I remember Week 3 like it was yesterday.
With a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, the Patriots collapsed, and so did the confidence of Patriots fans everywhere. Tom Brady threw four picks, the defense was miserable and it looked like the Buffalo Bills were on their way to ruling the AFC East for the next decade.
Now, of course, we’ve all realized that Ryan Fitzpatrick isn’t worth the paper his new contract is printed on. But at the time, it really seemed like the guy was unstoppable.
The view from New England was bleak.
By Week 8, after our devastating loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Patriots fans were exhausted.
In Week 9, Patriots fans were distraught. So distraught, in fact, that many were clamoring for the return of Randy Moss. It sounds crazy now that we’re 12-3 and owners of a first-round bye, but at the time, this seemed like a rather reasonable request. It was a desperate attempt to get somebody—anybody—who could stretch the field and make the opposing defense sweat.
We were 5-3 and furious. Now we’re 12-3 and pretty calm.
We’re not the same Patriots team anymore. We don’t mercilessly blow out teams and smother them with suffocating defense. We’re a new Patriots team, and we do a lot of new things pretty damn well. And a few key guys stepped up this year—seemingly out of nowhere—and made some pretty amazing things happen.
Here are four underrated players who stepped up in 2011 and made sure the New England Patriots remained the undisputed kings of the AFC East.
When the Patriots and Jets duel, even in the regular season, it feels like a playoff game. But heading into Week 10, there was something extra special in the air. The Patriots had a remarkable opportunity to sweep the season series and make the next eight weeks of Rex Ryan’s life as uncomfortable as possible.
And they did just that.
But Andre Carter was the real story—with 4.5 sacks and at least three pressures on Mark Sanchez, Carter completely dictated the flow of the game and beat the fight out of Gang Green. Carter rented out so much space in Sanchez’s mind, he might as well have decorated.
For a Jets team that prides itself on their ground-and-pound, wear-you-down attitude, Carter effectively turned them into a fearful group of guys who surrendered in the second half. They didn’t want any part of the Patriots, and they certainly didn’t want any part of Andre Carter.
Prior to coming to the Patriots this season, Carter said he didn’t think he’d ever play football again. He came to New England humble, gracious and ready to play his heart out.
Although his season ended early with an injury, his contribution to this team is undeniable. He sparked the flame that made the Patriots work so hard to improve their defense. With 52 tackles, 10 sacks and two forced fumbles, the guy gave life to the Patriots when it all seemed hopeless.
We’re 12-3 right now, and Andre Carter deserves a great deal of the credit.
Well done, Mr. Carter.
The man who killed “Tebow Time.”
On one particular read option play against the Denver Broncos, Anderson read the play perfectly and annihilated Tebow. But he didn’t stop there. Not only did he fling Tebow into the dirt like cigarette butt, he knocked the ball out of Tebow’s grip, jumped on it like a maniac, then ran out of the ensuing scrum triumphantly with the football (and without a helmet).
It might not seem like it, but that Broncos game was big for the Patriots.
The hype heading into the game was huge. At the time, Patriots fans were still uncertain about this team. Broncos fans were nervous, Patriots fans were nervous—fans everywhere were on the edge of their seats.
In the week leading up to the game, everyone was talking about Tom Brady and Tim Tebow. Nobody was talking about Mark Anderson.
Throughout that game, Anderson turned Denver’s dream into a nightmare. He didn’t give up containment, he stuck with Tebow like glue and effectively put an end to the phenomenon.
And it’s not the only phenomenon he ended this season.
In Week 10—along with Andre Carter—Anderson destroyed Mark Sanchez. He dismantled the Jets and put an end to the Gang Green phenomenon.
Recently, in the absence of the injured Carter, Anderson has really stepped up as our go-to pass rusher. He has 22 tackles and nine sacks on the season, and he’s become a leader for us.
Patriots fans love this guy, and with good reason.
On the surface, this may seem like a controversial pick.
But Julian Edelman’s punt return for a touchdown against the Chiefs in Week 11 nearly caused every Patriots fan on the planet to have a heart attack.
It was 72 yards of magic.
Who could forget the swagger of his run, his beautiful cradling of the football in right hand, his left hand pointing at the end zone, his head nodding up and down like a kid filling up his cart in a toy store, his tongue hanging out like Jordan, launching the ball at the pads with excitement—everything about it was pure bliss.
It was the defining moment of New England’s 2011 season.
The guy had 546 yards last year. This year: 1,219, and there’s still another game left.
Receptions last year: 42. Receptions this year: 82, and yes, there’s another game left.
First downs last year: 30. This year: 61, and did I mention there’s another game left?
Sometimes we talk about a guy becoming twice as good as he used to be, but usually it’s a figure of speech. Rob Gronkowski is literally twice as good as he was last year.
Teams spend as much time devising defensive schemes to stop Gronkowski as they do for Wes Welker. That’s unbelievable. Last year, if someone said that Rob Gronkowski is about to become the most dangerous man on the New England Patriots, the eyes would be rolling.
Nobody rolls their eyes anymore.
When Tom Brady rushed in his touchdown against the Broncos and launched the football into the ground with full force, every New England fan shouted, “He did the Gronk Spike!”
Whenever Gronkowski catches a football, Twitter accounts all across Massachusetts blow up; “Gronk likes,” “Gronk likes,” “Gronk likes.” When a Boston fan eats a slice of pizza, and someone asks how it is, the response (typically in a cave man’s voice) is, “Gronk likes.”
It took only 15 games for this kid to become a part of the Boston vernacular.
When we look back on the 2011 season, Rob Gronkowski will absolutely own it.
It was, truly, the year of the Gronk.