After Sunday’s big win over the Steelers, Bill Belichick is now nine games deep into his 14th season with the Patriots. And on that note, there have only been four other times in the coach’s Foxborough tenure when New England has started the year with a record as impressive as the one they hold right now.
They were 7-2 after nine games in 2003, on their way to a Super Bowl title. They were 7-2 in 2004, on their way to a Super Bowl title. They were 9-0 in 2007, on their way to an undefeated regular season and [omitted for explicit language and adult tears]. And most recently, they were 7-2 in 2010, on their way to getting trampled in the division round against the Jets.
In 2013, 7-2 feels good. On the surface, it’s better than just about any other realistic alternative. And when you look ahead to the seven games waiting on the other side of the BYE, that optimism remains intact.
Of course, the Week 11 visit to Carolina presents more issues than initially expected. The Panthers (5-3) are a good team with a great defense and a dynamic quarterback who’s finally figured out life in the NFL. The Week 12 visit from the Broncos will obviously be a battle. Then again, compared to a few weeks ago, Denver’s come down to Earth, and they’re now faced with the absence of their head coach and the return of cold weather football — never Peyton Manning’s strong suit. After those two games, the Pats have five left. Two at home against the Browns and Bills — middle of the road teams with a combined road record of 2-6 — and three on the road in Miami, Houston and Baltimore — three teams in the midst of their own unique brand of meltdown.
That’s the big picture, and it looks pretty good. At very least, with more than half the season in the books, there’s every reason to believe that the Pats will post double-digit wins for the 11th straight season, win the AFC East for the 11th time in 13 years and once again find themselves among the six AFC teams still standing when the playoffs kick off in January.
OK, so now that that’s all out of the way, let’s get down to business, and ask the only question that really matters: Once the postseason does get underway, will it play out any differently than it has these last eight years? What are the chances that Brady and Belichick finally exorcise the demons of 2008 and 2011 and raise the Pats’ fourth Lombardi Trophy?
According to Bovada, they’re still pretty solid. The online gambling site has New England with the fourth best odds (9/1) to win Super Bowl XLVIII behind only the Broncos (10/3), Seahawks (5/1) and 49ers (15/2). Also working in the Pats favor is that while they currently ‘only’ have the third best record in the AFC, the top two teams (Denver and Kansas City) play in the same division, and Wild Cards don’t get home field advantage or a first round bye. So looking ahead, New England only needs to worry about finishing in front of Cincinnati and Indianapolis to ensure both those playoff perks. But again, we’re only working on the surface here. Independent of all the other nonsense that New England will face down the stretch.
For instance . . .
No Vince Wilfork. No Jerod Mayo. No Sebastian Vollmer. No Tommy Kelly. The long-term durability of Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and Aqib Talib (even Julian Edelman). A broken thumb that will keep Steve Gregory out of the lineup for at least the next few weeks. The fact that Stevan Ridley and Kenbrell Thompkins will presumably play out the rest of the year with one foot perpetually in Belichick’s doghouse.
You know, it’s one thing if there was a legitimate end to New England’s injury woes in sight; if they were able to stare down the road ahead and think, “OK, let’s just tread water and keep this thing on the rails until the reinforcements arrive.” But in this case, most of those reinforcements are down for the count. Talib and Shane Vereen are the only ones waiting in the wings, and neither has a history of staying on the field once they arrive. Not to mention, the injuries won’t stop here. It’s only reasonable to assume that more bodies will fall between today and Wild Card weekend, only now the Pats are less prepared to deal with it.
But that’s not unique to the Patriots situation. That’s just life in the NFL. This league isn’t about who has the best roster on opening day. Not who has the best roster or record through nine weeks. It’s about which team is still in one piece come January. Which team can outlast the masses, stay healthy, get a little lucky and be the best when the schedule calls for it. Like the Ravens last season. Like the Giants in two of the five seasons before that. And right now, all things considered — the impressive 7-2 record, with another 10-win season and AFC East crown on the way — the Pats are teetering on the brink.
The bye week will provide a chance to catch their breath; pump a little air back in their tires. But from there, it’s an uphill drive to the very top. With a heavy helping of bad breaks already standing in the way of one the best five starts of Bill Belichick’s tenure ultimately being remembered as one of the four best finishes.