Think back in recent New England Patriots history. Back to a team with no pass defense to speak of. Back to a team that had trouble executing in big spots on offense. Back to a team that had no real playmakers on defense and had little to look forward to other than a cupcake schedule to close out the season.
Surely, that's the dead to rights description of this year's Patriots. Not exactly.
The team in question, rather, is last year's Patriots. The same New England team that started 5-3, got toasted by anyone and everyone lining up at the quarterback position, got bailed out by an easy schedule and came one missed catch away from a Super Bowl championship.
The story sounds familiar this year. Who's to say it can't happen again?
Of course, banking on lightning striking twice is hardly the most reliable winning formula, and this team certainly has flaws. New England still looks inept against the pass, and an inability to close out games has resulted in blown fourth quarter lead after blown fourth quarter lead.
But this team is still strongest in the most important areas. They have arguably the best quarterback in the game, their aerial attack is as explosive as it gets and few teams would claim a coaching advantage against Bill Belichick.
The drawback with this team isn't so much an inability to win the Super Bowl, as much as a need for it to go a certain way. In a shootout, the Patriots would be favored over the 31 other teams in the league. New England doesn't lose those games. Not with this quarterback and those weapons.
Furthermore, this team is better than last year's. The run defense is stout. The pass rush is better. There's even a running game. And now, with the deadline acquisition of Aqib Talib, the heretofore hopeless secondary is benefiting from a shot in the arm as well.
As for the flaws, they were with last year's team as well. And that team came close—Three plays? Two plays? One play?—to winning it all anyway.
The Patriots nearly won it all last year because they showed the same pattern they've shown nearly every year under Bill Belichick. New England always gets better. The first half of the season is frequently filled with inconsistency and growing pains, while November and December see a team groomed into a methodical machine.
Since Belichick took over the team, the Patriots are 61-27 in the first half of the season. An impressive mark, until you compare it to their 73-15 record in the second half, which includes 8-0 records the past two seasons.
Flaws are nothing unusual with the Patriots. An inability to recognize them, cover them up and learn to win regardless of them is.
The Patriots are far from a perfect team; they've looked mediocre too often already. But they'll get better, they'll improve across the board and—come crunch time—they'll be playing their best football.
It was nearly enough last year. We'll see if it's good enough this time.