While the Patriots victory today could hardly be called a "huge" win, seeing as the outcome of the game was completely meaningless standings-wise, I do think that the team's 38-7 drubbing of Miami did make a big statement. It doesn't require a great memory to remember Week 17 of last season. The Patriots failed to win yet another game on the road against Houston and lost Wes Welker to an ACL injury. The team finished the season looking like a mess and quickly found themselves down 24-0 against Baltimore at the end of the first quarter in their Wild Card game. Hopefully the night and day difference between Week 17 in 2009 and Week 17 in 2010, will parallel the way the '09 and '10 playoffs go for the Patriots.
While a loss certainly would have been understandable and not necessarily problematic for New England's post-season chances, I think the fact that the Patriots won this game, and won it in such convincing fashion, speaks volumes about where this team is both mentally and physically. You didn't have to look far this afternoon to see other AFC playoff teams struggling to compete with lackluster opponents. KC lost badly at home to the Raiders. The Colts required a late fumble to pick up the win at home against Tennessee. The Ravens were a mere two yards away from surrendering the game-winning touchdown to the Bengals. The Patriots, on the other hand, put up their second largest margin of victory this season without Branch, Welker, or Hernandez in the receiving game, and with Brian Hoyer taking a significant amount of Tom Brady's snaps. Their performance was a testament to the soundness of Belichick's scheme and the depth that the Patriots are fortunate enough to have throughout their roster. It simply didn't matter that the Patriots were playing with a hand tied behind their back. They have such good fighting instincts and pack enough punch with their other fist, that the Dolphins simply had no chance.
Some quick hits...
- When the season started, Aaron Hernandez appeared to be the "stand out" rookie tight end. However, over the past several weeks, Rob Gronkowski has really turned on the afterburners. His maturation has been a joy to watch. Guys like Branch, Welker, and Woodhead get by on hard work and heart. Rob Gronkowski was just "built" to be a dominant pass-catching tight end. Much like Randy Moss, Gronkowski just possesses all the physical skills you'd want from somebody at his position. You give Bill Belichick somebody like that to coach up and Tom Brady somebody like that to throw too... watch out. Big Rob Gronk is going to be a very special player for this franchise.
- Congrats to BJGE for hitting the 1,000 yard mark. In each of the Patriots' three Super Bowl seasons, Brady had a serviceable running back. Even as great as the 2007 team was, the running game certainly could have used some work. The Lawfirm seems every bit as serviceable as Antowain Smith was, if not moreso. That bodes very well for the Patriots as the post-season approaches.
- Great job by both Brady and Wilfork to keep their respective sides of the team fired up throughout the game. Those two just don't let up, and have really set the tone for this young team all season. In a game where the Patriots had all the reason in the world to be unmotivated, their leadership couldn't have been more evident.
- After being stuck as the 4th receiver on the depth chart for most of the season, it was nice to see Julian Edelman get some playing time, especially when he turned on the jets at the end of the first half for the longest punt return in team history.
- Same goes for Brandon Tate, who had a phenomenal grab on a Brian Hoyer heave in the 3rd quarter, and also for Taylor Price who looked solid in his first NFL action ever. It is somewhat comforting to know that a Welker ACL tear wouldn't submarine the Patriots' post-season hopes. Tom Brady certainly does not have a lack of quality targets to throw to.
- Devin McCourty opened the game with yet another pick. Suh may win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, but if their was an MVR (Most Valuable Rookie) award, McCourty would win it, hands down. The Patriots' secondary would have been lost without his contributions his season.
- Bill Belichick has his record-breaking 4th 14-win season, Brady's interceptionless streak continues, the Pats set the record for least amount of turnovers in a season... None of this seemed possible 17 weeks ago, when the Patriots were entering the season with so many young players and cast-offs. After the Cleveland loss, I shrugged the game off, stating that "this simply wasn't a 15-1 team" and that "the losses were going to come". While, I technically was correct in what I said, I was utterly wrong in my estimation of this team. The run that they've managed to put together over the past eight games has been nothing short of spectacular. I just hope that they can extend that streak to eleven. I've seen a lot of good Patriots teams in my lifetime, but this one seems like one of the truly special ones. They deserve to have a "Super" season.