2. Bill Belichick has one of the biggest challenges of his coaching career on his hands, and how he handles it will go a long way in determining the 2009 fate of the Patriots. I detail Randy Moss' canine performance against Carolina Sunday in Goat of the Week, but suffice to say he's not playing hard and is totally useless in the lineup. So if you're Belichick, you know these things:
You have only one receiver, Wes Welker, who can get open against man coverage when Moss is a bum like this ... Your tight ends are useless as receivers ... Your screen game isn't effective because defenses know you have to use it so much that they're waiting for it constantly ... And Moss is a total head case.. So your options are to draw the hard line and bench him and play Sam Aiken opposite Welker and hope the career special-teamer strikes gold. Unlikely. Or you can baby Moss along, keep him as one of the captains, pretend he's just going through a tough stretch, and expend an incredible amount of energy making him feel like he's still your go-to guy. Clearly, Belichick's going to have to try the latter.
New England could lose at Buffalo, particularly if the Bills -- if Perry Fewell is smart -- double Welker on every snap underneath and over the top, and belt him around in the five-yard bump zone. I remember Bill Parcells preaching to the beat guys who covered the Giants (and I'm sure he beat his assistants over the heads with it in the '80s, including Belichick) that his job was to get the most out of each player, and that meant he wasn't going to treat everyone the same because everyone didn't react to coaching the same way. That's where Belichick is now with Moss.
3. You've got to like Tom Brady trying to put the pressure for the Patriots' performance down the stretch on his shoulders. "Put it on me,'' he said over the cell phone on his way home from Foxboro on Sunday evening. "That's where I want it -- on me.'' You asked for it, you got it. We talked for maybe 15 minutes, and I'd have thought he'd be exasperated by a few things -- Moss, how poorly they were playing across the board the last month, the fourth-down-conversion problems, the Adalius Thomas fiasco. But no. Brady was ridiculously optimistic. "It's like a heavyweight fight,'' he said. "A boxing match. We just gotta keep fighting. We're not the same team as we were last year or the year before, but I haven't lost faith in us at all. It's just that our margin of error is so small.'' Whereas in 2007, Brady had a couple of professional receivers, Donte Stallworth and Jabar Gaffney, as his third and fourth wideouts after Moss and Welker, now he's got the green Aiken and Julian Edelman (who's been hurt consistently).
New England's 8-5, a game ahead of the Jets and Dolphins, with the Bills, Jags and Texans on the schedule to finish up. Not too hard, not too easy for the old Patriots, but for these Patriots, where everything comes hard? "We're 7-0 at home,'' Brady said. "We just put up 470 yards of offense against a good defense in Miami. We got the best coach in history. Shoot, once the playoffs start, if we're fortunate enough to make them, anything can happen. We were 18-0 and didn't win the Super Bowl. You never know. Don't lose faith in us.'' When I got off the phone with him, I thought: That's what he's going to say to his team this week.New England (8-5)."This is the flattest game I've ever done,'' Tony Siragusa said from the field on the FOX telecast of Panthers-Pats. Another failed fourth-down call, Randy Moss looking like he wished he was anywhere but there, no tight end getting open, Steve Smith whipping corners ... I know there are no ugly wins, but this win was exceedingly unattractive. I'll say this: It's a good thing the Patriots have Tom Brady -- even in a season where he's been mortal half the time -- or their season would be over this morning.