Make no mistake. The New England Patriots in 2009 are stacking up to be a playoff team.
At the conclusion of Week 14, they stand atop the AFC East with an 8-5 record. That leaves them with a one game cushion on both the 7-6 Miami Dolphins and the 7-6 New York Jets. With next week's game at Buffalo, and the following week at home against an up-and-down Jacksonville team, New England will likely continue to play once the regular season comes to an end.
It shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Statistically, the Pats appear solid. They are second in the AFC in point differential, having scored 114 more points than they have allowed. With a healthy Tom Brady at the helm, their offense is second in the league in yards and second in passing. They have even posted a 7-0 record at home.
Yet the football gods don't seem to favor the Patriots this season. Many pundits would claim they are overrated. In the AFC, the stories that don't revolve around the 13-0 Colts instead focus on the surprising Bengals or Broncos.
No one at this point in the season would dare to pick the Patriots as the AFC's representative in the Super Bowl. Why? What are they lacking this season that they haven't had in seasons past?
Has Belichick's label of "genius" finally worn off? Has Brady's decision making faltered? Is inner turmoil of the locker room spilling out onto the field? Is the Patriots former "team" mentality falling apart, despite a winning record?
Or are the Patriots not as fearsome as they were in seasons past because they are no longer video taping their opponents signals?
While it seems longer than just two seasons ago that the tales of Spygate upset the Patriots apple cart and may have derailed their perfect season, it is a forgotten fact that the Patriots and Belichick were more than guilty of doing exactly what the NFL helped them downplay: they had been illegally video taping their opponents' coaching signals, likely using this information to better call their own plays and audibles.
To put it bluntly, they were cheating.
This activity had been more than the one-time incident against the Jets that made headlines early in 2007. It dated back to Belichick's arrival in New England, including their first Super Bowl win in 2001 against the St. Louis Rams.
Belichick was guilty as charged, and begrudgingly admitted it on 60 Minutes. The NFL handed down the largest coach and team fine in league history because of the crime, yet the repercussions—what the activity meant in terms of wins, losses, and even championships—were ignored by both the league and much of the media.
Once the Patriots lost the the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII, all was forgiven, and quickly forgotten.
What aided in erasing that memory was Tom Brady's season-ending injury in 2008. No one could blame the Patriots failure to make the playoffs last year on anything but the absence of Brady. Video taping? What video taping? The team's MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback was gone. How can someone even think about the video taping considering that situation?
Now, deep into the 2009 season, the Patriots aren't as scary as they once had been. They may make the playoffs, but the team appears on a downward slide. Talk is the dynasty is over. Rebuilding is imminent.
Could it be that the key to the Patriots' success for the past eight years was really tied to the video taping habits of Bill Belichick? And now, stripped of that, could the talent level of the Patriots propel the team only so far?
Far enough to be a winning team, but not enough to make them true contenders to the crown?
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