Sunday. At last. Here in New England, it’s the first day of the football season and the last day of the baseball season. And we are seeking a little clarity.
Are the Patriots fact or fiction?
What is the Red Sox’ best path to the World Series?
I want to know if the Patriots are any good. I want to see a game that tells me something about this team. Sunday night, the conga line of Tomato Cans comes to an abrupt halt in Atlanta. The Patriots are on the road, against a team that played for the NFC Champioship back in January. Sunday night, we finally see what the Patriots’ defense will do against a legitimate quarterback, Matt Ryan. Beating the Falcons in the Georgia Dome is hard; it’s like beating the Patriots at Gillette on CBS with Les Moonves sitting in the Kraft box. The Falcons are 34-7 in the Georgia Dome since 2008.
The Patriots are 3-0, but they have beaten three of the worst teams in football: the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. They have faced two rookie quarterbacks and a guy from Tampa who lost his job after spitting up against New England. Caliber of opposition is not New England’s fault — we can’t punish the Patriots for taking care of business against weak opponents — but games against the Bills, Jets, and Bucs amounted to a three-game extension of the NFL preseason. That’s why today is the official start of football season in New England.
Let the real analysis begin. Ours is a region with two sports radio stations, multiple television panel platforms, and dozens of print and Internet outlets, all intent on covering a paranoid, ridiculously secretive, self-important, highly successful football team. Never has the coverage and analysis been more forced and hollow. Because of the cheesy schedule it has been virtually impossible to arrive at any valuable opinion on the relative strength or weakness of the 2013 Patriots to this point. The best thing we can say is that they haven’t thrown up on themselves.
But what do we know?
Nothing. All analysis starts with “hard to read.’’
New England’s defense (34 points allowed, only 27 by the defense) is hard to read because the Bills, Jets, and Bucs could not throw or catch. The Patriots’ ground game is hard to read because the Patriots don’t have a rushing TD and they’ve had three different players lead the team in yards gained on the ground. The Patriots’ passing game is hard to read because there’s been plenty of confusion and the learning curve is significant. New England’s red-zone efficiency is difficult to assess because the Patriots have been playing teams from the Powder Puff Zone. The impact of Rob Gronkowski is hard to read because Gronk hasn’t played. The impact of Danny Amendola is hard to read because he played only one game and the Patriots won’t tell you anything about his injury or his potential date of return. Now we wonder if Gronk and Amendola (and their agents) are perhaps at odds with the team’s medical staff.
We have been talking about the Patriots for three weeks, but we know nothing. Are the Patriots frauds artifically inflated by NFL bottom-feeders or are they a legitimate threat to go deep in the playoffs? Sunday night, in the de facto season-opener, we start to get some answers. Put “Homeland” and “Breaking Bad” on the DVR. You need to watch the Patriots in real time.
Meanwhile, baseball brings us no clarity, only more confusion and all of it helps the Red Sox. Oakland’s loss Saturday assures the Sox of the best record in the American League and home field throughout the playoffs. More important, it keeps the BoSox out of Detroit in the first round. The Sox are going to play the winner of the amazing Texas-Tampa-Cleveland wild-card bakeoff. This is good.
With 161 down and one to play, the Indians hold a one-game lead over the Rangers and Rays. The permutations are skull-imploding and all of them favor the Boston Red Sox. One way or another, the Sox are going to face a depleted team at Fenway on Friday.
If Tampa, Cleveland, and Texas finish tied, here’s a possible scenario for the Rays: at Toronto Sunday, at Cleveland Monday, at Texas Tuesday, at home vs. Cleveland or at Texas Wednesday, at Boston Friday. Joe Maddon’s team figures to be the toughest first-round opponent for the Sox, but the Rays might kill themselves just getting to Fenway.
The Indians are true wild cards. And as much as everybody loves John Farrell, Terry Francona is a legitimate candidate for manager of the year. Sure, the Sox went from worst-to-first, from 69 wins to at least 97 wins. But the Indians went from 68 wins to at least 91 and did it with half the payroll of the Red Sox (Larry Lucchino’s “scrappy underdogs” had the fifth-highest payroll in the majors). With everything on the line over the last two weeks, the Indians have won nine straight. They won on a two-out, two-run walkoff homer by 42-year-old Jason Giambi on Tuesday. They won after watching a 6-1 lead turn into a 6-5 lead in the ninth inning Thursday at Minnesota. And now they are assured of playing more baseball after today. They have no closer, but lots of karma.
Bring it on: the last day of baseball’s regular season and the first day of football. This should be good.
Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.