The bell tolls

Resounding from Eastport to Block Island and across to the sleepy Berkshires was the low, guttural moan of Patriot Nation as the Jets and Steelers, Bears and Packers, frolicked in the NFL Semi-finals.

After all, the merry football band out of Foxborough had whipped all four of these presumptuous aspirants quite handily in the course of the NFL's long, grueling, regular-season, which is supposed to have meaning. Never in this brutal business has a team more favored been dumped more ingloriously with so few seeing it coming. But if the indignity is unprecedented it is not entirely underserved.

How could it have come to this? If the Football Buddha himself, Boss Belichick, has no answers -- and he has never looked as befuddled as he did after the Jets' fiasco -- you aren't likely to find them here.

The better question -- doubtless still raging within the so-called "Nation" -- came the very next week with about a minute left in the first half of the Jets-Steelers battle for a berth in this year's soupy-grand finale.

It was at that point that the Jets found themselves courting humiliation being 24 points down while having compiled a grand total of 12 yards total offense and being out-rushed 131 to 1 and pushed around like a motley collection of rag dolls. To that point, it had been a pathetic performance in the second most important game of the Jets' entire history, begging the question; "How could a team coached by Bill Belichick have been humiliated by such an awful bunch of rinky-dinks?"

Greatly to their credit the Jets rebounded and were gallant thereafter. We have trouble in these parts acknowledging that other teams can be capable of valor, especially if they come from New York. But it was a decidedly true valor that the Jets displayed in battling back against the eternally gritty Steelers as they did. It was gallant and admirable and, yes, nice to see.

In the end, of course, they fell victim to one of the iron laws of professional sport: you just don't overcome a 24 point deficit when you engage the Pittsburgh Steelers in their own playpen. But in this case, it was not for the want of trying. The Jets redeemed themselves in that second half.

Understand this much. The Patriots would not have beaten the Steelers in that game. Nor would they have come as close as the Jets did. In the Jets, the Patriots have themselves a tiger by the tail. The race for supremacy in the AFL East next season will be a toss-up.

And understand this too. Much of the credit should go to Jets Coach Rex Ryan who emerges as a refreshing breeze of fresh air in the stodgy, autocratic, pompous, and ridiculously entitled ranks of the NFL's lodge of coaching royalty which is exemplified by the likes of the stodgy, pompous and autocratic Boss of the local football powerhouse. What, pray tell, is wrong with Mr. Ryan infusing a little humor into this stuff which, after all, is supposed to be entertainment, or must we forever worship at the feet of the league's venerable bores?

The olde order changeth. Once again! Among the other casualties is Sir Galahad Himself, Tom Brady. The impeccable quarterback will be remembered for having been rather less so, in this season's bumpy finale. It was an unnerving sequel to his fade to black in the first round of the playoffs last year, as well.

Coming to grips with his athletic mortality will not be easy for Brady, or us. No athlete in the history of this old town has charmed us more; not Williams, Russell, Bourque, Cousy, Marciano, Yaz, Bird, or even Orr. Brady was magic. He was anointed. He could do no wrong. But he's peaked. Now comes the hard part and for those of us who have made him a jock divinity as celebrated as much for his glamour as his skill.

It's no crime. It happens to all of us, if rather less dramatically. Russell, Cousy, and Marciano escaped the painful ordeal by retiring too young. In a perverse way, injury spared Bobby Orr the attritions of age leaving us to wonder how even more wonderful he might have been if only orthopedic ministrations had become more sophisticated a bit earlier. Yaz, Bourque and Bird simply bit the bullet and managed to age with grace while the incomparable Williams, being a law unto himself, remained on his own planet.

For Brady it will be much tougher. It's hard to age gracefully in his game. As you get older, more battered, less protected, and much less mobile you can get hurt in the NFL, and more than just physically.

There are now at least a half dozen NFL QBs you'd rather have than Tom Brady and when you factor salary and youthful promise into the equation the number rises. Mark Sanchez, the Jets' prodigy, is certainly one of them. He's not there yet, even if he did out-duel the illustrious one in this year's epic showdown. Brady is this year's MVP and Sanchez is not. But which one would you prefer to be building your future around? Two of the three best QB gun-slingers in the game are the Packers' Aaron Rodgers and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger. It is no coincidence that they have a date to meet in Dallas in a couple of weeks.

So it will be the Packers versus the Steelers. It's sure to be a good Soupeybowl and has a chance to be a great one. These are two mighty lean and mean football machines. Each has plenty of edge and tons of history. It's the history that you can be expected to get buried under in the annual Soupey-Tubthump. Stand by for some touching tales of Johnny Blood and Don Hutson, Terry Bradshaw and Mean Joe Green, Vince Lombardi and Clan Rooney. It will be charming.

Less so will be the inevitable wretched overstatement about the quarterbacks, Rodgers and Roethlisberger. It's always too much about the QBs. But this time the story-lines are impossible to deny.

Roethlisberger, who almost got drummed out of the game for his sordid indiscretions earlier this very season, will be seeking to put the finishing touches on a redemptive flip-flop that may be unprecedented in the entire history of sport. Rodgers, the swashbuckler with a cannon for an arm, is the young man who ran Bret Favre out of Green Bay. And to think for a time that was actually a matter of some controversy. Watch for every glittering account of Rodgers' emergence as a super-star to rehash all the tiresome ragtime about Favre.

Exiled in disgrace, Favre continues to haunt the NFL, his messy personal life still a matter of intense scrutiny. Contrite though he may be, Roethlisberger's rap sheet will be as much discussed as his passing stats, with the debate about the double standard that got him off the hook still raging. Ceaseless chatter about the cavalier antics of two of their naughtiest superstars is hardly what the NFL yearns to highlight in its annual celebration of its own greatness. But that's what it's going to get. As will we.

Doubtless many would have found preferable a breezy give and take about the glamour of Mr. Brady and the genius of Mr. Belichick and the glory of the New England Patriots dynasty. Ah, but that story is over and now belongs to History, right alongside the rousing tales of Johnny Blood.