FOXBORO -- I've seen enough. These Patriots are Super Bowl caliber.
Forget the ridiculous number of injuries to starters. Forget the red zone inefficiency, which again reared its ugly head on Sunday when they were just 1-for-4. Forget the Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning.
I'm convinced that this group led by Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have enough supporting characters who understand the principles of playoff football to make it over, around and through any obstacle.
Why are these Patriots, in spite of everything, the thinking-man's favorite to get to the Super Bowl? They're the toughest team left in a wide-open six-team AFC pool.
The Bengals, on paper, could match New England's toughness and could very well wind up playing at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 11. They have a power running game and a hard-nose defense that loves to play smash-mouth in the trenches. They, too, have lost many key starters to injury. But it's one thing to be tough in the regular season and it's completely another to bring that on the road in the playoffs. The Bengals still have yet to win a playoff game under coach Marvin Lewis and they need to get by San Diego before the Patriots can count on seeing them. They also have a talented quarterback in Andy Dalton that can turn into a pick-6 generator faster than Powerball.
The Broncos couldn't hold a 24-0 halftime lead when the national spotlight was on them at Gillette. The Chiefs won 11 games but stumbled badly down the stretch with a weak defense and Alex Smith at quarterback. The Colts are a dome team with a talented second-year quarterback, no running game and a spotty defense.
If you have watched this team closely over 16 weeks, you know there are enough players like Julian Edelman, LeGarrette Blount, Logan Mankins, Stephen Gostkowski and Rob Ninkovich to more than make up for the statistical deficiencies. When Mankins and Dobson went down in the first half Sunday, Twitter exploded with dire predictions that finally the Patriots are going to be done in by all the injuries.
Silly Twitter. Clearly Twitter hasn't been paying close enough attention to what these Patriots are all about. Twitter is so worried about injuries that it forgets how the Patriots finished 12-4. It's the kind of thing that creates a chip on one's shoulder.
"You've got to have a chip on your shoulder," Danny Amendola said. "You've got to deal with adversity, regardless of whether it's in a game, in a season, it's personal, it's with the team, whatever it is you have to deal with adversity. [You need to] be tough, and we've got a lot of tough guys in this locker room, that's for sure."
None tougher than the 250-pound steamroller that is LeGarrette Blount. Given the chance initially to return kicks in preseason, Blount showed Sunday why Belichick thought he had potential not only as a running back but a kick returner. Two second-half returns of 83 and 62 yards sealed New England's win when the Bills wouldn't go away.
"I feel like we had to man up and play tough football with the conditions, and whoever played better football physically is going to be the winner," said Blount, after beating up the Bills for a team-record 334 all-purpose yards.
But when it comes to toughness in the golden era of Patriots football, few would argue that Mankins is the toughest of the tough.
"I've coached a lot of tough guys. I don't think there's any that I would put ahead of him. Maybe some on that level, but none ahead," Belichick said in a conference call on Monday. "Anytime Logan needs help getting off the field, you feel like it's something serious. Usually he ends up just staying out there but for him to need assistance getting off the field was definitely a concerning moment. Then when [head athletic trainer] Jim Whelan came back and told me, after the next series, that Logan was back, I was a little bit surprised to hear that. He's tough individual, tough-minded, physically and mentally tough."
As for Edelman, he was given the chance to shine in his free agent season, replacing Wes Welker. He responded by catching 100 passes for over 1,000 yards. Now, the real spotlight will be on him as the playoffs begin. Edelman's attitude? Bring it on.
"That's not really pressure," Edelman said. "Pressure is when you have like $300 in your [bank] account, like five kids and $800 in bills. That's pressure. It was more of an opportunity. Around here, if you just do your job, you put in the work and you prepare you'll be given an opportunity. The other receivers have done a great job to come in and just do what they've done this year. I mean, this is a tough system, and to have three guys that have never played in the system, two rookies [Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson] and Danny [Amendola], you've got to tip your hat to those guys because they've helped us win a bunch of games as well."
If ever Edelman was trying to sell himself to the Patriots as a player who gets the 'Patriot Way,' he said the perfect words at the perfect time.
Sealver Siliga, filling in for Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly, turned into Mean Joe Greene chasing down a quarterback with a first-half 13-yard sack of Thad Lewis.
"We've definitely got a group of overachievers," Brady beamed on Dennis and Callahan on Monday. "I've never been through a season like this."
In the afterglow of Sunday's 34-20 bye-clinching win over the Bills, I gave Belichick the chance to give proper credit to a team that has overcome so much in the last seven months to earn next weekend off. Belichick took full opportunity to do so.
"I'm happy for them," Belichick said. "They definitely earned it. You're right. Nobody gave them anything, they had to go out and earn it. Won 12 games and a lot of them were very tough and competitive and came down to the wire. This team earned it, I'm happy for them. But at the same time, this isn't our only goal for the season. We need to play our best football going forward. We know we have a big challenge ahead of us in a couple weeks."
This is a team that lost Aaron Hernandez in June. This is a team that played most of the season without the best red-zone weapon in football in Rob Gronkowski. When he went down in the Cleveland game, it was pretty clear they were going back to what got them off to a 4-0 start. There was no panic. No sense of, 'What are we going to do now?'" There never is.
This is a team that has lost the middle of its defense in Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, Jerod Mayo and Sunday, Devin McCourty. Brandon Spikes is on one leg at this point and needs knee surgery as soon as the season is over. Rob Ninkovich has a bad left ankle.
The offensive line has been a carousel of late, with Logan Mankins narrowly escaping what looked like a nasty season-ending ankle injury in the second quarter Sunday. Sebastian Vollmer is gone with a broken leg. Nate Solder just returned after battling not one but two concussions.
By overcoming nearly every obstacle in their path, these Patriots not only earned next weekend off to enjoy the playoffs on TV, but they just greatly improved their odds for reaching the sixth Super Bowl in the Belichick-Brady era.
"We're in the second round of the playoffs now, so yeah," Belichick added. "We're in the second round."
Belichick knows full well that all five of his Patriots teams that have advanced to the Super Bowl have done so by needing to win just two games in the playoffs instead of three. If you're worried about having to go to Denver in the AFC championship to beat Peyton Manning remember that the 2001 and 2004 teams beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
In 2001, as everyone in New England and Pittsburgh remember, the Steelers already had their bags packed and their travel plans for New Orleans set when the Patriots went in and ruined their Mardi Gras itinerary with a 24-17 shocker at Heinz Field.
In 2004, the Steelers were 16-1 and had all the momentum in the world. They were on a 15-game winning streak. The 15-2 Patriots didn't care. They went into Pittsburgh and beat the "Stillers," 41-27.
You get the same sense about these Patriots. They proved to themselves they could go into enemy territory and play the right kind of game when they throttled the defending champion Ravens, 41-7.
Which brings us to Sunday. In a monsoon, the Patriots rammed it right down the throats of the Bills. The aptly-named Blount was the perfect instrument to dissect the Bills and produce a win that earned the Patriots a weekend off.
"I'd say adverse, but we've found ways to overcome it," Brady said. "[It] was a great job. I mean, to score 34 points in a downpour is pretty good football. That was just a great all-around performance. That's what we needed."
The Patriots can't rely on Tom Brady airing it out any more, nor should they.
In Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola, they have the right passing weapons to compliment a ball-possessing offense, even without Rob Gronkowski. But without Aaron Dobson, who re-injured his left foot on Sunday, and any legitimate deep threat, this is a Patriots team that needs to rely on Blount and Stevan Ridley between the tackles and Edelman, Shane Vereen and Danny Amendola on the outside. Is that enough? It will have to be.
"We have a lot of guys like that on our team that haven't been to the postseason," Brady said. "Look, we advanced, it's great, we put together a great season, but it doesn't mean much now. We're seeded; we've got to go out there and play great football. No matter what the conditions are and no matter what team we play, we're going to have to play a 60-minute game, play good in all three phases. I think we've worked hard to put ourselves in this position, we've earned it; 12-4 is a good record. We'll really see what we're made of here in a few weeks."