I can't count the number of times where I've mentioned just how proud I am of this Patriots team. Their resliency and determination is downright inspiring. To go 12-4 after overcoming a horrendous run of injuries to key players on both sides of the ball, is not just a monumental accomplishment for Bill Belichick as a coach and Tom Brady as a quarterback, but a testament to why the Patriots, from #12 all the way to the last man on the practice squad, are the ultimate TEAM. After the 2007 season, the lights grew bright in Foxboro and the Patriots became a team full of super stars. Week after week, it seems that each of those stars were snuffed out and placed on IR, and in their place, fighters like Julian Edelman, Rob Ninkovich, and LeGarrette Blount have stepped up and filled the void. The Patriots are in full-on "outcasts and misfits" mode, similar to how they were in 2001 when a hobbled Drew Bledsoe was replaced by a unknown kid named Brady. It has truly been a joy to watch this team over the past seventeen games.
If nothing else, this 2013 campaign has firmly cemented the greatness of Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots organization. Before this season, the most cynical of narratives about the Patriots went something like this:
Brady and Belichick won a bunch of Super Bowls early on because of the "Tuck Rule", their borderline dirty defense, and, of course because they "cheated". Then, they abandonded their hard-hitting, defensive-minded ways and started playing a flashy uptempo offensive game. Brady married a super model, but stopped winning Super Bowls. Their high-octane offense broke records, but broke apart anytime a hardnosed defense put on the pressure. After a 10-0 start to his playoff career, Tom Brady has been a mediocre 7-7 since then. Belichick is not a genius. Brady is not clutch. They're both excellent, but also lucky to have each other. If you gave Bill Belichick to Peyton Manning, he'd have five Super Bowl rings. There are a bunch of kids about to turn nine who have never seen a Patriots title.
That line of thinking was nonsense before this season began. However, the 2013 campaign has completely put comments like that to rest. There is no asterisk you can put on this season, no excuses to be made. This team, on paper, has absolutely no business being in the position that their in, but on the field, they've earned it. Next Sunday, the New England Patriots will be playing in their 8th AFC Championship in the 13 years of the Brady/Belichick era. That is simply unbelievable. It seems like that duo has been around for forever and yet there has only been five seasons out of their entire tenure where they weren't playing for a trip to the Super Bowl. You hear the term "consistency" thrown around a lot with the Patriots. This run has not been about consistency. The Bills, and Bengals, and Chiefs have also been consistent over that time period. No, the past 13 years have been about sustained excellence. This is about the two best, doing their best, over and over again, and inspiring the other 52 men to also be at their best as well. That has led to thirteen straight winning seasons, eleven playoff appearances, eleven AFC East titles, a record 18 playoff wins, 8 AFC Championship appearances, five AFC Championships (hopefully soon to be six), five Super Bowl appearances, and three Super Bowl titles. They have done it with defense, with offense, with Pro-Bowlers, with practice-squaders, through the air, and, now, on the ground. When everyone has zigged, Bill Belichick and his Patriots have zagged.
Now they are one zag away from New Jersey.
LeGarrette Blount (RB) - For the third straight week, Mr. Blount has earned the lead spot for the "Risers". When telling her of LeGarrette's recent hot-streak, she asked me why he was running so well all of a sudden. Not really sure myself, I said that I thought it might be a combination of 1. Becoming more familiar with the offense, 2. Ridley's touches being limited due to the fumbling concerns, 3. Gronk's injury shifting the team's focus from the passing game, 4. The recent run of bad, rainy weather during games. Apparently, Blount is attributing it to Bill Belichick suggesting that he lower the level of his pads to make it more difficult for defenders to tackle him. Could something like that really be what's making this huge difference? I have no idea, but I can tell you that defenders certainly aren't having an easy time tackling Blount, as evidenced by his franchise-record four rushing touchdowns in a playoff game.
Stevan Ridley (RB) - Blount didn't have all the fun, as Stevan Ridley notched two rushing touchdowns as well. Most importantly, he was able to hang onto the ball in spite of some slippery weather. Ridley's motto with the football is now "til death do us part". He's been staying faithful to his vows.
Nate Solder, Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Marcus Cannon, James Develin, Michael Hoomanawanui, and Matthew Mulligan (Run Blockers) - LeGarrette Blount will get the lion's share of the praise for yesterday's effort, but make no mistake - that was a TEAM running game on display. The blocking was simply excellent and these players deserved to be called out by name.
Alfonzo Dennard (DB) - After missing some time down the stretch with a knee injury, Dennard came on strong, picking off Andrew Luck twice and causing the star quarterback to contract rabies.
Jamie Collins (LB) - To hear that Bill Belichick had placed an injured but capable Brandon Spikes on IR due to showing up late for a practice was a bit of a shocker. I'm not surprised that he was disciplined, but shelving yet another player after all the losses this team has suffered could certainly been seen as short-sighted. I think Belichick knew all along that Jamie Collins was ready to make the leap we saw last night. He was all over the field making plays and every bit of the disruptive hybrid linebacker he was billed as back in the spring.
Stephen Gostkowski (K) - Who knew that the Ghost was such a terrific punter? If it weren't for the fact that it's a major injury risk that could affect the Patriots' field goal abilities and that there's nobody to back him up if disaster were to strike, I would be fine with Gostkowski booting the ball for the next (hopefully) two games.
Danny Aiken (LS) - His high snap resulted in a scary moment for the Patriots and ultimately a safety. He also had a shakey-looking snap to Gostkowski later in the game.
Josh McDaniels (OC) - I don't want to be one to pile on after such a well-played game, but I felt that some of the formations the Patriots used throughout the game were highly questionable. With Blount and Ridley tearing up huge chunks of yardage at every turn, why did the Patriots go away from the running game at times with empty backfield sets? I'm not saying the Patriots should have run more than their already lopsided amount. What I am saying is that there were too many times where the Patriots gave up on the deception the run provides and and blatantly told the Colts they were passing.
The Colts absolutely needed to respect the ground game at the rate they were getting gashed. If you're going to pass, why not use a back to set up play action, or at least as a pass protector. When the Patriots went five wide, the Colts defense knew that they didn't have to pay much attention to the likes of Kenbrell Thompkins and Hooman. Instead, they dialed up the pressure and came after Brady. There were several three-and-out drives for the Patriots last night where multiple empty backfield sets were used. Don't forget that this was a fairly close contest until the 4th quarter, with the Colts snapping at their heels and visions of Andrew Luck's comeback last week in the back of our minds. There were many times where I wondered if McDaniel's decision to go five wide instead of managing the clock would come back to bite the Patriots. Thankfully, it didn't.
Dan Dierdorf (Announcer) - It is safe to say that the man who called the game for both Drew Bledsoe's aorta-shearing hit and Tom Brady's ACL blowout will not be missed by Patriots fans. Still, after all the head-shaking quadruple negatives and unintelligible ramblings, it was somewhat comforting to have old Dan repeatedily praise LeGarrette Blount for making fantasy owners happy regardless of the fact that fantasy football season wrapped up three weeks ago.
And how can we forget his hard-hitting analysis that Ryan Allen should have kept the ball in the field of play instead of losing the ball in the back of the endzone for a safety? You seriously rather give the Colts the ball on the 1-yard line than concede just two points and send them all the way back to their own twenty, Dan? Yes, it's two free points, and, yes, the Colts may very well go down the field and score a touchdown anyway. But at least make them earn it! Giving them the ball at the one gives the Colts a greater than 90% chance of scoring a touchdown and hanging seven. His argument of giving the defense a chance to put up a stop and hold the Colts to a field goal doesn't hold much water when the three points from a field goal are still more than the two points they'd get from a safety. The ball going out of the back of the end zone was the best-case scenario for the Patriots once that ball sailed over Ryan Allen's head. To suggest otherwise, was complete lunacy.
I'm not so sure that we won't ever not see another announcer who isn't quite like you, Dan.