If you think it important to go into a playoff bye week leaving a strong impression, then we present Exhibit A, the New England Patriots, and Exhibit B, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Patriots won 38-7 over the Miami Dolphins, in a game that might have been 55-0 if New England hadn’t taken its foot off the gas pedal. The Steelers obliterated the Cleveland Browns 41-9. It was men against boys on both fronts.
Now they get to put their feet up and watch the other poor stiffs grind it out on wild card weekend; maybe even offer up a word of encouragement to their next opponents: ‘Knock yourselves out, guys. No, really.’
It might be instructive to note how many Patriot and Steelers stars, including QBs Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger played and played deeply into their respective ball games, performing as if everything was on the line when actually, nothing was on the line.
While other playoff teams were shielding all their meal-tickets, the Patriots rotated backups in and out of the lineup seamlessly on both offence and defence but you couldn’t tell from the results.
Coach Bill Belichick doesn’t do anything just for the sake of doing it. Instead of sending backup Brian Hoyer into the game and sitting Brady down, he moved both QB’s in and out as if it was a teaching situation for Hoyer. After all, as the backup, when he’s needed, it’s not going to be at his own convenience. So, Belichick was sending him into the game in mid-series.
Belichick did refuse to tempt fate in the case of Wes Welker. Welker blew out his knee in the final, meaningless game last season and he was on the bench Sunday. Brady’s other favourite target, Deion Branch sat out as well.
The only concern coming out of this game for New England relates to rookie running back Danny Woodhead, who has become a key component in the offence. He took a hit to the head and was being tested for concussion symptoms and will definitely benefit from the extra week of inactivity.
Woodhead fumbled on the play, which is shocking in itself. It was only the 10th turnover of the season for the Pats’ offence. For a point of reference, Buffalo turned the ball over seven times in last week’s game alone. The 10 turnovers this year is an NFL record, eclipsing the former record held by Kansas City but accomplished in a nine-game, strike-shortened season.
Brady had another clean passing game and has now gone 335 passes without throwing an interception, a span of 11 games.
This was a season that began without great expectations in New England but Belichick won 14 games for the fourth time, more 14-win seasons than any coach in history. This may have been his best coaching job ever, working with a team populated by rookies and young players around his core of veteran talent.
For the most part, the Dolphins were no competition for the Pats and look like a prime candidate for a serious makeover, starting with the coaching staff and extending to the quarterback and beyond.
Pittsburgh’s mauling of the Browns was a similar statement game heading into the Super Bowl tournament and the Browns performed their role as tame opposition to perfection, turning the ball over three times.
Ominously for the rest of the league, Roethlisberger had his most efficient game of the season, completing 15-of-22 for two TD’s, no picks and no sacks. His QB rating of 141 was his best of the season, after sitting out the first four games of the season, suspended for off-field violations.
Cleveland accomplished almost nothing against the Pittsburgh defence, which limited the Browns to just 43 rushing yards and 225 yards overall. Just what the other playoff teams want to hear heading into the playoffs.
Socialism at work
This is what happens when a sports league shares its revenues: In the 14 NFL seasons before this one, at least five of the playoff qualifiers were teams that did not make it the year before. This year, there are again five such teams, including whichever of the teams won the NFC West.
On that subject, despite having the worst record of any qualifying team, the NFC west winner still gets a home game in the playoffs.
A few years ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars tried to get the league to approve a rule change that would protect home games for only the first two seeds in each conference. Teams 3 through 6 would then be seeded by their record, not their division.
It failed to pass then and ESPN.com reported yesterday that sentiment within the league is that, while the idea has some merit, it’s not going to be passed any time soon.