The New England Patriots took on the most sublime offense in all of football a couple of weeks back and shut it down. Petyon Manning, who had set the record for touchdown passes in a season, threw none against the Patriots, who covered his receivers tighter than skin on a sausage, and kept coming at him with a rush that threw off his timing and leeched his confidence. His last throw of the game–when it was strictly for pride–went for an interception.
One week later, the Patriots faced the remorseless defense of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the best in football. The Steelers clamped down so tight on opposing offenses that they couldn’t breathe, much less move. They had the best record in football and one of their victims, during the regular season, had been the Patriots.
In the rematch, the Patriots took the Steeler defense apart, scored 41 points, and won easily.
So, when you ponder the Super Bowl, the question you ask yourself is: “How can the Patriots possibly lose?”
Upsets happen in football and this may be one of the most appealing aspects of the game. The underdog comes in high and the favorite is flat and complacent. The ball takes funny bounces; a fumble here, an interception there. The favorite gets away from the things it does best and in its desperation, makes mistakes. The underdog takes advantage.
But wait a second here. These guys were playing football since before they had to shave. They know about big games and if they forget, they have coaches who will quickly and emphatically remind them. These are the pros and it is considered unprofessional to clutch.
There is always the possibility some key player will be injured or that a bad call will change the outcome of the game. There is no way to prepare for these things. Or, if you are gambler, to factor them into your calculations. If Patriot quarterback Tom Brady goes down in the first quarter, your online casino will not be offering refunds. Fortune is fortune.
Lacking the unlikely choke by the Patriots, a wretched call that goes against them, or an injury to one of their key players, the Eagles are going to find it tough to beat them or even keep it close. The Patriots have the experience: This is their third Super Bowl in four years, while the Eagles have not been to the big dance since Jimmy Carter was president. The Patriots appear to be peaking at just the right time while the Eagles are playing well enough to win but not really dominating.
Eyes on Owens
Still, some diligent students of the game have discovered what they think might be a New England weakness. The Patriots tend to get burned deep. If this is, indeed, a vulnerability, then Eagles receiver Terrell Owens will be the player to watch.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
Owens is the most flamboyant showboat in all of football. His end zone demonstrations and relentless exhibitionism remind you of what former Yankee third basemen, Greg Nettles, once said of his teammate, Reggie Jackson, “There isn’t enough mustard in the world to cover that hotdog.”
Purists find Owens’s act distasteful. Chuck Bednarik, who played both ways for the last Eagles team to win a championship–and who famously put Frank Gifford on a stretcher and out of the game for a year with a bone-crunching tackle–recently said he hoped that somebody knocked Owens “unconscious.”
This is harsh but Bednarik most likely isn’t the only person thinking that way. The New England coaches are, no doubt, entertaining those same thoughts. Not because they think Owens sullies the game, but because they don’t want him on the field where he can cause trouble.
Thing is, Owens is already injured. He broke a bone in his leg late in the season and did not even suit up for the Eagles playoff wins over the Minnesota Vikings and the Atlanta Falcons. He was considered doubtful for the Super Bowl, but he insists–and insists and insists–that he will play and that he will be “effective.” To hear Owens tell it–and for reporters covering the game it has been hard not to–he is not going out on the field to be a decoy.
Owens is the deep threat the Eagles need if they are to have a chance. He knows it and says it. The Patriots also know it even if they haven’t said anything about it.
Athletes, especially pros, are not merciful by nature. A boxer who opens a cut over his opponent’s eye will keep jabbing, trying to close the eye or get enough blood flowing that the referee will stop the fight. If a quarterback sees a corner holding his hamstring, he will go after him on the next play.
The logic is brutal. If Terrell Owens is not on the field, he cannot exploit that one possible Patriots’ weakness by going long and getting open. If he re-injures his leg, he will not be on the field.
The Patriots are favored by seven. One wonders what the odds are on Terrell Owens playing the entire game. It will be very interesting to see what happens the first time he touches the ball.
–Geoffrey Norman writes on sports for NRO and other publications.