No, I'm not parroting the article in Sunday's Boston Globe comparing the 2009 Saints to the 2007 Patriots. It was an interesting read, but I did not find it that relevant.
Despite the fact that tonight's game has been hyped to the point of utter absurdity, it represents a pivotal point in the season for each of these teams.
The Pats have been criticized enough, and they need to prove to the rest of the NFL that they are for real. They are playing for some respect.
This game is also an opportunity for the Patriots to create some real separation between themselves and the rest of the AFC East.
For the 10-0 Saints, home field advantage throughout the playoffs is plenty of incentive, and they understandably want the respect that comes with an undefeated season.
Respect that comes unless you are the 2007 New England Patriots.
The Belichick-Mangini-Walsh-Goodell-Specter drama that unfolded in the wake of game one in '07 is well documented elsewhere, and frankly, the whole thing was such a tempest in a teapot, and I couldn't be bothered recounting it anyway.
What is far more interesting is a look at how that drama affected Bill Belichick and his team.
Regardless of how unclear the memo might have been, it was intended to clarify a league rule that was full of loopholes big enough to accommodate rush hour on the Southeast Expressway. The real point is that punishment was handed out, the NFL microscope landing squarely on Belichick, his staff, and his players, who motored forward.
End of story, right?
"Not so quick," said Belichick. "Does anybody really believe that my team needs to cheat to win games? Watch this."
Belichick's Patriots ignored the criticism spewed at them everywhere they went, leaving host fans seething at venues all over the country. Nobody wanted to lose to a team that they had been led to believe could only win by cheating.
Under the glare of that microscope, Belichick became Captain Ahab. Perfection became his white whale.
He worked his team relentlessly. They responded with the same intensity; they didn't like the idea of being labeled as cheaters, either.
Yes, they embarrassed some teams. Until the Colts in Week Eight, a 24-20 victory for the Pats, their opponents were completely overwhelmed. The Patriots were putting up numbers so gaudy, I almost felt sorry for some of these teams. Almost, but not quite.
To paraphrase John Madden as he commented on one of the Patriots' Monday night massacres: If your defense isn't good enough to stop them, that's on you. Some of these teams need to look at that.
The New England Patriots were on a mission, plain and simple. And I defy anyone to suggest that they were cheating or even bending a rule in 2007.
After the Colts game, the Patriots followed up with a 56-10 humiliation of the Buffalo Bills before heading into the bye week.
Injuries were piling up, Belichick had his players redefining the word "versatility," and the team just rambled on.
After the bye week, the margins of victory became smaller and smaller. The team was tired, and the injuries had taken their toll. By the end of the regular season, it was easy to see that the team had simply peaked too soon. They were running out of gas.
My apologies for resorting to such cliche, but there really are not many other ways of saying it.
During the playoffs, they faced some tough opponents, and had to dig really deep to win those games.
And Super Bowl XLII? They were toast. I don't want to take anything away from the Giants. They played well enough to win, and the Patriots did not.
Fast forward to 2009. We are all aware of everything that has happened since that Super Bowl loss, so I won't repeat it here.
The bottom line is the sum total of everything that has happened during the past 21 months and the New England Patriots are a new and improved team that started out this season with a lot of question marks.
I am not going to suggest that all the questions have been answered. What matters here is that this team has become better over the course of the season.
They began the season with a reliable core, surrounded by a number of players who had a lot to learn. And I believe that, for the most part, they have learned their lessons well.
Yes, there are injuries and other issues, but the 2009 edition of the New England Patriots has not peaked yet.
A case could be made that their destruction of the New York Giants was significant, but in all honesty, we know that the Giants have lost several games they should have won. I can't put them on the list with the Rams and the Bills, but they have not played well.
So who wins this game?
Two great teams take to the Superdome field tonight, and one comes out with a lot of pride. The other team gets to say, we played a great team, and we lost.
The Patriots will win this game by the skin of their teeth.
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