Shades of Grey in Patriots/Colts

I love shades of grey. My favorite Beatles song is “You Never Give Me Your Money,” a song with no structure that spirals out into infinity. One of my favorite novels is Infinite Jest, which builds for 1,000 pages and ends without a real conclusion. I thought the Sopranos finale ended perfectly. I like it when you draw conclusions based on evidence instead of finding your evidence in light of the conclusion.

Football does not lend itself to shades of grey. The outcome is the outcome, and 60 minutes is usually enough to tell you which team is better. The final score tells you enough. That’s not true with the Colts and Patriots. When Boomer Esiason said he wanted to see the teams play a 7-game series, I was all for it. They may play again, but even one game is not enough for me. The Patriots won Sunday and I was happy, but I was astonished that they won. Some probably see this as validation of the Patriots’ greatness, and it is, but I think they see it for the wrong reasons: they believe the Patriots are definitively better than Indianapolis. They are not. But they are good enough to win a sloppy game which, in football, is often good enough. John Madden might say that sloppy games are what football is all about, and there’s something to the art of winning when you’re not at your best, but that game was a coin flip from the beginning.

During the Patriots-Redskins blowout, I texted a high-minded sports fan friend of mine and asked, “Can football be exquisite? The Patriots play exquisite football.” I’ve thought about it a bit since then, and football can be exquisite, but it’s extremely difficult. The Patriots, on a normal day, play an exceptional brand of football hitherto unseen with these eyes, but get a little pressure on Brady and it becomes just another game with great players in Flying Elvis jerseys. That’s what Sunday’s game was. The difference between the teams was not exquisite or even subtle: it was a 6’4″ wide receiver from Marshall named Randy Moss. For all the pre-game talk about how the teams could beat each other, in the end it was so simple, a caveman could have told you. Randy Moss was the difference. He caught almost everything thrown near him, and became Brady’s number one game plan when the game was in doubt: the QB looked for him on six straight plays. This was a strategy that is absolutely new to the Patriots. Brady won three Super Bowls that way and led the team to an 8-0 start this year by finding the open receiver, but against the best pass defense in the league, and maybe the fastest defense of all-time, he could only rely on Moss receiver to get him out of there. Play after play, he looked for Moss, and the sequence is a testament both to the Patriots front office (for heisting Moss from the Raiders) and the Colts defense (which shut down literally everybody else). At some point, it became akin to that ever-so-slight difference between, say, a baseball pitcher and a hitter, and why a great pitcher will always have the advantage over a great hitter (see Carmona vs. A-Rod, 2007 ALDS): the pitcher, like the quarterback, is acting, while the hitter and the defense are reacting. That slight, slight difference is the basis for all football offense and baseball’s phenomenal rate of failure at the plate. In the Patriots game, Brady and Moss, two of the best players to ever play their positions, were able to exploit that difference to give them the slightest advantage over a phenomenal defense that had shut down everyone else.

The irony here is that the teams have switched roles fairly convincingly. In this head-to-head meeting, the Patriots have to lean heavily on offensive skill over scheme, whereas the Colts defense relies on schemes to disrupt Brady instead of trying to brute-force their way to the QB. Flip the script, and that was the Pats/Colts playbook of 2003 and 2004. The difference is that Peyton Manning can no longer be schemed, so the Pats must rely on a brute force defense, and the Patriots can’t run the ball down Indy’s proverbial throat anymore.

So can football be “exquisite?” It can be, but usually only in dominance. The Patriots have looked great because they’ve executed flawlessly. It’s wonderful to see plays executed so nice. But it’s hard for football to be “exquisite” in a close game. It’s dramatic, exhilarating and brutal, but it’s usually not exquisite. Baseball is the opposite. Its nail-biting games are also the most beautiful, whereas the blowouts are brutal.

Add to that baseball’s tendency to even itself out, and you see the beauty. If you have the same teams play each other 100 times, both teams will win a goodly number of games even if they’re the Yankees and the Royals. Football’s the opposite. It trends toward demolition. Play 20 games between two teams and they might split a few, but eventually one team will dominate. You can usually tell which team this is by the first game, and that’s why real upsets in football are rare (the ’96 Jaguars over the Broncos, the Cardinals over anybody) and everyone is happy with the one-game-and-out playoff system. I won’t be happy with it this year. The Colts and Patriots are both fielding their best team of the decade in the decade they have defined. Once is certainly not enough, and twice is barely sufficient. This entire season has the same feel as MLB’s did in 2004; then, we were killing time for a Red Sox/Yankees rematch after the 2003 heartbreak, here we’re playing out the string for Colts/Pats 2 after the AFC Championship Game debacle. Who’s actually better? We may find out in January. We may not.