The 2013 Patriots are 9-3 and on the cusp of their 11th AFC East title in 13 years. They’ve already guaranteed themselves a 13th straight winning season, and it’s not unreasonable to think they’re capable of running the table against the Browns, Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills – all teams with six wins or fewer – to finish a surprising 13-3.
Over the summer, a 13-3 record and the first-round playoff bye that would come with it probably wouldn’t have been so unthinkable. After all, in Tom Brady’s 10 full seasons (thus excluding 2001, 2008, and this year), the Pats have averaged only 3.6 losses.
But this has been no ordinary year.
Brady’s top targets out of the gate were an injury-prone receiver most everyone doubted and an established NFL kick returner that nobody else wanted. His all-world tight end (the one without handcuffs) was absent, his pass-catching back was injured for half the season in the opener, and New England’s top rusher has proven the only place he can confidently hold onto the football is on the sidelines. The future Hall of Famer was instead surrounded by a collection of eager but unproven rookies, who were destined to make an awful lot of mistakes while transitioning to the pro game.
The defense was poised to be the difference in Foxboro for the first time in a long while and, for a handful of weeks, it was. Led by Aqib Talib and an incredibly effective secondary, the Pats shut down prominent receivers week after week on the way to a 4-0 start. Even in a Week 5 loss in Cincinnati, New England only surrendered 13 points. It was easy to argue the team was winning in spite of Brady, amazing as that was to behold.
It was enjoyable to think the Patriots were turning back the clock to the defensive supremacy that made them so successful back in their Super Bowl glory years of the early 2000’s, but that’s not who this team is anymore.
The sample size is large enough. We know who the 2013 Patriots are and will be for the remainder of the year, and they should look familiar.
In the two seasons entering this campaign, the Pats lived by their offense and survived their defense. Over the last seven weeks, during which time New England is 5-2 with an overtime loss, the club has scored 32.4 points per game while giving up a staggering 27.3.
Both totals are remarkably different from the 19 and 14 respective averages of the opening five weeks.
There are a host of discernible reasons for the change, but most of them involve the health of the Pats’ stars.
As Brady’s offensive weapons have returned to the lineup, they’ve developed a rhythm and started to steamroll opposing defenses like in years past. Rob Gronkowski has put any concern over his multitude of injuries to rest and been the difference-maker everyone hoped he’d be, Shane Vereen has given offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels options on third down, Julian Edelman is doing his best Wes Welker impersonation, and Danny Amendola is, well, on the field more often than not. Even a depleted offensive line hasn’t been able to slow down their production.
The ‘D’ is just too banged up to have any dependable success and that’s not going to improve. Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly are long done for the year, and the secondary doubles as an infirmary. Talib is back in the lineup after a brief absence, but his hip ailment has made him a shell of the player he was in the first six games of the season. At full or even relative full strength, the unit had the potential of being a Top 5 defense in the league. Absent so many key contributors, however, few people would dispute that it’s not a championship caliber crew.
Fortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything in a balanced and often unimpressive AFC.
The Patriots are good enough to return to the Super Bowl in a couple of months. With their 24-point comeback win over Peyton Manning’s Broncos before Thanksgiving, they might even be the favorite to represent their conference – as long as they avoid further serious injury.
With a dozen games in the books, we know the themes.
The Pats can run the ball when they want (123 yards per game), but they sure can’t stop a ground-attack (an average of 138.2 yards allowed, which ranks 31st in the NFL).
Though they’ve found offensive success on third-down and in the red zone in recent weeks, defensively, opponents have converted nearly 44 percent (29th) of their third-effort tries and found the end zone in 58 percent (21st) of their trips to the red area.
And, of course, the Patriots are regularly tasked with battling from behind. In fact, they’ve trailed in 10 of their 12 games and nine have been one-possession ballgames. The early deficits have become a dangerous pattern, but they’ve at least shown the ability to make in-game adjustments as well as anyone in the league – even if those modifications are jokingly viewed by some as cheating when scratching back to defeat a now 10-loss team. That cheating may as well be known as having Tom Brady.
All things considered, this may be Bill Belichick’s finest job as head coach. Maybe someone will ask him about it at Media Day in the Meadowlands.
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About this blog
Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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