Having secured a third straight AFC East title with Saturday's shutout victory over the Tampa Bay Bucs, the New England Patriots can now begin looking seriously, and with a renewed degree of optimism as well, at defending a far more important championship.
Winners of three straight December games now and five of their last six outings, the Patriots are showing signs that they are back. And that's in large part because the New England linebackers, and not just the spiritual leader and medical miracle man Tedy Bruschi, are back. And back in a very big way.
If you know anything about Bill Belichick defenses, you understand the importance of linebackers to his brilliant scheming. Linebackers, and particularly the kind of hybrid, edge athletes whose versatility has always been the hallmark of Belichick defenses of the past, are essentially the most critical chess pieces in his 3-4 scheme. They are the defenders Belichick most loves to tinker with, the guys that he most uses to create confusion and wreak havoc, the players whom his intricacies revolve around, the players who give headaches to opposing quarterbacks.
Sure, down linemen are always important to any defense, and that was demonstrated this season during the extended absence of Richard Seymour to injury. But if you really want to plumb the depths of Belichick's genius, to get dizzy just trying to predict who is lining up where, watch his linebackers.
On Saturday afternoon, you couldn't miss them, that's for sure.
The starting quartet of Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Rosevelt Colvin and Willie McGinest combined for 30 tackles, six sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and, just for good measure, one pass defensed in the 28-0 whitewashing of a good Tampa Bay team that led the NFC South entering the contest. But truth be told, Saturday really was no fluke.
Ever since the return of Bruschi for the Oct. 30 game against Buffalo, and the shuffling of the unit that accompanied his comeback, the New England linebackers have performed admirably. In the last eight games, the starting linebackers have combined for 132 tackles, 13 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, one interception and 17 passes defensed. Those are monster numbers under any circumstances, but especially so when one considers that the return of Bruschi to the starting lineup was but one of the linebacker moves enacted by Belichick and first-year coordinator Eric Mangini.
In addition to inserting Bruschi in the lineup, the Pats' brain trust moved Vrabel to one of the inside spots in the 3-4, after he had played most of his New England tenure outside. At the same time, Colvin, who played lights-out in the team's Super Bowl XXXIV win against Philadelphia last season, aligning mostly at end, became a full-time starter. The only holdover from the four linebackers who started in the season opener -- at least lined up in the same spot as he did against Oakland on Sept. 8 -- was McGinest.
But sometimes change can be good, and for the struggling New England defense, the wholesale revamping of the linebacker corps has been one of several factors that rescued the Patriots' season. In the first six games, with Vrabel and McGinest flanking the newcomer inside tandem of Chad Brown and Monty Beisel, the Patriots surrendered an average of 27.3 points, 355.5 yards and 3.2 offensive touchdowns, while posting a 3-3 record. Over the eight games since the extreme linebacker makeover, New England has allowed 15.6 points, 326.8 yards and 1.6 touchdowns, and is 6-2 in that stretch.
Not that the changeover was all that facile. In fact, in the first five games after all of the linebacker tinkering, the Patriots were actually worse than in the first six outings of the season. The painful breaking-in period for four guys who had to become reacquainted with each other, and with their new roles, included averages of 23.0 points, 425.8 yards and 2.4 touchdowns surrendered. But look at what the New England defense has done in its last three victories: The Pats have permitted just 10 points, allowed one touchdown and limited their victims to a microscopic 161.7 yards per game.
Colvin has sacks in four straight games and five for the season. McGinest has four sacks in the last eight outings. Despite playing with less freedom on the inside, Vrabel remains a big-play defender. And Bruschi, well, what more can be said about him? It has been a matter of getting the right people in the right places, finally, and letting them play.
Belichick and vice president of personnel Scott Pioli, the premier talent evaluation duo in the league, can be forgiven for their mistakes with Beisel and Brown, who don't get on the field very much anymore. No one could have predicted that Bruschi, who suffered a stroke and then underwent a surgical procedure to repair a small hole in his heart, would have returned ever to the field, much less in 2005. And the retirement of solid run-stuffer Ted Johnson just before camp commenced in the summer, simply added to the crisis situation at linebacker. And so the Patriots gambled a bit, and uncharacteristically missed on Brown (old and brittle) and Beisel (a career special teams guy New England brass was convinced it could turn into a starter). Everybody in the league whiffs on player moves at times, and the Brown-Beisel errors were among the few the Patriots have made under Belichick's stewardship.
With the recent standout performances by the Pats' linebackers, though, not many people remember how poor the team's inside starters in the 3-4 were at the outset of the season.
Notable, too, was what the return of Seymour to the lineup has meant to the defense. The veteran down lineman is a player feared by opponents, not just because he can play end in the 3-4 and slide inside to tackle in the 4-3, but because Seymour can dominate for long stretches of games no matter where he is aligned. Getting Seymour back from injury has allowed New England to start the same front seven now for six straight weeks. And more important, it has allowed the Patriots to begin shutting down their opponents' run games, and in rather dramatic fashion.
In the first eight games, the Patriots gave up 128.9 rushing yards per game, and 4.0 yards per carry, and ranked 27th in the league in defense versus the run. With an intact starting front seven in the last six contests, New England has allowed just 60.1 rushing yards per game and 2.8 yards per attempt, and statistically now ranks No. 6 versus the run (the Pats were No. 11 going into the Tampa Bay matchup). In that six-game stretch, only one opponent has rushed for 100 yards, four were held under 80 yards and the last three totaled a paltry 85 yards.
The Pats remain somewhat suspect on defense -- only four players have started every game in the same spot -- particularly against the pass. After all, the Pats, remarkably, have used seven different starters at strong safety. And ever since Rodney Harrison went down with a catastrophic, season-ending knee injury on Sept. 25, no Patriots strong safety has started more than two consecutive games. New England has lined up with journeymen such as Michael Stone (released by St. Louis in the preseason), Arturo Freeman (cut by Green Bay in camp) and Artrell Hawkins (a lifetime cornerback who had never played safety until three weeks ago) at strong safety, and so the secondary remains an area of concern, and rightly so.
Still, in the big picture, the Pats, whose offense will always be competitive as long as Tom Brady is perpendicular, have gotten much better. A defense that surrendered seven games of 400 yards or more in the first 11 outings, all of them in an eight-game stretch, has tightened up considerably. And when AFC opponents look over their shoulders now, their throats may constrict a little, because that emerging specter on the horizon is the shadow of the Patriots gaining ground on them.
Eye on Indianapolis
No one looks ahead in the NFL. Or at least admits publicly to it. But here's betting that, having played on Saturday, many Patriots players were in front of their big screens for Sunday afternoon's San Diego-Indianapolis game. Hey, what else were they going to do on a chilly day off in the Boston area, play a round of golf?
Here's why the Patriots were interested couch potatoes: Because they've got visions of a second, redemptive shot at the Colts in the playoffs. Even, of course, if they're not looking ahead. And here's what they saw: The Colts' offense struggling to move the ball against an active, athletic Chargers 3-4 defense. The Indianapolis line flummoxed by a 3-4 pass rush. The Colts scoring just twice, both when provided short-field situations on takeaways, against a basic, three-man front. Yep, the same kind of 3-4 front the Pats play, and have used so successfully in the past against the Colts.
Sneaking a peek at the projected playoff brackets, something Belichick-coached players would never do, it is more than reasonable to think that, on the weekend of Jan. 14-15, the Patriots will be in the RCA Dome for a divisional-round matchup against the Colts, who walloped them 40-21 on Nov. 7 at Gillette Stadium. In that game, Peyton Manning threw for 321 yards and three touchdowns and shredded the New England defense. But there have been times in 2005, and Sunday's loss to the Chargers was hardly the lone notable occasion, in which the Colts' offense has experienced problems against a 3-4.
Let's get this straight: No defense ever completely baffles Manning, and the Colts star has a 100.1 passer rating this season in the seven games in which he faced a 3-4 defense, not appreciably lower than his overall efficiency mark of 104.3 for the season. Until Sunday's loss, he had a 6-0 record versus 3-4 defenses in 2005. But eight of Manning's 10 interceptions this year, and 10 of 16 sacks, have come against 3-4 defenses. And the outings against New England and San Diego represented his only 300-yard performances against 3-4 fronts.
Of course, it is a bit unfair to categorize those games, because most 3-4 teams don't play three-man fronts in passing situations, right? But Manning will throw on any down, and on Sunday afternoon, the Chargers were bringing heat no matter the down and distance. Not all of this should be focused on Manning, because his line looked like a bunch of human turnstiles Sunday, and he had defenders in his face all day.
Against the Steelers, even in a victory on Nov. 28, the Colts' receivers had problems reading the Pittsburgh coverages, made faulty route adjustments, and had their quarterback frustrated. So, more than just confusing Manning at times, 3-4 defenses have more accurately addled the Indianapolis offense as a whole in some instances this season. That's not to suggest that San Diego on Sunday provided the rest of the AFC a blueprint for dispatching the Colts in the playoffs. Give him time and Manning will figure out a solution, pass it on to his teammates, and make things work.
It is notable, though, that the Chargers have sacked Manning four times in each of their last two meetings: last year and Sunday afternoon. In 126 starts, Manning has been sacked more than three times in just seven games, and only two times, both versus San Diego, in his last 38 outings. Colts offensive line coach Howard Mudd had better get the situation rectified in the next four weeks or so. Because the Patriots are coming on, and in mid-January, they're probably coming to the RCA Dome with vengeance in their hearts. And with visions of how San Diego overwhelmed the Colts' pass protections schemes in their memories.
Grossman lifts Bears
In the wake of Rex Grossman's productive relief appearance Sunday night, in which he added a much-needed aerial dimension to the anemic Chicago Bears offense, coach Lovie Smith was asked about his starting quarterback for the rest of the season. And Smith, although in just his second season on the job, demonstrated that he had committed to memory the chapter in the Official Manual of Coachspeak that deals with such critical matters. "We'll go back and look at the tape," Smith said, right on cue, and with a straight face.
OK, we agree that as frustrating as it is for we media types, there simply are some things that not even the discerning eye of an experienced coach can ascertain before flipping on the video machine the morning after a game. But in the case of the Bears' play at the quarterback position, well, Smith would have to be Mr. Magoo (or worse) to have not concluded that Grossman gave the offense a rhythm, a precision, a balance, for gosh sakes, that had been lacking under Kyle Orton over the last several weeks.
In replacing Orton for the second half, Grossman completed 9 of 16 passes for 93 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception, which he fortunately got back when Atlanta safety Keion Carpenter fumbled the pickoff at the Falcons' 1-yard line. Not exactly scintillating numbers, agreed, but better than Orton has managed in some games. Orton had fewer than nine completions and less than 93 passing yards in three of his 14 starts, including Sunday night. Against the Falcons, he completed just 2 of 10 passes for 10 yards.
The rookie fourth-rounder from Purdue has won 10 games (in the convoluted logic of the NFL system, Orton gets a win for Sunday night, because he was the starter) and performed beyond the Bears' wildest expectations. But judging from the newfound spring in the step of the Chicago offensive players when Grossman went into the game, and the tempo with which the unit operated with him in the contest, it's time to end the Orton Era. At least until next summer in training camp, when Smith and his staff can throw open the competition and let the two quarterbacks battle for the No. 1 job, provided the star-crossed Grossman doesn't fall down an open manhole between now and next July.
Smith can peruse the tape all he wants. He'd be wise to remember, while doing so, this old coaching adage: "The tape doesn't lie." Only if he has lying eyes, or dozes off watching Orton throw the ball everywhere but to open receivers wearing a giant "C" on the side of their helmets, will Smith keep the rookie quarterback in the lineup. The smart money says that Smith, a smart man, makes the quarterback switch a permanent one.
Here's an interesting statistic: In the 75 wild-card round, divisional round and conference title games played in the NFC since 1990, the year the league adopted the current playoff format, the winning teams averaged 29.2 points. But losing teams in those games averaged 14.7 points. Essentially, those numbers mean that, to have won a playoff game in the NFC over the previous 15 seasons, you basically had to score about 15 points. Through the first 14 games of this season, all of them started by Orton, the Bears have averaged 16.1 points. Yeah, that's more than 15, but not much more. The skinny differential doesn't leave much room for error, and Orton is an error-prone quarterback that Chicago can't afford to have leading it into postseason play. Even with the league's most suffocating defense, the Bears will need points in the playoffs, and Grossman seems to be the guy who can provide them.
Back in the rivalry business
A rivalry ostensibly loses its rivalry status when the games in the series cease, even if just temporarily, to mean something. That had become the case over the last few seasons for the Washington Redskins in the NFC East. But not this season. With their Sunday bashing of the Dallas Cowboys, which allowed them to sweep the series against their most detested foe for the first time since 1995, the Redskins are back in the rivalry business again.
The most lopsided Redskins victory in the 45-year history of the heated series, the 35-7 shellacking improved Washington to 8-6. It was the Redskins' third win in a row, following an ugly three-game losing streak, and if the season ended now, the Skins would own the NFC's final wild-card berth. But the season doesn't end yet, and that just adds to the rivalry intrigue for Washington, which faces two NFC East rivals -- the New York Giants on Saturday and the Philadelphia Eagles on New Year's Day -- in the final two games of a roller-coaster season.
Win those two contests, the first at home and the season finale at Lincoln Financial Field, and the Redskins are into the Super Bowl derby, somewhat improbably. Almost as improbable as a struggling Mark Brunell throwing four touchdown passes in just 20 attempts. Or of defensive end Phillip Daniels, who had only 5½ sacks in his previous 34 games dating back to the 2003 season, notching four sacks against the Cowboys Sunday afternoon. But both those things happened, and now, courtesy of a late-season surge, the Redskins could be back in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. And maybe back in the rivalry business again, too.
Get ready for "Bush Bowl"
One game into this "consultant" gig with the Houston Texans, and Dan Reeves has done a pretty nice job, huh? It's like Reeves, who has the itch to coach again, was tailor-made for the position, right? Amazing, isn't it, the wisdom that Reeves apparently bestowed on the Texans in such a very short time.
Then again, if you are a Texans fan who was hoping to see Southern Cal tailback and playmaker nonpareil Reggie Bush in a Houston uniform, you might not be too thrilled with Sunday's 30-19 victory over Arizona, which lost quarterback Kurt Warner for the rest of the year with a knee injury. The victory sets up the season finale against San Francisco as a real "Bush Bowl," which it had not been before Sunday's events. You see, head-to-head results don't enter into the tiebreaker when it comes to draft position. So if the Texans were 1-14 entering the finale, and San Francisco was 2-13, and the Texans won to finish the year at 2-14, it wouldn't have mattered in the draft-slot tiebreaker. Ties in the draft are broken by strength of schedule, with the team that has the weakest aggregate opponents' record getting the top spot.
At this point, Houston's opponents have a .544 winning mark, and San Francisco's are at .587. It would have been difficult for the Texans to catch the 49ers in terms of winning percentage of opponents, so if both teams finished 2-14, Houston almost certainly would have gotten the top choice, and most likely Bush.
But now the teams will go into the finale with two victories apiece, and the loser gets the rights to Bush, since there are no other two-victory franchises. Notable, among several things, in the Houston victory: Linebacker Jason Babin, a 2004 first-round pick for whom the Texans surrendered three draft choices to get into position to select, had two sacks. Those were the first two sacks of the season for Babin, who has been an abysmal flop as an edge rusher, and now has all of six sacks in two seasons.
One of the few bright spots this season for Arizona, kicker Neil Rackers, now has converted 36 of 37 field goal tries. Rackers needs four field goals in the final two games to break the league single-season record of 39, co-owned by Olindo Mare of Miami and St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins. Wilkins, by the way, went over the 100-point mark for the fifth straight season on Sunday. He is just the fifth player in league history to score 100 points five years in a row. The Cardinals have 13 players on injured reserve and Warner, who will not play the rest of the year because of a knee injury, could become the 14th. The Cardinals, as a team, have yet to rush for 100 yards in a game. Rams tailback Marshall Faulk got 19 touches on Sunday and produced 108 yards on 16 carries and three receptions. The future Hall of Fame back had just 65 touches in the first 13 games of the season, with a high of only nine. Not exactly what Faulk thought the season, as a backup to Steven Jackson, would be like. Jackson went over the 1,000-yard rushing mark in his second NFL season. Playing in their home domes, in front of crowds that are smart enough to quiet down when the offense has the ball, both the St Louis Rams and Minnesota Vikings drew eight false start penalties Sunday. At least the Eagles seem to be developing a good, young tailback in rookie Ryan Moats, who rushed for 78 yards on just 12 carries. He broke off a long run for the second week in a row and he and Brian Westbrook should be a pretty nice tandem in 2006. Miami has four straight wins. The Jets finished 0-8 on the road for the first time in franchise history. Seattle's 10-game winning streak is a franchise record. The Seahawks won at Tennessee despite having no sacks for the first time this season. Seattle led the league in sacks, with 45, entering the game. Seahawks tailback Shaun Alexander became just the fifth player in league history on Sunday to post back-to-back seasons of 1,600 or more rushing yards. The inconsistent Jaguars continue to make hay against the league's bottom-feeders. Their victory over San Francisco was the sixth in seven games, all against losing teams, and they aren't exactly putting those clubs away. Their last four wins have been by a total of 17 points. Cincinnati cornerback Deltha O'Neal set a club record with his 10th interception of the season. The Bengals picked off three passes Sunday, giving them 18 thefts in their four meetings this season against NFC North teams. The Carolina defense has held nine straight opponents under 300 yards. Washington lost standout guard Randy Thomas, arguably its best and most consistent run blocker, to a broken leg. Denver kicker Jason Elam has become the first kicker in league history to score 100 points or more in the first 13 seasons of a career. Tampa Bay was shut out for the first time in 103 games.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.