On Sunday morning, you will head to Gillette Stadium on a tour bus along Route 1, just a baby step on America's oldest highway, whose expanse stretches from Maine to Miami, and watch the leaves change. That means this is the beginning. In football, fall is just the start. There are no absolutes now.
You are Norv Turner, and the team you will play is the New England Patriots. They are the reason you're even sitting on this bus in the first place. You're the head coach of the San Diego Chargers, and you wouldn't be here right now if it hadn't all fallen apart on that 53-degree day in San Diego last January the last time the Chargers played the Patriots, when New England won the AFC Divisional Playoff game 24-21.
For the first time in your life, "if" is your ally. If the Chargers had turned their first-half dominance into points that day, if Marlon McCree hadn't dropped the interception that should have sealed the game, if the Chargers had won -- the Patriots, and not San Diego, would be feeling the greater pressure to win this rematch.
If those things had happened differently, Marty Schottenheimer might still be the Chargers' coach. He'd be the one here on this bus, and you wouldn't be here coaching a team expected by many to win the Super Bowl.
You know what they're saying about you. You are the coach, the leader of men, the one who owns the responsibility of deflection, of measurement, of perspective. You have told the fans, the press, your team, anyone who will listen, that this is simply one game of 16. You tell them not to believe the hype. The Patriots are one team along the way to a larger, more important goal: the Super Bowl.
But here on the bus, it is just you, nose pressed against the tinted glass. There are no pundits, no fans, no one from whom you must conceal the truth; and you know better. You know that conventional wisdom was confounded when you, with your career record of 58-82-1, were offered this golden opportunity for redemption.
You are Shawne Merriman and you remember your first-half dominance in that game, when you toyed with Tom Brady and the vaunted Dynasty as a child would pluck the wings off a fly. You remember the Patriots starting three of their first four drives inside their own 15-yard line. You remember the defense flying that day, cocky, invincible, and so good that the Patriots looked wholly overmatched. You remember that this should have been a cakewalk, when six of the Chargers' first seven drives reached midfield or better, when two of them were inside the Patriots' 20-yard line; and yet at halftime, you held only a flimsy 14-10 lead. Maybe you didn't know it then, but taking a step back you know it now: That was the beginning of your end that afternoon.
You're Shawne Merriman and though you draw attention to yourself and you try to show up opponents, you also remember what you thought was the cheap stuff from the other side, when Mike Vrabel, the Patriot linebacker, made a second-quarter tackle and mimicked -- no, mocked -- your signature sack dance. On your home turf! You remember that you had but two tackles the whole game.
You're Marlon McCree and all your life you wanted to be the hero. Brady, The Legend, was all sweat and desperation even though late-game tension is supposed to be his favorite meadow. But this time is your time. You remember the clock -- 6 minutes, 25 seconds left and you've got a 21-13 lead -- and Brady throws hurriedly over the middle, right to you. You catch it and the game is over. You're going to the AFC Championship Game, just where you said you were going every week of every month of the season, when your team went 14-2, and it's going to be wonderful.
But instinctively you get up to run your victory present home and maybe punch an exclamation point onto the end of the Patriots' postseason legend. You run and destiny takes a hand. Troy Brown pops you and the present drops to the ground and breaks and suddenly the Patriots have the football; and within 90 seconds -- when Brady hits Reche Caldwell with a 4-yard touchdown pass and Kevin Faulk ties the game at 21 with a two-point conversion -- you absorb a killing truth: You will carry the ball you just dropped with you for the rest of your life.
You're LaDainian Tomlinson, the reigning league MVP, and you know you're not the one anyone can pin this on. You remember the play that made them fear you -- such a simple little screen pass -- and, man, was it beautiful. Catch, turn and run; and everyone -- Bill Belichick and his five championship rings, Tom Brady and his mystique, Vrabel and his mockery -- is just an extra in your movie. You dart, weave, and laugh your way 58 yards down to the New England 6. The Dynasty is chasing you, but you are in your house and they, Super Bowl rings and all, are in slow motion.
You were busy getting some air when, on the next play, Michael Turner plunged into the end zone to put you up 14-3, so you didn't notice the ashen looks of that couple with the end zone seats, the ones with the matching Tedy Bruschi jerseys who found the golden fare on cheaptickets.com and flew across the country for the game. They are giving each other the look -- yeah, that look -- the one that said without words that they came all this way and it wasn't even halftime but they knew their Patriots were done-for, devoured by your light. It was the look that said, "How do you stop that? No way, no way can we beat them today."
And yet, they did.
You ran for 123 yards that day and two touchdowns. When Tom Brady took a knee with eight seconds left and the Patriots were jubilant -- and, some would say, crass -- in victory, angry tears began to burst as they danced on your field and you began plotting your revenge. You had them cold. The couple with the Bruschi jerseys kissed. The trip was worth it, after all, because they saw Brady do it again, this time in person. And to this day you will never understand how it was them, and not you, who went home happy.
Not too far away this weekend in Boston, you walk along the Fens, along the Muddy River Basin and past the statue of John Boyle O'Reilly, the Irish poet-activist who in the late 1880s watched the struggle for work and status pit the poor Irish against poor blacks and saw in their common poverty hope and strength. His was an unrealized vision that Boston would again be a place of revolution, this time a joyous multi-racial class uprising 100 years before its time against the Brahmin bluebloods who always controlled the money and kept everybody else down. The leaves are changing, which signifies an end instead of a beginning, because this is the part of town where baseball is played.
Important baseball games weren't supposed to commence for another few weeks, when the Red Sox -- after a satisfying wire-to-wire division title run -- begin their half of the two American League Division Series. But the Yankees are here and the lead is close and the Bostonian in you feels an unwelcome tease, not unlike a whip of cold air on a great day to remind you that, in New England, winter is always the next season. The unwelcome tease is the fact that, yes, the Yankees could still win the AL East; and, yes, everything that seemed so certain can be taken away, and taken away by them, once again.
You know, if you really have Boston inside of you, that 2007 is looking a lot like an opposite image of 2004, when the Yankees won the AL East but knew those 101 wins were mere sensation. They knew they didn't want to play the Red Sox in the postseason; they knew the 98-win Red Sox were, if not better, scary enough to take it all away from them and beat them in the American League Championship Series.
You see the parallels even if you don't want to. You know the Red Sox have the best record in baseball, but it is never far from your mind that the Yankees are 61-34 since May 29 and 7-2 against the Red Sox since May 23. You might yet get your first division title since Mo Vaughn won the MVP in '95; but you also know that because your team did not bury the Yankees when it had the chance, the universe is now again in order. Both teams will likely make the postseason and you might see them again.
You're not sure you want that.
You're Alex Rodriguez and never has the world ever seemed so . . . so . . . inviting. For the month, you're hitting .529 with eight home runs. You have vanquished all enemies and maybe, just maybe, in being the leader of an historic comeback, you are going to do what Reggie did. You might even surpass it. If the Yankees do come back to win the American League East title and the World Series after being down by 14½ games, you know that you'll never have to answer to anybody ever again. You probably don't even have to now, but the mission isn't yet complete.
It strengthens you that in less than eight weeks, you will own baseball. You can opt out of your contract and play for anyone who will have you. That includes the Red Sox. You and John Henry are close, and perhaps the best way for him to lance the Yankees is to sign you. Your vindication, even before the playoffs, is in the knowledge that the Yankees now need you more than you'll ever need them.
And finally, on this weekend, you're David Ortiz, and you've decided to will yourself and your team to the AL East Division title. You know that without you, the lead beginning this weekend's Yankees-Red Sox series likely would be down to two games. You know the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- yes, Tampa -- had you cold, both on Tuesday when you trailed 8-1 but won 16-10, and the following day when your two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth turned a bitter 4-3 loss into a soaring 5-4 win. You have 10 hits this week and half of them have been home runs. You see your division, weirdly, slipping away from you unless you act right here, right now. So, naturally you finish with a flourish.
More than anything else, you remember what you said about the Yankees a month earlier, about them being "right across the street" and how their furious play was proof that they weren't "BS-ing around." You know now that you weren't offering another empty platitude to avoid bulletin-board material and a noisy talk-radio news cycle. You know now that you were right.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.