Sure they can finally silence the critics who harp on Spygate—and New England’s lack of titles since the scandal—by winning their fourth Super Bowl. The same was true last season, and the season before that; it’s been true every season since 2007.
That’s nothing new.
The Patriots look vulnerable, particularly on offense where Brady enters the season without a single returning starter at wide receiver or tight end. Rob Gronkowski’s eventual return will inject some stability into the lineup, but for the most part, this is a complete overhaul.
Brady has dealt with roster turnover before, but never quite of this magnitude. His performance under perhaps the most demanding circumstances of his career will either keep him firmly cemented among the best players in the game today or open the door for questions about whether the 36-year old quarterback has begun his inevitable decline.
Still, that’s not why the 2013 season poses such a challenge for the Patriots.
The Patriots unwittingly found themselves mired in tragedy this offseason when former tight end Aaron Hernandez was arrested and charged with murder. Thus far, the team has done an excellent job distancing itself from the situation, but it will hover like a dark cloud throughout the year.
Moving on won’t be any easier as the season progresses either. If the Patriots make a playoff run, scrutiny will intensify and the questions will fly in as the masses demand to know how they successfully put the tragedy behind them. It would be an incredible feat and a testament to the players in that locker room to come together, in pursuit of a championship, in such a unified and single-minded way.
These are uncharted waters, and only navigating them successfully will prevent 2013 from taking on a grisly historical context. Years from now, the Hernandez incident will remain the most memorable event from this season, unless the Patriots play well enough to capture the spotlight and once again compete for a Super Bowl.
That’s still not what makes the 2013 season fundamentally unlike any in team history.
What makes this season so unique, so unprecedented in nature, is the three-pronged vice of pressure created by all three obstacles simultaneously. The Patriots have an opportunity to win in the face of tremendous adversity. Winning a fourth Super Bowl post-Spygate would validate Belichick’s career and place him in rarified air among his peers.
Ditto for Brady, who can add yet another notch to his Santa Claus-sized belt by losing virtually his entire supporting cast and staying productive. Winning, in any year, would set him apart from the rest of the league. To win his fourth title this year though, with all new talent surrounding him, would be one of the most impressive accomplishments in NFL history.
More than that, this season will define the franchise itself. In the wake of the most tumultuous offseason during Belichick’s tenure, the team’s legacy is at stake. If the Pats collapse and fade from prominence this year and in years to come, 2013 will mark the end of their lordship over the NFL landscape.
The Patriots are desperately trying to distance themselves from the blood-chilling accusations surrounding Hernandez, and that distance will grow with every win. Reminders will surface as the year goes on, especially under the microscope of the NFL playoffs— if the Patriots make it there—but through solidarity and focus they have an opportunity to assert their mental toughness in a major way.
To answer the challenges at hand while uniformly moving forward as an organization and turning a deaf ear to the outside noise would reaffirm New England’s bulletproof status.
In doing so, they would put several other doubts to rest along the way. Brady and Belichick can end any debate about who the best quarterback and coach in the game are. Belichick can enter the discussion for the best coach ever by steering his ship through the perfect storm.
Brady, on the other hand, can effectively end the all-time quarterback conversation by winning his fourth Super Bowl in his sixth appearance, and doing it with a completely retooled offense.
If successful, the Patriots will prove the Teflon surrounding the organization is as strong as ever. The NFL will keep throwing New England its best shot, and the pulp will keep sliding off. If not, chinks in the armor will show, whatever Patriot mystique is left will fade and fans nationwide will revel in the failures of a once proud team brought low.
The last time the Patriots had a chance to truly define their legacy, they fell just short in Super Bowl XLVI. They can more than make up for it this year.
By facing all these challenges in one season, the Patriots enter the most adverse campaign of the Brady-Belichick era. In one swoop they can finally move beyond Spygate, the 18-1 season and the sting of losing two Super Bowls. They can truly put Hernandez in their rear view. They can wipe the slate clean.
Never before have a player, coach and organization as a whole teetered on a precipice so narrow as the one on which Brady, Belichick and the Patriots currently balance. They have the opportunity to exorcise a decade's worth of demons or lose their footing and plummet, joining those demons in the abyss below.
How they cross this narrow span of time will ultimately determine their legacy, not just as individuals, but as a franchise.