FOXBORO - No Ravens. No Giants. No Jets.
None of the teams that, in recent years, bum-rushed the Patriots from the playoffs with a little more fight and a little more physicality are alive this year.
And of the tough teams left in the 12-team tournament – Seattle, Kansas City, San Francisco - do you think any of them are looking at the Patriots as a finesse team now? After LeGarrette Blount went angry rhino all over the Bills in a season-ending downpour?
In the hands of a lesser coach, the Patriots would have gone about 3-13 this year. In the hands of a lesser quarterback, they might have been worse than that and the head coach would be fired.
This team overachieved to get to 12-4 and yet, somehow, they have every right to say it could have been 15-1. Bizarre.
The trials of the Patriots. Through Tebow and Hernandez, Welker and Gronk, the excision of their defensive heart and the scream-filled upbringing of their rookie wideouts, the Patriots have emerged a stronger team than they’ve been in a decade.
Not better. Stronger. Mentally and physically.
“I think this is one of the most mentally tough teams I’ve been on, through the close games that we’ve played,” said Rob Ninkovich. “Because the games that you win by three, one, those are games that take a lot out of you and we just keep coming back every week. I think as far as toughness goes, this team is one of the best I’ve ever been on. I think that again, we just have to continue to build and hit the playoffs here in stride. Again, this game comes down to doing your job and all three phases playing well, so we've got to be firing on all cylinders here going into the playoffs.”
In past years, there was a sense of foreboding watching this team in big spots. Something was going to break down. Hit by a deep pass. Dropped pass in a critical spot. Fumble. Somebody on the other team simply making the incredible play while the Patriots were merely making a lot of good ones.
Think back on previous playoffs. The 2009 team was done before the postseason started. The 2010 team had a fake-punt miscommunication contribute to its loss. The 2011 team, well, they just got beat. Couldn’t make a big play. The 2012 team got punched square in the face and couldn’t clear its head.
That 2012 team had a style, particularly on offense. If it didn’t work, the desperation was palpable. And it seeped through the team. By necessity, this year’s model had to become more diverse. And that’s made them harder to defend.
“I think we’ve shown that we can win different ways,” said Tom Brady. “We've had some pretty – you know, the weather conditions have been interesting this year, but we’ve found ways to overcome it. Today was a great job. I mean, to score 34 points in a downpour is pretty good football. That was just a great all-around performance. That’s what we needed.”
Brady has said over and over that a tough team has to be able to run the ball when the defense knows it’s coming and stop the run when the opposition is trying to overpower.
This team runs it harder than any since Corey Dillon was around. And, bless their hearts, they do their best to stop it.
“You see the strength of our team, the offensive line, and what a great job they did tonight against one of the best defensive lines in the league, the way they did in the run game was incredible,” lauded Brady. “That's a big strength and we’re going to need it here in a couple weeks.”
The Patriots are two wins from their sixth Super Bowl appearance in 13 seasons. They are a win away from their eighth AFC Championship game appearance in 13 seasons.
As presently constituted, this is – arguably – their least-talented team since 2001. It may also be the most resourceful and adaptable.
Playoffs are coming. Too late to worry now about what you don’t have. It’s time to adapt and survive. Same as it’s been all year.
PATRIOTS 34, BILLS 20
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FOXBORO - No Ravens. No Giants. No Jets.