Barring catastrophic injuries, the 2013 New England Patriots are all but a lock for double-digit wins (having done so for 10 straight seasons), another AFC East title, at least one home game in the postseason and one of the favorites to win Super Bowl XLVIII.
They will probably set some more offensive records along the way, seeing as how the Patriots have had four seasons where they scored at least 500 points since 2007, including three straight.
While most teams would kill for this type of success, the Patriots are probably a bit bored or even angry with themselves, because the end result continues to be hollow: a bad loss in the playoffs to a team they were favored to beat.
That has been the story in five of the last six seasons; a period in which the Patriots have gone 76-20 (.792) in the regular season. That gives the 2007-12 Patriots a tie for the greatest six-year stretch in NFL history without winning a championship.
The run they tied belongs to the 2006-11 Patriots, which started with a blown 18-point lead in the AFC Championship to the 2006 Colts. So this has been going on for more than just six years as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady seek that elusive fourth championship.
Though bearing almost no resemblance to their Super Bowl years, these Patriots have seen what it takes to be “Super” given the fact they have played all 12 teams that reached the Super Bowl since 2006 (excluding themselves twice, obviously).
In those games the Patriots are 5-11, including 0-5 in the last two seasons. Against the eventual Super Bowl champion, the Patriots are just 2-9, and one of the wins was a fourth-quarter comeback at home against the 2010 Packers in Matt Flynn’s first career start.
Expectations are always high in New England, and many of them are met each year. But there is virtually nothing this team can do in the regular season to prove they will succeed in the playoffs all the way through to a Super Bowl.
So how does New England get over the hump and finish this season with a ring?
What the Patriots have to work with
It is not quite March yet and you can practically predict the 2013 Patriots’ season right now with good accuracy.
They will be tested greatly at home by Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, pushed at least once by their AFC East rivals, while road games in Baltimore, Atlanta and maybe even Houston will be no picnics.
Drew Brees and the Saints will offer a marquee quarterback matchup, but in Foxboro the Saints’ defense will be no match for Brady’s offense. The game against Pittsburgh might be in prime time, but the Patriots often win that matchup, and especially win at home.
Add it all up and you can already see the dozen or so wins the Patriots will accumulate in the regular season, likely giving them a decent seed in the AFC playoffs. Not that seeds mean anything these days.
Most teams do not have enough talent to match up well with the Patriots, who, outside of the Packers may have the scariest A-game in the league. No team capitalizes on mistakes better, which is why you see such blowout wins over the Colts (59-24) and Jets (49-19) last year.
But even without any butt-fumbles, you have a game like Week 14’s 42-14 thrashing of the Houston Texans in prime time. It was another statement game that solidified the Patriots as the class of the AFC, and perhaps even the league.
Still, the Patriots have Brady, who at age 36 this season will continue to be the focal point of this record-setting offense. The offensive line, no matter the pieces, always seems to turn in a strong season.
Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combine for the best duo of tight ends in the league, though Gronkowski, the best in the league at his position, must stay healthy or at least be healthy at season’s end when they need him most. That has not been the case the last two years.
Following Gronkowski’s initial injury against the Colts, Brady finished the final eight games of the season (including playoffs) by completing 58.9 percent of his passes with 17 touchdowns, seven interceptions and a 90.3 passer rating. Those are just solid numbers, but well off the early pace (21 touchdowns, three interceptions and 102.5 rating) when Gronkowski was available as a dominant player.
Saving the wide receivers for later, as they really are secondary to the tight ends in this offense, the running game continues to work well for the Patriots. In 2012 the team had 492 handoffs for 2,161 yards (4.39 yards per carry). That is the most rushing yards for a New England offense in the Brady era.
The Patriots have averaged at least 4.24 yards per carry with their rushing attack in seven straight seasons (2006-12), which again speaks to the job they do up front and the ability to identify talent at running back without having to pay the position much money.
You know the offense will be elite; the special teams are usually fundamentally sound, which just leaves Belichick’s ongoing process with the defense.
Though often the weak link of the team since the change to an offensive philosophy in 2007, the defense does at least continue to produce takeaways at an elite level. The NFL is becoming a league that is more about key stops and big plays (as turnovers often are) than it is playing “shutdown defense.”
The Patriots had 41 takeaways last season to help create a league-best turnover differential of plus-25. That helped produce a league-best scoring differential of 226 points, so this was the closest thing, statistically, to a “dominant team” in 2012.
Many of the key pieces that produced those results will be back this year, so the Patriots will probably have another stellar regular season.
The problems New England continues to have in the playoffs
This is still the week of the Oscars, so let’s just say that the Patriots are the NFL’s version of The Crying Game.
Things may look fine on the surface. But once you get a closer look and the situation gets hot and heavy, out comes the flaws the Patriots can no longer hide between their legs.
You give a team at least 16 games to study on tape to prepare for the Patriots, and many of those advantages the Patriots hold over most of the other teams in the league disappear against a playoff-caliber opponent.
It also helps to be a physical team who has no fear of the Patriots and their gaudy statistics. It helps to have played them in the regular season, which is exactly what all seven of the teams who have ended New England’s season since 2005 did.
The drop in points per drive (Pts/Dr) from the regular season to the playoffs for the New England offense against these teams is appalling.
Note: the 2010 Jets, who split with the Patriots, had both regular-season games averaged together for points per drive.
Lately what wins championships is a month of your quarterback playing well and the defense making huge stops. Those are exactly the two things the Patriots have failed to put together during this title drought.
Due to his early career success on a defense-oriented team, few want to point out how lackluster Brady has been in the playoffs since 2005. The last time Brady put together back-to-back quality games in the same postseason was in 2004; not coincidentally, that was his last Super Bowl win.
Even if you combine postseasons, it has been seven years since Brady played well in consecutive playoff games, and that is a big problem for any team. It is an even bigger problem for a team who has increasingly become quarterback dependent.
Despite the record-setting offenses, the Patriots have scored 14 (2007), 21 (2010), 17 (2011) and 13 (2012) points in the playoff loss during their four prolific seasons. The recent 28-13 loss to Baltimore at home in the AFC Championship may have been the worst game yet.
It is mind-blowing how the Patriots are so good at piling up points against most teams, and that does include playoff competition. The 2010 Patriots were dominating the best teams in the league to end the regular season, yet were sitting on 11 points at home to the Jets, a team they beat 45-3, at the two-minute warning that day.
While there are clear talent and scheme issues, it is interesting how they do not tend to show up as much in the regular season.
These defenses can challenge Brady with different looks, but he cannot successfully challenge them with different looks in the form of vertical throws, making the Patriots essentially a dink-and-dunk offense.
In his last six playoff losses, Brady has completed 158 of his 264 passes, but has just two completions of more than 30 yards. Even Minnesota’s Joe Webb did that in his one playoff loss this past season in Green Bay.
This has always been a flaw in Brady’s game, regular season or playoff, but it was once possible for him to win 17-14 games in the playoffs because of the defense. That no longer exists.
While the offense historically fails to hold up their end of the bargain, the defense continues to be duped by a group of quarterbacks that are less than Hall of Fame caliber: Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez and Eli Manning.
In their last six playoff losses, the Patriots have just four takeaways combined.
One of those was on a pass dropped by New York’s Steve Smith in Super Bowl XLII. Another was on a muffed punt by Tom Zbikowski in the 2009 Wild Card game, in which John Harbaugh failed to challenge or else the Ravens would have maintained possession.
So the number four is actually very fortunate. It could easily be two.
The defense does not get takeaways, and they do not get the key stops that were once expected from New England’s veteran defense, led by the likes of Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest, Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Richard Seymour, Asante Samuel, Mike Vrabel, etc.
Three game-winning drives with the winning points scored in the final minute by the Manning brothers have sunk the Patriots in their three closest opportunities to a Super Bowl win.
Other times it has been Sanchez (2010) and Flacco (2012) leading touchdown drives early in the fourth quarter to establish a two-score lead.
The old Patriots would have stopped those drives and given Brady a chance with a smaller deficit to win the game late, perhaps by an Adam Vinatieri field goal.
But that era is long gone, and the Patriots continue to field an offense and defense that do not finish under pressure, which was the trademark of the teams Belichick and Brady built their success upon.
Patriots must buck trends and fill holes
If the Patriots are the NFL’s Crying Game, then they need an operation to remove what ails them.
That means the Patriots need more impact and more playmakers. Brady just completed a widely-publicized restructuring of his contract which is not the kind of “hero move” some in the media glorify it to be.
What it does is open up some cap space in the present, and a team like the Patriots are all about the present, as this year Brady turns 36 and Belichick turns 61. They are probably down to a handful of opportunities at most in their careers.
But having some cash to spend in free agency means nothing if you do not get the right players.
Likewise all those draft picks Belichick famously stockpiles really mean nothing if he is not picking good players, and the Patriots have had their share of bad draft selections over the years. While finding some quality players in the draft is always important, the Patriots are looking for a more immediate impact, which means a free agent or two.
However, the track record of free-agent success has been very suspect for the Patriots in the last five years.
After trading the versatile Richard Seymour to Oakland in 2009, the Patriots have tried a variety of veteran defensive linemen such as Derrick Burgess, Gerard Warren and Shaun Ellis, getting minimal impact in the process. They even stooped to the level of Albert Haynesworth, but it was another former Redskin, Andre Carter, who had a solid 2011 season. But with Carter’s injury and age, it was another one-and-done experiment.
Guard Brian Waters was another one-and-done project in 2011, but he played well for the Patriots.
Belichick’s tight end factory has tinkered with Alge Crumpler, Alex Smith, Daniel Fells and Chris Baker (among many others), but the 2010 draft duo of Gronkowski and Hernandez still makes up most of the production here.
Where the Patriots need help the most are the positions they continue to struggle at filling: wide receiver and defensive back.
After bombing with a free-agent signing like Reche Caldwell or a high draft pick like Chad Jackson, New England really loaded up the skill players in 2007 with Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte Stallworth. It of course worked beautifully that year, but things deteriorated and the offense has become skewed heavily to a slot receiver and the tight ends.
In 2009 the Patriots signed old veterans Joey Galloway and Fred Taylor, which did not register an impact on the offense.
The Patriots have tried just about everything at wide receiver, coming up empty on Greg Lewis, David Patten (a second stint), Torry Holt, and perhaps most infamously with Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson for the 2011 season. Deion Branch played well in his return in 2010, but at this stage it is probably best to move on for good there.
Matt Slater was a fifth-round pick in 2008, but has been limited to mostly special teams. Brandon Tate (2009) and Taylor Price (2010) were third-round picks at wide receiver that did little to nothing in New England.
While some say the offense is so hard to learn for a receiver, that did not stop all the new pieces in 2007 from having immediate success.
Some people also thought Brandon Lloyd would explode in the offense due to his familiarity with Josh McDaniels’ system, but his impact was only fair as he is not a great fit for the controlled timing game the Patriots use. Lloyd is a highlight-reel freak, and those are not the plays you see in New England.
Lloyd had a career-low (minimum 10 catches) 12.3 yards per catch last season, which again speaks to the dink-and-dunk nature of this passing game.
With Brady going into his 14th season, it is pretty unlikely he is going to start throwing deeper with more success. You just have to cover up a weakness.
That is why going after a free agent like Mike Wallace would be bold, as he is young and definitely a deep threat; but chances are if he went to New England, they would find a way to shorten his average depth of target and increase his yards after catch.
Brady’s favorite receivers have been slot guys and tight ends; not outside receivers like Wallace, Dwayne Bowe or Greg Jennings have been in their careers.
Maybe the Patriots shake up the draft and take a wide receiver like Keenan Allen or Cordarrelle Patterson. West Virginia’s Tavon Austin may be more of a prototypical Patriot.
Now Welker is still there catching over 100 passes every season, and some have speculated the Brady contract move is Brady’s way of saying the Patriots need to resign his friend, who is an unrestricted free agent. Welker turns 32 in May, is very durable and obviously a security blanket for Brady.
But doesn’t keeping Welker confirm the offense will be more of the same dink-and-dunk attack? Welker’s limitations and high drop count (some in crucial situations) do not help his cause.
Instead the Patriots could resign Julian Edelman, who will be 27 years old and can do much of what Welker does for a cheaper price, allowing the Patriots to explore other options.
As a converted quarterback and rookie in his first playoff game, Edelman had one of my all-time favorite plays in the 2009 AFC Wild Card game against Baltimore. On a 4th-and-7, he somehow took this ill-advised screen pass for a first down:
This play showed the ability to adjust and catch the ball, quickness, elusiveness, and grit. Sure, it was wiped out by a penalty, but that is irrelevant. For what it is worth, Edelman came right back with a 24-yard catch on 4th-and-17 to convert for the first down. He was the lone bright spot on a horrific day for the offense.
Edelman has not shown much as a receiver since that season. But as a better returner than Welker, and a younger, cheaper option, it would be very New England-like to cut bait with Welker and go forward with his replacement.
Defensive back is another position the Patriots have tried to do everything with since losing Asante Samuel following the 2007 season. Shawn Springs and Leigh Bodden were veteran signings that did not exactly work.
Brandon Meriweather, Pro Bowls be damned, was not a great first-round pick in 2007. Terrence Wheatley and Darius Butler were definitely not good picks at cornerback.
Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty and Kyle Arrington have all had their moments in New England, both good and bad. It is hard to say the Patriots are content long-term with any of them. Chung and Arrington will be free agents, so we will see how they feel.
The signing that was interesting was Aqib Talib this past season, who had some off-field issues. He was injured early in the AFC Championship Game, which was a big blow as Flacco went to the air relentlessly later, and the Patriots may want to look into resigning him.
However, Belichick has a real man-crush on Ed Reed, who may be leaving Baltimore. The long-term prospects are much better on Talib than Reed, but in a one-year push, signing Reed may not be a bad move.
But one could easily argue ball-hawking is not the problem with New England’s defense given all the takeaways. It is more about pass rush, as every secondary is connected to how good the pass rush is.
Do you sign an old veteran like Dwight Freeney, or do you jump in the bidding war for a flashy new champion like Paul Kruger from Baltimore? Neither sounds like a real solution for making the Patriots better in 2013.
So if you are a New England fan then you are hoping for a change at No. 1 receiver, a healthy Gronkowski in the playoffs, young players getting better on defense, maybe a key veteran signing, and then a few playoff opponents that are not familiar with your team.
Good luck as the Patriots will likely play the best teams in each AFC division, along with the competitive NFC South.
Again, most teams in the league would kill to be in this position, especially every year. But even the rich will get tired of having the finest caviar and champagne with every meal.
Stop teasing us with greatness, New England.
Scott Kacsmar writes for Cold, Hard Football Facts, NBC Sports, Colts Authority, and contributes data to Pro-Football-Reference.com and NFL Network. You can visit his blog for a complete writing archive, and can follow him on Twitter at @CaptainComeback.