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Final test in the Rockies

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Clark
Booth

And so it comes down to "one more one," as Count Basie used to like to coo. Manning and Brady with guns-ablazing meet one last time in the foothills of the Rockies with biting winds sweeping across the Plains and everything on the line.

Well maybe not quite, although it's pretty to think so. But Peyton is old and Tom little less so, although he hides it better. Rather than exchange pigskin ICBM's, they are now more inclined to dump the ball off and let the kids do the grunt work and you're inclined to wince when some roughneck linebacker, full of irreverence, decks either one of them from the blindside.

The semifinal round, so often the best in these bitter post season shenanigans, comes down to where it should with intense match-ups of foes rightly emerging the best left in their Conferences. New England against Denver, where the drama will be powerful even if the football is not what it once was, and Arizona against Carolina, with young guns on display having the capacity to dazzle.

Naturally, in New England the madness is palpable. Is anyone talking about anything else? Optimism is high and certainly not unreasonable. With their curt dismissal of the Chiefs, who most NFL pundits believed would be their direst AFC threat, it's widely assumed not too early to be packing your wagon for pristine Santa Clara where what's sure to be the most turgid and flamboyant of all the hyperbolic Soupeys will be shamelessly staged.

The flimsy excuse for this year's rampant excess being that it's Soupey's 50th. Critics of this festival's all too familiar banality -- your host surely pleading guilty -- may emerge brain dead from the looming ordeal. On the other hand, Clan Kraft -- wallowing in a kind of cultural innocence -- will realize sheer ecstasy. These are trying times.

You should further wonder, why so many alleged savants thought Kansas City could beat Foxborough? Seems silly, in retrospect. Maybe it's my abject submission to the inevitability of Bill Belichick ultimately ruling the world that's at work here, but even though their Divisional Playoff caper was decided by only a touchdown it never seemed in any doubt. In terms of the mood of the thing, it was as one-sided as a 27-20 game can get, even if the Patriots were hardly at their best. The Chiefs have talent and may be better than they looked. Injuries surely burdened them. But they also seemed, in the end, a stupid team. Belichick will never lose to a 'stupid team.'

Gird yourself Belichick-Brady-Kraft hating America. The Pats are not only back but if there's a team in either conference that's better it hasn't yet made an appearance in these post-season frolics. The only team that might beat the Patriots are the Patriots.

That faint possibility briefly reared with the bizarre Chandler Jones contretemps. For a few zany days it looked promising; the sort of thing that would certainly rattle a mortal team. But with the kind interventions of Foxborough's police department playing a helpful role we've been eased past that potential crisis. Jones' rapid return to normalcy with a strong game against the Chiefs capped the quick turnabout, swiftly extinguishing a promising controversy. Apparently there's no truth to the rumor that the Foxborough PD qualifies for a playoff share although the revelation coming from the enterprising Boston Herald that the police chief made some $42,000 extra last year "for coordinating police details at Gillette Stadium" will be regarded as something roughly comparable in the eyes of the more cynical. Appearances are everything, alas.

Jones' weird and delusional flight of fancy -- or whatever it was -- won't be this year's Deflategate. It will not be the scandal that robs the rose of some of its bloom, as it were. We will not learn what went on that evening at Jones' home or who else was there, or who did actually what. And perhaps most important, the NFL, retreating on the grounds it lacks an official complaint from local police, deems itself helpless to even snoop into the case under the terms of its allegedly tough substance abuse policy.

The case is closed. Roger Goodell remains on the sidelines, no doubt biting his lip. Being a bit thick on these matters, Goodell probably doesn't recognize that he's lucky. As for Boss Belichick, the depths of his sneer as he left the stage of the media conference at which he slammed and bolted the door shut on any more inquiries about the Jones' mess spoke volumes. Actually, I think it was hate that I read into his demeanor. Like all true absolute monarchs, Bill Belichick never apologizes.

There's a lot on the table for Sir Coach. The door to a level of attainment not even he might have dared aspire suddenly opens rather wider than anticipated, further widening by the week. He senses another hellacious championship run -- especially this year above all years -- cements his legend. If he knows he'll never appease his bitterest foes -- like the illustrious Don Shula who will forever regard him as 'Beli-cheat'' -- he correctly figures that atop football's Rushmore he'll be well beyond such taunts. As for his assorted and fairly countless other critics, especially the baying media mob he clearly regards as feckless if not craven, they are free to go to you know where, with his firmest regards. Bill Belichick is also not a forgiving man.

So, can he be denied? Injuries remain a burden. But no team still standing is less burdened. The contemporary obsession with injuries in football is valid but there's little that's more trite and pointless than endless agitating about their impact on a given team. Only softies and losers have no such issue in the NFL. It's why wise old goats like our resident straw-boss not only disdain them but decline to even recognize them.

Moreover the Patriots manage the problem skillfully; deeply reaching into vast reserves mainly composed of the castoffs of other teams. The offensive line remains patched in place with surgical gauze and bailing wire. The linebackers are deeply bruised and you may need to worry whether Chandler Jones has any more surprises in his bag of tricks. On the other hand, Rob Gronkowski is pretty much revived and if he's not a hundred percent they can live with two TD's a game. Arguably even more vital to the fine tuning of their offense than the monster tight end, is their renaissance man, Julian Edelman, and he looked reasonably spry and dangerous as ever against the Chiefs. The Patriots are as healthy as they need to be and if somebody else goes down somebody else will step up.

Halfway through the process the post-season has been noteworthy, even memorable not so much for the quality of play -- which overall has been wild but spotty -- as the nuttiness that's prevailed. Wacky football full of blunders, breakdowns, curious decisions, and erratic officiating can be substantially more entertaining and interesting than the classical stuff featuring nifty artistry and execution.

The meltdowns have been remarkable. The poor and now forever grieving Minnesota kicker snatching defeat from the jaws of victory at the last second against Seattle was almost painful to witness. The extraordinary and totally mindless collapse of the Bengals against the Steeler with a rogue linebacker attempting to obliterate a foe and instead killing his own team was a savage indictment of this league and this game.

Aaron Rodgers' miraculous heave briefly deadlocking the Packers with the Cardinals was a thing of beauty, although any team that gets victimized by a so-called "Hail Mary" must necessarily hang its collective head in shame. And then the Cards were saved in overtime, by the flip of a coin, as the Packers expired without ever getting their hands on the ball. Is this any way for such a huge game to be essentially decided? How does the NFL get away with it? The next day, the Panthers barely avoid blowing a 31-point lead.

Much has been wild, improbable, even bizarre. In that same spirit, expectation for something rare are high as Mr. Manning meets Mr. Brady, almost certainly for the last time. A long pleasing sub-plot, it ends as it should end.

Clark Booth is a renowned Boston sports writer and broadcast journalist. He spent much of his long career at Bostonís WCVB-TV Chanel 5 as a correspondent specializing in sports, religion, politics and international affairs.

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