It probably comes as no surprise that the New England Patriots are the odds on favorite to win the Superbowl this year. Tom Brady is at the top of his game and Bill Belichick has set the stage for his greatest achievement thus far. So before the Patriots play their first playoff game, I thought it might be appropriate to see ten reasons why Tom Brady might just be hoisting up his fourth Lombardi Trophy.
Yes that's right, I'm including the Patriots' defense here. The defense may have looked shaky at the beginning of the season, maybe even bad, but now, as the Patriots enter into the playoffs, it's clear that when it counts, the defense steps up. Whether it's interceptions, forced fumbles, or stops on 3rd down when they are needed, it seems that the very young defense (most couldn't even rent a car!) knows when they need to make a play and it's that mindset that has separated them from the rest as the season progressed. The Jets may prove to be a challenge on Sunday but their real test will be either their face off between the Ravens or the Steelers in the AFC Championship game (and yes I'm already assuming they beat the Jets). There have even been whispers about Devin McCourty taking rookie of the year, currently with seven interceptions on the regular season.
I've said it before and I'll say it again, there's just something about Foxboro that allows the Patriots to win. Since the stadium was built in 2002 the Pats have an amazing 70-13 record, with only a single playoff loss at home coming at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens last season (that's a 7-1 home field playoff record). For whatever the case, weather, the 12th man or some sort of voodoo, teams playing in Gillette stadium know the odds are stacked against them. Having home field advantage throughout the playoffs may very well be the difference between moving on and going home.
There are times when I wonder whether the Ice Man (Bill Belichick) and his all star quarterback, Tom Brady, were born snowmen. Whether it's a reaming of the Titans in 2009 or a clinching win against the Chicago Bears in 2010, the Patriots don't seem to be bothered by the weather at all. In fact they seem to thrive on it. Under Bill Belichick's leadership the Pats are an amazing 11-0 when playing in the snow. Some have put it down to the fact that New England practices outdoors no matter the weather, others have pointed to the fact that Tom Brady seems unaffected under any conditions. Whatever the case may be, it's pretty well known that if you're playing the Pats in the snow, your most likely walking away with a 'L'. Or in the words of Bill Belichick as he responded to a reporter on the fact they were 11-0 in snow games, "Honestly I didn't even know that. That's great, maybe we'll get the snow-making machines out there."
Yes, I'm aware that the Patriots running game isn't the greatest in the league, but it ranked 9th in the regular season and besides, number one isn't what it's meant to be. It's meant to just ensure that the team isn't one-dimensional and that's exactly what it's achieved. With key players like Benjarvus Green-Ellis (1008 yards) and Danny Woodhead (547 yards) able to successfully move the ball on the ground, it's freed up the pocket for Tom to work his magic.
For some it might sound surprising to learn that the Patriots ranked 11th during the regular season in passing yards, but the days of the deep ball to Randy Moss are well behind for the Patriots. Now it's no longer how far Brady can throw, but which weapon he'll throw to, whether it's a short cross route or an outside slant, it's about which will gain the most yards. Tom Brady has racked up 3,900 yards on the season with only four picks but the vast majority of those passes have been thrown within fifteen yards, relying on the receiver to gain the yards after the catch. The Patriots have adapted their game play to move the ball down the field five yards at a time if needs be. Walking away with a win is all that matters in the end.
The Patriots ranked 25th for only 83 penalties given up during the regular season - a total of 766 yards. To put that into perspective, the Philadelphia Eagles ranked third with a whooping 129 penalties for 1,101 yards. Although mistake free football doesn't always mean the difference between a 'W' and a 'L' it does represent something far more important in my opinion - discipline. When a team is playing mistake free football it demonstrates to their opposition that they are homed in and ready to win, forcing the other team to either rise to their standards or get out of their way.
It can be said that turnovers are the single key to winning any game. That said, the Patriots have a remarkable plus-28 turnover ratio. There's no denying that New England knows the number one rule - protect the football at all costs. This season the Pats have had only five interceptions (four by Brady) and five fumbles. By ensuring that a team doesn't get any extra points off a foolish turnover, the Patriots put the pressure back on their opponent's offensive line forcing them into what the Pats like best - a high scoring game where they have to put up 30 points or more to win.
At the beginning of the season if I were to have read you a list of play-makers from the Patriots' offensive line you probably wouldn't have heard of many of them. Now, with the Pats first playoff game only a day away, you probably know most of them. Let's just briefly take a look at some of the key play makers: Rookie tight end Rob Gronkowski - 546 yards for ten touchdowns; Rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez - 610 yards for six touchdowns; Second year wide receiver Brandon Tate - 494 yards for three touchdowns; Veteran wide receiver Wes Welker - 848 yards for seven touchdowns; Veteran wide receiver Deion Branch - 818 yards for six touchdowns; Rookie running back Danny Woodhead - 926 yards for six touchdowns; Veteran running back Benjarvus Green-Ellis 1008 yards for thirteen touchdowns. No matter the team, there's just simply no possible way to cover all those weapons at once.
The genius in understanding how to use each player to their full potential has kept Bill Belichick at the very top of current elite coaches. Instead of taking a square peg (the player) and forcing it into a round hole (the team), Belichick has been able time and time again to take a player and mold the play around them, rather than the player around the play. Nothing demonstrates this better than the vast amount of rookies and young players the Patriots have on their team this year and their final regular season record of 14-2, the best in the NFL.
And of course let's not forget about the headline grabbing move to release Randy Moss earlier this season. At the time there was talk that Belichick was finally over the hill and that the Patriots may in fact be turning on the 'Ice Man.' However, now that all that buzz is long since dead, it could be said that this year may very well be Bill Belichick's opus.
The buck really does stop with the quarterback and Tom Brady is playing the best football of his entire career this season. Almost a shoe-in for MVP, Brady is on a record-breaking run by throwing for 3,900 yards and only four picks. But for all his numbers and amazing passes it comes down to one simple thing - Brady knows how to control the game at the line. When defenses line up against Tom, they know right from the snap whether they've been able to disguise their plan well enough or whether he's diagnosed it and they're about to find themselves picking up the pieces. In addition to his ability to shred defenses, Brady has been able to adapt to whatever the team requires. In 2007 is was deep bombs to the ever dangerous Randy Moss threat. Now however, there is no Moss and the passes have gone from thundering across the turf to short fast passes that gain yards after the catch. His ability to command his team, drive down the field and not settle for a field goal has put the Patriots' 2010-11 season on the map and has made them an odds on favorite to win the Superbowl. It still remains to be seen whether Brady will hoist his fourth Lombardi Trophy, but what is certain is that if I had to put my money somewhere, it would be best in the hands of the future Hall of Famer, Tom Brady.