BALTIMORE – It’s just getting stupid now.
This season. 2011. 2010. 2008. 2007. 2004. 2003. 2001.
In a league rigged to drag everyone back to the pack, the New England Patriots do things they have no business doing to the rest of the league.
They win with guys other teams don’t want. They win with guys nobody else wanted to draft. They win with guys who then leave and don’t do jack elsewhere. They win, they win, they win.
When they lose? Hell, it’s torches and pitchforks. Lose in the conference championship – which they’ve done twice – or the Super Bowl (also twice) and the mutters and moans about changes needing to be made begin.
It will change. In due time it will. And then the slog back to mediocrity and cartwheels over potential playoff berths will be the standard. Barring catastrophe befalling either the head coach or quarterback, that’s not happening anytime soon.
Until then, they will continue to win more with less and add to a post-salary cap legacy that won’t be matched. Won’t. Be. Matched.
The Patriots offense was gutted in the offseason. Their defense was gutted when the games started to be played.
On Sunday, they walked into Baltimore – a team that’s been their perfect foil – with their left guard at left tackle, guys nobody drafted at left guard, center and right guard and a right tackle they selected in the fifth round because he came down with lymphoma in his final season in college.
Sixth-round pick at quarterback. Two undrafted wideouts. Two undrafted running backs. A fifth-round tight end whose name nobody can pronounce. An undrafted fullback. Three undrafted defensive tackles. An undrafted slot corner. A seventh-round pick at another corner. An unwanted malcontent as their shutdown corner. A whole bunch of other guys that we couldn’t find in our draft guides when the Patriots drafted them (arrogance!).
I could go on. You get the point. And they beat the hell out of the defending Super Bowl champions, ushering the Ravens to the brink of playoff elimination with a 41-7 pantsing.
I don’t know if they’re going to win a championship. I don’t know if they’ll win a playoff game. I don’t know if this is Bill Belichick’s best coaching performance. But I know that if you determined the worst of the seasons I mentioned a few paragraphs back and gave it to some other coach, he’d parlay it into an analysts spot and TV paychecks for a decade.
This season stacks up with any in terms of the Patriots having to crawl through a drain pipe full of excrement in order to reach their division title.
“Every year is special, but we’ve really earned it this year,” said Tom Brady. “The NFL has a lot of stiff competition. Winning 11 games is very hard. We have faced adversity all year. Of course, other teams have too, but our mental toughness has really gotten us through this. ... We’ve shown that we can hang together all year."
After last week’s loss at Miami, a loss that portended a return to sluggish offense, it was hard to envision it getting easier in Baltimore.
And it didn’t “get” easier. The Patriots made it through the hard part of putting the Miami loss behind and – instead of descending into questioning themselves – moved forward.
“It started first thing on Monday after the Miami game,” said Andre Carter. “Focusing on the little things and correcting and it progressed all week.”
“Coming in on the bus ride coming in here, I felt great. I knew we were gonna beat these guys,” said Rob Ninkovich. “And getting some hand gestures coming in from the fans, it’s always a good motivating thing and I was confident. I knew we had worked hard and put in the work and that’s what it’s all about, putting in the work.”
The Patriots are a tougher team than they’ve been in a few years. Physically, for sure. Maybe mentally too. The way they’ve won and the personnel losses they’ve overcome are proof of that. And it’s an identity they are embracing.
“I know no one ever calls our team physical but I think if you ask the guys that line up across from us, we got some physical guys,” said Logan Mankins. “We’re never scared to get after it. We want to run it. We want to hit you in pass protection. That’s just the way we play. We’re going to cut you, whatever it takes.
“We lost a lot of good players but it’s a team game and it still comes down to 11 guys working together,” Mankins added. “If one guy could do it all, I guess it’d be a lot easier for you. It takes everyone working together. We’ve done that most of the season pretty well but as long as we keep doing that, we have a chance.”
The 2013 Patriots have a chance. In spite of it all. And just as they always do.
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BALTIMORE – It’s just getting stupid now.