THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bob Ryan

A hungry team still needs helping

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / December 22, 2008
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It was a nice frolic in the snow, and there's no doubt they'll go to Orchard Park next week and destroy the Bills.

The Patriots annihilated the Arizona Cardinals by a not-as-close-as-the-score-indicated 47-7 score yesterday, and now they're going to be 11-5, and 11-5 has gotten every team but the 1985 Broncos into the tournament. And no 11-5 team has missed postseason play since the league went to the current 12-team format in 1990.

But this time 11-5 may not be enough. As well as they are playing, the Patriots enter the final week of the 2008 season just wishin' and hopin'. They need help, or they're going home when that conquest of the Bills is in the books.

Since the Dolphins won and the Jets lost yesterday, the Patriots have two shots at the playoffs. If the Jets beat Miami in Giants Stadium, or the teams tie, the Patriots could win the division with that expected trashing of the Bills. But if Miami defeats the Jets and wins the division, the Patriots still could get the second wild-card spot with a win if - yes, this most certainly is a reach - the rapidly disintegrating Jaguars somehow find a (legal) way to defeat or tie the 10-5 Ravens in Baltimore.

But, of course, we all know a tie never could happen, don't we, Donovan?

Meanwhile, the Cardinals, who affixed a 42-cent stamp to yesterday's game before they ever set foot on the plane from Phoenix (can't Roger Goodell fine a team for, I dunno, "disgracing the profession?"), are going to the playoffs. No, really. It's in the league bylaws. I looked it up. If you win a division, even one as substandard as the NFC West, you get to participate in the playoffs. Sometimes life isn't so much cruel as it is downright diabolical and fiendish.

(Yes, yes, yes. The Patriots got to play that entire division this year, so we must make allowances for that.)

We probably should have known how this one was going to go when both Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt and starting quarterback Kurt Warner each inquired about the weather reports during the Wednesday conference call with the New England media. The Patriots don't talk about the weather or worry about it; they just go outside and practice in whatever it is Mother Nature has to offer on that particular day.

Perhaps that's why California-bred Matt Cassel, who had never in his life played in the snow, passed for 345 yards and three touchdowns, while 37-year old Warner, who comes from Iowa and who went to school in Iowa (and I can assure you it snows in Iowa), was a terrifying 6 for 18 for 30 yards, with a long completion of 10. It does seem like something of a mind-over-matter issue.

Trouble throwing the football? Nah, said Cassel.

"Nothing particular from a mechanics standpoint or a motion standpoint," he said. "You just have to make sure to make an accurate throw so the receivers can catch the ball and put it in a good position for them to catch the ball, and then keep your footing."

Sounds simple.

And then there were the other guys. Here was the team that was last in rushing, and which last week attempted 50 passes to seven (7) runs, calling for runs on five of its first six plays and seven of the nine plays it could get off during a pathetic first-quarter display. Huh?

"Well," said Whisenhunt, "it was tough to throw the ball when it was snowing, and the field was slippery. We were trying to mix things in."

They weren't exactly Sir Mix-A-Lot, you know what I'm saying? They had zero net yards in the first period, and the shocking tally at the end of the third quarter was 45 yards (four first downs) to the Patriots' 470 yards (24 first downs). The score after three: 44-0.

Sure, Cassel's gaudy yardage total included lots of yards after the catch (YAC). You got a problem with that? It was good enough for Bill Walsh and Joe Montana, and it's certainly good enough for Bill Belichick and Matt Cassel (and Tom Whatsisname before him).

Take, for example, the first Patriots play from scrimmage in the second half. Cassel looked to his right, and then threw a little quick left-side out to Randy Moss, who took a sharp right turn at the 24 and didn't stop running until he trotted into the end zone.

"That was the plan all along," Cassel said. "It was probably the best throw of my career. I think I threw it 1 yard behind the line of scrimmage, and he took it 77 yards. So any time one of those guys can do that it's a good day at the office for me."

How about this? The QB not only throws for 345 and three TDs, he does schtick.

We had all kinds of frivolity on the snow-covered Gillette gridiron. Ready for this? Moss threw a downfield block - yup, he left his feet and everything - that gave Sammy Morris 15 additional yards on a 42-yard first period pass reception. Jack-of-all-trades offensive lineman Russ Hochstein, who has been spotted on occasion lining up as a tight end, made his regular-season debut as a 300-pound fullback.

And newly minted Pro Bowler Wes Welker, who, in addition to catching seven passes for 68 yards and a TD and returning five punts for 56 yards (perhaps 20 of them available to an average player), unveiled a heretofore unseen party animal side to his personality as he flopped on his back and did the snow angel thing after scoring that TD.

And what did Lonie Paxton think of that?

"Never saw it," Paxton said. "Didn't know about it until you just told me."

Welker's unprecedented act of self-indulgence drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty, but no harm came of it.

Of course, you know the party line, now and forever: "We don't worry about things we can't control." Or derivatives thereof.

Sample: "I think they showed the [Miami] score a little bit throughout the game," Cassel said, "but we were concentrated on taking care of our end of it. Then we've got to continue to put together wins from outside and let the chips fall where they may."

Or this from Morris: "We just focus on today's game, and let the rest take care of itself."

And, of course, there is always the unflappable Coach Bill: "We have to get back at it and get back into the division against Buffalo next week. Whatever else happens, happens. We just have to do what we can do, which is go out there and play well against Buffalo next week."

It is a playoff-worthy team but it may not be in the playoffs. And it will ultimately depend on the kindness of strangers.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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