- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 23, 2007

For a day, at least, sanity returned to the NFL. Nobody intercepted a pass and then fumbled the ball back to the other team. Nobody punted in the last two minutes of a close game and watched his opponent run out the clock. Nobody botched a chip shot field goal try with the outcome hanging in the balance. Nobody went almost three quarters without a first down. Neither of the visiting clubs won.

Yup, Sunday was positively … normal, right down to the snowflakes at Soldier Field. If there was anything surprising about it, it was that there weren’t any surprises at all. Given the unpredictable nature of the season — and of the first two rounds of the playoffs — you would have thought somebody would throw us a Barry Zito curve or two. Instead, the top-seeded Bears outsnarled America’s foster children, the Saints, while the Colts, the Best Team in This Millennium Never to Make the Super Bowl, finally slayed the Patriots dragon. No stop-the-presses stuff there.

Maybe they’re saving it for SB 41. Or maybe the craziness has finally run its course, the lunacy that saw the Saints go from 3-13 to a No. 2 playoff seed, the Redskins free fall from 10-6 to oblivion, Nick Saban ditch the Dolphins for the Alabama Crimson Tide and Terrell Owens overdose on something besides himself.

The league’s fourth-leading rusher in the second half of the season, with 871 yards, was none other than Ladell Betts. Who would have believed that back in September? A quarterback who had started only eight games in his career — the Cowboys’ Tony Romo — was voted to the Pro Bowl. Who could have imagined that?

Me, I’m still coming to grips with the fact Mike Furrey led the NFC in receptions with 98. Who the heck is Mike Furrey? (And is Furrey unusually hirsute?)

I already hear some voices of dissent out there. “What do you mean there were no surprises Sunday?” they’re saying. “The Patriots, shooting for their fourth Super Bowl in six years, blew an 18-point lead at Indianapolis. Doesn’t that qualify as stunning?”

In a word, no.

And here’s why: It wasn’t the first time they tempted the fates like that. It was just the first time they paid the price for it.

I refer you to Super Bowl 36. In the first three quarters, New England totally shut down St. Louis’ “Greatest Show on Turf” and built a 17-3 cushion. But in the last 10 minutes, the Rams rallied for two touchdowns to tie it. Had Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri not saved the day, it would have been the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history.

Then there was Super Bowl 38. In that one, the Patriots led Carolina 21-10 early in the final quarter — only to have the Panthers to come back and tie it at 29-29. Had Brady and Vinatieri not saved the day again, that would have been the biggest blown lead in Super Bowl history.

And that’s not all. In the 1998 AFC title game, when Bill Belichick was the Jets’ defensive coordinator, his unit stifled John Elway and the Broncos for a half and were up 10-0 in the third quarter. Final score: Denver 23, New York 10.

In many of these games, Belichick’s strategy seems to be: Throw the kitchen sink at them early, get ahead by a touchdown or two and then hang on for dear life. In the second half, though, his defense sometimes runs out of tricks — as evidenced by the 32 points the Colts put up in the third and fourth quarters. That’s more than the Patriots allowed in any other game this year.

So, no, the Pats’ inability to hold a 21-3 lead didn’t have me reaching for the defibrillator. We’ve seen this before from Belichick’s clubs. (If it keeps happening, maybe David Halberstam will write a book about it.)

Anyway, the Patriots aren’t going anywhere. Why, they’ll probably be even better next season, what with two first-round draft choices to spend (their own and Seattle’s from the Deion Branch trade). I mean, look at how far they went with Jabar Gaffney as their principal postseason receiver.

Gaffney was a street free agent, utterly jobless, when the Pats picked him up in October. In three playoff games, he caught 21 passes, two for touchdowns. To put this in perspective, the Redskins’ Brandon Lloyd caught 23 passes — for no touchdowns — in 15 games this year, including 12 starts.

And that, folks, is my Favorite Stat in a season of unfathomable stats: Jabar Gaffney, street free agent, 21 catches and two TDs in the playoffs.

Brandon Lloyd, $30 Million Man, 23 catches and no TDs in the regular season.

Say it ain’t so, Joe.

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