistency in his throws, giving defenses something to think about when trying to stack the box against “All Day.” On the other side of the ball, Zimmer has the talent to mold a top 10 defense (“Barr”ing no injuries). Harrison Smith’s time to shine is this year, and Everson Griffin is hitting his prime after his first 10-sack season. Although the linebacker roster isn’t set, a rotation between all four of them could keep this defense fresh when attacking the edge and blitzing. While certain areas of this young team are thriving, there are still question marks.
Kicker Blair Walsh is the surprise of the preseason. He can’t blame the wind in TCF Bank when kicking in perfect conditions in Dallas. He has been given the time and money to adjust his game, and it’s only gotten worse. Matt Kalil practically runs the doghouse after a largely disappointing season. Getting run over every play and having no explanation for his struggles puts him in a make or break season. Kalil has taken necessary action this offseason, putting on 20 lbs. of bulk, in hopes that we don’t have to see him get squashed practically every pass play. However, he still has to be quick enough to keep the pocket from collapsing against ferocious pass-rushers Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers, and the havoc Detroit’s defensive line creates through their stunts (all things he struggled with in 2014).
The last and most irritating member of Coach Zim’s doghouse is young pup, Cordarelle Patterson. If this were a real doghouse, Patterson would be the ever ecstatic and charismatic puppy, running fast and seemingly without end, but lacking the discipline to figure out how to fetch. Patterson, who dubs himself “Flash,” MUST learn his routes. There is no shortage of speed on this offense (i.e. Jerrick ‘Jet’ McKinnon, rookie Stefan Diggs, Charles Johnson, and newly-acquired Mike Wallace). Hell… even Isaac Fruechte of Caledonia, Minnesota can run a 4.50 40-yard dash. Sure, that’s a tad slower than “Flash,” but if Fruechte can actually run where the ball will be, then why start and re-sign a guy who can’t?
So what do the Vikings need to move forward? All strenuous details aside, I believe it comes down to one simple notion; sweep the Bears and the Lions. Lousy divisional records are not due to the dominance of Green Bay alone. The Vikings have struggled to beat the two teams at their level. Detroit succeeded last year in taking care of business against the Vikings and Bears, putting themselves in prime position to take a home-field spot for the playoffs. I absolutely believe we can sweep the Bears. Chicago is going through a rebuild, and the competition they will face (their strength of schedule is 13th strongest in the league) will not help their cause at all. The Lions, however, are a different story. Detroit’s strengths match up extremely well to Minnesota’s weaknesses. The Vikings’ weak and injured offensive line against the high-powered Lions defensive line is a HUGE mismatch. Minnesota’s outside linebackers will also struggle against fast, versatile running backs (Ameer Abdullah). The Vikings would have to play nearly perfect to take two wins from Detroit.
On top of those four games, they still have another seven games outdoors. These games include three against the two teams in last year’s NFC Championship Game (Packers and Seattle), and two against potential playoff contenders (Chargers and Chiefs). Most of these are home games, where Minnesota has excelled, but I feel many of these games will come down to the final whistle. We won’t have time for missed field goals by Walsh, blown assignments by the blind side protector, and the many ‘Welcome to the NFL” mistakes young players made in the final seconds of last year’s contests.
This team needs 3 and outs and a “2 minute Teddy” offense. It’s not to say these mistakes can’t/will never happen, but I think this team owes it to the greats of Vikings past to lock down a winning season and take a serious shot at the postseason on our own frozen tundra.
Oh…. And can the Vikings PLEASE beat the Packers? Just ONCE!?
By Christian Schneider
First off, a confession: When it comes to sports, I am a very spoiled little boy. Like the rest of my generation of New England sporting fanatics, I have enjoyed the harvest, having never slaved through the growing or the reaping. I was born into the Golden Age of Boston Sports, one that has never been seen on any level in any other city in America. Four teams, four different sports, all of them becoming champions in the last 15 years, nine titles in all. I didn't fully appreciate the 2004 ALCS because I didn't live through Bucky Dent or Bill Buckner. The Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup win didn't matter quite as much to me because I didn't live through 20+ ringless years with Ray Bourque. I didn't have to suffer, so victory was introduced to me as a norm, and not the culmination of a journey. As Shakespeare would say: "Some are born great/Some achieve greatness/And some have greatness thrust upon them." I would fall under the last category.
Here's what I mean: My family are not football fans. Basketball has always been Numero Uno in the Schneider house. If there was a basketball game conflicting with a football game on our 11-channel TV, it wasn't close, football had to go. I watched Jordan bury the winner in Game 6 in 1998. I didn't watch John Elway's "helicopter" play. The only thing that would ever put football on the TV would be the Pats in the playoffs. And for a few years that didn't happen.
That's why the first football game I ever watched in its entirety was (brace yourselves): The Tuck Rule Game. Also known as the Snow Game. Also known as the Stupid-Rule-Interpreted-Correctly-At-The-Most-Inopportune-Time-Imaginable Game. Viewing party at my place, nine-year-old me, my friends, their dads.
That was the game where it all started for the Pats. Both the dynasty and the hatred. The game where Brady became the Comeback Kid, Vinatieri became Mr. Clutch, and the Pats became either Winners or Cheaters (Depending on what part of the country you hail from, that is. If you're from New England, it's Winners. If you come from a place with a team the Pats have beaten, aka everywhere in America, it's Cheaters). The seeds were all planted in the snow that day. And it was the first one I ever watched.
You know what followed: the classic Super Bowls, 3 out 4 Rings, Spygate, the Helmet Catch, Deflategate, the Butler Pick, Ring #4. The most ridiculous (in every sense of the word) 14 years that any sports team has ever had. And would I change one glorious second of it? NOPE. (Well OK, I'd change Super 42. That blew harder that El Nino is supposed to this winter).
You hate me now. I don't blame you in the slightest. I'm the sporting equivalent of the trust fund baby who wakes up and has his manservant bring him lobster Eggs Benedict in bed every morning. Just think of me as Louis XVI. He had a real good thing going for a while there. But eventually it all went south for him, just as it will for me a few years from now when I'm agonizing through another 5-11 season with Jimmy Garoppolo struggling in head coach Josh McDaniels' system. And when that happens, be sure to rub it in my face. I know I've earned it.
This is because I am writing this on the evening September 3rd, 2015, the day that one Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. had his four game suspension nullified by a federal judge and will be playing the entirety of the 2015 season.
*WARNING* The following paragraph contains a brief NSFW rant that does not have any literary, sporting, or intellectual value and will not shed insight into the upcoming season. Please skip past this paragraph for my (relatively) unbiased, analytical breakdown of the Patriots 2015-16 season.
TO MESSRS. MARSHALL FAULK, MARK BRUNELL, RYAN CLARK, HINES WARD, CHRIS MORTENSON, JEROME BETTIS, BOB MCNAIR, RYAN GRIGSON, JIM IRSAY, JOHN HARBAUGH, AND MOOOOOOOST ESPECIALLY ROGER GOODELL....:
DEFLATE DEEZ NUTS!!!
And now...we're onto Pittsburgh.
Having Teflon Tom (yup, they're calling him that now, I hate it too) play the first four games of the season instead of Jimmy G is like having Sean Connery suit up for On Her Majesty's Secret Service instead of George Lazenby: Yeah, they both look the part, but only one of them is actually gonna kick ass.
Let's face it, if we'd played with Garoppolo we'd have gone 1-3, beating the Jaguars because, y'know, they're the Jaguars. Instead, we're looking at probably 3-1, maybe even 4-0 if we can go get the W in Dallas. That's huge. The AFC East is the best it's been in years. The Dolphins, Bills, and Jets have all talked about loading up to overtake us for years but this year it looks like at least one of them might have actually done it. And the fact that the Pats took a few steps back sure doesn't help.
1) The 2015 Patriot Secondary makes our 2013 Secondary look like the Legion of Boom.
That, my friends, is the worst sentence I've uttered about the Pats since I said the words, "Gee, our tight end really DID kill those people." First, the obvious: losing Revis back to the Jets is like the aftermath of the best one night stand of your life; it was great while it lasted and nothing can ever take that away from us, but jeez did you have to go back to your shitty boyfriend the next week? Revis is the best corner in the NFL (yep Sherman, I said it, he can cover either side and you can't) and losing him was gonna hurt. Big time. But we lost Browner too, and even Kyle Freaking Arrington. The fact that at some point this season I will say the words "I really miss Kyle Arrington" makes me want to vomit into a bread bowl.
Who are we left with at corner? Malcolm "The Butler" Butler (I am going to refrain from insulting his inexperience; his Super Bowl pick has at least earned him a full offseason free of vitriol), Logan "Throw at Me, Get A Touchdown...Guaranteed!" Ryan, Bradley "Too Bad for the Eagles Secondary" Fletcher, Tarell "Thank GOD I'm Not in San Fran Anymore" Brown, and Robert "I'm Actually Gonna Start for the Patriots?" McClain. Dear God, Ryan Tannehill probably thinks about throwing against these guys when he's alone in the hotel room away from the Mrs. I would rewatch True Detective Season 2 if it meant we could get Aqib Talib back.
2) Vince Wilfork is Gone. And we have to play him.
This is not just an emotional point. Though it is that too. No more Big V? Outside of Brady and Belichick, he was the mainstay on that team. Anchored the defense, forced teams to scheme specifically for him, and most importantly "Did His Job" for 11 years. Even wrote a classy letter to the Pats and their fans on the way out. The Big Bear's gonna be missed. Football really can be a cold-blooded business. *sniff*
But the other thing is that he still has something left in the tank and now he's lining up with JJ Watt and Co. in Houston. Like that D needed any more of an edge. We gotta play them Week 14, when they'll almost surely be scrambling to grab the last playoff spot. Doesn't go well when Pats have to go and play their former defensive captains, just ask Lawyer Malloy. Malcolm Brown better learn fast and fill that spot, because he's replacing a Hall of Famer.
3) Outside of Revis, our biggest loss was Shane Vereen.
Hear me out. Shane Vereen is not Jamaal Charles (thank you Mr. Kiper), but he lent a very important weapon to the attack in supplying a receiving threat out of the backfield. He had 11 receptions in the Super Bowl and 99 over the last two regular seasons. He kept defenses on their toes and would have made a phenomenal combo with LeGarette Blount for a full season. Instead, he's a Giant and Eli will make good use of him. Which sucks. The Patriots are at their best when they have versatile, unpredictable players that take teams by surprise (see Edelman, Julian). Our running corps is now very predictable and top defenses will be able to take them out of the equation while still keeping coverage back against Brady. Suffice to say this; without Vereen, we lose the Super Bowl to the Seahawks by at least 10.
4) Reggie Wayne is cool for 'F U Colts' purposes and not much else.
C'mon people, if he could still make a big difference, you think the Colts would have let him go? That said, if we win the AFC Championship in Lucas Oil on a Brady to Wayne strike, I'm gonna make that Auburn fan look like a Wimbledon audience member.
5) All three AFC East opponents got better. A lot better.
Looking over your shoulder in a race has always sucked. It sucks more when the rest of the pack is clearly catching you. We're the old lion in the pride. At our best, he'd tear everyone else to shreds and leave them for the hyenas, but he's a little slower, a little more hobbled, and maybe all those feasts of hunted gazelle have left him a little fat and happy. 2015 might be the year that that changes.
Rex Ryan: "Apes follow Koba now"
Here's what the fief lords did this summer in advance of delivering their Great Charter to the King:
The Dolphins- Already the leading contender for the crown, they brought in QB-killing, prone player-stomping, instant Public Enemy #1, professional jerk Ndomukong Suh (crap, that was WAY too hard to spell, I've got to live with THIS now?) to supplement a pass rush that already beat Brady to a pulp last year. Ryan Tannehill, now robbed of being the Interim Best QB of the AFC East for the first 4 weeks, was already damn good with few options, but now he's got Kenny Stills and Jordan Cameron to play with. They're not world beaters, but he could very well be a darkhorse for the Pro Bowl this year. Maybe not even that dark. Pair that with a coach who really needs a playoff berth to keep his job and this should be a real hungry team this year. They've got an Angel Food Cake-soft start to the year and could very well be 6-0 going into Foxboro in Week 8. We'll know then.
The Bills- Already talking smack, already thirsting for blood, already pissing us New Englanders off. Yep, Sexy Rexy is still in the AFC East and now he's with a team that doesn't bob for apples in the toilet (sorry, I'll save it for the Jets section). The self-proclaimed "Best Defense of All Time" (yup, Marcell Dareus actually said that) now has the smack talk and defensive mindedness to go with its divisional hatred of the Pats. In addition to Pat nemesis Ryan, the Bills also bring in LeSean McCoy, whose race-baiting nonsense about Chip Kelly makes me think he'll fit right in with Rexy's usual gang of hotheads. And hey, look, they got Percy Harvin and Richie Incognito as well!
Small Child: What are those, Daddy?
Daddy: Those are assholes, son.
They don't have a QB. Tyrod Taylor, I'm happy for you, but there's a reason you were a backup. They may put on some crazy defensive displays and McCoy may have a few big games but they're not doing playoff damage with that offense. Doesn't mean they can't steal the division though. And, c'mon, does any Pats fan want to see Rex Ryan in the Divisional Round?
The Jets- Jeez, even the friggin' Jets got better. Todd Bowles, a terrific defensive coach, has arrived in NYC, bringing Antonio Cromartie with him. Him and Revis get to do one last hurrah together, how absolutely wonderful for them both! That secondary is gonna be tough, not what it was in 2010, but still tough. On the receiving end, they bring in Brandon Marshall to pair with Eric Decker, making a combo that would have scared me if it were 2013 and if Geno Smith weren't their QB.
*sound of jaw-cracking*
Well, OK then. Ryan Fitzpatrick it is. Only the Jets could have their QB get his jaw broken by a teammate and actually come out better from it. Fitz is not a good quarterback, but he's not awful like Geno either. He can get those two the ball and there will be a couple of games where the Jets might even look something like a functioning team. They won't be, of course, but I'd say they get 6 wins and they might get one of those at a top team's expense. Just hoping it isn't us.
Final predictions for the division (in reverse order for phony dramatic effect):
4th: Jets 6-10
3rd: Bills 9-7
2nd: Dolphins 11-5, Wild Card
1st- Pats 12-4, AFC East Champs, win the Division Week 17 in Miami
Heading into the postseason, Pats pull out a home win over Kansas City (weirdly avenging Week 4 of last year with a team way worse than the one that lost that game but won the Super Bowl), then head into Lucas Oil Stadium and, done in by our vulnerable secondary, finally hand the crown over to Luck and the Colts, who take the next step and head to the Super Bowl.
So there you have it, I still say we pull it out in the East. Not ready to concede defeat quite yet. But it's not gonna be pretty and gonna come down to the final week on someone else's field. That's about as much torture as I can prescribe for myself. At the end of the day though, the simple truth is that this year was always gonna be a trial. We're the defending champs, escaped the hangman again, and are going in with a target on our back that is the exact shape and size as Captain America's shield. Littlefinger may tell us "The Climb is all there is" but he's wrong. It's keeping the crown that's tough. And maybe this is the year that Louis gets dragged to the guillotine.