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While demons prowl across the overall NFL scene, in Foxborough, the band plays on

During the week when the troubled football commissioner was posing on Time magazine’s cover for a story that wonders if he can save his game from its rampant demons, the Patriots were proving there’s no team in said game that’s better or nastier.

It may be an awkward distinction. The NFL, besieged on all sides by scandal, law suits, nagging doubts about its essential ethos, and the gathering alienation of its most honored alumni, is not a happy place these days. Such word, however, has not reached Foxborough, where the natives have never been loopier and the Patriots are hitting on all 22 cylinders.

In the quite ruthless smashing of the upstart Texans on Monday night, they nailed the lid on the regular season. All that remains is to stay healthy while plotting the post-season restoration, which increasingly looks to offer a smooth path to Super Sunday with perhaps only Denver or maybe Baltimore amounting to much of a worry.

As entertainment, the Houston game was ugly. But as a demonstration of how scary the Patriots are becoming as their young, smart, and cocky defense matures week after week, it was just brilliant. Can they get even better? But of course! Keep in mind that Super-Stud Gronkowski, Sir Galahad Brady’s nuclear option, will be back for the post-season.

Houston came to town for the most important game in the team’s entire history with the NFL’s best record. They were bracing to announce their arrival among the game’s elite. Serious football savants were actually arguing they were tougher and more physical than the Patriots. They’d become the trendy pick to not only give the Patriots guff now but also seriously challenge them in January. It took Brady but the first three drives of the evening to make a mockery of such childish pretense.

The Texans got no breaks, ‘tis true. Had they not botched an easy fumble recovery, then got socked with a ridiculous pass interference call, then melted down shamelessly in their secondary, it might have been different, or at least more interesting. But if you come to Foxborough after Halloween when the temperatures are dropping and the leaves are turning and expect to catch “breaks,” you’re a dang fool.
Simply put, the Texans wilted under the withering and baleful gaze of Bill Belichick, struck dumb en route. Nothing new about that! They left shattered. The Patriots will pray they are lucky enough to meet them again. In January!

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It was the incomparable Bill Veeck who set the annual free-agent-feeding frenzy in lasting perspective when he observed soon after it was introduced: “The high price of stars doesn’t concern me half as much as the high price of mediocrity.”

Four decades later, nothing has really changed. The madcap machinations of baseball’s market place the last couple of weeks again verify the irascible Veeck’s considerable wisdom. If he were still with us he’d be no less alternately amazed and exasperated, but not surprised.

There are many examples. But the best, at least according to neutral observers, come from your Red Sox. When at the annual winter meetings at Opryland their wild and crazy buying binge reached a momentary crescendo, baseball people from all over the baseball map – west of Worcester and south of Hartford – were asking, “What in the blue blazes are they thinking?” (or words to that effect).

After the Shane Victorino signing for a cool $39 million, Keith Law, a Harvard-educated former major league executive who now specializes in evaluating money issues for ESPN, wrote of the deal: “It vaults to the top of the rankings of the worst contracts signed so far this off-season.”

The Victorino caper, of course, had swiftly followed the lavishing of yet another $39 million on the muscular but plodding and defensively inadequate Mike Napoli, whose batting average last summer slipped to .227. And it was soon followed by a hefty $4.5 million to the 38-year-old journeyman Koji Uehara who, while reliable, was only asked to pitch 36 innings in Texas a year after being dumped by Baltimore. It brings to five the number of imports in the alleged “grand re-building.” Earlier, they had signed career bench-warmers, Johnny Gomes and David Ross, neither of whom in a combined 22 years of big league service has ever been a regular. For such luxury items they’re on the hook for another $16 million.

It could have been worse. Boston’s giddy spree at the meetings ended with yet more strange thinking: a two-year $25 million offer to pitcher Ryan Dempster, who, after being obtained by the Rangers with much mid-season fanfare, rewarded them with a 5.09 E.R.A. Graciously, Dempster spared your team more embarrassment by – incredibly – spurning their goofy proposal.

At worst, the Red Sox moves thus far amount to folly; at best, they are modest and cautious from a team promising a radical make-over. After the indignities of the last two seasons, you’d expect all this to be stirring gales of scorn in the New England media with ever up-tight Red Sox Nation goading it on furiously. In the good old days, the Knights of the Keyboard would be having a field day.

But times have changed. If displays of elation are rare, overall media reaction is restrained, even hopeful. There’s widespread agreement that all the new boys are nice fellows who get high marks for “character” and, in the wake of the recent fiascos, such qualities are suddenly valued in Boston, as rarely before. This talk plays well in winter. In the summer, one’s nobility becomes less important than his batting average. It’s only a game.

Napoli will hit homers. Victorino will play right field well. Gomes, said to be classy, might help lift clubhouse spirits. Highly regarded for his catching-skills, Ross may sooth colicky pitchers, while even Uehara could help. But collectively they are but bit pieces in a large and complicated puzzle.

Most importantly, they come at the cost of a cool $98.5 million. How much does that leave for the promised “radical make-over?” How much more willing is John Henry to blow up his budget than Hal Steinbrenner?
As Keith Law notes in his indictment, “The Sox have now squandered a substantial amount of the payroll flexibility they obtained over the summer when they traded Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers just to rid themselves of awful contracts.”

What are they thinking?

If Bill Veeck were still with us, he might further add: “This is what I meant by the high price of mediocrity”

***
Lastly, here’s a word on hockey’s lock-out travesty. Or is time to call it a tragedy, almost never an appropriate term in sport where in the end nothing is all that real. But for those who play and love this game it’s genuine tragedy that’s being courted with the owners, like a pack of fat and addled Neros, gleefully fiddling while the last hopes of a settlement expire.

A prominent Toronto lawyer who has been a key advisor to Canada’s prime minister argued forcefully last week that it’s time for the National Hockey League to disband and make way for a new and hopefully more responsible pro hockey construct. He proposes, seriously, to break up the NHL and start all over again. Bitterness mounts. And perhaps it’s getting irrational.

The bizarre break-up of direct talks between the owners and a select committee of players just when they seemed to be edging toward some meaningful common ground was a heart-breaking setback. If you believe the players, they were close to a deal before Jeremy Jacobs, erstwhile owner of our Bruins, succeeded in quashing any chance of ending this abominable nonsense. Is there any chance that Mr. Jacobs will one day explain his huge anger?

We’ll not hold our breath. But in the meantime, let me predict that this ridiculous thing is going to get settled, probably right at the brink of the holidays, thereby salvaging some faint semblance of a season let alone the game itself.

I have no rational basis for this claim other than the belief that the alternative is too ridiculous, even for the likes of Mr. Jacobs.

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