How the New England Patriots Are Winning More Impressively Than Ever
No, I'm not crazy. Yes, we're all spoiled.
Everyone's favorite head coach-quarterback combination has put together some doozies. Remember the original Brady season of 2001? Think back and remember the surprise of this late-round pudgy kid from Michigan coming in and Wally Pipping Drew Bledsoe.
As crazy as that was, it paled in comparison to the Super Bowl he won.
How about the 2007 season? Brady—firmly entrenched as one of the NFL's best—set all sorts of passing records with receivers like Randy Moss and Wes Welker in tow. The team also won all 16 regular season games, falling just short of a Super Bowl championship.
It seems absurd right now, but 2013 is going to be the Patriots' best act yet. It's impossible to see in the moment, but take a step back and look at the wider context of the current season, and it begins to make a lot more sense.
Adversity Builds Character
When's the last time a Super Bowl team—or, really, any successful team—skated through a season without any adversity. It just doesn't happen. Last year's Baltimore Ravens fired their offensive coordinator midseason. The year before that, the New York Giants started 0-3 before winning Super Bowl XLVI. In 2010, the eventual Super Bowl-champion Green Bay Packers had a number of key players on injured reserve, including their starting running back and tight end.
There's just no such thing as a perfect team. So, we have to respect the teams that deal with their imperfections best.
The Patriots' adversity started with the injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski. Way back in June, Gronkowksi underwent back surgery and was expected to go on the physically unable to perform list. He didn't go on the PUP list, but anything less than a clean bill of health was pegged by fans and the media as Gronkowski's fault (or, more specifically, his party lifestyle).
How Many Games Will the Patriots Lose in 2013
Losing the game's best tight end wasn't the biggest offseason adversity, however, as the Patriots also lost tight end/H-back Aaron Hernandez to murder charges. Hernandez was a singular player—especially in the Patriots offense—and is almost impossible to completely replace.
Wide receiver Wes Welker is off playing in Denver. Running back Shane Vereen is on short-term IR with a wrist injury. Receiver Brandon Lloyd is done with football. New addition Danny Amendola is sitting out with an injury and may be coming back in Week 5.
This is a whole new offense with Brady at the helm—at least it's looked like that through the first couple weeks of the season, as receivers like Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins have been unable to manufacture the kind of chemistry that Welker once had with Brady. Tight end Zach Sudfeld was a preseason darling, but he hasn't extended that fine play into the games that matter.
Yet, as we sit and clutch our pearls concerning the death of the Patriots, they're 4-0. They just dropped 30 on the Atlanta Falcons. That number represents not only the best offensive output for the Patriots but also the most points scored on the Falcons this season.
Gronkowski is coming back. Amendola is coming back. Vereen is coming back. Hernandez is...well, no. He's probably going away for a long time.
Long story short, however, this is a Patriots team that doesn't need to be 4-0. It has every excuse in the world to be 2-2 or 1-3. They could tell themselves (and many of us would agree) that a mediocre start was acceptable under the circumstances.
After all, it's how you finish. Right?
Instead, this team is 4-0, and the insane narrative around them is that they're not 4-0 impressively enough.
With Amendola and company on the sidelines, it made sense to a lot of people that the Patriots should go out and grab some veteran receiving help. Heck, it made sense to Brady, who reportedly started texting former teammates and seeing if they'd come back.
In reality, though, it never made any sense.
With all those players out but returning, why waste such a golden opportunity to begin phasing in Dobson, Thompkins and Sudfeld? Why not see what the Patriots have (or don't have) in their rookie receiving crop?
In Week 2, against the New York Jets, Dobson dropped almost everything thrown his way. It became the refrain of the Patriots' young season. How could Brady possibly depend on this ragtag crew?
Funny how no one mentions that the very next week when Dobson catches seven passes on 10 targets for 52 yards. Against the Falcons, Dobson had only one catch on three targets, but it was hardly the embarrassing effort of Week 2. His teammate, Thompkins, has three touchdown catches in the past two weeks—not exactly a terrible performance.
Remember when everyone was panicking over Kenbrell Thompkins? Well, kid has grown up quickly. Brady showed confidence in him post-drop.— Brad Evans (@YahooNoise) September 30, 2013
Yet, no matter how well these receivers do, the general populace can't help but cast a side-eye toward Denver and wonder what would happen if Welker were still in New England.
Look, no one is trying to compare Dobson or Thompkins to Welker. It's entirely possible that when Amendola and Gronkowski come back, Edelman slides into the No. 3 role, and Dobson and Thompkins drop back in the rotation. It's not as if they're going to be cut, though. Eventually, these young men will be called upon again, and this four-game stretch to open 2013 proved that Brady could win games with them—even if not as easily as with Welker, Moss and company.
This stretch also showed that the defense could hold its own. Yes, the offense has always been the biggest story with the Patriots, and that's alright, but the defense has added a lot of nice talent in the past couple of seasons.
Going into Week 4, this was a top-10 Patriots defense. Cornerback Aqib Talib is separating himself as one of the best cover corners in the league. Young players like linebacker Jerod Mayo and defensive end Chandler Jones are stepping up in big ways. It's easy to write off the defense as "the other side of the ball" in New England, but do so at your own peril.
Aqib Talib was awesome tonight -- and will make for a fascinating contract decision for the Patriots, in the wake of the Hernandez affair.— Albert Breer (@AlbertBreer) September 30, 2013
This might be Brady's team for the foreseeable future, but he's gotten more help from his defense in 2013 than he's had in years.
The Patriots haven't been at full strength yet this season, but they're still 4-0 and are showing that they can win in new and varied ways that they haven't in the past. This isn't a one-trick pony. In fact, this old dog is learning new tricks every single week.
Will the Patriots Stand the Test of Time?
Am I anointing the Patriots? In a way, I already have. Along with the rest of the B/R experts, I made my Super Bowl picks before the season and took the Patriots out of the AFC. I remain as confident in that pick (if not more so) today than I was a month ago.
Is it going to be easy? Certainly not. The Patriots aren't the best team in the NFL right now. That honor belongs to the Denver Broncos, and the Seattle Seahawks are a close second. It's almost farcical that our standards for the Patriots are so high that they're 4-0 and we still have to ask what's wrong with them.
It's a long road between now and Super Bowl aspirations, but what the Patriots have done this season shouldn't concern us as much as it should impress us. This is a more complete Patriots team than we've seen recently, and they're finding ways to win in adversity. That's as impressive as anything in the NFL.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.
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