Them again? Yep—thanks to familiar names like Green-Ellis, McCourty and Gronkowksi
Think back to March. The Patriots had no running game, no tight end, no receiver depth (with Wes Welker rehabbing his torn-up knee), a poor pass rush and iffy cornerback play. It didn't exactly fill Patriot Nation with confidence when Bill Belichick declined to draft a running back high or get one in free agency, chose to rely on two rookies to rebuild the tight end position, endured Randy Moss's contract-moping through the off-season and passed on two premier free agents, defensive end Julius Peppers and receiver Anquan Boldin. This looked like a 10-win team, maybe 11—if Tom Brady could carry it on his shoulders.
Well, surefire MVP Brady (36 touchdowns, four interceptions) has done just that, but help has come from all over the roster, and completely unexpectedly. In going a league-best 14--2, the Patriots had the kind of season that confirms the fans' motto: In Bill We Trust.
No running game? Unheralded third-year back BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Jets castoff Danny Woodhead combined for more than 1,500 rushing yards. Help needed at wideout? After the stunning trade of Randy Moss in October the Pats brought in a low-cost replacement in Deion Branch, and he and those two athletic rookie tight ends, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, totaled 21 touchdown catches. Defensive worries? They were well-founded early, but first-round cornerback Devin McCourty showed he has the makings of a shutdown corner. New England held Jay Cutler, Mark Sanchez and Ryan Fitzpatrick to zero touchdown passes in December, and McCourty was chosen as the third AFC Pro Bowl corner, behind Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis.
Like the 49ers circa 1986, the Patriots have rebuilt through a strong draft and smart personnel moves, setting themselves up for a run of greatness like that from 2001 through 2007. Only at receiver (Welker is 29, Branch 31) and quarterback (Brady is 33) is the roster advanced in years. Brady must stay healthy and interested, of course, but he says he wants to play into his 40s.
To win a fourth Super Bowl, and they are the clear favorites, the Pats cannot have a game like the one they suffered against the Giants in Arizona three years ago. In other words, they can't let some smart pass-rushing team come in and beat up Brady. And the offensive line could well be New England's weak point, with longtime starting right guard Steve Neal out for the year and fill-in Dan Connolly (he of the 71-yard kickoff return against the Packers in Week 15) questionable with postconcussion syndrome.
The Patriots must learn from history. The pressure's coming. Defenses are going to attack the line. But Belichick wouldn't be Belichick if he hasn't already figured out the response.
HOW TO BEAT THE PATRIOTS
Stop the Pats' attack? No. Slow it? Maybe, by making Tom Brady throw quickly and bull-rushing the right side of New England's line, where 285-pound guard Ryan Wendell will play if Dan Connolly can't and where tackle Sebastian Vollmer is athletic but not overpowering. The team that can beat the Pats is the one that can keep up with them. New England averaged 37.4 points over its last eight games.
Grind it out against their D. Three of New England's last six opponents had 4.8 yards per carry or more. The Pats are playing mountainous Vince Wilfork on the outside of the line more, making them vulnerable to good rushing teams. In New England's two losses, the Jets and the Browns rushed 76 times. That also burns clock, limiting the damage Brady can do.
How AFC first seeds have fared since 1990
2 Won Super Bowl
6 Lost Super Bowl
4 Lost conference championship game
8 Lost in divisional round
— Lost in wild-card round
CHRIS SZAGOLA/CAL SPORT MEDIA
WHO DAT? Gronkowski (above) combined with Hernandez and Branch for 21 TDs.