Those words I wrote a mere four weeks ago in my Mid-Season Report sum up the Patriots pretty well, don't they? "Pretenders". I never fell into the trap of thinking that this 2009 version of the team had really anything to do with the ones that captured those Super Bowls earlier in the decade. I knew fully well that Tom Brady, Matt Light, and Kevin Faulk were the only men remaining on the roster who remember toppling the Rams in the Super Dome. The other fifty players have just been living under the protection of that legacy. "The Patriots never blow fourth quarter leads!" "The Patriots are always at their best in the biggest of games!" "The Patriots never lose two games in a row!" Really? Because last time I checked, half the players in the Patriots locker room weren't even around for the Super Bowl against the Giants two years ago, let alone the three New England actually won. "Always" and "Never" don't ring very true when you're dealing with about 25 games worth of material. So, no, I never expected the Patriots to be able to pull off the heroics of Bruschi, and Vrabel, and Seymour, and Harrison, and Willie Mac and stop the Colts four straight times on 1st and Goal from the 1 yard line. What I did expect, however, was that this team wouldn't blow 17 point 4th quarter leads, that they wouldn't embarrass themselves against the best team in the league on Monday Night Football, and that they'd be able to go on the road against an inferior team and clinch the division.
The talent is there for the Patriots. Bruschi, and Vrabel, and Harrison, for all their experience and killer instincts, just weren't getting the job done any longer. Their time had passed. So Belichick reloaded his defense with younger and faster players. Vince Wilfork, Jarvis Green, Ty Warren, Jerod Mayo, Adalius Thomas, Brandon Merriweather - those guys may not be the legends who played their positions earlier in the decade, but that's still a pretty high pedigree. On the other side of the ball, Tom Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Ben Watson, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Matt Light, Logan Mankins - that's a combination that should never get shout out for an entire half. Anyway you want to look at it, the Patriots are pretty loaded on both sides of the ball. Experience or no experience, a roster like that should be better than 7-5. Right now, this team has the same record as the Jacksonville Jaguars. Give me a break!
The Patriots of old always managed to turn nothing into something. When you would look at New England's roster earlier in the decade, you'd see nothing but a bunch of cast-offs and misfits. Yet, somehow, those reject got the job done. Now the Patriots are about as stacked and star-studded as they've ever been and they're a Leodis McKelvin fumble away from being 6-6. Explain to me how Troy Brown and David Patten take you further than Moss and Welker? How could a secondary that was so banged-up that they were playing their 3rd receiver at cornerback be more effective than the stable of speedsters we're currently trotting out onto the field? You simply can't explain it. There was no good reason the Patriots should have toppled the Rams. There was no rational explanation for the reign of terror that the held over the Colts. They were a team that had no business winning 21 straight games or three out of four Super Bowls. There was nothing rational about those New England Patriots. They defied all logic. They took the improbable and made it reality. That was the beauty of the way we were.
I've come to grips with the fact that this team is no longer "special". Whatever magic the Patriots seemed to have thrived on faded away the night they finally fell to the Colts in the AFC title game. Sure, the 18-1 season was significant in its own right, but that 2007 team was supposed to be that good. The fact that they fell to the Giants in the end further nails home the point that they lacked "it", whatever "it" was that made those earlier teams so perfect when it mattered the most. Last season, the Patriots just couldn't catch a break, again, something you'd never would have said in 2003. This year, they're just inventing new ways to shoot themselves in the foot, week after week. When the Patriots were going through that miracle run, I had trouble fathoming what it would be like when it ended. I knew it would end; it had to, but I just couldn't imagine seeing Tom Brady and his team mates fail. Now I don't have to imagine what it will be like, I'm living it.
So, no, these certainly aren't the New England Patriots that everyone has been unfairly expecting them to be. These are the 2009 Patriots, flawed and hurting. The thing that everyone is forgetting is that it doesn't take "it" to win the Super Bowl. the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't have any magic dust, nor did the 6th seed 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers. Ordinary teams hoist the Lombardi Trophy all the time. Just because the '09 Patriots aren't dancing in Cinderella's slipper, doesn't mean they're finished. They have four very winnable games remaining, and finishing 3-1 will almost assuredly earn them a playoff spot, and probably still the AFC East. Barring some sort of massive collapse or the perfect storm of tie-breakers, there will be post-season football for New England, and once you're in, anything can happen.
The goal, however, is not to simply get in, but to get in and do well. The road to doing well starts this week, and the next, and the next, and the next. Last season, the Patriots used the final four weeks to turn into title contenders and fate just refused to let them in. This year, they sit with the very same 7-5 record, with a very similar schedule in front of them, only, now, they control their own fate. It's time for the Patriots to forget about how they used to be and start becoming the team they want to be. There's nothing "magical" involved with that. It's going to be a matter of getting back to basics, working hard, playing smart, and living in the moment. If they can start to do those things, this wandering ship will begin to turn. They'll start winning on the road, closing out games, and becoming a team that oppontents fear. Then, and only then, will the Patriots change from a team that was special, to one that is.
The Vikings have the North all but wrapped up but Green Bay could certainly be sniffing out the top Wild Card spot.
The only question remaining is whether the Falcons can turn their season around and win a wild card spot. That's currently looking like a "no".
The Cowboys have a brutal road ahead. I know it's the "trendy" thing to do at the moment, but I can't help but go along and predict a fall for The Boys.
Outside of the East, the NFC is looking pretty dull in the home stretch. Zona had this division weeks ago.
In the NFC it looks like the only questions remaining are which two NFC East teams will be making the playoffs.
The division is all but Cincinnati's at this point. Can Baltimore or Pittsburgh rebound to grab a wild card? It's not looking good.
Outside of Indy, it's surprises all around as the Jags and Titans have far exceeded expectations and the Texans continue to not meet them.
The Patriots could've made this a no-brainer like many of the other divisions. Unfortunately, their lack of execution has kept the AFC East race alive. Still, with the schedule remaining, you have to think the Pats will find a way to pull it out.
San Diego overthrew Denver and now has a solid grasp on the division. Unless this red hot team cools off immensely, the Chargers will not only be the champs again, but have a bye week to go with it.
The Dolphins, Steelers, and Jaguars are all still in play, but nobody has a nicer road than Baltimore to end the year
Cardinals over Giants, Packers over Eagles
Packers over Vikings, Saints over Cardinals
Saints over Packers
Bengals over Ravens, Patriots over Broncos
Colts over Patriots, Chargers over Bengals
Chargers over Colts
Chargers over Saints