With the New England Patriots set to take on the Houston Texans in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs this Sunday, now is as good of a time as any to look back at some the moments that defined the 2012 Patriots.
We saw a defense, while successful at forcing turnovers all season, struggle in the first half of the season, but turned it around drastically in the second half, with help from newcomer cornerback Aqib Talib.
We saw an offense that was reminiscent of the Patriots' record-setting team of the 2007, blowing out opponents week after week. Unlike the 2007 squad, however, the 2012 Patriots had an explosive rushing attack to add to their lethal passing attack.
This slideshow will take a closer look at six key moments that defined this season's New England Patriots.
When the Patriots traded up twice in the first round of last April's draft to grab Chandler Jones and Dont'a Hightower, it was a dream come true for Patriots fans.
But if there were any folks doubting that these moves would pay off, their doubt quickly escaped them after the Patriots' Week 1 demolition of the Tennessee Titans.
Early in the second quarter, on 3rd-and-very long, the Titans were backed up near their own end zone. Jones sped around Jake Locker's blindside and delivered an almighty strip-sack.
Hightower was right there to finish the job as he quickly yoinked the ball off the ground and drove it home into the end zone for six points.
Rookie safety Tavon Wilson even got in on the action with a interception.
The rookies showed in Week 1 that they were ready to help immediately.
The Patriots rushing talents were truly on display in Week 4 when the Patriots rushed for nearly 250 yards.
Both Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden rushed for over 100 yards apiece on their way to a 52-28 trouncing of the Buffalo Bills.
It didn't take long for people to realize that the 2012 Patriots were a different team on offense.
They could run the ball with the best of them.
We knew that New England's defense had been developing a knack for forcing turnovers in pivotal moments up until this point, but the fourth quarter of the Week 5 matchup against the Denver Broncos really drove the point home.
Late in the game, the Broncos had a chance to cut the Patriots' lead down to just a field goal.
However, on a handoff, Mike Vrabel—I mean Rob Ninkovich—hammered Willis McGahee and forced the ball out of his grasp, while simultaneously sucking any hope of a comeback win out of the Broncos collective souls.
Long live the Turnover Kings!
During their bye week, the Patriots decided to do something to help out their struggling secondary.
Well, it worked.
Not only did Talib upgrade the left cornerback spot, but his presence also allowed Devin McCourty to move to safety—where he's looked like a stud.
Joe Soriano of MusketFire.com recently recognized McCourty as an elite safety, writing:
At safety, McCourty’s opposing QB Rating pummels all the way down to 10.2 (!). No, that’s not a typo either. 10.2...That is a ridiculous number, and it is even more incredible when you look at the fact that McCourty leads the team with five interceptions and 13 passes defended. To be able to play shutdown coverage like that and also show enough ball skills to get to five picks is truly remarkable...think it is safe to say that McCourty is at least a top ten safety in this league and on his way to joining that elite discussion soon.
Since the Talib acquisition, the Patriots defense has been playing much better. They've drastically cut down on allowing big passing plays and the coaching staff is more frequent in calling blitzes because they trust their coverage more.
For most of the season, the Texans were coined as "the best team in the NFL."
That changed when the Patriots embarrassed them on national television in a 42-14 beatdown.
Listen, the Texans didn't have their best game, but the Patriots made a good offense look bad and a great defense look even worse.
The Patriots reminded the nation that they are still the AFC's finest.
With the Texans losing to the Colts earlier in the day, the Patriots knew beating the Dolphins in the last contest of the season would earn them a much-needed first-round bye for their beat-up football team.
It truly speaks to the team's determination that even without starters like Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard playing on defense and offensive guys like Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Logan Mankins playing with injuries, they could still shutout their division foes.
The Patriots, knowing what was at stake, came to play and didn't allow the Fins to score in the process.
That is some sweet momentum heading into the playoffs.