Agganis Lives

   Thirty years ago, Red Sox fans had to put their trust in a jobber lefty. Today, Patriots fans put their trust in a Hall of Famer.

   Which one delivered?

   The Sox had won seven straight chasing the Yankees down the stretch in '78. Unfortunately, so did New York, to stay one game ahead heading into the final day of the regular season. Another Sox beatdown of Toronto seemed futile, with the Yankees expected to do likewise to Cleveland.

   Nobody counted on a young lefty named Rick Waits to deliver that classic playoff game for baseball fans, but he did by rising up to stone the Yankees while Boston won its eighth straight. Waits never did much else in the majors, but when you think of the game or watch the tape on ESPN Classic, thank him for making one of the game's most memorable days possible.

   Jump ahead to the final weekend of the 2008 NFL season.

   Surely, with the Patriots having done their job in the Buffalo wind tunnel to finish 11-5, Brett Favre would rise up one more time to do his and enable the slumping New York Jets to knock off Miami, right?

   In Waits I trust. In Favre I don't.

   I believe Favre came back to play another year because he was haunted by the ghastly interception he threw in overtime that handed the New York Giants the NFC title last January. And he'll be back somewhere next year because he'll be haunted by the two picks he threw today.

   The ill-advised (to put it mildly) screen Phillip Merling turned into a Miami touchdown late in the first half was something you'd expect from a rookie, not an 18-year veteran, let alone a legend. And the bungled quick out that went right to Andre Goodman and snuffed out the last Jets threat...

   As Jay Leno would ask, "What were you thinking?"

   Yes, the Pats could've pulled out a wild card if the Jaguars had knocked off Baltimore, but I wasn't holding my breath waiting for that to happen. The Ravens look like a cross between their 2000 Super Bowl squad (only with a better offense) and the '05 Steelers that went from sixth playoff seed to world champions.

   Oddly enough, though, I don't feel sad, angry or regretful, as Cowboys and Broncos fans probably do after watching their teams, having gotten every conceivable break to get control of their fates, utterly soil themselves today.

   If you had told me the day we learned Tom Brady had torn his ACL that the Pats would finish 11-5, I'd have asked for a nice long hit of whatever you were smoking. Matt Cassel looked horrendous in the preseason, seemingly unworthy of a spot on an NFL roster - the team's woeful 0-4 performance seemed like a sneak preview of life without Brady. I'd have given Bill Belichick Coach of the Year if he could wring a .500 record out of a Bradyless team.

   The Pats are missing the playoffs because of two moments in November:

   * Belichick racing downfield to call timeout early in the fourth quarter at Indianapolis, with the Pats facing fourth and inches inside the Colt 10 down a field goal. In a low-possession game, I'd have gone for the first down, but he opted for the field goal to tie the game. The Colts matriculated the ball downfield for the Adam Vinatieri field goal that eventually won the game after the Pats killed themselves with a bad penalty on the final drive.

   * Favre hitting Dustin Keller on third-and-15 on the opening series of overtime, sparking the Jets' winning drive and spoiling Cassel's arrival as a big-time quarterback, a 400-yard performance that included a touchdown pass to Randy Moss that tied the game on the final play of regulation. In virtually every Patriot loss, the defense's inability to get off the field on third and long was a running theme.

   If one of those things doesn't happen, the Pats are a legitimate Super Bowl threat - the AFC bid is that wide open.

   And this team can still go back next year - two things need to be done:

   * Decide what Brady's status for training camp is. If he's not ready, franchise Cassel.

   * Fix the secondary. The front office brought in some good young talent at linebacker this year, but needs to do the same thing in the backfield. Don't be fooled by the weak opposition and weather limiting opponents' passing down the stretch, Scott Pioli.

   Missing the playoffs doesn't seem nearly as crushing as losing the Super Bowl. It's just a matter of getting into the position next year of not having to rely on some broken-down circus act your biggest rival has put out there to come through for you.


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