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Notes From a From a Frazzled Mind

The life of a pathetically devoted sports fan can put nasty strain on the heart, mind and, let us not forget, liver. As a member of Red Sox Nation since ’77, one year before Bucky Dent’s pop fly over the Green Monster prompted New Englanders to reward him with a new middle name, the American League Championship Series of the past week has been an almost unendurable journey through despair, humiliation, nausea, disgust, hope, relief and elation, on the way to the final destination: frenzied joy, with a dash of jaw-dropping shock thrown in for good measure. Such journeys are often tempered by a shot of Jameson. Or five.

So you’ll have to understand, if not excuse, my relative inability to concentrate on the subject of Week 7 in the marathon that is the NFL season. Even so, gridiron junkies have plenty to look forward to this weekend’s showdowns, after which there will be only two undefeated teams in the league -- unless Jeff Garcia can finally silence his most outspoken critic, Terrell Owens, when the Philadelphia Eagles visit the Cleveland Browns.

Eyes of the World: Fans outside of the Northeast will undoubtedly groan at the excessive media coverage of this week’s most intriguing match-up, but none can deny the import of the season’s first meeting between the undefeated New England Patriots and New York Jets, with round one being held in frigid Foxboro. The 2004 Jets are very much a mirror image of the world champs. Both have lethally accurate quarterbacks who rely on short passes to move the chains, with excellent possession receivers (Wayne Chrebet, David Givens) and deep threats (Santana Moss, David Patten). Both have bruising tailbacks (Curtis Martin, Corey Dillon) capable of chewing up clock and wearing down defensive backs as the game progresses.

If there’s a slight edge for New York, it’s on defense against the run. With a revitalized Martin terrorizing the opposition to the tune of 613 yards and six rushing touchdowns, the Patriots will be hard-pressed to shut down New York’s running game, something they haven’t done all year. Meanwhile, the Jets have yet to allow a single back to top the 100-yard plateau after a 2003 in which they allowed a whopping 2,294 yards against the run. (By comparison, last year’s Patriots allowed 1,434.) Even so, they’ll have to overcome New England’s home-field advantage, even if most in attendance will be preoccupied by the evening’s entertainment at Fenway Park. And coming off a lackluster effort in which the Jets, who have yet to bury a single opponent on their way to five tightly contested wins, nearly dropped one to the lowly San Francisco 49ers, New York may not be able to hang with their toughest AFC East rival. If they let the Patriots hang around for four quarters, Tom Brady will find a way to win. He always does, doesn’t he?

Feel Like a Stranger: One year after leading the Oakland Raiders in catches (63) and receiving yards (869), Jerry Rice, the greatest wide receiver ever to suit up, was unceremoniously shipped to the Seattle Seahawks for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. Rice, 42, requested a change of scenery shortly before the NFL’s trading deadline, citing his rapidly diminishing role in the Silver and Black’s offensive schemes.

And so it ends with a whimper, Rice’s storied career as the Bay Area’s most enduring football legend, the owner of 22, 533 career receiving yards and 204 touchdowns, both records. Rice, the 16th overall pick in the 1985 draft for the dynastic Niners, is also the NFL's career leader in, among other things, receptions (1,524), yards from scrimmage (23,178) and consecutive games with at least one catch (274). A former Super Bowl MVP, he has been invited to the Pro Bowl 13 times. Another invitation seems unlikely, however, given his disappointing start to the 2004 campaign -- five catches, good for 67 yards and no TDs.

In Seattle, he will be reunited with an old friend: head coach Mike Holmgren was Rice's offensive coordinator 1989-1991 with the 49ers after serving as the team’s quarterbacks coach starting in 1986. He has vowed to include Rice in his proficient offense, a key to the deal that Rice and his agent, Jim Steiner, facilitated.

It’s a bittersweet ending to an era for Rice, a San Francisco treat until his release in 2001, after which he quickly crossed the Bay Bridge to join Al Davis’ gang of misfits, castoffs and motley bruisers. Some have suggested that Rice’s ultra-low price tag in the Seattle deal should be reason enough for the savvy veteran to call it quits, but if he wants to play, he’s earned that right. If Rice is hunting for new records, he’ll have to look hard -- as a receiver, he pretty much owns them all. He plays the game he loves so dearly, and he plays it well. Fans of the Bay Area should love him for it before bidding him a fond farewell.

Help on the Way: Just hours after learning that budding receiver Reche Caldwell will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ligament in his right knee, the San Diego Chargers boldly dealt for former Pro Bowler Keenan McCardell, sending third- and sixth-round draft picks in 2004 for the Tampa Bay holdout. The move is a significant one, and not just for frustrated fantasy owners who had the misfortune to acquire McCardell on draft day: It proves that San Diego, sporting a surprising 3-3 record after a frustrating 21-20 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, are serious about winning now, and, despite their reputation as the AFC West doormat, there’s no reason they can’t win in a weak division featuring only one legitimate threat, the Denver Broncos. McCardell, with 84 catches, 1,174 yards and eight TDs in 2003, is a prime-time receiver who will force opposing defenses to respect the Chargers’ passing game -- making life even easier for LaDainian Tomlinson, their peerless rushing back.