Sometimes a little perspective is needed. We can get too close sometimes.
Think about it. Before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady arrived, the Patriots had played in the AFC East for 40 years. In those four decades, they won the division five times. In other words, it was actually an event when they finished the season at the top.
Now, after days such as Sunday's 35-7 win over the Jaguars? The division title isn’t merely looked at as a right, it is supposed to be Act I, with the conference crown as Act II and the Super Bowl finishing up the play. And why shouldn’t it be that way? The Patriots now have won the AFC East in seven of the last nine seasons. And if Bernard Pollard had been blocked you’d be looking at 8-of-9. If you are under the age of, say, 25, this is all you know. So let’s take a quick moment to enjoy it and move on, right? I mean, no need for commemorative T-shirts or anything.
Well, sure, in most seasons.
But this has not been the usual “yawn and win 12 games” year, has it? From the new-look defense to Rex Ryan making good on his promise to fourth-and-2 to the humiliation in New Orleans to all things Randy Moss, there has been more than enough drama to fill all 22 episodes of any network show (though it’d be easier if we could have Sela Ward jump into the mix for a three-week guest star stint as Dante Scarnecchia’s ex-girlfriend).
So let them enjoy it. This was a division title that actually needed a little blood and sweat for a change. The Patriots were tested and questioned and still they are standing, and maybe doing more than that. For the first time since 2006 the Patriots might be peaking as they head into the playoffs. In the past six weeks they’ve gone from Super Bowl favorite (or co-favorite) to playoff non-factor to where they are today, which is simply this: The Team That No One Wants to Play.
For the first time since the Patriots took a 31-14 lead over the Colts in the fourth quarter of Week 10, I can make a case that this team can win the Super Bowl. And if you have ever stumbled upon WEEI.com, I bet you can guess how many reasons I am about to list ...
THE PATRIOTS WILL BE FACING JACK DEL RIO EVERY WEEK
Well, not really. But does any opposing coach in the AFC playoff picture scare you? Norv Turner? Marvin Lewis? John Harbaugh? Josh McDaniels? I’m sure Jim Caldwell is a good coach and a swell guy, but I get a George Seifert vibe every time I see him on the sideline. Put it this way: When Mike Tomlin is the coach in the room that you least want to face, you know that you are not anywhere near Canton, Ohio.
And how about Del Rio?
Listen, I’m on record as being against the fourth-and-2 call, but I could at least understand why Belichick decided to go for it: Peyton Manning, no faith in the defense, all that stuff. But I see no reason why the Jaguars needed to try to convert a fourth-and-1 from their own 35-yard line in the first quarter of a scoreless game.
The Patriots had just moved the ball down the field easily and were a Laurence Maroney (remember that name) fumble away from a TD. A stop on fourth down and the Pats are going to go 35 yards, no question. So why not just punt and be happy that you were able to flip the field? And why the most predictable play call possible on fourth down? And you and I both know that Del Rio did not enter that drive with the idea that he would go for it on fourth-and-1 at his 35 if presented the chance. Why do we know this? Because they would have never run a reverse on third-and-short. Just a terrible piece of coaching by a guy that I’ve never been a fan of.
The game was basically over after that stop. And the Jags weren't a 4-10 team, either. This was a team that could have reached the playoffs by winning out. Forget about the risk involved, it just made zero sense. This is pure conjecture, but I wonder if Del Rio looked across the field and decided that he would try to “out-Belichick” the opposing coach.
THIS IS THE BEST RUNNING ATTACK SINCE THE COREY DILLON DAYS
There is no back on this team who is going to run for three 100-yard games in the playoffs, but that really isn’t the point. Pure depth. How many teams in the NFL have four running backs who you know can step in and play well in any spot? I know I might be jumping the gun on Fred Taylor, but if he’s anything close to what we saw at times early in the season then he can be useful (at worst) as a fourth back.
Now this Maroney situation is worth watching. Has Belichick finally had it with the fumbling or was the benching still another warning? I just don’t believe that this one fumble will be enough to erase the progress that Maroney has shown over the past two months. Does it mean that we might see more Sammy Morris and Kevin Faulk in the red zone? Might be. But I know that in the endless search for something negative, the light will shine on Maroney this week. And that is fair - that fumble is inexcusable, particularly when you remember what Maroney did in Indy. But Belichick clearly likes what he can do, and I still think he’ll be the closest thing to a lead back for this team the rest of the way.
NOT SO BAD TO HAVE A YOUNG DEFENSE NOW, IS IT?
Assuming Vince Wilfork is ready to go for the playoffs (and if he doesn’t play next week — no reason he should — that would be nearly a month of rest for Wilfork before the first round of the playoffs, not the worst thing for a 400-pound guy with a bad foot), the defense should be about as healthy as you’ll ever see this late in the season. And unlike the past three or four seasons, this won’t be a group that leans heavily on guys who were born in the 1970s.
The torch has been passed now. This is Brandon Meriweather and Jerod Mayo’s crew. And, to their credit, they have not melted under the pressure after the Colts and Saints losses. They have allowed just 27 total points over the last three weeks (or one fewer point than the Patriots scored in the first half on Sunday). And the Jaguars may not be the Saints, but they did score 31 points against the Colts last week. And holding the Panthers to 10 points is looking like more and more of a coup each week. There may not be six or seven teams in the league playing better right now.
The question is really this: Does a young, fresh defense mean that we won’t see the epic fourth-quarter collapses that have defined this unit over the last four years? Or have the last three games been a mirage hiding the reality that this group will be exposed if it has to face a true passing attack such as the Colts or Chargers? I think this is the unknown that could define how far this team can go this season.
BRADY, WELKER AND MOSS
Or, "The Three Biggest Reasons Why This Team Has a Pulse."
Could be that 2007 will always be a season that sticks out on the back of Tom Brady’s football card. (They still make football cards. Really. If you are sick and tired of lighting your money on fire, I suggest you go out and buy a pack or two.) But I have to think that any fan would have signed up for 4,500 yards passing and 30 or so touchdowns before the season started. Has he been perfect? Nope. And for the first time in his career I’m not sure he’s going to go down the field and score on that final drive. He did it (with a short field) in Week 1, but failed the next week against the Jets, and threw killer picks against Denver and Miami. But I’d still give him a solid B for the season. Statistically, it is the second-best year by a quarterback in franchise history.
How many times over the last three seasons have you wondered how, exactly, is it possible that Welker can be open all the time? Why not put four guys on him, right? Welker has 122 catches on the season, remarkable enough on its own, but when you realize he missed two games it seems an almost incomprehensible total. Had he played in those games I think he would have broken Marvin Harrison’s record of 143 catches, set in 2002.
And that is why you don’t just give up on Randy Moss.
Oh, as a quick aside, a couple of words on our announcing duo, Mr. Kevin Harlan and Mr. Solomon Wilcots. Guys, no need to speculate on the Hall of Fame chances of Moss. The guy is second all-time in touchdown catches and sixth in receiving yards. I think he’s in. Not a great day for Harlan and Wilcots overall. I know those blowouts are tough to call, but I’m thinking that if these two were the last two people on Earth with the ability to speak, CBS would still pass on letting them call the Super Bowl. But I am glad that Solomon thinks that The Hall at Patriot Place is a great place for children to learn. Mr. Wilcots' Opus. Sure, they've never heard of FDR or Churchill, but are they ever solid on Russ Francis and Marv Cook.
THE REVERSE CURSE OF BENJAMIN BRADY
I'm just saying, the Patriots are 3-0 since he debuted on Dec. 8. Maybe if Gisele could have gone to work a few weeks earlier Faulk would have gotten that spot on fourth-and-2.
Agree? Don't agree? E-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org so I can add it into my defense of "Michael Clayton" (the movie, not the receiver) in this week's mailbag.