Upset in Florida of all places, 29-28, the Patriots proved that many pro football players, like some amateur tennis players, very often seek (and find) their own level.
Against a presumed inferior, however, you tend to play not so well.
The NFL's widespread, widely publicized parity predicament, above which five or six (at most) of the 32 teams are now poking their heads, is in part a manifestation of all that.
The Patriots demonstrated also that the attraction of football rests on its uniqueness as a three-edged challenge. For those who wish to win, this is a game that requires a deep physical, intellectual and emotional commitment. No other sport intimidates, at such depth, in all three respects.
Entirely missing Monday night, on the New England side, was any vestige of emotion or passion; and that made the Patriots two-thirds of a football team. Regardless of what they might have said before the game, or even thought, they couldn't, in their heart of hearts, get up for a team that has earned hardly any respect from anybody. Could you?
Peyton Hangs On
IF PEYTON MANNING could beat the Baltimore defense — and last Sunday he did, 20-10 — he figures to sail through the San Diego defense in Indianapolis next Sunday in the game of the week. The Chargers and Colts are both 11-3 and playoff-bound division winners, but the Colts have Manning.
Conquering Baltimore was a milestone feat of sorts for the record-chasing Indianapolis quarterback. Going back to his college days, Manning has usually fallen apart in big games or against good teams or strong defenses. Nerves or something. He has feasted only on weak teams. He didn't feast on the Ravens and didn't star, but he didn't come apart, either. That's what was different.
True enough, the breaks all went Manning's way that night, and who knows, he might have needed that. It could have ended 13-13 if the Raven kicker hadn't kicked the ball into a brother Raven.
What's more, Manning's only touchdown pass, a 29-yard shot that broke up a 6-3 field-goal duel in the third quarter, was the result not of brilliant execution but of a coach's sensational, gutsy third-and-one call. The Charger passer, Drew Brees, doubtless noted this, noting also that, for a change, Manning, on a big night, hung together. That was different.
Officials Are Usually Right On
THE RAVENS play defense with enthusiasm, and, as the world knows, often with too much enthusiasm. They tested the officials to the limit the other night in Indianapolis. At one point, on consecutive plays, they committed four illegal-contact fouls on Manning's receivers. It's sometimes said that harassed defenses should do that more often, realizing that referees are loath to stop the game with penalties on play after play. So the question was, what will the officials do this time?
What they did was call four consecutive penalties on the Ravens, placing the integrity of the game and of the league over the welfare of the Ravens, who, indeed, are responsible for the NFL's particular rules-enforcement policy that makes football a spectator-happy pass-offense sport. When the 2000 Ravens injured and knocked out three playoff quarterbacks en route to their only Super Bowl win, the NFL took instant action, outlawing unnecessary quarterback brutality. That upset some coaches but few fans.
Frequently, it doesn't take much to upset a losing coach. If the officials call nine penalties on his team, eight justified and one marginal or wrong, he sends the league office a film clip of that play and complains about the officials. The truth is that pro football is the most difficult sport to officiate and is done so with more efficiency than any other sport. That's as much as you should expect.
Tight Ends Year: Good for Gates
THE CHARGERS are one of the teams (one of the 32, it sometimes seems) benefiting in tight-end play from another new rules-enforcement measure that's keeping unscrupulous defensive players in line this year. By order of Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who took the decisive action on quarterback brutality in 2001, pass-defense people are no longer allowed to put so much as a hand on pass receivers beyond the five-yard bump zone. The reason: The slightest shove will sometimes ruin an intricate, well-executed pass play.
One result is that defensive teams can restrain good passing teams now only by assigning all their cornerbacks and safeties to wide receivers — one guy short, one deep, on each receiver. A second result is that linebackers, who are always slower than corners, do most of the covering today on tight ends, who are often as fast as wide receivers. The third result, the big serendipitous result, is that this has become Tight Ends Year. All over the league, tight ends, chased by lumbering linebackers, are hitting pay dirt — in the varied meanings of that cliché.