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So, Really. . .Who Choked Worse?

You'll recall that immediately following Super Bowl XLII, I made a post to the effect that the 2007 New England Patriots had taken the mantle of "biggest choke in NFL history" away from the 1998 Minnesota Vikings with their loss to the New York Football Giants.  When I made the post, it was sort of a knee-jerk reaction to what was a historic Super Bowl.  But it got me to thinking (during the few moments that I wasn't studying like a madman). . .who really DID choke worse in their moment in the spotlight?

Now, this is not an effort to discredit the performance of the 2007 Giants. . .or the 1998 Atlanta Falcons, for that matter.  But the 1998 Vikings and the 2007 Patriots were both heavy favorites in their respective situations, and both will be referred to as chokers as a result of their performances.  So this isn't to say that the Giants and the Falcons didn't deserve to win those games, because they clearly did.  It's an effort to determine whose loss was worse.  With that disclaimer out of the way, here we go.  We'll divide this up into a few different categories.

Offensive Talent

Minnesota Position New England
Randall Cunningham Quarterback Tom Brady
Robert Smith Running Back Laurence Maroney
Leroy Hoard Third-Down Back Kevin Faulk
Randy Moss #1 Receiver Randy Moss
Cris Carter #2 Receiver Wes Welker
Jake Reed #3 Receiver Donte Stallworth
Andrew Glover Tight End Ben Watson
Todd Steussie Left Tackle Matt Light
Randall McDaniel Left Guard Logan Mankins
Jeff Christy Center Dan Koppen
David Dixon Right Guard Stephen Neal
Korey Stringer Right Tackle Nick Kaczur

Each team's advantages are done in bold.

The quarterback discussion really isn't close.  As great as it was to watch Randall Cunningham during that magical 1998 season, he's no Tom Brady.  Brady is, right now, one of the Top 10 quarterbacks in league history, and there are plenty of arguments already for him to be considered the best ever.  What's scary is that he has a lot more years to go in New England, and he could easily be at the top of the mountain by himself before too much longer.  Brady is more consistent than Cunningham, and a whole lot better overall.

Looking at the running backs, I like Maroney a lot. . .but at this point in his career, he's not close to what Robert Smith was back in 1998.  Some of that probably has to do with the Patriots' offense early in the season limiting his numbers.  Later in the season, the Patriots started utilizing him more, but I have to give Smith the nod in that one.  I know that Leroy Hoard isn't/wasn't really a "third down" back, but I wanted to get Kevin Faulk a mention in here somewhere.  Faulk is the best third-down back in football, in my opinion, and he's one of the best third-down backs in NFL history.  He's the one dimension that the 2007 Patriots have that the '98 Vikings really can't match offensively.  The '98 Vikings really didn't have a great pass-catching threat out of the backfield (Smith led Vikings' RBs with 28 receptions).  Not that they needed one.  Then again, I guess the '07 Patriots really don't need Kevin Faulk, as such, but he's certainly nice to have around.

Concerning the receiving positions, you can see I didn't give either team an advantage at #1 WR.  I guess it's just a matter of whether you prefer young, emotional Randy Moss or older, chip-on-the-shoulder Randy Moss.  Now, I know that Moss wasn't technically Minnesota's #1 receiver. . .Cris Carter was.  But Carter only led the team in receptions, while Moss led them in yardage and touchdowns.  So, I stacked them that way to basically show that Moss v. Moss is a wash, even with nearly a decade's worth of tread missing on the tires of the Patriots' version.  At the other spots, I loves me some Wes Welker.  Really, I do.  But he's not Cris Carter.  That's not a bad thing, though. . .there really isn't anyone in the league that's at Carter's level.  (Must. . .not. . .bring. . .up. . .Hall. . .of. . .Fame. . .again.)  At the #3 WR spot, I think people forget how good Jake Reed was.  The guy put together 4 straight 1,000-yard seasons from 1994-1997.  He and Carter were the first duo in NFL history to accomplish that feat, if my memory serves me correctly.  (If it doesn't, feel free to correct me.)  It took someone as talented as Moss to relegate Reed to the #3 WR spot, and frankly he's better than Stallworth.  If we went all the way down to the #4 WR spot, I would probably give the Patriots' Jabar Gaffney the nod over Matthew Hatchette.  And while Andrew Glover was a vastly underrated part of the Vikings' offense in 1998. . .it was actually he and not Reed that was third on the team in both receptions and yardage. . .I think Watson is a better overall player.

Finally, we have the offensive line.  While "False Start" Steussie was actually a pretty good player for the Vikings back in '98, Matt Light has been a better player for a longer period of time, so we'll give him the nod at LT.  Logan Mankins is a fine player at left guard, but Randall McDaniel is an all-timer and a future Hall of Famer.  The pivot is pretty much a push between Koppen and Christy.  I almost gave Christy the edge, but I think Koppen is nearly on his level at this point, and Koppen is only going to get better.  Right guard is basically a push, too.  People forget how good big Dave Dixon was because he never got the recognition of his teammates, but the big man from New Zealand played a damn fine RG for the Vikings.  Stephen Neal is also sort of hidden in the Patriots' mix, but I'm sure Patriot fans can tell you exactly how good the guy is.  At the right tackle slot, I had to give Big K the love over Nick Kaczur.  Stringer really came into his own during the '98 season, a year where he could very easily have been a weak link on the Vikings' offensive line.

From the list above, it appears that the Vikings' offense should be given the edge over New England's.  However, the gap between Brady and Cunningham is pretty sizeable, and we've seen how good quarterback play makes things run a lot more smoothly.  The 2007 Patriots broke the record for points in a season that was set by these 1998 Vikings, and that's as much a testament to the ability of Tom Brady than anything else, in my opinion.  So, in comparing what might be the two greatest offenses in the history of the National Football League, I'm going to have to take the easy way out here.

Advantage:  Push

Defensive Talent

Minnesota Position New England
Derrick Alexander (DE), Jerry Ball (DT), Tony Williams (DT), John Randle (DE) Defensive Line Richard Seymour (DE), Vince Wilfork (DT), Ty Warren (DE)
Dixon Edwards (OLB), Ed McDaniel (MLB), Dwayne Rudd (OLB) Linebackers Adailus Thomas (OLB), Tedi Bruschi (ILB), Junior Seau (ILB), Mike Vrabel (OLB)
Jimmy Hitchcock, Corey Fuller, Ramos McDonald (nickel) Cornerbacks Asante Samuel, Ellis Hobbs, Randall Gay (nickel)
Robert Griffith, Orlando Thomas Safeties Rodney Harrison, James Sanders

It's a bit tougher to go position-by-position down the defense, what with the Vikings employing the 4-3 and the Patriots playing the 3-4, so we'll go by positional groups for this one.  While the Vikings' defense looked impressive on paper (ranking 6th in points allowed), they were a mere 13th in yardage allowed, while the Patriots ranked 4th in both points and yardage allowed.  The Patriots' defense was, legitimately, pretty good, while the Vikings' defense in 1998 was a much a function of them playing with a 2 or 3-touchdown lead all the time as it was the talent level that it possessed.

Starting on the defensive line, John Randle. . .even playing out of position. . .is probably the best individual player out of the seven guys listed between both teams, but he can't carry the Vikings' d-line to an edge in this one.  God bless Jerry Ball, who in 1998 was basically Pat Williams before Pat Williams was Pat Williams, but Vince Wilfork might be better than Ball and Tony Williams combined.  He may be a touch on the dirty side, but he gets the job done.  At DE, Seymour and Randle is basically a push, though Randle is out of position here, but Warren is a much better player at this point than Derrick "The Guy The Vikings Drafted When They Should Have Drafted Warren Sapp" Alexander ever was.

(On an unrelated note, can you imagine Randle and Sapp lining up next to each other at DT?  Good lord, that would have been something to see.)

For all the talk about how old the Patriots' linebackers are, they just keep getting the job done.  Junior Seau is an all-timer, and is still playing at a pretty high level after coming out of "retirement" (if you can call it that) to pursue a championship with the Pats.  Adalius Thomas showed while he was with the Ravens that he's one of the most versatile players in the league, Bruschi has been incredible after coming back from a freaking stroke, and Vrabel is a damn fine linebacker when he's not busy catching touchdown passes.  Ed McDaniel was extremely undersized to be playing MLB, and played the position with as much heart and guts as any player I've seen in purple, but he's a bit out of his league here.  Same goes for Rudd who, in 1998, was a promising young linebacker with a bright future in Minnesota.  Then he had a big fumble return TD in a game at the Metrodome against Chicago. . .one that concluded with him taunting the Bears on his way to the end zone. . .and he pretty much went into the toilet after that.  He's now best known as the guy that took his helmet off and threw it as a member of the Browns a few years back.  Dixon Edwards was pretty solid, too, but he's not in the same class as the Patriots' linebacking corps.

Looking at the secondary, it's amazing that the '98 Vikings gave up as few points as they did with Jimmy Hitchcock as the team's #1 CB.  It's really a testament to the pass rush that Randle (10.5 sacks), Alexander (7.5) and McDaniel (7.0) provided that Hitchcock picked off 7 passes that year.  Still, Hitchcock is no Asante Samuel. . .not even close.  I might, however, give Corey Fuller a slight nod over Ellis Hobbs (the fact that Hobbs got toasted on the decisive play of the Super Bowl not withstanding), but it's cancelled out by the advantage that I'd give Randall Gay over Ramos McDonald.  At safety, Rodney Harrison vs. Robert Griffith is basically a push. . .both are big hitters, both are great against the run, and both are liabilities in coverage.  With that, Orlando Thomas' league-leading 9 INTs as a rookie gives him, and the Vikings' safeties, the nod over James Sanders and the Patriots' safeties.

But, as I said to open the defensive look, the Patriots' defense was legitimately good, while the Vikings' defense in 1998 really wasn't super special or anything.  So, with that, we'll go. . .

Advantage:  Patriots


The '98 Vikings had Dennis Green.  The '07 Patriots had Bill Belichick.  Your honor, the defense rests. . .just like it did during most of Green's tenure.

Advantage:  Patriots

Miscellaneous Odds and Ends

Minnesota   New England
16.2 ppg Point Differential 19.7 ppg
Atlanta - 14-2 regular season, #2 seed in NFC Playoffs, entered game on 10-game winning streak Opponents' Record New York Giants - 10-6 regular season, #5 seed in NFC Playoffs, advanced to Super Bowl after beating NFC's top 2 seeds on the road
Recording a song called "Going to Miami" based on a Will Smith song Show of arrogance/confidence Tom Brady - "lolz Plaxico said we were going to score how many?"
Taking a knee with a minute left in the game and settling for OT Bad coaching move That whole spy camera/video taping thing
15-1, 9-game winning streak Record entering big game 18-0, 18 game winning streak
Vikings -10 (home field) Point spread entering game Patriots -12 (neutral field)
NFC Championship Game Stage Super Bowl

As you can see, a lot of these things fall to the advantage of the Patriots.  They scored more points than the '98 Vikings, they allowed fewer points, and (as a result) had a bigger per game point differential than the Vikings did.  The opponent each team faced is pretty much a push, in my opinion.  Yes, the '98 Falcons had the better regular season record, but the '07 Giants were just insanely hot at the end of the season.  Plus, the Giants spent the second half of the NFC Championship game pretty much humiliating the Packers, so they get points for that, too.  As far as the confidence/arrogance thing, I didn't include Ron Borges' "19-0" coffee table book because. . .well, the Patriots as a team really didn't have a hell of a lot to do with that.  It's not like they asked Borges to write the book or anything.

However, after looking over the evidence here, I believe I have to stick with my initial conclusion.  Yes, the Vikings loss to the Falcons in 1998 is classified as a choke by many, as well it should be.  But the '98 Vikings are no longer the gold standard in that category.  That distinction goes to the 2007 Patriots, much to the chagrin of Bill Simmons and Patriot fans everywhere.

Thoughts?  Agreements?  Disagreements?