While the last few seasons have seen the Patriots reach lofty heights with their offense, many NFL observers and casual fans alike look at the "dynasty" years as ones built on a stout and sturdy defense.
Still, the New England defense has hardly been as dominant in the past few seasons as it was during the beginning of the decade.
From 2003 onward, the defense was built on a foundation of Rodney Harrison, Tedy Bruschi, and Richard Seymour.
Now, in 2009, all three are gone.
The departure of Harrison and Bruschi was an inevitable consequence of time—age eventually catches up to us all.
But with Seymour, a three-time All Pro defensive end and perhaps the best 3-4 two-gap run stopper of the last decade, the choice was voluntary.
There's a reason fans and players alike are rarely privy to the inner conversations held between front office personnel, coaches, agents, and owners.
All but the most naive of us know that this is purely a business. But when you really take emotion out of the equation—when you're staring at the pure gears-and-cogs of the operation—it really leaves you feeling cold.
Listening to Raiders owner Al Davis discuss the genesis of the trade, how the conversations between the two clubs evolved to the point that Seymour's name became involved, you truly get the fact that no matter how many times we're reminded that this is a business, the truly hard decisions never get any easier with time.
I don't know Richard Seymour from Adam, but I know football and I know it takes a hell of a lot of gumption to trade a 29-year-old three-time All Pro.
Most players go their entire career and never become a first-team All-Pro. Many fans ignore the distinction, thinking it to be an honor on par with the Pro Bowl.
To put this in perspective, Joe Montana only made first-team three times in his career—and all three came after he turned 31.
Dan Marino got it done earlier in his career, but even he only made three, as well. Gino Marchetti made seven in his career in the more physical pre-merger era and all seven came after his 30th birthday.
Dwight Freeney and Julius Peppers, players many Patriots fans would probably kill to call their own because of the gaudy sack numbers, haven't made three.
I know the reasons behind the trade, and I agree with the move in terms of what the Patriots could gain long-term, but I think many pundits around the league have sold short the caliber player that Seymour is.
Yes, it would cost an arm and a leg to re-sign the big man after this season and he missed seven games in 2007. True, the Patriots might play more 4-3 this year given the lack of linebacker depth.
Yes, you could argue that his pass-rushing has dropped off in recent years. (9.5 sacks combined from 2005-2007, although he had eight last year)
But what isn't up for debate is the fact that he's an absolutely phenomenal two-gap 3-4 defender at the five-technique who can cover the gaps between two players while engaging the left tackle while still compressing the pocket.
Now, for those whom I just completely lost with that last sentence, I'll explain. The "five-technique" is where the defensive player lines up relative to the offensive line. It's a numbering system that starts nose to nose with the center (the zero) and moves outward. (one is between center/guard, two is over guard, etc.)
In the 3-4 because you have only three down linemen against five offensive linemen (plus tight ends), you need some of the biggest, nastiest, most athletic players on the planet to succeed.
"Two-gap" refers to the gaps between the offensive linemen. They're usually lettered and begin between the center/guard, then the guard/tackle, etc.
A two-gap five-technique defensive end lines up between the left tackle and the tight end, engages his man, and is responsible for the running lanes both to his right and to his left.
It's a huge responsibility that rarely lends itself to huge sack numbers or a lot of face time on television.
From that position, seven sacks or more in a season is phenomenal. But what's more important is your ability to generate consistent pressure on the quarterback.
By consistently becoming a nuisance to the quarterback, rather than just a boom-or-bust bull rusher, you are forcing offensive lines to account for you at all times—and necessarily lose focus on what the rest of your defense is doing.
Of course, in the 4-3 that position is gone. The techniques are the same, but where your players are best suited to line up is entirely different because you need to do different things with only three linebackers behind you.
But Seymour, by virtue of his mammoth size and athleticism, can line up just about anywhere on a 4-3 line as well.
He's not big enough to play two gaps inside (you usually need someone 340 pounds and up) as a defensive tackle, but his size is perfect for attacking a single gap inside with a license to rush the quarterback ourely and to be mindful of only one rushing lane.
As a defensive end, he maybe lacks the elite speed of some of the great end rushers like Freeney and Simeon Rice, but he's a bigger force outside who all but automatically seals the edge and provides solid pass rush from the position.
For you East Coasters who braved a few extra cups of coffee on Tuesday to stay up and watch the Oakland-San Diego game, you saw this in effect as Seymour managed two sacks against a rather good offensive line (San Diego allowed just 25 sacks in 2008) while lining up everywhere.
Beyond that, he was constantly putting his man on roller skates and driving through San Diego's line to force Rivers into quick throws he wouldn't have otherwise made and couldn't step into.
Contrast that to the earlier game, where New England put pressure on Trent Edwards but failed to contain running back Fred Jackson on even inside runs, and things begin to look dicey for the New England side of the trade.
Most of the yards Jackson picked up were to the outside, true, taking advantage of MLB Gary Guyton's inexperience in identifying screens and swing plays early, but as I said when the Seymour trade went down, you can't trade a guy like Richard Seymour and call your defense better.
Tully Banta-Cain acquitted himself beautifully against the Bills, but Trent Edwards was very efficient throughout the game against the New England pass rush. The Bills ultimately surrendered four sacks, but two came on the final drive as Buffalo scrambled to pull back the lead they lost so late.
In truth, this New England defense hasn't been tested yet. The true test will be this week against the Jets, when they'll already be without their best linebacker Jerod Mayo.
The Jets are a bit of an unknown quantity right now. They have the potential to be very good on defense, especially once Calvin Pace (four-game suspension) and Shaun Ellis (back this week after a one-gamer) return.
On offense, however, it could go either way. As a running attack, though, they're among the best in the league.
They have a veteran offensive line that is playing very well, a bruising, underrated running back in Thomas Jones who has serious depth behind him in Leon Washington and Shonn Greene, and a rookie quarterback who the Patriots must pressure into surrendering turnovers.
Whether manning his usual post at the five in a 3-4 or moving all along the line as a single-gap 4-3 rusher, these are the kinds of weekends where a player of Seymour's stature shines.
This Sunday, he'll just be shining for a different team.