This gentleman was unhappy with the game's proceedings. (Photo by Beth)
Sorry to say it, but Sunday's game was probably not in my top five games I've ever attended at Gillette. Part of it was my own fault--I didn't take into account aforementioned parking restrictions and their attendant traffic delays, and also left my house too late, meaning I missed the first quarter, which turned out to be the best part of the game.
We were on Route 1 still inching toward Foxboro when we heard, from our radio and the echoes of the other radios around us, that Tom Brady had connected with Randy Moss deep down the right sideline for a 20-yard gain. We also heard the cheers on the radio as Rodney Harrison checked in to the game for the first time, a truly disappointing thing to miss.
By the time Junior Seau picked off an intended touchdown pass to keep the score 3-0, Patriots, we were being waved by a bored-looking attendant into the deepest recesses of parking lot P10 North. Ditto Asante Samuel's interception on the next Browns possession. We heard the cheers coming live from the stadium as we hurried toward it for Donte Stallworth's touchdown reception.
When we finally got to our seats--miles of winding paths through the ripped-up parking lot, the ever-daunting ramp all the way up to the third deck, and the remaining hike up to our seats in section 332 lay between us and the game even once we'd managed to get rid of the car--a woman sitting next to us demanded, "where ya been?!"
She'd been hoping her boyfriend and a friend could join her from another section in the seats my fiancee and I had left vacant through a large portion of the game. I could understand her frustration--many's the time I've been upset with people who waltzed in late to a game. From now on, though, I may have more sympathy. I was just as upset as she was, probably more so, at my arrival time.
We did get to see a few memorable moments, like Tedy Bruschi's two sacks. There really is nothing like the way Gillette Stadium reacts to Tedy Bruschi--the universal, all-abiding love is physically palpable in the low-pitched, sustained call of "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu..." Even seeing that No. 54 is the one with the quarterback lined up made the crowd leap to its feet, and when he did his celebratory rock-n-roll slide down to his knees, people were literally jumping up and down for joy (myself included). It's not that we don't love the rest of the team--it's just that there's Patriot-love, and then there's Tedy-love. They are two similar yet distinct animals. Also, Rodney Harrison made an absolutely beautiful, midair pass deflection in the third quarter. Junior Seau had two picks. All in all, the Patriots defense had an admirable day, forcing four turnovers out of the Browns, which was the ultimate difference in the game.
But it still seemed like the next three quarters after we arrived went quickly, marked by an uncharacteristic number of penalties for the Patriots (they would total 6 for 52 yards, compared to the Browns 7 for 40), and their total yardage (412) and time of possession (32:27) only barely edged the Browns (353 and 27:33, respectively). There was, for possibly the first time this season, a troubling sense of ineptitude from the offense, despite the 34 points they put up. That was double the points the Browns scored, but it was one of those games that felt closer throughout than the final score would seem to indicate (especially since there was a ridiculous flurry of scoring / drives down the field within the final minute and 30 seconds of the game, including a deflection of an intended touchdown pass for Cleveland right at the buzzer which we watched, along with most in attendance, from the ramp where we'd paused on our way out).
Tom Brady especially did not look sharp. He wasn't picked off, and had three touchdowns--but time and again we watched in dismay as he missed wide-open receivers. "He's just...off." A guy behind me kept saying bewilderedly. "He's just...off."
By the time the ending of a largely scoreless third quarter was announced by the referee, another gentleman in my section barked, "Thank GOD!! Christ! That was the most miserable..." and so forth. The only points in the last 15 minutes of foobtall had been a consolation field goal to the Browns after they disconcertingly backed the Pats defense up all the way to their own 24. Despite open begging from the crowd, we were not being treated to any more of the Randy Moss Show, a bitter disappointment for many in attendance.
And then there was the chief matter of concern--whether or not the Pats would, as the denizens of 332 put it, "Cuvva." As in cover, the point spread, which was set at 16 and a half. I don't gamble, but it was not possible to sit up there for even a partial game and not absorb that. Down to the very last minute on the clock, it appeared the gamblers among us would be heading home disappointed despite the Pats' 10-point lead. "C'moonnn..." they whined. "You gotta cuvva. They gotta cuvva."
Which of course begs the question, once again, about Patriots fans and their relative level of spoiledness (if that's even a word). At one point during all the pissing and moaning of the third quarter, another man behind me remarked quietly, "They're 4-0 and up 10 points, and we're still bitching."
It's true. And no matter that even an "off" Tom Brady threw for a respectable 265 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions to all the other perfectly good receivers the Patriots employ--there weren't as many Randy Moss theatrics as in the previous two games, and so we were unhappy. The Pats conceivably could have put up 48 or more points if it hadn't been for a few muffed plays or penalty calls, and so we were unhappy. And of course, we were only winning by ten points, and gambling debts called for 16 and a half...and so we were unhappy.
Part of me thinks we are definitely spoiled, especially this year. Even in past Super Bowl years, the Patriots' MO was to squeak by, find different ways to win, and what mattered was the W or the L, nuf ced. This year's model, though, has raised our expectations to ludicrous levels. We've seen what they can do, and expect nothing less.
Part of it, too, is just the inherent psyche of the New England sports fan, regardless of the team's record. In the past national pundits have accused Red Sox fans of enjoying the team's misery, and to the extent that's true, it's because New Englanders inherently enjoy being critical of things, and their sports franchises are convenient vehicles for it. Just look at the Red Sox this year: best record in baseball, first place in the division for the first time in 12 years and they just clinched an ALCS berth. But you should've seen us in August as the Yankees narrowed the lead to a game and a half. The curious thing I've noticed as New England teams have gone from lovable losers to kings of the heap in their various leagues is that the criticism doesn't die down with success. It simply finds finer and more minute things to focus on. Such as Tom Brady's completion ratio. Or how many touches Randy Moss got. Or the point spread.
In fairness, though, while the fans are given to being hypercritical, it's also been acknowledged by both Coach Belichick and various Patriots players that New England can play better than they did on Sunday--and they're going to need to if they hope to beat teams that are better than the Browns, some of which are coming up soon on the schedule. In the end, though we should be happy about another win, Sunday's game reminded us not to get so cocky. Perfection doesn't just happen automatically, and our Patriots are not totally invincible.
Maybe a little perspective is just what we need.