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Patriots as good as ever during Belichick-Brady era

Posted by Matt Pepin, Boston.com Staff  October 8, 2012 11:43 AM

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What we have here, for lack of a better term, is the most balanced offense in Tom Brady's tenure as quarterback of the New England Patriots. The Patriots can run. They can obviously throw. And as a result, they seemingly cannot be stopped.

As long as they stay out of their own way.

Bill Belichick included.

The Patriots are 3-2 following a 31-21 victory over the Denver Broncos at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, another affair in which offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels looked like the most spoiled kid in town. (Oh, the toys with which that McDaniels boy is blessed.) In the past two games, the Patriots have scored 83 points and amassed an insane 1,024 yards, including 498 on the ground with the thunder-and-lightning tandem of Brandon Bolden and Stevan Ridley.

In fact, the only times the Patriots have looked even remotely stoppable has been when:

a.) Belichick has needlessly played with the mind of receiver Wes Welker, or;

b.) Peyton Manning has played with the mind of Belichick.

Enough of the head games, Bill. Focus more on the football and less on the psychological warfare. Your offensive coordinator has found his rhythm and your defense can actually make some plays, so there is no need to overthink things.

“We’re running the ball against some advantageous looks. We’re throwing the ball against some advantageous looks," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady told reporters following the victory. "I think it’s important for us to be able to do both. You can’t just throw it all day. You can’t run it all day. You’ve got to be able to do both.”

And at the moment, the Patriots are doing both as well as they have at any other point during the Brady-Belichick marriage.

You want numbers? With Sunday's performance, the Patriots rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game, fourth in passing efficiency, first in overall offense based on both yards and points. That is indisputably a cause-and-effect. During Brady's tenure as quarterback, there have been only four seasons (counting this one) in which the Patriots have ranked in the top 10 of the league in rushing yards per game, and those four seasons all stand out on the resumes of Brady and Belichick for an assortment of reasons.

* In 2004, the Patriots finished seventh in the league in rushing yards and eighth in passing efficiency en route to a 17-2 record and third Super Bowl title in four years, in some ways the most comprehensive and dominating season of the Belichick Era.

* In 2008, the Patriots finished sixth in the league in rushing yards per game and seventh in passing efficiency, and they did it without Brady , who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the first quarter of Week 1; they finished 11-5.

* In 2010, the Patriots finished ninth in the league in rushing yards per game and first in passing efficiency, Brady totaling 36 touchdowns against just four interceptions while leading the Patriots to a 14-2 regular season record even after the club traded away wide receiver Randy Moss.

And now we have 2012.

Belichick, in particular, might note that the Patriots offense also has hit its stride with the productivity of Welker, who has 22 catches (on 26 targets) over the last two weeks. In the fourth quarter on Sunday, Brady converted just two third-down throws for a first down - both to Welker. Any suggestion that Julian Edelman can fill a similar role for the Brady (or the Patriots) is downright disingenuous and everybody knows it.

"It's definitely nice to stick it in Bill's face once in a while," Welker playfully mused on his weekly postgame visit with Comcast Sports Net New England.

As for Manning, Belichick still seems weak-kneed at the mere sight of him, whether Manning can throw the ball downfield anymore or not. Three years ago, of course, Belichick so feared Manning with the ball in his hands at the end of a game at Indianapolis that he opted to go for it on fourth-and-2 at his own 28-yard line with 2:08 left and a 34-28 lead. Belichick earned a great deal of criticism for that decision, and yet he made a choice on Sunday that, in some ways, seemed a million times worse.

In this instance, the Patriots led 31-14 with 8:17 left and the ball on the Denver 37-yard line. A field goal attempt (and miss) would have placed the ball at the Denver 45, so that seemed foolish. And while a punt into the end zone would have netted the Patriots only 17 yards, that would have been far more desirable than the outcome the Patriots ultimately netted.

Rather than punting and extending the field to fully use the clock to his advantage - even 30 seconds would have made a difference - Belichick went for it. Brady was sacked and fumbled, the Broncos recovering at the Patriots' 43-yard line. Belichick's decision cost the Patriots, at worst, 37 yards, something Manning fully took advantage of by leading the Broncos to a touchdown with 6:43 to play.

A 31-14 game quickly became 31-21, Belichick introducing all kinds of elements (like Ridley's buttery fingers) into a game that did not need them.

The Patriots won in the end, of course, thanks to yet another forced fumble by Rob Ninkovich, highlighting another difference about this Patriots team, at least through five weeks. The defense can actually make plays, if not stops. The Patriots have had the fumbles in the last two weeks - Welker, Rob Gronkowski, Ridley and Brady all have fumbled away the football - and yet the club still ranks a plus-10 in turnover differential, tied with the Atlanta Falcons for best in the league.

The efficiency of Brady, too, certainly has something to do with that, even if the fantasy players aren't particularly impressed with 223 yards and one touchdown pass (Brady's totals Sunday). In the last two weeks, with the crutches of Welker and a running game, Brady has completed 45 of 67 passes (67.2 percent) for 563 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. If you believe in quarterback rating as any measure of efficiency, Brady's number in the last two games is 112.9, a figure that would be the highest of his career outside of the video-game season of 2007.

Individually speaking, Brady has had better statistical seasons than the one he is having now.

But it's hard to remember many other times during his tenure as Patriots quarterback when the Patriots seemed to do whatever they have damn well pleased on offense.

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About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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