Patriots coach Bill Belichick isn't into explaining his decisions. He is into winning. That's where the blanket term "in the best interest of the team" comes into play. The popular Belichickian bromide is also a catch-all that basically translates to "I reserve the right to change my mind."
That's where Belichick deserves a lot credit. The Hooded One realized the error of his ways in supplanting the steady Sanders, who coming into this season had started all 29 games he had played in over the previous two seasons, with Brandon McGowan. He recognized that Sanders being on the field was in the best interest of the Patriots. It has paid off.
Since Sanders re-insertion into the starting lineup -- along with exhumed cornerback Shawn Springs, who was inactive for four straight games -- the Patriots have gone from losers of three of four to winners of three straight, including yesterday's AFC East-clinching 35-7 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Patriots have been searching for an identity all year. All they had to do was look to Sanders to find it -- diligent, intelligent, and resilient.
There were 114 plays in the Patriots' win over Jacksonville, but it was one that Sanders made that defined the game and maybe redefined what the Patriots can accomplish this season.
After Laurence Maroney fumbled on his own 1 to end the opening drive of the game and the Jaguars took over, Jacksonville decided it was going to push the Patriots, who were missing Vince Wilfork, around in their own stadium. The Jaguars ran the ball five straight times to move to their 27 without much resistance.
An 8-yard pass gave them third-and-1 from the 35. After Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather sniffed out an ill advised end-around for no gain, the Jaguars decided to go for it on fourth-and-1 and go back to blowing the Patriots off the ball, except Sanders pushed back and drove Maurice Jones-Drew back, corralling the 5-foot-7-inch bowling ball of a back to the ground like a rodeo calf for no gain.
It wasn't Willie McGinest's famed "fourth-and-game" stop on Edgerrin James in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis in 2003, but it was one of the biggest plays of the season for the Patriots and the type of play they've been lacking this season.
"That was definitely huge for our defense and for the whole team," said cornerback Leigh Bodden after the game. "Everybody was excited about that, and that just uplifted us to play the way we played for the rest of the game."
Technically, there were still 55 minutes and 13 seconds of football left after the Sanders' stop, but the game was over. The Patriots had sent a message to the Jaguars that they weren't going to be bullied. They were going to do the bullying, a message that had not been delivered in losing three out of four since fourth-and-2 in Indy and in a pair of precarious wins the prior two weeks.
The Patriots cashed in on the fourth-down stop with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Tom Brady to Randy Moss. Meriweather picked off Jaguars quarterback David Garrard on Jacksonville's next possession, while Sanders knocked out the intended receiver, Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis, with a hit worthy of Rodney Harrison. That set up another Brady touchdown pass.
The rout was on and the Patriots' return route to the playoffs was clear.
Sanders wasn't on any of the Patriots' three Super Bowl title teams this decade, but he is the doyen of the defensive backfield in terms of time in Foxborough (he joined the team in 2005) and a leadership link to Harrison and Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel.
Since Sanders, who signed a three-year, $9 million deal in the offseason, was re-inserted in the starting lineup, along with left cornerback Springs, who had a third-quarter interception at the New England 2 to end a scoring threat, the Patriots haven't allowed more than 10 points in a game and have surrendered an average of 268 yards of offense. Teams have gone 9-for-36 on third-down (before these last three games, the Patriots were allowing teams to convert on 39.7 percent of third downs) during that time.
While Sanders's fourth-down stop was a huge play, it was a tiny adjustment that enabled the play to be made. Right before the snap, Sanders looked at the alignment of the Jaguars and motioned Bodden, who was inside of the right hash to move outside of the hash. When Jones-Drew got the ball, he tried to bounce it outside to his right, but Bodden was there to force Jones-Drew to cut it upfield, where Sanders was waiting for him.
Jones-Drew said that the Jaguars had watched tape of the Patriots and that he felt he could bounce the ball outside. He was wrong because Sanders had dissected tape, too. That's the type of head's up, situational football that used to define the Patriots and explain how they always managed to make the big play in the big spot.
It's also something they've been missing this season, like Sanders.
Sanders is symbolic of this edition of the Patriots -- discounted, dismissed, and doubted in a season that didn't go as planned. However, just like his team, Sanders ended up right where he belonged in the end.
"I mean of course it feels good to go out there and have a pretty solid game," said Sanders. "I felt like I could have played well all season, if I would have had the chance. But it didn't work out that way earlier this year, early in the season. Right now, I'm just enjoying the opportunity to be out there and help the team by making plays and playing solid defense."
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.