Once Again in the Belichick-Brady Era, Patriots Proving They're the Team to Beat

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistNovember 13, 2017

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) cheers Patriots fans as he leaves the field after an NFL football game against the Denver Broncos, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017, in Denver. The Patriots won 41-16. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
David Zalubowski/Associated Press

The New England Patriots wouldn't dare use words to tell us that they remain the king of the NFL hill. The Pats are on to Mexico to face the Oakland Raiders in Week 11, but their actions in a lopsided Week 10 victory over the Denver Broncos were loud enough to get the message across. 

A 41-16 victory confirmed that the Patriots belong atop the NFL's totem pole. 

It just wasn't supposed to be so easy. In their last five games against the Broncos (regular season and playoffs), the Patriots had a 2-3 record, with quarterback Tom Brady completing just 55.7 percent of his passes for 6.3 yards per attempt and a 82.6 rating in those five affairs. 

This Broncos team hasn't been as good as those squads, but they still entered Sunday's game with the league's No. 2-rated defense. And in terms of DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Football Outsiders had them ranked sixth on that side of the ball prior to Week 10. 

This was a must-win game for the Broncos, at home, in prime time. And New England dominated them in every in every phase, with Brady completing all but nine of 34 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns in a turnover-free effort. 

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It was one of the most impressive performances of a 290-performance career, and another indication that Father Time has yet to gain an advantage over the oldest position player in the NFL. 

But more broadly, it was another indication that the Patriots dynasty remains as strong as ever. So long as Brady continues to mock the notion of his mortality and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick continues to be referred to as "Patriots head coach Bill Belichick," the Pats will be the league's one true team to beat.

"There's nothing they don't do right in Foxborough," said NBC's Al Michaels in the dying moments of Sunday night's blowout. And this beatdown really exemplified that. The defense surrendered just one touchdown, the Patriots directly or indirectly created 17 points on special teams (kick return touchdown, muffed punt leading to a touchdown, blocked punt leading to a field goal), and at one point, the offense scored on seven consecutive possessions.

But this was just the reminder some of us needed, especially because the abuse took place on national television. It's become easy to lump every contender together this season, because the league is drunk on parity. We keep hearing that everybody is hurt and everybody is flawed. And that might be truer than ever, but it's become obvious that the Patriots are less flawed than everybody else, regardless of how hurt they are. 

And they are hurt. They're doing this without their defensive linchpin, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who has played in just two full games this season and is now on the fritz for the remainder of the year due to a torn pectoral muscle. 

That injury was supposed to humanize a superhuman team, especially since its early-season struggles had many concerned that the defense could be a fatal flaw.

Nope. After surrendering a league-second-highest 32.0 points per game during the first four weeks of the season, the Patriots have given up just 13.4 points per outing during their current five-game winning streak. And since losing Hightower, they've allowed just four touchdowns and 36 points in nine quarters. 

Nobody overcomes major injuries as adeptly as the Patriots, who lost superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski at around this point last season but somehow went 11-0 in total without Gronk in the lineup before lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy. 

The rest of the AFC failed to kick the Patriots when they were down after a 2-2 start, and now it looks as though the defending Super Bowl champions are primed to pull away again, despite Hightower's absence. They're the league's smartest team, and with more time and tape to work with, Belichick becomes nearly unbeatable. 

New England Patriots Since 2014
Time frameWinsLossesWin %
First four weeks of the year115.688
Remainder of the year337.825
Pro Football Reference

The communication issues that plagued the defense during that slow start are ancient history, and Belichick's machine is more efficient each week. The Pats have opened up a two-game lead in the AFC East and have a heck of a lot more momentum than a Pittsburgh Steelers team that matches its 7-2 start but struggled to beat the lowly Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. 

The Patriots also started 2-2 in 2014. They went on to win 13 of the next 15 games, including Super Bowl XLIX. 

They started 3-1 in 2016, then won 13 of the next 15 games, including Super Bowl LI. 

They started 2-2 again this year. They've now won five in a row. Brady is again an MVP candidate, Belichick is again the league's most feared non-player, Gronkowski is healthy and the defense looks as strong as it did when it led the league with 15.6 points per game allowed last year. 

This might be the year of the injury, and parity might be wreaking havoc on many of our preseason expectations. But don't let that fool you into believing that the path to Super Bowl LII won't run through Foxborough, Massachusetts. 


Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.


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