On September 9th, 2001, the Cincinnati Bengals opened their season with a home game against the New England Patriots. Nothing was expected of the Bengals, who were coming off a typically miserable campaign that saw them finish 4-12 with Dick LeBeau replacing Bruce Coslet as head coach.
Not much was expected from the Patriots, who'd gone 5-11 the year before with Bill Belichick taking over after being the head coach of the Jets for an entire day.
Needless to say, Pats/Bengals to start the season was hardly being billed as week one's marquee matchup.
I attended that game with my dad, and we sat in section 306, row six, seats three and four as the Bengals disrupted old and clumsy-looking Drew Bledsoe all afternoon, sacking the New England quarterback four times. Jon Kitna played error-free ball, directing a Cincinnati offense that was led by Corey Dillon's 104 rushing yards.
(Photo: Getty Images)
I remember the thousands of empty seats. I remember thinking that maybe the Bengals had turned the corner, at least defensively. And I distinctly remember walking out of Paul Brown Stadium, seeing some dejected Pats fans, and saying to my old man...
"Man, at least we're not Patriots fans."
Nearly six months later, Adam Vinatieri would kick New England to its first Super Bowl title, with Tom Brady - who spent the season opener in Cincinnati holding a clipboard - directing what was considered at the time one of the greatest upsets in Super Bowl history (New England +14) over the St. Louis Rams.
Since that warm September Sunday in 2001, the Patriots have won 15 division titles, they've been victorious in 26 playoff games, they've appeared in 12 AFC Championship Games, they've qualified for seven Super Bowls, and they've captured five Vince Lombardi Trophies. Brady and Belichick have together and individually risen to being among the best of all time, together and individually. The Patriots have become the most hated franchise in the NFL while also being the most copied, and even if many are loathe to admit it, the most admired.
I don't need to recap for you what the Bengals have done in that span.
The season that ignited the New England Patriots dynasty began with a loss to a Bengals team that would finish with a 6-10 record, a loss that concluded with me making a snide remark about life as a Bengals fan might be bad, but hey, look at those guys in their Bledsoe jerseys, life could be worse.
I've often thought about that day and that remark as the Patriots have dominated the NFL over the past 17 seasons, in part because if I believed in such things as jinxes, I'd hold myself responsible.
In part because of how their reign of excellence is among the polar opposite of what my team has made us endure.
In part because on that sunny September Sunday, the New Engalnd freaking Patriots, of all teams, seemed to be the least likely franchise to run rough-shot over a league.
But mainly, because we will never see anything like this again.
The Patriots are playing in the AFC title game again, appearing for a seventh straight season. They are favored to appear in their eighth Super Bowl of the Brady/Belichick era, and the smart money would be on them winning yet another championship. They are quarterbacked by a man who defies age and they're coached by a man who finds ways to win with no matter what he has, or doesn't have to work with.
And yet, even another Patriots AFC East-winning, championship game-qualifying season has a feeling of sameness to it, and even as the 2019 Pats are still a decent bet to still be playing one calendar year from now, we are undeniably approaching the expiration date to something that hadn't happened in the NFL before and won't happen again.
And as much as you might not want to admit it, when the Patriots are done doing what they've done for so long, we're going to miss them.
No NFL team - maybe no pro sports team - has been as interesting in the 21st Century as the New England Patriots. The way they've remained dominant in a league that's designed for everyone to get their turn. The way they've been ahead of the league's always-evolving trends. They way they find ways to win with players that seemed to be past their expiration date and with players that other teams tossed to the scrap heap.
The way they've developed a "way" that every NFL team has tried,in part, to emulate.
The way they've put themselves through, and endured, scandal.
They way they've taken a franchise that always seemed like an afterthought and developed one of the premiere brands in sport, becoming the signature franchise of a country's signature sports league.
You might hate them. In fact, you probably do. But the Patriots at least make you feel something. How many teams in this league do that? How many franchises really stand out, distinguishing themselves from the NFL's annual collection of meh? How many teams that have no real existing rivalry with whomever you root for do you go out of your way to root against?
You might love the Patriots. You might be envious of their success. You might admire what they've done. But chances are, you despise them. You'll be rooting hard for Jacksonville this weekend, and against whomever the Patriots play in two weeks should they earn a trip to Minneapolis.
But you have an opinion about the Patriots. They stir something in you. And when their dynasty is over, as much as you might not ever admit it, you're going to miss them.
We will all.
So (gulp)let's enjoy them while we can. Especially if, once again, it's conference title weekend and, unless it's Mike Brown granting palm-to-head-inducing interviews, the Bengals are nowhere to be found.
Dad, I wish we'd been Patriots fans.
THERE ARE GAMES
We take a stellar 2-5-1 mark into the weekend, thanks to the worst push of all-time in Minneapolis. (The line jumped to New Orleans +5.5 on Sunday morning, which I took advantage of after vomiting my way through the final kneel-down) Add that to my regular season totals, and I'm 129-125-10. I can't finish in the red!
New England (-7.5) over Jacksonville. I'd like to thank whoever the guy was that hurt Brady's hand for sending the line from New England -9 down to where it is as of Saturday morning (some have it at -7!). Obviously with the Brady hand thing, and the fact that the Patriots are being predictably coy about the Brady hand thing, we're not making the most informed guess here.
But I'm picking the Pats.
The Jaguars do have a very good defense, but I think we tend to overrate it a little bit. They feasted on crappy AFC South offenses (and the Bengals) in the regular season and the dreadful Buffalo offense in the postseason. The last two times the Jags have faced quality quarterbacks - Ben Roethlisberger and Jimmy Garoppolo - their defense was torched for 42 and 37 points, respectively (San Fran had a pick-six that gave them 44 points on the afternoon). Only the Steelers getting in their own way kept them from scoring more. A somewhat compromised Brady might not do what Ben or Jimmy did, but he'll do more than the Tyrod Taylors and Jacoby Brissetts the Jags took advantage of this season.
I also think the Jags took advantage of a Pittsburgh team that wasn't ready to play last week, and part of me wonders if Jacksonville doubles up on the confidence it played with in Pittsburgh and goes in a little too full of itself into Foxboro.
Oh, and they have Blake Bortles.
I'm not betting on Blake Bortles not getting in the way for a third playoff week in a row.
Minnesota (-3) over Philly. Just like last week's Eagles/Falcons tilt, I don't like this game. Unlike last week, I'm betting against the home underdog.
And I'm betting on the team with the overall better defense - the one that stymied New Orleans for nearly three full quarters, and the one with the better quarterback.
The Eagles are here because Carson Wentz - my pick for MVP - earned them homefield advantage and because Atlanta's offense took a major step back this season.
Neither will be on the field this weekend.
I like the Vikings.
BECAUSE I'VE BECOME A DEGENERATE
Teaser...New England down to -1, New England/Jacksonville over/under down to over 39.5, Minnesota to +3.5, and the Minnesota over/under to under 46.
Prop bet....New England moneyline with a Gronk TD and a Bortles pick.
I might have a problem.