The Patriots offense put together an offensive explosion Sunday against the Steelers, the likes of which haven't been seen at Gillette Stadium for many years. The 55 points marked the most ever given up by the Steelers, Tom Brady's 432 passing yards represented the third-highest output for his career, and it was the first time the Patriots ever had three pass catchers top 100 yards in one game.
But does the output mean the New England offense is back to where it needs to be and ready for a second-half run, or is it a one-game anomaly? History tells us that Brady and the Patriots have had three similar instances when an occasionally sluggish offense appeared to break out at midseason with a colossal performance -- 2006, 2009 and 2010. But all three of those teams saw their seasons end in wildly different fashion.
When it comes to predicting what the future might hold for the 2013 team, these three offenses -- and the wildly divergent path they took over the second half of their seasons -- could offer some sort of insight as to where the current group is headed.
2006: The 2006 team was the one that had to build many of its elements from the ground up over the course of the season. The Patriots lost David Givens in free agency and traded away Deion Branch in September. As a result, that year was a radical reset at the receiver position with newcomers Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel, to go along with holdovers like Troy Brown, Ben Watson and Kevin Faullk.
Almost predictably, in four of the first six games, Brady threw for less than 200 yards. The Patriots had a pair of blowouts along the way to a 5-1 mark as they went into an Oct. 30 game against the Vikings in the Metrodome. Going into that contest, the Patriots passing game was struggling -- New England was averaging 193.3 passing yards per game, good for 22nd in the league. While the Patriots were getting a solid performance from their run game (131.5 rushing yards per game, sixth in the league), the offense was middle of the road, coming away with 324.8 total yards per game, 15th in the league, and was averaging 22.7 points per game, good for 10th in the league.
But that Vikings game was when the passing game really started to click. Brady threw for a season-high 345 yards, and it appeared the offense had finally found its mojo with a 31-7 win.
By the end of the 2006 regular season, the passing game had made tremendous strides, moving all the way up to 12th in the league at 212.5 passing yards per game. The Pats also saw a bump in total yards, moving from 324.8 to 335.6 per game, good for 11th. Brady wasn't statistically overwhelming over the last 10 games of the season, but his numbers certainly were better than the first six contests. After Brady failed to complete at least 60 percent of his throws over the first five weeks of the season, the Vikings game jump-started a run when he was over 60 percent in eight of his last 10 games. In that stretch, his touchdown-to-interception ratio was 14-9, but he went the last four games of the regular season without throwing a pick.
There were fits and starts the rest of the way -- including an ugly 21-0 loss to the Dolphins in Miami that December -- but that thumping of the Vikings was the jumping-off point for an offense that would help the team make it all the way to the AFC title game.
Two important things to remember about that team: One, there was a surprisingly underrated running game that was buoyed by the tandem of Corey Dillon (812 yards, 4.1 yards per carry) and Laurence Maroney (745 rushing yards, 4.3 yards per carry). Two, by the end of the year, the defense was really good. The Patriots were sixth in the league in run defense (83.8 yards per game) and fourth in points allowed per game (13.3) at the end of the season.
2009: The 2009 team was interesting for a few reasons, not the least of which was it marked the return of Brady after a season on the shelf because of a knee injury, as well as the continued decline in the skills of wide receiver Randy Moss. Wide receiver Wes Welker was a constant, as well as running backs Laurence Maroney and Kevin Faulk, but it was clear it was an offense in a state of transition as Brady worked to get back up to speed. As a result, things were uneven out of the gate for the offense -- New England went 3-2 in its first five with road losses to the Jets and the Broncos. (The Patriots actually were close to a 2-3 start, if it wasn't for a late rally against the Bills in the opener.)
That brought them to an Oct. 18 meeting with the Titans. Heading into the contest, the Patriots' numbers were pretty good, but that was due in large part to some singular performances, and not necessarily because they were able to display some sort of offensive consistency. They were ninth in the league in total offense (361.8 yards per game), sixth overall in passing offense (260.8 yards per game) and 17th overall in points per game (20.8).
On that unexpectedly snowy October afternoon, the Patriots moved to 4-2 with a 59-0 dismantling of the Titans, setting a franchise record for points in a game. Brady was 29-for-34 for 380 yards and six touchdowns. Maroney had 123 rushing yards on 16 carries, and Welker had 10 catches for 150 yards and two touchdowns.
But instead of the Patriots using that game as a jumping-off point to something bigger and better over the second half of the season, that represented the high point of the year for the offense. For a variety of reasons -- the struggles of Moss, the reacclimation process of Brady, and the most mentally soft team of the Belichick era -- it never got any better.
The numbers showed they were able to stay competitive (the Patriots were in the top 10 in total offense, passing offense and points per game by the end of the year), but the 2009 Patriots ended up 10-6 and suffered some ugly losses down the stretch, including road defeats to the Dolphins and Saints. After Welker shredded his knee in the regular-season finale against the Texans in Houston, it was no surprise they were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Ravens.
2010: The Patriots offense changed on the fly over the course of the 2010 season, moving from a deep-threat passing attack to one based around shorter and intermediate routes. The Patriots dealt Moss, reacquired Branch and started leaning heavier on young tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski -- it wasn't an easy process.
The quarterback, as well as the rest of the offense, had occasional problems with the transition. Heading into the midway point of the season, the Patriots faced Pittsburgh on Nov. 14. Brady headed into the contest averaging 228 yards a game and completing 64 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and four picks. The Patriots had just come off an ugly loss to the Browns in Cleveland, a 34-14 defeat that left New England at 6-2.
But in a vintage Brady performance that looked an awful lot like the one we saw at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, the quarterback was transcendent, going 30-for-43 for 350 yards and three touchdowns in a 39-26 victory. Brady was on fire the rest of the way -- over the second half of the season, he completed 68 percent of his passes, averaged 259 passing yards per game and had a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 22-0. As a team, the Patriots would roll into the playoffs on an eight-game winning streak and Brady would take home MVP honors. Their season would end with a defeat in the divisional playoffs to the Jets.
What course will the 2013 offense take? There's certainly more than enough reason to be optimistic -- at least, more optimistic than when compared to the 2009 group. Sunday's win over Pittsburgh represented the first time all season that so many of the various offensive options -- Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Stevan Ridley and Aaron Dobson -- were all on the field together for an extended stretch. In addition, it was clear the sort of impact that a healthy Gronkowski has on a game plan -- he demands so much attention it can open things up for his teammates. And Shane Vereen, who suffered a wrist injury in Week 1 against the Bills and placed on injured reserve (designated for return), is eligible to be back for the Carolina game, the first contest following the bye week. The dynamic Vereen -- who averaged 7.57 yards every time he touched the ball in the opener against the Bills -- will bring an added dimension to the offense.
“I think there were some elements of our game that we’re starting to show,” Brady said after the win over the Steelers. “When Gronk plays like that and can produce like that and Danny does that and Aaron does that and the backs do that and the line blocks, it’s a good way to play football. There were a lot of guys that played really well and that’s what it’s going take, I think, as the season goes.
“We have to keep getting better. It’s been a process for us, but at the bye week, 7-2 is not bad. Hopefully, our best football is ahead of us.”
In the end, it's important to remember that the evolution of the offense is an extended process that can sometimes take an entire season. The New England passing games of 2006, 2009 and 2010 illustrate the fact that the group that's on the field at the start of the season usually bears very little resemblance to the group that's on the field at the end of the year, both in personnel packages, skill set and chemistry. In the long run, it's what happens in between August and December -- and the progress that's made in those key moments in the season -- that can often spell the difference between success and failure.