It all comes down to 2012...
The New England Patriots, under tutelage of head coach Bill Belichick, have knotted together quite an impressive resume. In twelve seasons, the team has amassed an astounding 134 wins, and has failed to reach ten wins in a season only once in that span (2002). Included in this collection of victories is an undefeated 2007 season, three 14-win seasons (including two such seasons back-to-back, both of which resulted in championships), 11 division championships, four trips to the Super Bowl, and three Super Bowl victories. Belichick has seen a team change radically over the past decade, has seen stars come and go, and come again, and still has maintained its winning spirit, steadfast confidence, stoic reservation, and persistent yet flexible strategy.
And yet, the dynasty is showing some holes.
The franchise has not won a Super Bowl since 2004, and has only made a single appearance otherwise (a devastating defeat following the undefeated regular season of 2007). The last three playoff games the team has participated in have resulted in painful losses, and a showing that analysts have consistently remarked as subpar, even with regards to its all-star quarterback and franchise player, Tom Brady. And this year, despite going 13-3 and winning their way into the AFC Championship, the team has endured a crumbling of the usually impregnable Belichick-infused defense, having allowed the second-most yards per game in the league (411).
In light of this defensive failing, the Pats' success in 2011 can be rested solely upon the shoulders of the team's perennially stellar lead, who had what would have been a career year for almost any other quarterback in the league. Throwing for a record-breaking 5,235 yards (a mark that would have toppled the all-time single-season record had Drew Brees not already done so, and then some) and an impressive 39 touchdowns (the second-most in his long, illustrious career), Brady showcased some of the same late-game heroics that earned the Patriots three championship victories in four years from 2001-2004. In the most recent battle last Saturday, Brady burst forth a performance that will rattle in the annals of NFL playoff history for some time, gathering six passing touchdowns and 363 passing yards in a rout of the Denver Broncos.
For the Patriots to solidify their position in the lore of NFL history, they will need to rally behind their superstar leader and take home another Super Bowl championship in 2012. Despite their inter-divisional dominance in the past six years since their last Super Bowl victory, they will need to demonstrate their ability to win when it matters most if they are to secure their legendary status. For a cross sport comparison, this franchise surely wants to go down in history as the football equivalent of the Yankees, and not the Braves.
In the quest of their dynastic status, the Patriots will face their toughest opponent yet in the form of the Baltimore Ravens. Finishing the regular season a healthy 12-4, the Ravens have a defense that is statistically much better (an important reality, as the Patriots often rely on a prolific offense to secure victory) and a rushing offense that is more capable and versatile. If the Patriots are to be sent to Indiana for a shot at the national title, their defense will need to be very impressive, showing the same mettle that allowed the squad to completely dominate Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.
If the team can keep themselves focused and continue to play exceptionally for three more weeks and hoist the Lombardi trophy one more time for the fourth time in twelve years, Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots franchise will have proven that they are the Yankees of football—the team at the very top!
Excitement abounds in New England today, as Sunday looms large...