More often than not, teams that rise to greatness use adversity as a springboard at some point before their ascent.
The 2003 Patriots jettisoned franchise mainstay Lawyer Milloy a week before the season opener at Buffalo. Milloy ended up with the Bills and played a significant role in Buffalo’s 31-0 Week one pasting of the Patriots. It was a stunning and brisk series of events that culminated with ESPN’s Tom Jackson proclaiming “they hate their coach.” New England proceeded to win 34 of its next 37 games and back-to-back Super Bowls.
The 2007 Giants, an exceptionally talented yet wildly inconsistent outfit, took the Patriots’ quest for a perfect season as an affront to their manhood, and spilled blood in a meaningless Week 17 defeat. The first ever moral victory in football galvanized the fragmented G-Men, and spurred them on to the biggest upset in the history of the game.
Most recently, the 2008 Cardinals were eviscerated by New England in late December. The 47-7 humiliation left them at 8-7 and returned the franchise to its familiar place atop the dubious list of gridiron laughingstocks. Somehow, less than six weeks later those same Cardinals found themselves leading Super Bowl XLIII with less than a minute to go. They may have lost the title game, but suffice to say they wouldn’t have seen the light of the second round had they not banded together after being so nearly torn apart.
Is it a coincidence that the three most stirring tales of teams overcoming adversity this decade directly involved the Patriots? I say not; the Patriots have been the gatekeepers and headline-grabbers of the NFL since 2001. They have had as much reason to hate the universe as the universe has had to hate them.
Love em or hate em, from Pats-Rams to Pats-Giants to Steelers-Cardinals—not to mention everything Brady-Manning—this decade has been the most riveting and divisive in league history. And it’s principally because of Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots.
Isn’t it fitting then, that in the final year of the 00's (or aughts or whatever you want to call them), things have seemingly come full circle for the Pats?
Touted as a redux of the ‘07 juggernaut (by yours truly, among quite a few others), these Patriots have struggled—to say the least—uncharacteristically showing themselves to be starters and not finishers; able to throw the first punch, but not take the last. Blown second-half leads accounted for four of their five losses. The word “rebuilding” was associated with the franchise for the first time since Belichick took over in 2000.
Then the hammer dropped. After a stinging 22-21 loss to the Dolphins, the Coach preached renewed commitment and dedication to his players, a tenor undoubtedly echoed by the Quarterback. When three of those players showed up a few minutes late to a team meeting the following week because of a snowstorm, he sent them home.
Adalius Thomas pulled the proverbial twisting-of-the-knife by sounding off to the media. Randy Moss, meanwhile, remained silent but despondent. The seams weren’t just fraying, they were ripping apart.
Not surprisingly, postmortems of the ‘09 Patriots got written, Thomas was deactivated for the game vs. Carolina, and Moss submitted such an atrocious and listless performance that the team probably had to check the standings for confirmation of its “victory".
Oh, how times can change on the fly in the NFL. Less than three weeks removed from that New England win wrapped in a moral loss, the Panthers are suddenly looking like the team that went 12-4 a year ago, this after croaking the Vikings and Giants by a combined 51 points.
Simultaneously, the Patriots have been busy notching their first true road victory of the year in Buffalo and dominating Jacksonville in what was unquestionably their most complete effort of the season. The defense, which made big play after big play against the Jags, has been solidified by the returns of James Sanders and Shawn Springs to the starting lineup.
The New England secondary, for so long its Achilles heel, now boasts a formidable combination of veteran leadership (Sanders, Springs, Leigh Bodden), explosiveness (Brandon Meriweather), and depth (Brandon McGowan, Jonathan Wilhite, Pat Chung). The unit has a whole has allowed nine points per game over the last three.
On the other side of the ball, Brady is no longer being counted on to throw the ball 40 times a game; during the win streak, the Patriots have run the ball 58 percent of the time (110 rush plays/81 pass plays) for an average of 163 yards per contest. Fred Taylor’s return has certainly helped the running game. Through the air, Brady has started to find his tight ends again while Wes Welker continues to be the steadiest presence in the game.
And there’s Moss. The man so many believed would pack it in and call it quits—he who is averse to adversity—has been recharged, reinvigorated, reborn…whatever you want to call it. All that’s necessary to know is he snagged three touchdown passes last Sunday, had this exchange with the same fans who booed him two weeks ago, and gave an impassioned postgame speech that anyone who watched “Inside the NFL” was lucky enough to see and hear.
Does all this mean the Patriots are poised to capture their fourth Super Bowl as the final bell tolls on the aughts? Time shall tell, but for now it’s clear the Patriots are not the same team they were in mid-December. They met their darkest hour head on and emerged from it stronger, healthier and more balanced.
Contrary to what you may have heard, the Coach did not lose the team. The Quarterback rediscovered a bit of that mojo. The Receiver has a whole new look in his eyes. The mission is back on.