Do not write about the refs.
That’s the goal of today’s column, even though I technically already failed. OK, so no writing about the refs starting . . . now.
Instead, let’s look back at a scene from the beginning:
2013 AD: It’s pre-game. NFL Countdown. And ESPN’s exclusive broadcast team — Chris Berman, Mike Ditka, Keyshawn Johnson, Cris Carter, Tom Jackson, Trent Dilfer, Steve Young, Stuart Scott and Ray Lewis — is previewing the Patriots and Panthers. At this moment, they’re introducing a segment called “Field Pass”, where the roving cyborg camera zooms around spying on players as they warm up, and dramatic football opera plays in the background.
They open on Tom Brady:
Young: “He’s finally got everyone he wanted. Nobody does more with less than Tom Brady, and he’s done it through out this season. But getting to where the Pats offense is today, they’re finally healthy, and this is where they really make the run.”
That was the story surrounding Brady and the entire offense last night. Basically, this WAS the offense. Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and Shane Vereen were all active. Kenbrell Thompkins and, especially, Aaron Dobson had/have graduated to another level. Sure, Sebastian Vollmer was still out, but he’s not coming back. As far as this year goes, last night was the perfect picture of the Patriots offense. After months of wondering: What will it look like when everyone’s healthy? This was the answer.
The camera moves on to Cam Newton (*something about proving himself*), and then Luke Kuechly (*something about his awesomeness*), before landing on Aqib Talib:
Stuart Scott: Richard Sherman and Darrelle Revis get the buzz, but is Aqib Talib in their class as a corner?
Tom Jackson: Stu, he’s one of the best cornerbacks in this league. He’s certainly in their class.
I don’t often find myself saying this, but it’s hard to argue with Jackson’s answer. In other words, it’s fair to say that last season, minutes before the deadline, Bill Belichick traded a fourth-round pick for one of the best cornerbacks in the league. One of the previously missing pieces to New England’s Super Bowl puzzle.
Asante Samuel was a big time playmaker, but Talib, when healthy, can dominate a game like no Patriots cornerback since Ty Law. He’s a shutdown corner, when healthy. When healthy. When healthy.
But he was healthy last night. At least for a little.
Next, they hit Steve Smith (*something about his rivalry with Talib*) before moving to a quick split screen of Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola (*Cris Carter called him Edelman*). Finally, the camera did what cameras tend to do. It found Rob Gronkowski:
Mike Ditka: “He’s a power forward in the NBA. Just a great, great receiver. This guy attacks the seams of the field as good as anybody. This guy’s really good!”
If a healthy Talib is among the best corners in the league, then a healthy Gronk is THE best tight end. It was easy to forget that over the course of his drama-filled year, but in his short time back, Gronkowski’s hammered that point back home. Just how good he is, in every aspect of the game, and how much better he makes this offense.
And that was it. Segment over. But ESPN did a great job of laying out the state of the Patriots. Heading into last night, and even more so after last night, you can probably boil their chances down to these three guys:
Brady: Is he hurt? He sure seems to be favoring his hand on the sidelines. But then again, he’s also playing pretty well. Probably his best football of the season. Last night was Brady’s first game all year completing more than 70 percent of his passes. Before that last second interception, he’d gone two full games without one.
You can understand why Brady was frustrated back in September, but at this point, the gang’s all here. It’s time to raise the offense to another level. And win or lose, especially considering the atmosphere and competition, last night was a step in the right direction.
It wasn’t perfect. Stevan Ridley’s fumble was terrifying. As dynamic as he is, how can you trust him in the playoffs? Other than that, they waited too long to get Gronkowski involved. And they also missed on a huge third and 1 in the fourth quarter, from the Panthers eight-yard line. A nothing play that ended with Brady throwing it out of the endzone, leaving the Pats to settle for a field goal (which they almost muffed) and a 20-17 lead.
But in general, watching the offense last night, it was obvious that the pieces are there. When everyone’s healthy, Brady and Co. can run with anyone in the league. And in today’s NFL, that means you always have a chance.
Talib: The best and most important defensive player on the roster. Even with the injuries to Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommie Kelly, Talib’s presence is enough to get the Patriots defense to where it needs to be. Maybe not as good as they could have been, but still good enough to win. Belichick can work around him.
It’s hard to say exactly how much last night’s outcome would have changed if Talib had spent the fourth quarter on the field instead of once again injured on the bench, but I know this much is true: The Patriots can’t win the Super Bowl without a healthy Aqib Talib.
Gronkowski: Funny how two of the three most significant players are also two of the batpoop craziest athletes in Boston. But in both cases, as long as Talib and Gronk are on the field, doing what they do, who cares? Talib wants to challenge every opposing receiver to an old-fashioned duel? Go ahead. Gronk wants to make cartoons and rap videos and throw out the occasional slur? Sure, why not.
Bottom line: If he’s out there. If Talib’s out there. And if Brady’s healthy in the pocket and happy with his options, the Patriots are contenders.
That was true before last night’s loss, and it’s still true now.
As for the details of that loss, what can you say?
(WARNING: About to break my original promise)
This is the third time in a month that a Boston team has been on the wrong end of a controversial game-ending call. And it happened in three pretty big games. The pushing foul in Week 7 against the Jets. The obstruction call in Game 3 of the World Series. And now, the picked up flag in Carolina. Boston isn’t alone, either. Check in on any sports fan across the country and I’m sure he or she can rattle off at least one recent game in which the home team was screwed over by controversial call. At this point, it happens so often that stuff like this is just an assumed risk of caring. Every once in a while, you’re going to get screwed. Stuff happens. And when it does, all you can do is suck it up, and hope for the best.
And thankfully, you don’t have to look very hard to find sources of hope in these Patriots. Through all of the referee drama, the truth is that the team that took the field last night in Carolina — with Brady in the shotgun, flanked by Vereen (he adds such an important dimension), Gronkowski, Amendola, Dobson and Edelman; and Aqib Talib roaming the secondary — is a legit contender. They’re good enough to win.
The ultimate prize won’t be easy. Not that it ever is. The Pats have suffered so many injuries. There’s a lot of good competition. And who knows what hardships might lie ahead — especially with Talib’s hip. But in the big picture, one bad call won’t keep the Patriots out of the playoffs. They’ll still win the division. Could it cost them a first round bye? Maybe. It may very well play a role. And that’s too bad. But, it happened. It happens. It will happen again.
In the meantime, it feels like the NFL season is officially underway here in New England.
After two months of wondering what this team would eventually look like, and waiting for something real to hold onto, last night finally filled the void. It could have been better, the outcome might sting, but the message was clear: Stay healthy, and these guys can play with anyone.
They’ll have another chance to prove it next week against Denver.
Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine
Do not write about the refs.