Still a long way to 16-0 for Patriots |

Still a long way to 16-0 for Patriots

Dave Goldberg
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Michael Conroy/APLinebacker Junior Seau, 55, celebrates with center Lonie Paxton during the Patriots ninth win of the season over the Colts Siunday.

The NFL may have helped the New England Patriots’ chances of going 16-0 by scheduling a bye week after the Indianapolis game. Not only will the Patriots be rested when they head to Buffalo on Nov. 18, but Bill Belichick will have two weeks to drum home the “no letdown” theme.

Still, there’s a sense that somewhere along the line, New England will lose.

Maybe not to Buffalo in a game switched from afternoon to prime time, but somewhere, somehow, in the next seven games when they’re tired, injured, complacent or whatever.

“The biggest obstacle is going to be the game that is not obvious,” Deion Sanders said Sunday on the NFL Network, a cogent thought from someone who played on consecutive Super Bowl winners, San Francisco in 1994 and Dallas in 1995.

That’s the way it has usually happened to teams that look like they’re headed for 16-0. They stumble over a pedestrian team.

Take 1998, when 13-0 Denver waltzed into the Meadowlands to play the 5-8 Giants. It was supposed to be a short stopover for the Broncos en route to Miami, where the Dolphins, a better team than New York, were set for a Monday night showdown to protect the record of their 1972 counterparts, the NFL’s only unbeaten team.

Instead, Denver lost when Kent Graham, the ultimate journeyman quarterback, threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Amani Toomer with 48 seconds left to give New York a 20-16 win. Those 16 points were less than half the 33.5 Denver was averaging entering the game.

In hindsight, that loss could have been predicted.

The week before, John Elway had to rally Denver from 10 points behind in the fourth quarter against Kansas City and shortly before that they survived numerous turnovers in San Diego.

In the loss to the Giants, the Broncos stalled twice when they seemed to be going in for touchdowns and had to settle for field goals.

As it turned out, that defeat relieved pressure that had been building. Denver ended the season 14-2, then swept through the playoffs, finishing with its second consecutive Super Bowl victory in Elway’s final season.

Two years ago, Indianapolis started 13-0, then lost at home to a good San Diego team. That defeat could have been anticipated because the Chargers had won five of six and the Colts had been slowing down, just as Denver had.

San Diego won 26-17, pressuring Peyton Manning all game and exploiting weaknesses against the pass rush that Pittsburgh later used to beat the Colts in their first playoff game in the RCA Dome. To be fair, Indianapolis suffered a crushing blow three days after the defeat, the suicide of coach Tony Dungy’s 18-year-old son James, an emotional scar that was tough to overcome.

The Patriots aren’t showing signs of wear yet.

Their 24-20 win in Indianapolis on Sunday came against the only other team in the NFL considered close to them in ability. They overcame a 10-point deficit on the road with less than 10 minutes left to beat the defending Super Bowl champions, a 7-0 team with Manning at QB, not a 5-8 team with Kent Graham.

Sustaining the kind of momentum needed to go 16-0 for a full season would be difficult, even for this New England side.

Yes, the NFL is watered down these days. And yes, the AFC East is especially weak.

But New England is not about to take Buffalo lightly, although it won 38-7 in Foxborough in their first meeting. Since that loss, the Bills have won four of five, including their last three. That one loss was on a last-second field goal to Dallas in another prime-time game, one in which the Bills led all the way. At this point, Buffalo is certainly the second-best team behind the Patriots in the AFC East, 4-4 but coming on.

Maybe the Buffalo game isn’t the most obvious potential loss.

The three that seem most dangerous are Dec. 3 at Baltimore, Dec. 9 at home with Pittsburgh, and the Dec. 29 closer at the Meadowlands against a much better Giants team than the 1998 version. That’s a strange game: New York could have a lot on the line if it hasn’t clinched a division title or a playoff spot, or nothing on the line if it has ” or it’s fallen flat like it did in the second half of the 2006 season.

The other three Patriots games are all at home: Philadelphia, Nov. 25; the Jets, Dec. 16; Miami, Dec. 23.

No one anticipates a letdown against Eric Mangini and the Jets, currently 1-8. Remember, they’re the team that captured the guy with the spy camera. That, of course, led to the huge fines against Belichick and the Pats and led to the undercurrent that New England’s three Super Bowl victories were tarnished.

Right now, winless Miami looks like a better bet to go 0-16 than New England is to go 16-0.

The Eagles, a 3-5 team that entered the season as one of the favorites in the NFC East, look a little bit like those ’98 Giants. Donovan McNabb is certainly better than Graham, although one of Philadelphia’s problems is that it has no receivers like the young Toomer, or the 33-year-old Toomer of 2007 for that matter.

Beyond that, from Belichick on down, the Patriots keep insisting that another Vince Lombardi Trophy is the goal, not an unbeaten season.

“All we’re thinking about is January. Just January,” Tom Brady kept insisting after the win in Indy.

Back to Deion and “the game that isn’t obvious.”

Why not try Philly on for size?

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