If there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that no matter how weird you think you are, you can bet that there are people out there who are just as weird as you are.
I seem to have struck a chord with a fair number of you on Monday when I mentioned that deep down inside me lives a paranoid, nervous, overly pessimistic fan. I've named him Hank, and I'm very embarrassed of what he has done to me as a football fan. His negativity, obsession, and lack of enthusiasm doesn't allow me to fully enjoy games or appreciate just how great this New England Patriots team is. In most parts of America, watching NFL Football is a fun, relaxing activity to be shared with friends and family; well not at my house. Hank forces ol' Alec to watch the games alone in his ManCave, the only place where the excess of nervous energy and constant streams of profanity won't traumatize children, bring everyone else's mood down, or get me kicked out of the bar. Hank has also forced me to spend Sunday mornings in a a sickening mix of pure elation and paralyzing anxiety, fully aware that what is about to occur over the span of the next three hours is going to fully dictate whether or not I feel one ounce of happiness over the next full week of my life. In no way is it healthy, normal, or mentally beneficial and at some point I'm going to have to make a serious life change.
The good news is that it would appear that I'm not entirely alone in my struggle; more than a few of you have mentioned having a Hank of your own that doesn't allow you to give this team the full support they deserve. While I hope and pray, for your sakes, that you all have a much firmer grasp on reality than I do and read the above paragraph with an odd mix of pity, embarrassment, and utter relief that you aren't me and don't have my life. However, based on what I've read in the various comments section, a lot of us seem to have our own little Hank hiding somewhere down there in the bowels of our...well, bowels. And Hank makes Patriots games less fun.
Well maybe it's time to stand up to Hank and tell him where he can stick it. I'm getting sick and tired of letting all of these nagging doubts prevent me from enjoying what is hands down the most exciting part of the NFL season, a part that I as a Patriots fan am fortunate enough to be directly involved with almost every year. Now that I know that I'm (mostly) not alone, I finally have the strength to confront Hank and let him know that he isn't going to get the best of me - not this time. Instead of just listening to Hank, maybe it's time to finally talk back.
Here's what Hank has been screaming at me all week.
But Alec, Willis McGahee is back! He was absolutely dominating New England before he went down with a knee injury last time - now he's back to full health! They are going to run all over us all day! Shut up, Hank. We didn't have Brandon Spikes or Pat Chung back in Week 15 either. Furthermore, Denver and McGahee racked up the bulk of their rushing yards in the first quarter, before the Patriots switched to the 3-4 and figured out how to stop it. You can try to make the case that a healthy McGahee would have allowed the Broncos to continue their success running the ball - but it's not like Lance Ball had any trouble running against this defense after McGahee went down. Denver's success last time was more the result of the defense the Pats showed early in the game rather than the strength of the Broncos' running game. I fully expect some initial success from the McGahee, Ball, and Tebow running the ball - maybe even a very long first quarter drive where they convert a lot of third downs and find the end zone on a QB keeper - but I don't expect that success to continue throughout the game. And if the Pats can take away the running game and the deep ball, forcing Tebow to make those dreaded mid-range throws, there will be plenty of incompletions from the Broncos and Tommy B will have plenty of possessions with which to put this one away.
But Alec, we were only able to get back in the game on three 2nd Quarter turnovers! Tim Tebow has been much more careful with the ball as of late- if they get the run game going and don't hand the ball over, we're screwed! Shut up, Hank. Sure, those turnovers helped, but it's not like New England wasn't able to do anything with the ball once they got it back. Sometimes it just takes Tommy B a little while to figure out what a team is doing defensively; once he does, he will carve you up all day. As long as they Patriots don't give up a ton of points in the first quarter the way they have the past few weeks, they won't need to rely on turnovers. I'll take New England's offense over Denver's defense all day.
But Alec, did you see what the Broncos were able to do against the #1 Ranked Steelers defense? If Denver can do that to Pittsburgh, just think about what they can do to us! Shut up, Hank. The Steelers came limping into Denver, a historically difficult place to play, with key injuries to just about every position. They then chose a defensive scheme that put 9 in the box and dared the Broncos to beat them deep as they stifled the run. When Denver proved that they could beat them deep, Dick Lebeau made zero adjustments and kept the safeties close to the line. And even with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger, a rookie center, an injured Brett Keisel, no Rashard Mendenhall, and no Ryan Clark, the Steelers were a Champ Bailey tipped pass away from winning that game on a last-second field goal. The Broncos deserve a ton of credit for what they were able to do - but Pittsburgh also deserves a ton of blame for not making any adjustments to their defensive game plan and not sitting Big Ben the last few weeks of the season when he clearly wasn't healthy enough to start. Belichick ALWAYS adjusts his defenses, as this season's second half scoring will tell you. If Denver does pull this one out, they won't do it averaging 31.6 yards per completion.
But Alec, they held Gronk and Welker to 8 catches between them, and there's no way they forget about Hernandez this time around! It will be a totally different defensive scheme! Shut up, Hank. If Denver doubles Gronk, Welker, and Hernandez on every play, that's six men they are committing to three Patriots players. Let's all pray that the Broncos employ this strategy so the Patriots can just run the ball all day or go with a 5 WR set so Brady can hit whoever is open. Yes, Tom Brady will try to force Gronk the ball on a seam route at least once on Saturday, but I'm realizing that play (which at best will result in an incomplete) is just the price you pay for having Goliath on your team. The rest of the time, he'll distribute the ball to a healthy Deion Branch, a highly underrated Julian Edelman, or maybe even Chad Ochocinco, who saw his first TD against Denver in Week 15. Stevan Ridley is running well and Danny Woodhead was able to skirt around for some good yards last time. And plus - you can't cover Welker and Gronk forever. Eventually, they are going to get loose.
But Alec, everyone knows the key to beating the Patriots is to pressure Tom Brady! If Denver rattles him early, he'll be off all game! And what if he takes another massive hit like he did the last time these two teams played? Shut up, Hank. Other than a select few plays, Brady stayed relatively upright for the bulk of that first game. Plus, the O-Line is healthy at this point. We should see Matt Light, Logan Mankins, and Sebastian Vollmer all able to contribute. Plus, we can always bring in Nate Solder as an extra tight end if things get hectic. Von Miller is playing with a broken hand and Elvis Dumervil has been limited all week with an ankle injury; while both will undoubtedly play and will still be extremely dangerous, they won't be at 100%. Our offensive line should be able to keep Tommy B nice and clean.
But Alec, we haven't won a playoff game since 2007! This is a trap game that New England is going to take too lightly! We're gonna be one and done AGAIN!!! OK...this one still concerns me. You have a point, Hank. This is probably my biggest fear coming into this game. But let's look at the past 3 playoff losses. In 2007 they were a dropped pick and a freak, never-in-a-million-years-will-that-EVER-happen-again-GodIHateDavidTyree catch away from winning that game. In 2009, I think that Ravens were simply a better team than the 2009 Patriots, plain and simple. Baltimore was a few questionable penalties and a dropped 4th down conversion away from beating an identity-less New England team the first time around, and the team that deserved to win that playoff game won it. As for the Jets, last year is a great example of what getting hot and playing with emotion can do for a football team. The Jets wanted that game BADLY, and the Pats came out flat. They were unable to get anything going offensively, and by the time they did start to get into a groove, it was too late. I've seen much more passion and fire from these 2011 Patriots than I've seen from the past two years combined. Bill Belichick is going to make sure this team is very aware of its playoff fate as of late, and there's no way the Patriots don't come out fired up for this one. I agree that there is a lot of pressure here, and the potential for a trap game is great, but all signs point to the Patriots being ready to go and getting that one-and-done monkey off their back on Saturday.
I'm not gonna lie - I feel better. I'm sure I'm going to feel like I always do, nervous and paranoid, at around 6 PM on Saturday - but that's why God invented beer, right? Sweet frosty beer always takes the edge off, and gets Hank to keep quiet.
I will say this, though: I'd rather have Hank screaming at me from somewhere in the back of my mind than have him completely silenced. Here's hoping I have to deal with Hank until February.