Before their fate was decided at the hands of their sworn enemies, the New York Jets, the Patriots played a memorable season finale against the upstate New York team, in a stadium that had become a wind tunnel.
Gusts were reported in the Buffalo area up to 60 mph--before the game both goalposts were bent over at odd angles. During the game, at least one of them would bend back again, requiring a crew to reposition it before a field goal could be attempted.
Later in the game the wind would calm down, but during the first half only one field goal was successful, by Stephen Gostkowski late in the first quarter. Two more would be attempted, but they were no match for the wind.
Buffalo stepped up first, with a 47-yard attempt that quickly went awry. The swirling gale forced the ball to the left, then reversed direction, pushing it wide right. I don't think I've ever seen anything like it, and don't expect to again.
With a little over four minutes left in the first half, Stephen Gostkowski would also see a chip-shot attempt no further away than a PAT bedeviled by the weather. This time the kick looked to be dead accurate, until the ball was lifted by invisible hands over the goalpost, wide right again.
Because of the elements, the game was a throwback to leather-helmet scrums, with just a handful of passing plays attempted on either side. Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan were the featured backs for New England, while Buffalo's Fred Jackson spent much of the afternoon powering his way to first downs with half the aging New England defense riding on his back.
When the dust finally cleared, the Patriots had done their job, sealing an 11-5 record with a 13-0 victory. All eyes then turned to the Meadowlands, where Patriots fans faced the unsavory prospect of rooting for the Jets to beat Miami. A win by the Jets would have put the Patriots in first place in the AFC East; meanwhile, a win by the Jacksonville Jaguars over the Baltimore Ravens would've given the Patriots the wild card.
Let's step back for a moment, though. Because I can't let this one issue go: I want to know where I can find the people who were calling this season a moratorium on Bill Belichick's coaching abilities after Tom Brady limped off the field in Week 1. If those people are still paying attention, I'd be curious to know what their final evaluation is.
My admittedly biased sense is that regardless of the outcome, this is the finest coaching performance we've seen yet from Bill Belichick. Without the MVP quarterback or first-string runningback, and with a chequered offensive line and decimated defense, still we were talking about the playoffs yesterday.
Last year, he deserved some criticism. This year, he deserves credit.
Speaking of which, what Matt Cassel has been through and done this year has sometimes had the feel of an epic quest, full of almost cartoonish obstacles--for example, Keyshawn Johnson pointed out yesterday that Cassel has now faced the "hat trick" of weather games: rain against the Steelers, snow against the Cardinals, and wind against the Bills.
All of this while filling perhaps the biggest shoes in the league, having not stood at the helm of a team since high school. And that's to say nothing of the death of his father just a few weeks ago.
We had absolutely no right to expect what we got from Matt Cassel this year. It should not be taken for granted.
But maybe, I thought, as Eric Mangini frowned and Jets fans booed and Brett Favre threw picks, it's for the best if they don't have to face the playoffs this year. Never mind that in some other divisions their record would've been more than adequate to get them a spot; never mind the Jets and the Jaguars. After all, the Patriots always could've just won one more game, and I can think of a couple I'd like to have back. I'm sure they can too.
But there are so many questions and issues facing New England that it's almost as if having to play out this season has been a distraction. Rumor has it in some places that Tom Brady is behind in his rehab; this is contradicted by some other reports. Regardless, a decision must be made regarding Matt Cassel. The team needs time for bodies to get healthy, and a reprieve from more casualties.
Still, I'll probably always wonder what might've happened if this indefatigable coaching staff were allowed to take this team to the playoffs. As this season has already shown us, we might've been in for a surprise.