The New England Patriots are heading back to familiar territory. They have secured the number one seed and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. I will admit that before the season started I did not believe that they could put together the type of regular season that they have had. From the stellar draft to the shrewd moves by the front office staff, there have been many different storylines throughout this impressive season and each has played a part in their success.
Once again as in previous years the Patriots masterfully maneuvered their way to select the players they wanted. The final haul netted them a potential Defensive Rookie of the Year in Devin McCourty, two stellar tight end selections in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, solid rookie pass rushers in Jermaine Cunningham, Brandon Spikes, and Brandon Deaderick, and the best punter available in Zoltan Mesko. The team also was able to Carolina’s second round pick which ended up being 33rd overall.
In a meaningless regular season finale against the Houston Texans, Welker made a routine catch and then fell to the turf. The result was a torn ACL and MCL, an injury similar to that of Tom Brady. Based on Brady's rehab many felt that Welker would not be able to return to active duty until at least Week 8. Welker surprised everyone when he returned to practice on August 1st. In a mere seven months Welker had returned to the field and at the start of the season he was back to his usual self. While his catches and yards are not what they have been in the past three seasons he has caught seven touchdowns which is the second highest oh his career. He with Deion Branch have allowed the Patriots offsense to explode over the last half of the season.
Many people around the organization including Moss had the feeling this would be his last season in New England. However no one saw the trade to the Vikings looming in the near future. A player who had put personal problems aside to return the the dominant downfield threat that he was when he entered the league was slowly starting to fall out of favor with the coaching staff which came to a head after a zero catch performance against Miami. The team then traded him to Minnesota and reaccquired former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch in a surprise move. The offense was thought to have problems without Moss but they have reached new hieghts and Branch and Brady have looked as though they haven't missed a beat.
The signing of Danny Woodhead was a head scratcher at first for many followers of the Patriots. The following year the Jets had acquired former Patriots backup Kevin O'Connell days before their early season matchup with the hopes of possibly using him to gain some form of advantage. This moved seemed like a similar move until he stepped on the field. Woodhead responded to the newly found chance to impress and has compiled 547 yards rushing and has scored five times and also has 34 receptions for 379 yards and one score. The “Perfect Patriot” and folk hero in New England continues to play like each play is his last and has lessened the blow of losing Kevin Faulk to a season ending knee injury.
After trading Randy Moss the team was in need a receiver to pair with Wes Welker. Instead of looking for another big target to replace Moss the team went back to its old philosophy of employing to smaller receiver as it did during it Super Bowl years with Troy Brown and David Patten. The answer was former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch. Branch was Brady’s favorite target and was very displeased when he was traded to the Seahawks due to a contract dispute. After spending four unproductive seasons in Seattle Branch has revitalized his career and is an integral part of the Patriots passing game once again.
The heated rivalry between the Patriots and Jet was renewed again in Week 2 of the 2010 season. The game was a tale of two halves. The Patriots led 14-10 at halftime highlighted by a Randy Moss one handed grab over Darelle Revis. The second half was a different tale as the Jets outscored the Patriots 18-0 and forced Brady into two interceptions, a fumble, and a sack in a 28-14 Jets victory. The Patriots would respond to this loss by winning five straight.
When the 2010-2011 schedules were released the outlook for the season didn’t look as good as previous ones and the road the playoffs were littered with many potential roadblocks. However the Patriots met each one with a greater than expected result. The won games close; Baltimore, San Diego, Green Bay, and Indianapolis, and in spectacular fashion; Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York. With each win the belief that this team never left the upper echelon was cemented and the doubters grew fewer and fewer.
Besides Tom Brady no other player was more important to the offense than running back Kevin Faulk. Faulk is widely known as one of the best third down backs and well as an excellent receiving and goal line back. So when he went down there was a wave of panic that slowly started to move over the Patriots fans. Who would cover his third down duties and be the safety blanket for Brady out of the backfield? At the time Fred Taylor was hampered by a toe injury, Sam Morris was transitioning to fullback, Danny Woodhead was an unknown pickup from the Jets and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Woodhead stepped right in Faulk’s shoes without missing a beat and Green-Ellis supplanted Taylor and became a 1,000 yard rusher and the Patriots now have the best ground attack that Brady has ever played with.
The loss to the Jet was not as much as a shock as the loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 9. The team was gaining confidence and momentum as they entered the game with five game winning streak but fell flat and never recovered as the Browns beat them by twenty points 34-14. The loss lit a fire under the team and since that game they have not looked back. Since that game they won eight straight and scored over thirty points in each game. Should the team not lose again this season then this game can seen as the moment the Patriots flipped the switch.
Tom Brady’s fifty touchdowns and the teams’ undefeated regular season were amazing feats just a few years ago. This season the team and Brady have placed themselves in the record books again. With a regular season finale win against the Dolphins the teams’ streak of twenty eight regular season home victories will not be challenged until next season. Brady placed himself in the record books also as he has set the record for most consecutive passes without an interception with 335 attempts. Even though the Patriots pay very little attention to records the ones they have set this season have been impressive.