WASHINGTON — The New England Patriots are back.
I know what you’re shouting at your screen right now: “What do you mean ‘they’re back’? They’ve won 10 division titles in 11 years…they never left!”
True. But if you shouted that 1) you probably have some anger issues that need addressing and 2) you’ve missed my point.
I’m talking about the Patriots dynasty that won three Super Bowls in four years. I’m talking about the largely anonymous team predicated on running the ball and playing stifling defense. I’m talking about the team that changed the way we think about Bill Belichick–the man that went from an also-ran retread to a coaching legend held in the same regard as Vince Lombardi.
I didn’t used to buy into that talk, but this year I am. New England has basically reinvented themselves on the fly. In case you missed the Pats’ dominant performance against the Indianapolis Colts, the Pats defense–which recently switched from a 3-4 alignment to a 4-3–beat up the NFL’s new Captain Comeback (Andrew Luck) and forced him into a career-worst four interceptions, never letting the seemingly inevitable Colts run come to fruition.
Also, LeGarrette Blount–a guy deemed too much of a thug to play for Greg Schiano’s Buccaneers–ran for 166 yards and four TDs. All six Patriots touchdowns came on the ground, meaning cinch Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady was reduced to the role of game manager, throwing for an Alex Smith-esque 198 yards and no TDs.
If you’ve been paying attention to the Pats lately, you’d know this is a bit of a recent trend. Brady is only 41-for-75 in his last three games. The completion total is his lowest since 2004.
You know…the last year they won the Super Bowl.
You wanna get nuts? Let’s get nuts.
In a weird stat, the Patriots are actually 4-0 in the playoffs when Brady doesn’t throw a TD pass. Saturday showed why. The Pats have adapted to life without former Pro Bowlers Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Adrian Wilson (all on injured reserve). The “Next Man Up” credo has definitely been embodied by New England this year, and the individual pieces are no longer more recognizable than the sum of their parts.
It’s back to the future in New England. This season, there seems to be a legitimate dedication to the run that resembles the style of offense they played in the early 2000s. Belichick has his defense ranked 7th in the NFL (10th in scoring defense), providing the kind of balance necessary to win a championship. It appears they’re over the Arena League style of offense that helped cost them an undefeated season in ’07 and the rematch in ’11.
The Patriots are on the proper trajectory to join the Boston Red Sox in the winner’s circle. Like they did 9 years ago.
Back to the future indeed.
Now let’s recap the Divisional Round:
If Seattle really is cheating on defense, it works. Drew Brees (you know…the only guy in NFL history to throw for over 5,000 yards more than once) can’t get anything going against this team, and they won’t face anybody better than Brees in the conference title game. Now that Percy Harvin is back for the ‘Hawks, I’m feeling really good about my NFC Super Bowl pick.
Indy keeps getting a lot of love for pulling off these epic come-from-behind victories, but they apparently take their toll. The Colts have been outscored 140- 50 following comebacks of 10 or more points, so they’re obviously blowing their offensive load all at once.
Not to keep gushing over the Pats…but this story seems like the stuff Super Bowl runs are made of.
Carolina has nothing to be ashamed of; they far exceeded expectations in 2013 and had the misfortune of having a rematch with a team that has an identical style of play. This could be a team on the rise. For those keeping score at home, that’s three straight NFC Championship Game appearances for San Fran. Maybe there’s something to hiring a college coach after all…
If this is the end of the line for Peyton Manning, Denver sure is rallying to make sure he goes out on top. The Broncos looked like one of the most complete teams in the league Sunday, and they’ll need another effort like that (save for the 4th quarter, of course) to beat New England.
Oh, and I hope San Diego enjoyed this run. Once Ken Whisenhunt leaves for a head coaching gig, it’s going to be tough for them to make a return trip to the playoffs next year.