FOXBORO -- Logan Mankins was almost offended by the mere suggestion.
But on Thursday, when he spoke for the first time since injuring his left knee on Christmas Eve against the Dolphins, I asked the powerful Patriots offensive lineman a simple question.
Have the Patriots done enough offensively to shed their early season reputation as a “finesse” team?
“I don’t know if we have,” Mankins answered. “Ask some other D-linemen around the league if we hit them or not.”
Maybe Mankins couldn’t believe that someone would question the toughness of a group that has been through so much this season. Injuries to Dan Koppen in the season opener, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer, Matt Light and Mankins have made the offensive line a chorus line of musical chairs.
And the offense was again one of the very best in the NFL, finishing with 513 points. Only Green Bay and New Orleans scored more. The 513 points is 107 more than the Chargers, who were second in the AFC in scoring and didn’t even make the playoffs.
Why the concern about playoff “toughness” for a team that has gone 27-5 in the last two seasons? Why worry about a Patriots team that scored 41 points on the road against the very same team it's facing this weekend at Gillette?
Well, it’s pretty simple.
Tom Brady made the suggestion early in the season that the Patriots needed to grow out of their “finesse” reputation around the league -- and in particular around the AFC, where they had to make it through Pittsburgh and Baltimore to get back to the Super Bowl.
Remember earlier this season, when the Steelers and Giants beat the Patriots in consecutive weeks? There were serious doubts. Then the Pats won their final eight games.
But Brady also remembers Super Bowl XLII when the Giants beat up the offensive line. Brady also remembers the last two playoff games at Gillette when the Ravens and Jets did everything they could to get to the quarterback early and often.
“Obviously, we haven’t done well enough,” Light said. “It sits in all of our minds for the guys that have been here and been a part of that. You work that much, you put that much time into a season, you have success to a degree during the regular season and then you go out and you can’t get it done in the postseason; that’s a difficult thing to swallow.
“I think that’s why guys, you put a little bit more time in, you put a little more effort into it and hopefully get a better outcome. We’re working hard toward that. We’ve had a heck of run through the regular season. We’ve had a lot of guys step up and make a lot of plays to put us in this position. Now we have to do something with it.”
How did Brady handle those two losses against the Ravens and Jets?
“I haven’t talked with him about it, but he doesn’t typically take losing too well,” Light quipped. “I’ve noticed that over the years.”
Against the Dolphins and Bills, fans began to wonder again as the Patriots fell behind Miami, 17-0, at halftime and 21-0 to the Bills in the first quarter. They won both games, scoring 49 unanswered against Buffalo in the season finale.
Still, those were not playoff teams, and Mankins knows that.
“I think you’ve seen our resiliency this year,” Mankins said Thursday. “We’ve had a few games where we’ve come out the first quarter and played horrible but guys never gave up. We knew if we kept playing hard that guys would make some plays and get us back in the game and have a chance to win. I think in years past, I don’t know if we had that all the time, but this year we’ve been tough and we keep playing.”
It’s one thing to be resilient. It’s totally another to be dominant and exert your will the way the Patriots did in 2003 and ’04.
The physical toughness issue is hardly a concern based solely on the offense. As a matter of fact, the defense has just as many questions to answer.
With the banged-up Steelers out of the way, courtesy of Tim Tebow and the Broncos, the big, bad team from Pittsburgh isn’t a concern anymore.
But that’s ironic because it was the Broncos who manhandled the Patriots for the first 15 minutes on Dec. 18 in Denver, rushing for 173 yards.
The Patriots got back into the game when the Broncos turned the ball over three times in the second quarter and Brady took over. They cruised to a 41-23 win.
Saturday night figures to be a bitterly cold night with the game won in the trenches. The Broncos are going to want to run the ball and keep it out of the hands of Brady and the Patriots offense.
Fans want to see the Patriots come out Saturday night and exert their will from the start, get up early, stop the Broncos' top-ranked run game and force Tebow to throw.
They want to see the Patriots dominate physically on a typically cold mid-January night in New England and send the Broncos home thinking about how great it was to win the AFC West with an 8-8 record, get lucky in the playoffs and win a game and look forward to bigger and better things in 2012.
But are the Patriots tough enough to do that?
Here’s why you should take Logan Mankins at his word and believe they are.
Joe Flacco in January 2010 and Mark Sanchez in January 2011 were both asked to simply manage the game while their defenses pressured Brady and won the field-position battle.
Tim Tebow this Saturday night will be asked to do a lot more than that.
He’s going to be asked to run the triple-option and spread in freezing temperatures.
The Broncos fumbled away the ball three times in the second quarter on Dec. 18 on their home turf when it was 63 and sunny.
The Patriots may give up more yards than anyone in football but they also take the ball away with the best of them.
The Broncos defense can be had, especially deep. They couldn't protect a 10-point fourth-quarter lead on their home turf to a Steelers quarterback on one leg.
If ever Tom Brady and the offensive line had a point to prove, Saturday night is their night to shine.
In the Trags Bag this week, we ask: What impact will Josh McDaniels have on the Patriots this week?
@GingerNinja023 Would be a good time to note that McD would probably have as good an idea as anyone on how stop Tebow being the guy that loved him.
@0_LayDX Other than small tendencies of players that have been there (Tebow, Champ, Thomas) not much. Small tendencies during the game and before of players that have been there for a while (habits etc) maybe it could help Brady know if he can fake out Champ or someone a certain way (pump/head) or something in the hat could mess with a certain player, that is all i can think of. Main thing is, they already have the book on Denver.
Those two sentiments perfectly sum up why Bill Belichick wanted McDaniels in Foxboro as the Pats prep for the Broncos. McDaniels knows how Tebow thinks as well as anyone. Yes, Belichick worked out Tebow when he was playing for Urban Meyer in Florida, but it was McDaniels who made it his mission to draft him late in the first round in 2010 and mold him into an NFL quarterback.
The devil has always been in the details for Belichick, and McDaniels brings more of those to the table at a critical time of playoff preparation.
But it should be noted –- as @0_LayDX points out -– the Patriots already have the book on the Broncos' triple-option run game and know what it takes to manage it. The Patriots did a good job handling it for the most part in the final three quarters on Dec. 18.
As John Fox pointed out, McDaniels was NOT in Denver when the Broncos installed the triple-option offense that Tebow runs, so that won’t mean nearly as much.
McDaniels will help when it comes to getting inside the way Tebow breaks down his downfield progressions in the passing game, like on the game-winning 80-yard strike to Demaryius Thomas on Sunday. McDaniels has worked with the best in the game in Tom Brady, and he took that experience to Denver when he left New England in 2009. McDaniels taught those principles to Tebow in 2010 before being fired after a 3-9 start.
McDaniels is more of a psychology advisor this week as Bill Belichick tries to get inside the head of Tim Tebow.
Patriots 24, Broncos 13 -- It'll be New England's answer to the 2005 playoff loss in Denver when Eric Mangini left the Patriots for the Jets. There'll be no need for a dramatic Brady comeback. The Patriots will control the Broncos run game and force Tebow to throw.
Saints 28, 49ers 10 -- Jim Harbaugh has done a remarkable job in his first year in San Francisco. But the 49ers, with their 13-3 record and NFC West title in tow, won't have enough defense to handle Drew Brees and the NFL's best offense.
Ravens 21, Texans 9 -- Each team will score three times, but the Ravens have Ray Rice on their home field and Baltimore's front seven will manage Arian Foster and Ben Tate, putting the game in the hands of rookie T.J. Yates.
Giants 20, Packers 17 -- We've seen this movie before. I believe the Giants defensive line is playing with just as much fury as it did in 2007. That's really bad news for the inconsistent Packers offensive line in this rematch of the '07 NFC title game, which the Giants won at Lambeau Field.