By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — For decades, The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy’s grandest creation was “the curse of the Bambino.” It became a part of the Boston sports lexicon for years, it was celebrated in places like Yankee Stadium, it made its way onto Storrow Drive road signs, and it might still be a regularly spoken term if not for the whole Red Sox winning three World Series in a 10-year span thing.
But now, Shaughnessy has created a new mark, and it comes in honor of Cantadina, Del Monte, Hunt’s and San Marzano. It is the “tomato can.”
The idea is simple enough: seemingly every year, a bad football team waltzes into Gillette Stadium and gets kicked in the teeth, left to scramble to put the pieces back together after a brutal postseason loss at the hands of the mighty Patriots. It’s a way of minimizing the competition the Patriots face and, consequently, downplaying the achievement of winning a postseason game.
And considering the Patriots are guaranteed to get an inexperienced and/or terrible quarterback leading a team into Foxboro next weekend, “tomato can” season is in full swing.
“All three contenders/pretenders are an absolute joke. And Patriots fans love it,” Shaughnessy wrote on Tuesday. “We all get to spend two weeks telling ourselves how great the Patriots are, and how much smarter Bill Belichick is than everybody else, while teams with quarterbacks named Brock Osweiler, Tom Savage, Brandon Weeden, Connor Cook, Matt McGloin, and Matt Moore (none has won a playoff game) duke it out for the privilege of being led to slaughter in the House That Kraft Built.”
Shaughnessy added: “New England’s divisional-game joke is a fitting postseason start on the heels of a 14-2 regular season in which the Patriots magically played almost no one. … This is why you’ll have to excuse me while I roll my eyes at the prospect of another 10 days of nothing until we finally get a pathetic team to play the role of the Washington Generals at Gillette a week from Saturday.”
Of course, given that menu of QBs, and given some recent matchups, the Patriots have played some bad football teams and will be welcoming another one next weekend at Gillette.
It’s not entirely inaccurate … but it also overlooks one critical detail: the Patriots have remained the cream of the AFC crop for so long. Save for a hiccup in 2009 and 2010, the Patriots have managed to avoid being the tomato can because the Patriots have more often than not earned the right to bypass the wild-card round and face the worst team left in the playoff field. That is a benefit of putting together an outstanding regular season. To the victors go the spoils — and in this case, the spoils are a few cans of petite diced pomodori.
They face inferior opponents in part because those opponents are inferior, but also because they are superior on their own merits. Lamenting their sustained excellence — especially given the franchise’s history prior to the arrival of Tom Brady and Bill Belichick — is an odd path to choose.
Plus, to dub the divisional round as the annual tomato can game is to dismiss some teams who were certainly more than worthy foes for the Patriots during this era. Let’s take a quick refresher course, shall we?
2001 — Oakland Raiders
You may remember this one. The Raiders were technically just a 10-6 team, but that was after starting the year 10-3. They lost their final three games, including a Week 17 meeting with the Jets. The Raiders avenged that loss with a wild-card round win over the Jets, which came in the form of a 38-24 thumping. Oakland put up 502 yards of offense that day. Rich Gannon, Jerry Rice, Tim Brown and Charlie Garner made for a rather potent offensive unit.
Obviously, the conditions in Foxboro that day were unique, but the snowy field affected both teams. The existence of the tuck rule was surely a good break for the Patriots, but they earned a win against a team that was arguably better. This was smack dab in the middle of a three-year stretch in which the Raiders went 33-14, with a Super Bowl appearance and conference championship game appearance mixed in. The only reason there wasn’t one more was because the Patriots stopped them.
(Since that season, which ended in a Patriots Super Bowl victory, the Raiders are 86-154. They went 13 years — 2003 through 2015 — without a playoff appearance. During that same span, the Patriots went 185-55, making the playoffs in 13 out of 15 years and winning three Super Bowls.)
2003 — Tennessee Titans
This game has been remembered as the most frigid night in the history of Gillette Stadium, but what occasionally gets forgotten is how close the Titans came to pulling off a victory.
Led by Steve McNair, who shared NFL MVP honors with Peyton Manning that season, the Titans went 12-4, losing only to the Colts (twice), Patriots and Jets — teams with a combined record of 44-20. The Titans were a good team, ranked fifth in passing and No. 1 in run defense, and they were fresh off a dramatic win over Baltimore in the wild-card round.
And, in those arctic conditions, they stood toe-to-toe with the 14-2 Patriots in Foxboro. The Titans matched Bethel Johnson’s touchdown catch (yes, this really happened) with a rushing touchdown from rookie Chris Brown. They matched an Antowain Smith touchdown run with a Derrick Mason touchdown reception. It wasn’t until just 4:06 remained in the game that Adam Vinatieri broke the tie with a 46-yard field goal, but the Titans had plenty of time on the clock and a timeout in their back pocket.
McNair started the drive 3-for-3 for 31 yards, while mixing in a 12-yard run, and the Titans were in field-goal range. But an intentional grounding penalty and a holding penalty pushed them back out, ultimately setting up a fourth-and-12 from the New England 42-yard line. McNair threw deep to Bennett, who was open at the 15-yard line but let the ball bounce of his fingertips.
Had Bennett come down with that ball, the Titans would have had a few chances to win the game with a touchdown (1:45 remained on the clock) or at least force overtime with a field goal. But the Patriots emerged victorious, and the Patriots made the most of it by going on to win the Super Bowl.
(Since the 2003 season, the Titans have gone 90-118 with just two postseason appearances. The Patriots have gone 162-46 with 12 postseason appearances.)
2004 — Indianapolis Colts
For the second straight season, the Patriots welcomed an MVP quarterback to Foxboro for the divisional round. For the second straight season, the Patriots beat him.
This time, though, it was a full-on beatdown. Peyton Manning, who threw for an NFL-record 49 touchdowns during the regular season, did not manage to find the end zone once all day. He was held to just 238 passing yards with no touchdowns and one interception — which, coincidentally, came when Manning was trying to tack a meaningless touchdown onto his statline in the waning seconds of the game.
The Patriots held the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense to just three points, after the Colts have averaged 32.7 points per game during the regular season and had just put up 49 points against Denver in the wild-card round. The Colts had turned the ball over just 17 times all season, but they did so three times that day in New England.
Corey Dillon led the way, Tom Brady played well, and the Patriots rolled to a 20-3 win. It was one of the more impressive postseason victories by any team in NFL history.
The Patriots would ride the momentum of that win into a victory in Pittsburgh over the 15-1 Steelers before going on to win the Super Bowl.
(Playing in the “tomato can” division to end all tomato can divisions, the Colts have maintained a solid regular-season record since 2004. But they have missed the postseason three times since 2011, and they’ve also gotten walloped by the Patriots in the postseason twice since 2013.)
2005 — Denver Broncos
Time was that a Brady-Belichick game in the postseason meant a certain Patriots victory. But then this game happened.
The Patriots went into Denver, a place where they had lost a few months prior, to face the 13-3 Broncos. Tom Brady had an off night, Corey Dillon couldn’t get going, Asante Samuel got called for a (bogus) pass interference penalty, and Benjamin Watson’s strip of Champ Bailey at the goal line was ruled to have gotten through the end zone without having actually gone through the end zone, and the Patriots lost their first postseason game with Brady and Belichick.
Suffice it to say, the Broncos were not a tomato can.
Lost in that shocking loss was the Patriots’ win in the wild-card round, which was no walkover. The Jacksonville Jaguars were 12-4 in 2005, with three of their four losses coming to playoff teams (twice to the 14-2 Colts, once to the 13-3 Broncos). The Jaguars ranked 12th in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense. But the Patriots handled the Jaguars soundly in a 20-3 victory, with the Patriots’ defense recording six sacks, an interception and a turnover on a fumble.
2006 — San Diego Chargers
The Patriots had no business winning this game, but they won it anyway. That’s almost entirely thanks to Marlon “Why Wouldn’t I Intercept A Pass On Fourth Down?” McCree, but also due to the smarts of Troy Brown.
The latter, of course, stripped the ball free from the former, after McCree opted to intercept a fourth-down pass by Brady instead of just batting it to the turf and securing a win.
Specifics aside, this was a tremendous victory for the Patriots over a 14-2 Chargers team that looked poised to win a Super Bowl. And when they led 21-13 midway through the fourth quarter, they looked to be on their way. But McCree’s mental mistake kept a Patriots drive alive, and Brady ended it with a touchdown pass to Caldwell. The two-point conversion was successful, and the game was tied. Following a San Diego three-and-out, Brady hit Caldwell for a gain of 49, setting up the go-ahead field goal. Stephen Gostkowski drilled it.
The Chargers had one last chance, but Nate Kaeding’s 54-yard kick was no good. The Patriots moved on.
The Patriots’ loss the following week in Indianapolis ultimately worked to sour the memories of that whole season. But the divisional playoff game out in San Diego was spectacular.
(Since 2006, the Chargers have won four postseason games. In that same timespan, the Patriots have won 10 playoff games … and counting.)
2007: Jacksonville Jaguars
You see the words “Jacksonville Jaguars,” and you assume “WHOLE PEELED TOMATOES.” But in this instance, not really.
The Jaguars went 11-5 in 2007. They outscored opponents by 107 points. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew were a fearsome duo, and they had just upset the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
The Jags were, of course, no match for the Patriots, who won 31-20. But an 11-point loss for a Patriots opponent in 2007 doesn’t seem so bad.
Tom Brady went 26-for-28 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. Pretty good performance.
(The poor Jaguars are just 42-102 with zero postseason appearances since that game. The Patriots are 110-34 with eight postseason appearances.)
2009: Baltimore Ravens
There was no easy path to the Super Bowl for the Patriots in 2009. In fact, there wasn’t even a path to the divisional round. The Ravens walked into Gillette Stadium and slapped the Patriots in the mouth. No tomato can.
2010: New York Jets
In one of the most surprising upsets in playoff history, the Jets returned to the field where they had lost 45-3 just a month earlier and beat the Patriots — convincingly.
This time, Brady played the role of 2004 Manning, the NFL MVP who could not perform to his usual level.
(The Jets would go on to lose the following week in Pittsburgh. Since then, they own a 41-55 record with zero postseason appearances and two last-place finishes.)
2011: Denver Broncos
The Tim Tebow-led Broncos were … indeed a tomato can. They were bad. Across the board.
They were coming off a big win over the Steelers in the wild-card round, so they still did have some believers when they headed to Foxboro. But … no. They were not nearly on the Patriots’ level. The Patriots won 45-10 in a game so lopsided that Brady was kicking sympathy punts on third down.
2012: Houston Texans
The 2012 Texans are remembered as a great failure, but that’s pretty much only because of the Patriots. If Bill Belichick’s team hadn’t been so inconsiderate as to eviscerate the Texans twice on a national stage in the span of just six weeks, then Houston’s team might be remembered as a legitimate power in 2012.
The Texans went 12-4, though that was after getting off to an 11-1 start. They then spent wild-card weekend rattling Andy Dalton (two sacks, one interception) before going to Foxboro, where they had been beaten 42-14 in Week 14.
This time around, the Texans hung with the Patriots through two quarters, as New England took a 17-13 lead into halftime. But the second half was all Patriots, who would go on to win 41-28.
The Texans were not nearly on the Patriots’ level, but they were better than most teams in the AFC — and NFL, for that matter — in the 2012 season.
(The Texans have gone 29-35 since that game, with an 0-1 playoff record to boot.)
2013: Indianapolis Colts
The Patriots beat the everloving snot out of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2013 divisional round. It was a bloodbath.
But to most other teams in 2013, the Colts were not a doormat. They won 11 games, including wins over Denver and Seattle — two teams that represented the No. 1 seed in their respective conferences and would play each other in the Super Bowl.
Let me rephrase that: The 2013 Colts defeated both the Super Bowl champions and the Super Bowl runners-up. A terrible team cannot do that.
The Patriots just made them look terrible by doing what they always do: finding an opponent’s weakness and exploiting it. Over and over and over again.
In this case, the Colts’ weakness was a rushing defense. A week after Kansas City had run for 150 yards and one touchdown on the Colts in the wild-card round, the Patriots ran for 234 yards and six — six! — touchdowns.
The Patriots were able to do this because they were very good and very well-coached. A team that could not execute quite as well — like, say, those Kansas City Chiefs who blew the wild-card game a week earlier — would not have made the Colts look so terrible.
2014: Baltimore Ravens
Tomato can? Hardly.
The Baltimore Ravens had a less-than-impressive 10-6 record in 2014, yes. They had some stumbles along the way in the regular season.
But when it came down to it, the Ravens ranked eighth in scoring offense and sixth in scoring defense, and they had just gone on the road and sacked Ben Roethlisberger five times en route to a thorough 30-17 victory in the wild-card round.
And, sure enough, they stepped on the field at Gillette and damn near beat the team that proved to be the Super Bowl champs.
The Ravens held leads of 14-0, 28-14, and 31-28, but were unable to hold any of them, ultimately losing 35-31.
But if it hadn’t been for Belichick dusting off the trick plays and tricky formations, the Ravens would have been moving on the conference championship — and deservedly so.
Ultimately, fighting that valiantly and coming up just a little bit short against a championship team like the Patriots proved that the 2014 Ravens were more legitimate than anyone anticipated.
2015: Kansas City Chiefs
Just like this year’s Chiefs, last year’s Chiefs were not a terrible football team. Not at all. They went 11-5 and ended the regular season on a 10-game winning streak. They kept that momentum going with a dominant 30-0 win in the wild-card round over the Texans before making their trip to Foxboro.
You might also remember the Patriots-Chiefs game of 2014, aka the low point of the season when Kansas City steamrolled New England and got Brady benched.
Now, if Doug Pederson hadn’t gotten his brain twisted in a pretzel in the fourth quarter, the game might have been more of a nail-biter than it ended up being. At the same time, do you remember that Brady pass in the final minutes of the game — the one that was thrown into the bread basket of Tamba Hali before deflecting high into the air and magically landing in the arms of Julian Edelman? That was dangerously close to being a turnover at midfield in a seven-point game, and Hali had some room to run, too.
The Patriots won the game 27-20. They were better than the Chiefs. But the Chiefs were not a “tomato can.”
Have the Patriots been handed some inferior opponents over the years? Yes. But it’s not as many as some would have you believe.
No, the story is not how woefully comical the wannabe opponents have been over the years; the story is how woefully pathetic the Patriots have made so many otherwise worthy foes appear to be. The story is that the Patriots — behind Belichick and Brady — have managed to create a distinct separation between themselves and so many other playoff teams over the years. That’s the story.
How that’s been twisted into a narrative that says everything is a piece of cake all the time for the Patriots, well, that is a fair question.
And so, there is this: “The Patriots are going to get to the AFC Championship game without a serious test of their considerable abilities, and everybody around here seems to be absolutely thrilled at the prospect of two straight bye weeks before the Patriots maybe get pushed slightly by the Steelers or Chiefs in the AFC title game in Foxborough.”
“Not facing a serious test” and “passing most tests with flying colors” are two very different things. For 15 years now, the Patriots have more often been doing the latter than the former.