Monday, January 28, 2002

Rams versus Patsies?

New England seeks respect as St. Louis eyes dynasty

By Mike Lopresti
Gannett News Service

        Talk about your match made in talk show heaven. Super Bowl week and ... a quarterback controversy?

        It's possible, as the minicams marshal for action. And the guess here is that it won't take very long for Bill Belichick, the coach of the New England Patriots, to tire of hearing the names Tom Brady and Drew Bledsoe in the same question in the coming days.

        Anyway, the match is set for the first February Super Bowl. Power on one side and pluck on the other. A favorite seeking greatness, against an underdog with a hint of destiny.

        In this corner, the St. Louis Rams, right on schedule, even if Philadelphia was stubborn Sunday.

        In the other, the New England Patriots, on a tear, no matter how many of them require nametags for the general public.

        The two teams seem a deserving enough couple. There will be no riff-raff in New Orleans this week, except for perhaps at 2 a.m. on Bourbon Street.

        The Rams were due at the Super Bowl all along. Kurt Warner and his flak jacket. Marshall Faulk, returning to his hometown. All the other St. Louis sticks of dynamite.

        But the Patriots? A year after they went 5-11 and finished last? With Bledsoe back on the field as the game's first $103-million backup quarterback?

        This NFL season has been leaking surprises and here is the latest one. The Patriots are writing a screenplay with the postseason, between the snow and the screwball ruling against Oakland. And now Bledsoe suddenly back on the stage after Brady went down in Pittsburgh.

        Bledsoe hadn't tried a pass in a game since September. And the next thing anyone knew on Sunday, he was throwing a bullet for a touchdown, helping seal an upset.

        Times are good for New England. The Patriots scored one offensive touchdown Sunday and still won a conference championship.

        But about that quarterback situation ... Brady's ankle will be a daily issue. What percent must it be — 75, 85, 95 — for him to start?

        What if he doesn't play after all this?

        Said Brady: “I don't know. I'll answer that after the game.”

        But then, what of Bledsoe's mental state, having delivered in the AFC title game, if he is sent back to stand on the sidelines along with the security guards?

        Said Bledsoe: “That would be a hard situation. I don't know.”

        Poor Belichick. Especially when everyone will be looking over his shoulder, from Georgia to Guam. A week when a head cold is worth a sidebar.

        “We'll talk about that and make a decision later in the week,” Belichick said.

        One thing. They will not have the usual two weeks to sort out the issues. Six more days and they play. It is a Super Bowl that will not come overcooked.

        It will also be the first Super Bowl in history decided after Groundhog Day. Punxsutawney Phil will come out of his hole next Saturday to predict either six more weeks of winter, or the Rams by 12.

        The working theory for these playoffs has been it is the Rams' championship to lose.

        But the Eagles stayed with them, and New England has won eight in a row. Though Warner passed for 401 yards against the Patriots in a 24-17 St. Louis win in November.

        So there are several topics for the week. The Rams' legacy. The chances of an upset. The number of FBI agents in town.

        But it'll all start with the New England quarterback question. Super Bowl hype lives for a moment such as this.


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