By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Before the last Patriots-Colts game in January, I wrote about watching an emotional NFL Films segment in which the Patriots received their 2004 rings. For whatever reason, the reactions of the players made me feel like they weren't done yet, that they wanted to keep going, so I picked them to win. And they did. Patriots 20, Colts 3. Three weeks later, they captured another Super Bowl trophy.

Well, the NFL Network showed the 2005 ring ceremony recently. In what's threatening to become an annual tradition, the players, coaches and front office employees head to Bob Kraft's mansion for a summer dinner party. Some of them bring dates, others bring their wives, with everyone dressed in evening attire. After a cocktail hour, everyone sits down for dinner and more drinks, followed by some congratulatory speeches before the players open their jewelry boxes. The ones with the rings.

The same things happen every time. Grown men weep. They stare at the rings in disbelief, wipe their eyes, fight off tears. During the 2005 ceremony, the cameras catch Tom Brady hugging Kraft -- eyes watering, cheeks trembling like Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" -- with Brady trying to speak, but unable to find the right words. Finally, he sits back down and stares at his new ring. What can you say, really?

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Later in the show, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour and Patrick Pass are sitting side by side, defiantly displaying their rings to the camera. You can feel the pride bursting from the television screen. We never consider these moments as we're watching the NFL Draft in April, skimming though the USA Today spreads during the season, perusing fantasy transactions to see if anyone dropped an extra receiver ... there are so many little NFL moments that it's easy to forget about the big ones. As Harrison explains in the show, "You can never take this away from us. The rings, everything that we've accomplished, this is something so many guys have worked so hard for, sacrificed so many things, family, kids, so many things in their life to be a world champion."

Now the sappy music kicks in. Make no mistake: NFL Films knows what they're doing with these things. If you're a lifelong Pats fan, and you remember the crummy days -- the Sugar Bear Hamilton game, Chuck Fairbanks ditching the team, all the heartbreaking losses in the Orange Bowl, 46-10 against the Bears, Lisa Olsen, Desmond Howard and everything else -- and you don't get even a little choked up during the footage of these ring ceremonies, then I don't know what to tell you. This was the franchise that went from Fredo Corleone to Michael Corleone in four years. Nobody saw it coming. Nobody would have believed it. Any team can win one Super Bowl. Few teams win three. Even fewer expect to be back for a fourth.

As Seymour said that night, "I think we've come to a point where we not only do we enjoy getting to our goal, but we enjoy the journey in getting there. We know what it's like to be on top, and we just want to duplicate that and continue our success."

About 20 Patriots could have uttered those same words. This has always been a methodical team, a business-like group that claims to take games one week at a time, only they always find another gear in must-win games. They thrive on defending their turf, reacting to some imaginary slight, trying to put yet another challenger in its place. They respond best when everyone counts them out -- like the Pittsburgh game in Week 3, or the St. Louis game last year -- and they always look their worst in the game before a big game, almost like a boxing champion saving himself in a sparring session. Unfortunately, the injuries keep mounting. Statistically, the 4-3 Pats are minus-six in turnover differential, 23rd in defense, 28th in rushing offense. The defense has forced five turnovers in seven games. That's it. Without Brady taking it to another level this season -- despite taking an unusually brisk pounding from opposing defenses, thanks to missing left tackle Matt Light -- they would probably be 1-6 right now. The three-time champs haven't played a good all-around game yet.

With undefeated Indianapolis arriving in Foxborough, you could safely call Monday night a Kitchen Sink Game for the Patriots. The Colts haven't beaten them in four years; it's become part of their overall identity, almost like a Red Sox-Yankees thing. When a 7-0 start dropped their Super Bowl odds to 2-to-1 in Vegas, you could still sense the trepidation coming from Indianapolis. None of this matters if we don't beat the Patriots. And it's true. The Colts are four-point favorites this time, balanced on both sides of the ball, rested from an easy schedule, loaded with playmakers, blessed with a knack for avoiding killer injuries. But none of these things matter without a victory on Monday night. If there's a more compelling regular season football game in recent years, I can't remember it.

And yes, the Colts should win. But can you really count out the three-time champs at home? Doesn't this Patriots team thrive on being counted out? Are you really ready to wager against Brady and Bill Belichick in a big game? My brain tells me the Colts should win, that the Pats defense is too banged up, that you can't beat this Colts team without forcing a few turnovers. My heart tells me that the Patriots should probably lose one of these games -- just one -- before I pick against them. As far as I'm concerned, their season rides on Monday night. Letting this Colts team gain confidence from a victory in Foxborough ... I mean, that would be like handing over the AFC. And everyone on the Patriots knows it.

NFL PICKS, WEEK 9
Week 9 Picks
(Home teams in caps)

VIKINGS (PK) over Lions
JETS (+6.5) over Chargers
Titans (+3) over BROWNS
CHIEFS (-4.5) over Raiders
Bears (-3) over SAINTS
RAVENS (+3) over Bengals
BUCS (+1.5) over Panthers
Texans (+13) over JAGUARS
DOLPHINS (+2) over Falcons
NINERS (+11) over Giants
Seahawks (-4) over CARDS
Steelers (-3.5) over PACKERS
REDSKINS (-3) over Eagles
PATS (+4) over Colts

Last week: 7-7
Season: 61-53-1

Regardless of what happens, I can't remember following a Boston team quite like these Patriots, the guys who always came through in the end, the guys who always appreciated what was happening as it happened. At the tail end of that 2005 show from NFL Films, Tedy Bruschi sits in front of the camera, maybe four months after suffering a deadly stroke that could have killed him. He's trying to explain what that third ring means to him, so he keeps glancing at the ring, and then back to the camera, and back to the ring, and finally, his eyes lock into the camera. Here's what he came up with:

"Whenever you can look at something, and you can feel what it felt like for a year of your life, it's special. Every single ring that I have, the experiences we went through, I feel it. I look at this third one, I smell the grass. I hear the crowd. I remember being on the field before the Super Bowl with my sons ... everything is encapsulated in this ring when I look at it ... and that's why it means so much to me."

When you watch these shows, it makes you understand why star athletes keep hanging on and hanging on for that one last chance, why someone like Reggie Miller can wrap up a Hall of Fame career, then tell an interviewer how he would trade every great moment he had for one ring (and means it). Winning a title is that good. For most teams, one time is enough -- they lose their edge, just enough that they aren't the same the following season. For Belichick, Brady, Bruschi and the Patriots, it's never enough. They never lose the edge. They need to hold onto that new ring, see the way it glistens in the light, feel those memories come flushing back, feel the tears coming on. That's what keeps them going. Maybe I don't know what it feels like to play for a memorable championship team, but I know what it's like to root for one.

Hey, if the torch gets passed on Monday night, so be it. I just know this Patriots team will go down swinging. And if I were the guys from NFL Films, I wouldn't cancel next summer's trip to the Kraft house just yet.

The pick: Patriots 30, Colts 27

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine and his Sports Guy's World site is updated every day Monday through Friday. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace" is available right now on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.


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