Sixteen wins. Just a couple of seasons ago, that very feat, which once seemed impossible, became a reality. There would be no corks popping in South Florida, and Mercury Morris, Nick Buoniconti and the bunch would fade silently into the night… or so we thought.
The cherry on top, the predetermined destiny that was written on every touchdown pass from Brady to Moss, the inevitable crowning of the greatest team of all time, simply never happened.
The mighty Patriots had fallen to a scrappy Giants squad that had stumbled backwards into the playoffs. The coronation that had once been a certainty was now but a footnote in NFL history. Close, but no cigar.
Yet, even with the crushing defeat still fresh in the collective mind of Patriot fans across New England, there was still hope.
The Giants had used their agile and aggressive defensive front to torment Tom Brady, which was by no means a new tactic, but simply put, Tom Coughlin had the personnel to take the game plan from the clipboard to the field.
Surely, the Patriots brain trust, behind their steel curtain of secrecy would hatch a scheme in the offseason to make certain history would not repeat itself, right? Enter Bernard Pollard, Matt Cassel and a slew of injuries on an already suspect defense.
The attempt to prove that 16-0 was no fluke turned into little more than a pat on the back. A nice effort, and perhaps Bill Belichick’s greatest coaching job throughout his tenure in Foxborough, but a disappointment nonetheless.
So here we sit, rapidly approaching training camp, with a roster starting to take shape.
The Las Vegas odds makers have already placed the Patriots at the top of the board, preseason “power rankings” are hitting the presses, and after the long pause of the ’08-’09 season which was for all intensive purposes a consolation prize the moment Brady hit the synthetic turf, Patriots fans are left to wonder exactly which team is going to show up in Foxborough this season.
As a Patriots fan, the difficulty in predicting the squad’s fate lies in the fact that the previous two seasons have simply put everything out of context. Nobody would have ever had the stones to predict an undefeated regular season, but we now know it is possible…albeit unlikely, but possible.
At the same time, last year was not the “real” Patriots we were seeing, and while we can take solace in the anticipation of a healthy Tom Brady returning, we were exposed to the reality of a defense that looked old, slow, and undermanned. So in making a prediction for regular success, and any pursuant playoff runs, where does this leave us?
For starters, let’s fire up the old time machine, and travel back to just a few seasons ago. Even in the Patriots most grandiose of years: 2001, 2003, and 2004, would any of us have ever even conceived the notion of a 16 win regular season? Be honest… the answer is simply, “No.”
Now, I know this isn’t easy, especially considering that an 11-5 mark left the Pats on the outside looking in last season, but trust me, there was a time when 11-5, or even 10-6 would have been considered a good campaign, and a lock for a playoff spot…and maybe even an AFC East title.
Look at the regular season records of the three aforementioned Super Bowl champs: 11-5, 14-2, and 14-2. Oh, and let’s not forget the lowly Giants, who finished the regular season with a 10-6 mark prior to slaying Goliath with a solid defense and Peyton’s little brother at quarterback.
Under the current regime of Bill Belichick, Ernie Adams, Robert Kraft, and their minions, our naïveté and innocence has been stripped. For better or worse, there is only one measure of success—a Super Bowl victory.
So let’s just throw the dream of another undefeated season out the window. Not only is it unrealistic, but in the grand scheme of things, it simply does not matter. Every team “lays an egg” or two, and a singular spotless regular season record is the exception to the rule.
Getting down to brass tacks, is it unrealistic to think that the 2009 Patriots might not face a stiff test in the week four matchup with the Ravens, the mid November duel with the Colts, or even a home game against the Falcons or Titans?
Again, go back to the theory that every team “lays an egg” from time to time. You know the feeling—you crack open a beer, find a comfy spot on the couch, and form the outset, something just feels out of sync. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but you know it’s there.
The past two seasons, whether it be the 16-0 year when after the first few weeks every game was a foregone conclusion, or last season when every game was a test without Brady at the helm, might have made that feeling a little distant. Rest assured, you’ll quickly remember it when it happens again—and it will.
So let’s just throw 16-0 out the window, shall we?
While a healthy Tom Brady might very well mean we see glimpses of that prolific and perhaps arrogant offense that we now know covered up the holes in a less than Lombardi-esque defense, remember that Tom Terrific isn’t yet healthy, and Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Kevin Faulk, and the entire offensive line are now a couple of years older.
The emergence of Jerod Mayo, the stable front three on defense (at least for this season), and the additions of Shawn Springs, Leigh Bodden, and a handful of recent draft picks in the defensive backfield who have shown promise appear on the surface to have improved the defense still leave a lot of question marks.
Alas, let’s not forget that the young guys and new additions haven’t yet proved they can deliver when it matters, and oh yeah, there is also the glaring hole left by the departure of Mike Vrabel and Ellis Hobbs.
While we might hope that the combination of Bodden, Springs, and a sprinkling of Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley might produce better results that the duo of Hobbs and Deltha O’Neal, it’s still just an assumption.
At the same time, Pats fans must keep their fingers crossed that some sort of rotation with Tully Banta-Cain, and a healthy (yet unproven) Shawn Crable can make up for the loss of Mike Vrabel playing opposite Adalius Thomas. Those are pretty bit “ifs”…
All that being said, what are the prospects for the 2009 Patriots? Well, frankly, it all comes down to the aforementioned “ifs.” IF Tom Brady can stay healthy and utilize Randy Moss and Wes Welker to their full potential.
IF Dante Scarnechia can get the offensive line back into the form they showed in early 2007. IF the RB-by-committee continues to work with the addition of Fred Taylor and perhaps a healthy Laurence Maroney.
And perhaps the biggest “IF” of all—IF the defense cannot only make plays when teams are forced into a passing attack, but IF they can put pressure on an opposing offense even in tight games—even with all of the new faces.
Looking at the bottom line, one would have to believe that the odds makers in Las Vegas know what they are talking about. Chances are, lots of those “Ifs” go in favor of the Patriots.
Realistically, if the cards fall the right way, a 12-4 season or better is a strong possibility, even considering the real chance that the Patriots simply come out flat in a game or two.
With the Bills (despite the addition of T.O) finishing poorly the past few seasons, the Jets potentially starting a rookie QB in Mark Sanchez, and a Dolphins squad that achieved success thanks to play calling and overall health rather than talent last season, the Patriots clearly are the class of the AFC East so long as they remain healthy.
Any success beyond that will require a prolific offense (which seems likely), but more importantly, a solid defense (which isn’t exactly a given fact).
Under the current circumstances, the expectations—reasonable or not—are simply Super Bowl victory, or bust. While I do not expect a pristine regular season, history has shown that simply does not matter.
Thus, I believe that a Patriots team consisting of an offense finding its legs once again and a defense trying to find an identity will finish with a solid, yet unspectacular mark. Perhaps 12-4 or 13-3 (the losses being a combination of simply being outplayed in a game or two, as well as laying the proverbial egg in at least one other contest).
If the question marks, particularly on defense, become exclamation points as the season and playoffs move on, however, I would have to concur with our friends in Las Vegas.
With the brilliant coaching of Bill Belichick, along with the potential provided by the recent crop of drat picks and free agents, the ’72 Dolphins may still be able to pop their corks at the end of December, but it will be the Patriots who will be yelling “Cheers!” come February.