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Patriots can't squander Super opportunity

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  January 20, 2012 02:51 PM

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FOXBOROUGH -- Maybe Steve Wynn wants to rethink trying to put a casino in Foxborough. If patrons are going to experience the same sort of favorable fortune that the Patriots, who can advance to Super Bowl XLVI Sunday with a win over the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship game, have enjoyed this season it's not worth the trouble.

Opportunity isn't knocking on the door in Foxborough. It's bashing it down with a medieval battering ram. This might be the best chance that Tom Brady, 34, and Bill Belichick, 60 in April, have left to add to their legacy and trophy collection.

Nearly all relevant obstacles to a championship have been removed from the Patriots' path, as if Mark Henderson plowed the rest of the playoff field aside for them the way he created a tidy swath of turf for the game-winning field goal in the Snowplow Gamein 1982.

No Peyton Manning. No Ben Roethlisberger. No Rex Ryan. No Drew Brees. No Aaron Rodgers. This playoff field is as soft as a pair of Brady's UGG boots.

Events have lined up perfectly for the Patriots to host tomorrow's AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium and punch their ticket to a fifth Super Bowl in 11 seasons. Call it karma for Patriots owner Robert Kraft helping to save football and end the lockout.

In a season of unabated offense in the NFL that may go down as the Year of the Quarterback, the Patriots can advance to the Big Game without having to take down a single elite signal-caller. The list of quarterbacks the Patriots avoided playing in the AFC playoffs reads like a Pro Bowl program: Manning, Roethlisberger, Matt Schaub and Philip Rivers.

Here are the quarterbacks they will have beaten if they earn their way to Indianapolis -- Tim Tebow and Joe Flacco.

Tebow's teammate, Champ Bailey, said Tebow has to learn to throw from the pocket, kind of an important quality for an NFL quarterback.

Flacco sounds like the Eeyore of NFL QBs. He has spent all week bemoaning critiques and a shortfall of respect after Baltimore safety Ed Reed said he looked "rattled" in the Ravens' playoff victory over the Houston Texans.

Flacco possesses a 5-3 playoff record, including a win over the Patriots in 2009. However, he threw just 10 times in that game and has thrown more interceptions (seven) than touchdowns (six) in his postseason career. Brady threw six playoff touchdown passes last week against Denver. Flacco is still the best quarterback the Patriots have faced in 11 weeks.

Avoiding high-quality quarterback play is a minor miracle when you consider the Patriots' pass defense allowed the second most passing yards in the history of the league (4,977), 11 yards short of equaling the ignominious record set by this year's Green Bay Packers.

However, the Packers faced two of the three quarterbacks who topped 5,000 yards this season, Brees, who set the NFL single-season record for passing yards, and Detroit's Matthew Stafford (twice). The Patriots faced none of the 5,000-yard club, unless you count going against Brady in practice.

If the Patriots go to the Super Bowl they will have to contend with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who until this year was one of the biggest busts in NFL Draft history, or Giants QB Eli Manning, who beat the Patriots back on Nov. 6.

New England's history in a Super Bowl with Eli is little bit like Mary Todd Lincoln's with the Ford Theatre, but I'd still take my chances with Manning the Younger over Brees or Rodgers, who would slice and dice the Patriots' secondary like an "Iron Chef" contestant.

Making the Patriots' championship run even sweeter is the fact it's occurring while their two biggest rivals, the Indianapolis Colts and New York Jets, are in utter disarray.

The Jets' season ended amid bickering, backbiting and locker room division that made the Red Sox' September collapse look like a company picnic.

Imitating their outspoken coach, Gang Green has held nothing back, ganging up on each other with anonymous putdowns in the press. Players called wide receiver Santonio Holmes a "cancer" and criticized Brady wannabee QB Mark Sanchez as "lazy" and "coddled."

Even better than the schadenfreude from the fallout of the J-E-T-S, mess, mess, mess is that the Patriots could celebrate a championship in the backyard of their staunchest rival, and enjoy a week of Super Bowl stories about how the Patriot Way has endured while the Colts blueprint for success has been revealed to have fatal design flaws.

Super Bowl XLVI is at the Colts' home field, Lucas Oil Stadium. You think Belichick wouldn't enjoy toting the trophy around at the site of his most questioned coaching decision ever, the famed failed fourth-and-2 in 2009? He could stick it to both the Colts and his critics. That's as close to nirvana for His Hoodiness outside of Nantucket.

This is simply an opportunity too good to be wasted by Brady and Belichick, who can become the only coach-QB combo to advance to five Super Bowls and join Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw as the only duo to win four.

All they have to do to be reminded of the fugacity of such an opportunity is look across the field at Ravens safety Bernard Pollard.

After the almost-perfect '07 season, it was assumed the Patriots would simply pick up where they left off. Instead, Pollard, then a Kansas City Chief, plowed into Brady's left knee in the first quarter of the 2008 season opener.

It's taken New England four years since then to get this close to another title shot. They might not get another this good.

The board is clear, Patriots. Don't waste a chance to do something Super.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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