Man! These New England Patriots are terrible!
How are they even supposed to move the ball without receivers like Wes Welker or their star tandem of tight ends—Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez? Can the Patriots possibly survive without a star cast around quarterback Tom Brady? We might as well slot them next to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the "rebuilding pile" and forget about them.
Wait, what? The Patriots are going to the AFC Championship for what feels like the umpteenth time in the past decade? You mean they didn't actually fall off the cliff in any meaningful way? They just dropped a 40-burger in a playoff game and finished the regular season with a top-10 offense in both rushing and passing?
No, not crazy. This is just what we should have all come to expect from the Bill Belichick-led Patriots by now—especially with Brady at the helm. It's never been about how they scored points or moved the ball down the field, (as if the Patriots were tied to some offensive orthodoxy). No, the Patriots have always done whatever it took, dependent on their personnel and what they were headed up against.
In a perfect world, would it be great if Gronkowski were 100 percent healthy all year long? Duh. Continuing with the hypotheticals, if Welker and Randy Moss had never aged past the year of 2007, the pass game would be pretty epic. Heck, let's just throw stalwarts like Troy Brown, Kevin Faulk and Joe Andruzzi in the mix and really dream big.
Or, instead, we can accept these Patriots for who they are and realize that they're in the AFC Championship for a reason. If we stopped expecting these Patriots to set epic passing records, perhaps it would be easier to accept that this squad is one of the most well-rounded teams in the league and a legitimate contender for the Super Bowl.
It Starts Up Front
When there's balance on offense, it's always wise to look toward the offensive line.
If a team can win consistently in the trenches, there's very little they can't do. It allows coaches to find advantageous matchups elsewhere on the field—whether that's on the perimeter in the passing game or by attacking the second level with the run game. Without that kind of dominance in the trenches, a coach has to either hope for fantastic mismatches by top performers or engineer yardage in other ways.
Two of the top players—at any position—for the Patriots this season have been left tackle Nate Solder and offensive guard Logan Mankins. The right tackle position (first Sebastian Vollmer, then Marcus Cannon) has been solid as well, giving Brady a mostly clean pocket to work with.
Perhaps most importantly, the power blocking in the run game has been amazing. Right guard Dan Connolly can be a liability at times in the passing game, but his power in-line blocking has opened up plenty of holes for Patriots running backs this season.
Once upon a time, as Brady started to find success in the NFL, detractors would point to that fantastic line in front of him as a driving reason for his stellar play. While no one can doubt it was a factor, Brady has proven those doubters wrong time and again, even while the Patriots have restocked their offensive line as well as any team out there—in terms of both quality and depth.
A good amount of credit should go to Dante Scarnecchia, the Patriots assistant head coach and offensive line guru. He's been in the NFL for 32 years and has, quite literally, seen it all. After maybe only former Denver Broncos coach Alex Gibbs, Scarnecchia is the most revered line coach of our era.
Brady Can Win With Anyone
Try to remember back to Brady's first Super Bowl. He won that game with Troy Brown and David Patten at wide receiver. Jermaine Wiggins was at tight end. Antowain Smith (remember him?) was at running back.
If you've identified those players as the sort of talent that Brady is rolling with right now, you win the prize.
So, it's not that Brady can turn any offensive skill group into his own version of the current Denver Broncos. Instead, we should be talking about how Brady doesn't necessarily need to put up 5,000 passing yards to win football games.
Heading into this season, critics were waiting for Brady to fall flat on his face with rookie receivers Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins. For the most part, Brady fell right in line, as he struggled to integrate the new players into a complicated and timing-based system. He got frustrated. Football fans giggled with glee as they rushed to pat each other on the back.
Writing off Belichick and Brady only gives them the fuel to prove doubters wrong. Belichick has crafted offensive game plans around lesser players than Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman in the past and he'll do so in the future.
That obscures the fact that Brady has plenty of talent this year. The running back corps of Stevan Ridley, LeGarrette Blount, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are like a Swiss Army knife to a coach like Belichick. Those receivers we talked about may not be superstars, but they can get first downs and move the chains after the catch.
This whole system doesn't work, however, without the aforementioned offensive line talent, and it doesn't work without Brady as the trigger man. His ability to read defenses, roll with whatever offensive scheme his coaches dream up and break down opponents systematically allows the Patriots to do whatever they want.
It's fine if you don't want to believe that Brady's been just about as good as he's ever been this season, or somehow have convinced yourself that he doesn't deserve your respect for what he's done with inferior talent. Just don't be surprised when the Patriots end up right where they're used to—representing the AFC and playing in the Super Bowl.