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The Weekly Picks Column Makes A Triumphant Return

September 10, 2009 - John Whittaker
A few years ago for Christmas, the News Gal bought me a picture with five Patriots jerseys hanging in a locker room.
Bruschi, Vinatieri, McGinest, Brady, Whittaker.
Now, the only ones left are Brady and I.
The retirement of Tedy Bruschi a couple of weeks ago was hard for me - hard enough it took me almost two weeks to put it adequately into words.
He was drafted as an undersized defensive end from Arizona State, and nobody knew if he'd make it as a linebacker or not. Nobody knew if he had enough size to withstand the pounding a linebacker takes in the NFL. Nobody knew if he had enough speed to cover the field and make plays.
He started as a backup, made enough plays the coaches took notice and cleared a starting spot for him and then made enough plays to be named to the Pro Bowl and help his team win three Super Bowls. Nothing was handed to Tedy Bruschi, even when a debilitating stroke theatened to end his career after his first, and only, Pro Bowl appearance.
If you ask any sports fan, they'll say they respect the guys on their team who work the hardest, who've done the most to make themselves better and who sacrifice their statistics for the betterment of the team.
And, Tedy's career arch mirrored that of the Patriots. As he got good, so did the team. When he became one of the best at his position, the Patriots became one of the best teams in the league. I don't know what that means for the Pats now that he's retired - but I know from past experience that the retirement of certain guys, regardless of statistics, hurts a team's performance (see O'Neill, Paul, and his retirement from the Yankees after the 2001 season).
For a moment, before we get to the rest of this weekend's NFL games, I want to take minute to remember my four favorite Bruschi moments.
January 2002 - While the tuck rule and Adam Vinatieri get a lot of credit for the Patriots winning the Snow Game against the Raiders in the 2002 playoffs, I'll always remember Bruschi's huge game -- nine tackles, a sack and a big short-yardage stop that gave the Patriots offense another possession. The refs don't correctly interpret a stupid rule if Bruschi doesn't man up and play a big game.
December 7, 2003 - In a key divisional game against Miami, Bruschi scores the game's only touchdown on a 5-yard interception return. As he hits the end zone, fans started throwing snow up in the air, creating a surreal picture. That play, and the interception against the Lions a few years ago on Thanksgiving, sum up Bruschi. He was always in the right place at the right time, and at some point, it stops being luck and starts being credited to how good player Bruschi was.
2004 AFC Divisional Playoff - Facing off against Peyton Manning and the Colts, Bruschi comes up with two fumble recoveries, one that he stripped and recovered from Dominic Rhodes, and helped quarterback a defense that flustered Manning into a 20-3 Patriots win. Any win is good, but to hold Peyton Manning's offense to three points is unbelievable.
October 30, 2005 -- The moment he ran out of the tunnel against Buffalo in his first game returning from his stroke. It wasn't so much how he played -- two solo tackles and five assisted tackles -- as the emotion he showed coming back and the respect he received from the Bills fans (though my buddy Bussman had heard about enough about Bruschi a week before the game). Plus, he helped the Patriots beat the Bills, which we'll get back to near the end of this column.
It's been an offseason of change for the Patriots. Richard Seymour has been traded. Mike Vrabel was part of the Matt Cassel trade. Rodney Harrison has retired. Ellis Hobbs has gone to Philadelphia. Of all the changes, of all the guys who've left, it'll be Bruschi I'll miss the most.
Before the Pats played the Panthers in the Super Bowl, camera crews caught Bruschi rolling around with his sons on the field before the game. He was a guy who always seemed to make big plays at big times, even as he slowed down over the last couple of years. He was the emotional leader of the Patriots' defense and easily as important to the defense as Tom Brady has been to the offense.
Can the Patriots fill Bruschi's spot at middle linebacker? Jarod Mayo has a chance to be a Pro Bowler before he's finished, so yeah, they can.
Will it be quite the same to see someone other than number 54 manning the position this season? No way. Not even close. Don't even discuss. For almost 10 years, he was the face of the Patriots defense - smart, versatile, tough and the definition of a leader.
I'm sure Bruschi will be great in the booth at ESPN this year. I'll look forward to hearing what he's got to say.
But, on that first cold Sunday in December, when his former teammates are playing at Gillette Stadium, it'll be strange not to see Bruschi in the middle of the defense, his breath visible in the cold air, shouting out signals to his defensive mates.
Thanks for the memories Tedy. The News Gal and I will eat taco dip on Monday night and remember them fondly.
On to this weekend's games:
Tennessee at Pittsburgh: Know what sucks about Pittsburgh winning the Super Bowl last season? They're the featured game on opening night this year. As much as I hate the Steelers, I'm taking Pittsburgh in this one - I see Tennessee taking a step backward without Albert Haynesworth, and does anyone else see Kerry Collins duplicating last season? I love football, but chances are the television in the Whitless Wonder-News Gal household won't be watching the blasted Steelers tonight. I wonder what we have on DVD that we haven't watched in a while.
Miami at Atlanta: Two teams that still have questions to answer for the Whitless Wonder. Can Chad Pennington lead an overmatched offense to score points? Was that ugly performance in the playoffs an aberration, or a portent of things to come? Can Tony Sparano capture lightning in a bottle again? As for the Falcons, does anybody else not completely trust Matt Ryan? I want to see him do it again before I'm ready to call him a competent starting quarterback. I'll take Atlanta, but only because you're making me.
Jets at Houston: I don't understand the optimism over the Jets this year. This is the same team that collapsed at the end of last year, lost its starting quarterback, didn't acquire a viable veteran backup and is starting a rookie. Plus, I'll never be completely sold on Thomas Jones or Jerrico Cotchery as top options at their respective positions. On the flip side, I like what Houston is doing defensively and I think Matt Schaub is great when he's healthy. When in doubt, I pick quarterbacks and defense, so I see Houston winning its opener -- and helping the Pats get an early 1 game lead in the AFC East.
Detroit at New Orleans: I'd love to see Detroit win a game, but it isn't happening this weekend. Drew Brees should shred the Lions secondary, and Reggie Bush might actually, for a game, look like an actual, honest to God, NFL running back. All joking aside, this game could tell you a lot about the Saints. If it's a shootout, don't look for much defensive improvement from them this season. But, if they come out and shut down the Kittens' offense, it'll be better than that unit played all of last year and a possible sign the Saints could be in for a good season.
Kansas City at Baltimore: Last year, Matt Cassel was the feel-good story of the NFL. For a week, at least, he'll wish he was still holding Tom Brady's jock strap, because he'll get his butt handed to him all day Sunday by Ray Lewis and the rest of Baltimore's defense. Six points might be enough for the Ravens, because I don't see the Chiefs scoring much. Don't worry Matt, there'll be better days ahead.
Dallas at Tampa Bay: Finally, I pick a road team. Sorry Teddy - I've got to go against your boys on Sunday. The loss of Terrell Owens strikes me as addition by subtraction, Tony Romo has something to prove and Tampa's offense doesn't scare a three-year-old. It adds up to a long day for the Bucs.
Minnesota at Cleveland: Can we just put Minnesota in the Super Bowl now to put an end to all this Brett Favre crap? Seriously. Everybody in the NFC can just stop playing now, let Favre get his stuff handed to him by the Patriots in January, and then he'll quit and we won't have another offseason of all-Brett, all the BLEEPING TIME. Thanks for that two-by-four shot to the head, News Gal, I needed that. As for Sunday, it's kind of too bad the Browns are on national TV, because their fans in Western New York get to see them get beat by the Vikes. It's not even Favre, it's the fact the Vikings are stacked defensively, and I see no possible alignment of the stars other than Adrian Peterson deciding to spend the afternoon at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which Peterson doesn't run for 180 yards and two touchdowns. Spielman and Kinsler are still driving the Browns bandwagon, also known as a tandem bicycle.
Philadelphia at Carolina: Now this is a game I'd like to see. Much like Andy Reid eyeing up a cheeseburger, I'm curious to see what these two teams are capable of. I seriously doubt Philadelphia is as good as they were at the end of last season, and I have Andy Reid-sized doubts (seriously dude, SLIM FAST and a treadmill might be a good idea) that Jake Delhomme is as bad as he was in the playoffs last season. I'll bet Andy Reid's next bypass surgery (God, I love fat jokes) that the Eagles win a close one, probably set up by a late Delhomme interception.
Jacksonville at Indianapolis: Jacksonville is the sheik pick to unseat the Colts in the AFC South. I don't see it. Dick Jauron could be coaching the Colts and my short, bald and overweight butt could be playing running back, and Peyton Manning would find a way to beat the Jags on Sunday. Translation: I don't see the Jags beating the Colts on Sunday, or any Sunday this season. Indy looks like an 11 win team to me (a step back, to be sure), but I don't see the Jags winning more than eight with their receiving corps.
St. Louis at Seattle: This game is Ron Bergundy's cat poop salad to the smorgasbord that is the opening weekend of the NFL. And yet, Seahawks/Rams fans will eat the cat poop because they're so hungry for what passes as football in their cities. If I had to wager a guess, and it's my blog, so I have to wager a guess, I'm picking the Seahawks, not that I think they're good or anything. They're the lesser of two cat poops.
Washington at Giants: This is a big game in the NFC East, and I'm unsure who's going to win. I'm not sold on the Giants until Hakeem Nicks or any other receiver steps up. I'm not sold on the Redskins until Jason Campbell shows me he wants to play quarterback consistently. I'm flipping a coin on this game - and the coin says the Giants win. Where's my lucky 8-ball when I need it?
San Francisco at Arizona: Let me say up front -- I don't think Arizona's a Super Bowl team. I don't trust Kurt Warner as far as I could throw his wife. I'm pretty sure I could lead a scoring drive on the Cardinals' defense. And I still like Arizona to win the NFC West - though I think Syracuse could win three divisional games in that division. I like what Mike Singletary has done so far with the 49ers, though, and as long as his pants stay on at halftime (talk about the joke that keeps on giving), I think the 49ers win this game.
Chicago at Green Bay: The unstoppable pre-season offense (Green Bay) versus a defense with something to prove (Chicago). A quarterback who needs to get off to a good start (Jay Cutler) versus a defense with allegedly good cornerbacks (Green Bay). If I knew what to make of Cutler, I'd take the Bears. But, I have doubts, especially about his receivers. Devin Hester isn't a number 1 receiver, and do you really trust Earl Bennett, Rashied Davis, Joaquin Iglesias, Johnny Knox or Devin Aromashodu to make plays consistenly? That's what I thought. Green Bay, on the other hand, has to be better defensively than they were last year, don't they? I'll give Green Bay the benefit of the doubt in the opener, but it's a shootout.
San Diego at Oakland: I've seen some hairballs from the News Cat that were more attractive than this game. San Diego wins handily. Not even Richard Seymour joining a not terrible defense makes the Raiders pickable. On the plus side, this game is in Oakland, which puts the over/under on Tila Tequila costumes at about 28,000.
Buffalo at New England: I smell an F___ You game coming from the Patriots. Tom Brady's playing his first game in a season, Bill Belichick's geniusness is being called into question for trading Richard Seymour and the Bills are, well, the Bills. Has any offense laid a bigger egg fart this preseason than the Bills, with or without Terrell Owens' big toe issues? Even with their offseason changes, I don't see the Pats defense giving up more than 17 points on Monday night. Offensively, this is the same offense, only better, that lit the world on fire two years ago. Tom Brady-to-Randy Moss is good for 14 all by themselves on Monday, and you know Wes Welker's getting in on this action, too. Heck, BenJarvis GreenEllis might have a score or two, if Coach Belichick decides to take it easy on the Bills in the second half.
Much like I don't see that whole pan of taco dip going to waste, I don't see the Patriots losing to the Bills on Monday.


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