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.