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Jags likely to be toughest challenge yet for Pats, Belichick

Some issues to ponder while waiting for the rambling wreck from suburban Foxborough to put the finishing touches on its burgeoning legend.

And if there's one hallowed mark beyond the reach of Merciful Bill Belichick and his jolly record-busting, kids, it's probably the immortal standard for handing out the biggest shellacking in the history of NFL post-season.

It still belongs to the Bears back when they were the 'Monsters of the Midway' and drubbed Sammy Baugh's Redskins 73-0 on a gray and windswept December day 67 years ago. Wonder if anyone dared accuse Papa George Halas of running up the score. Unlikely!

Chastened though he has lately seemed, Belichick, for all his attainments, continues to have trouble commanding the respect he so craves. Out there beyond the Berkshires where the cheerleaders of the New England media corps have no sway, reaction to his 'coach of the year' honors was testy. A lot of folks don't want to let go of that spygate rap against the merciful one, although the logic that insists it had something to do with the perfect season he brilliantly orchestrated is tortured. Alas, they just don't like the fellow. No doubt they are jealous.

The Jaguars, an interesting and especially tough team, have been the trendy pick to give the Patriots trouble in the playoffs. There are those who think they match up against the Foxborough's better than any other team in the league. Some knowledgeable pundits have actually picked them to win. But the Jags are relatively young and ill-disciplined. It's easy to imagine the wily Belichick playing wicked head games with their exciting, highly skilled but equally inexperienced young Q.B. David Garrard. Moreover injuries have seriously impacted Jacksonville's defense. Every team in the conference is burdened with huge injury issues. The team least burdened is -- surprise -- the Patriots. Is it luck or the residue of design?

Whatever, the Jags could take a two T.D. lead into the 4th quarter and still be in trouble. Having already gleefully predicted the Patriots would not go undefeated in the regular season, I have stashed my crystal ball. But I wouldn't bet the ranch on Jacksonville if I were you.

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Meanwhile there's a bigger clash of titans than anything the NFL can offer shaping up. That would be the matchup of Rocket Roger and the House of Representatives. Stand by for some major league pontification from Congressman Waxman (D-California) who is unbeaten in the Washington parlor game of venting moral indignation on subjects that bear no political risk. I'd say this is a grandstand play by Congress but I don't want to mix my metaphors. Watch also for Judge Mitchell to take a lot of bows.

Over the last two decades this space has rarely rushed to the defense of Clemens. He's not often deserved or needed it. But it seems to me you have to be a hard-hearted character or an addled citizen of 'the Nation' to derive joy from his current, miserable plight. Too many in this business have been too quick to scorn the man as a hypocrite and a fraud.

But the fact of the matter is Clemens did work hard his entire career. Few athletes and probably no baseball player of my experience ever worked harder. His obsession with conditioning was legitimate legend. If indeed it also becomes irrefutably clear that he also cheated, he will pay the price. But you can't take the effort the man put into his profession away from him. And it's a cheap-shot to try.

Interesting that Congress summoned only alleged offenders connected with New York and mainly with the Yankees when they had 87 other 'suspects' to choose from. Not that we would dream of suggesting our sanctimonious lawmakers were angling to maximize the celebrity value of their gig.

But it's a fact that while Paul Byrd, Guillermo Mota and Manny Alexander may have even more compelling stories to tell, they preferred to humiliate Andy Pettitte whose 'crime' will prove to be among the most modest of all the offenses committed by the luckless characters arbitrarily bagged in the highly tainted 'Mitchell Report.' And why Chuck Knoblauch when they might have chosen Miguel Tejada, Mark McGwire or Mo Vaughn, who has been retired just as long as the largely forgotten ex-Yankee second baseman? What's that about? Excuse me, but I think it's called 'piling on.'

Meanwhile, the Hearst media giant has gone to federal court demanding to know why federal prosecutors extended so much assistance to Mitchell and his inquisitors who -- after all --were acting on behalf of a private business, Major League Baseball. That sweetheart deal included the sharing of secret grand jury testimony and providing evidence routinely denied one and all including reporters who work for Hearst, hence the suit. It's a question that's bugged me since the start of this nasty business. Hearst's suit could get interesting.  But if you think the boys from the House are going to ask their old buddy, the former Senate majority leader from the state of Maine, about this matter you must also be waiting for the tooth fairy to pay a visit.

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I don't have a vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, not being a card-carrying member of the Baseball Writers Association of America and Marching Chowder Society and all that. But if I did, this is how I would have voted, which I share with you before the vote is announced, although by the time you read this you will know the result. My 10 votes (maximum allowed) would have gone as follows.

1. Jack Morris. Champion pitcher for the Tigers, Twins and Jays in '80s and early '90s. Best money pitcher of his generation. A pure winner who was a superb post-season performer. Won 254 games. Completed 169. Nailed the '91 championship for the Twins with a 10 inning, 1-0 win over the Braves that may have been the finest world series game ever played.  A bold, uncompromising, gritty, somewhat profane character who was no pal of the sporting press, which may be part of his problem. Continuing indifference to his candidacy is an indictment of the electors and the electoral process. For more affirmation of the point read Murray Chass --who truly knows what he is talking about -- in the Sunday N.Y. Times (Jan. 6, 2008).

2. Goose Gossage. Better as a reliever than either Bruce Sutter or Dennis Eckersley who have already made the grade. Wonderfully flamboyant character who was all that Dick Radatz might have been if only he had taken care of himself.

3. Jim Rice. The time has come. He truly belongs. He was legit so the contemporary steroid controversies affirm him the more. Yes, his career ran a bit short. But so did the careers of Earl Averill, Chuck Klein, Ross Youngs, and Ralph Kiner. He had 12 first class seasons and he was a gamer. The answer is a resounding, 'Yes!'

4. Bert Blyleven.  He's 5th all-time in strikeouts with 3701, 9th in shutouts with 60 and 13th in innings pitched with 4970 while having won 287 games. He was no Morris, but he deserves to be in.

5. Tommy John. What a wonderful craftsman he was. Watching him pitch --as was my pleasure many times-- was like watching Van Cliburn play Rachmaninoff in his prime. And I give him credit for having his career miraculously spared by historic surgery. If Candy Cummings is in the Hall of Fame for having invented the curve ball then Tommy John should be there for having introduced Tommy John tendon transplants.

6-10. Are, in order:  Andre Dawson, Allan Trammell, Davey Concepcion, Tim  Raines, and Lee Smith. None of them have a chance but all deserve a nod. So, we will see.