After waving bye to bye, Patriots aim to regroup

Week 17 Preview

December 19, 1997|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

Drew Bledsoe fell into a trap last week, and now the New England Patriots have to try to climb out of a hole.

The Patriots had a third-and-seven at midfield on Saturday, holding an eight-point lead over the Pittsburgh Steelers with 2: 10 left in the fourth quarter.

All the Patriots had to do was hold the lead and they would have been playing the Miami Dolphins for a first-round bye in the playoffs Monday night.

But Bledsoe didn't see Steelers lineman Kevin Henry and lofted a pass toward David Meggett that wound up in Henry's hands.

"I thought it was a safe play," Bledsoe said. "I just didn't see the nose tackle. I fell into a trap. It was a well-conceived play by their defensive staff and it worked."

Of course, the Steelers are noted for fooling quarterbacks with their defensive schemes, but $42 million quarterbacks get paid not to get fooled.

The result is that the Steelers stormed back to win in overtime, and they will get the first-round bye as long as they don't lose to the Tennessee Oilers on Sunday by 65 points or more.

That means the Patriots' game against the Dolphins is for the AFC East title and the right to be host to a wild-card game. If the New York Jets beat Detroit on Sunday, Monday's loser is out of the playoffs. If the Jets lose, Monday's loser will still get a wild-card berth.

But a wild-card spot or division title would be small consolation for the Patriots. They know how important the first-round bye is.

Since the 16-game schedule was started in 1978, 100 teams have played in the first round. Only three made it to the Super Bowl.

The Patriots of 1985 were one of those three, along with the 1980 Oakland Raiders and the 1992 Buffalo Bills.

The Patriots will try to regroup after their emotional loss to the Steelers, and they admit there was much finger-pointing in the locker room after the game.

"It was an emotional thing and the guys reacted to it and that's to be expected," Bledsoe said. "If anything, what this will do is produce a little anger and added emotion [against the Dolphins]."

If New England loses, Bledsoe will have to deal with all the talk that the Patriots are not the same team without Bill Parcells as coach.

But Bledsoe insists he's not intimidated. He likes the challenge.

"That's why I play the position I play," he said. "I enjoy the responsibility. You see guys that are affected by that stuff and start checking the papers and reading their clippings. I've seen guys like that have short careers."

Meanwhile, the Dolphins have to do a bit of regrouping of their own after a 41-0 loss at Indianapolis.

Last week, Miami coach Jimmy Johnson was rooting for the Patriots to beat the Steelers because if the Dolphins then beat the Colts, their game with the Patriots would have been for a first-round bye.

He was even telling his team that it was "easy" to make the Super Bowl once you got a bye because you had to win only two games.

But all that blew up in his face after both the Patriots and the Dolphins were beaten. There was much talk that Johnson had looked past the Colts.

"We did not overlook the Colts," he said. "More than anything, we just got beat."

It means that the Dolphins are as desperate as the Patriots going into the season finale.

Best of the rest

Jets at Lions: This 4 p.m. game will be shown on Channel 11 and could be the best of the Sunday games. There are a lot of subplots. Barry Sanders is trying to become the third player to reach the 2,000-yard mark in rushing. Bill Parcells is attempting to become the second coach (joining Chuck Knox) to reach the playoffs with three different teams. He also can break Ted Marchibroda's eight-game improvement record by taking the 1-15 Jets to 10-6.

Although the spotlight will be on Sanders, the key for the Lions may be how well quarterback Scott Mitchell plays. He'll duel Neil O'Donnell, although O'Donnell may get the hook for Glenn Foley if he falters. The Lions could be in the playoffs by game time if the Redskins lose their 1 p.m. game. The Jets get in if they win.

Eagles at Redskins: It's hard to believe that the 7-7-1 Redskins, who lost to the Ravens and Rams, still can make the playoffs if they win this one and either the Lions or Vikings lose. But $H Washington fans aren't fooled and don't view the Redskins as real contenders. There may be so many no-shows at their new stadium that the crowd could fit at RFK Stadium.

Meanwhile, the Eagles were knocked out of the playoff picture last week, and it will be interesting to see if Ray Rhodes can motivate Philadelphia for the first meaningless game in his three-year tenure as coach. The Eagles are 9-1 in their past 10 games with the Redskins, but most have been close.

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