Eric Wilbur's Sports Blog

Anything Less Than Super Won't Be All That Great For the Patriots

AP Photo

Patriots training camp kicks off this week.

What a waste of time.

Indeed, if the NFL's regular season is but a mere stepping stone to the AFC Championship game and beyond for the Patriots, then the preseason is the annoying aptitude test you’re forced to take just because the powers that be made it standardized. Those things are just about as indicative of your average seventh-grade test-taker as training camp and the four-game slate of exhibition games manage to be in determining which teams head into the season as bona fide Super Bowl favorites. Besides, we already know anyway. So what's the point?

In the AFC, you have the Broncos and the Patriots. That is all. Every other team can relax and look ahead to 2015. Sorry, Ravens, Jets, and Steelers. Apologies to the up-and-coming Bengals, Colts, and Chiefs. Better luck next year Texans, Jaguars, and Raiders (and, frankly, the year after that, and the year…)

Nope. Former NBA czar David Stern might as well be in charge because the AFC showdown has already been pre-ordained. Either the Broncos or Patriots are returning to the Super Bowl this season. Anything less would be grand disservice for the NFL, its fans, and most of all, its advertisers, thirsting to throw millions of dollars behind yet another Tom Brady-Peyton Manning showdown, only six months removed from the Broncos quarterback getting the best of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady in the conference title game.

Once again.

“I appreciate playing great football teams and he's a great leader for that team,” Brady said in advance of last January’s showdown. “This game is about the Broncos and the Patriots. I know that they have a great quarterback on the other side of the ball. We're going to have to score some points. They've scored points all year. I think they set a record for scoring points this season, more points than any team in the history of the league....I think we just have to understand what it's going to take from our offense to go out there and win a very tough game on the road against a very good team led by one of the great quarterbacks of all time.”

Uh…yeah, but do you enjoy matchups with teams quarterbacked by Peyton Manning?

“I love playing football.”

Duly noted. As is the fact that Manning is clearly in the heads of both Belichick and Brady, and it only makes these chess games all the more fascinating.

Oh, maybe January’s 28-16 loss in Denver didn’t resonate as deeply as the heartbreaking 38-34 loss in Indianapolis seven years earlier, if only because of the realization that Brady’s time was going to run out eventually with his most dependable receiver playing for the Broncos, Rob Gronkowski injured, and Aaron Hernandez rotting in a jail cell somewhere in Bristol County. The end result though was the same; the Pats loaded up. About time.

Not to deny the Patriots their due in making it to three straight AFC Championship Games, winning one, but at what point does that legacy turn into a lackluster stretch of Buffalo Bills Super Bowl proportions? The Philadelphia Eagles made four straight NFC title games from 2001-04, winning only their final appearance, earning a Super Bowl berth against the Patriots.

It was the last time the Eagles have gotten there. It remains the last one the Patriots have won.

Snicker all you want, but that’s the comparison that faces the Patriots, 10 years since their last Lombardi Trophy. Belichick and Brady, once the Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw of the modern game, are today more on par with Andy Reid and Donovan McNabb, a duo that could rarely get over the hump. The Patriots have been in five AFC title games since their last Super Bowl win, and they’re 2-3 in those appearances. Brady, a player who seemed destined to run out of fingers for the rings he was going to amass, is 9-8 in his last 17 postseason games, with a 32-19 touchdown-to-interception ratio, and an 86.8 quarterback rating. In his first nine career postseason games: 9-0, 11-3 ratio, and an 88.9 rating. Oh, and three Super Bowl wins.

That doesn’t suggest a decline, but only a realization as Brady turns 37 in 12 days.

It’s time. Super Bowl or bust.

This time, in the wake of Manning Kick-Start Reaction 2.0, the Patriots eschewed going the wide receiver route as they did in ’07, landing Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth in an historic dash to 18-0, and instead added the best, most expensive shutdown cornerback in the game in Darrelle Revis, who instantly turns New England secondary from “uh oh” to “uh, whoa.”

“My thing is all about winning,” Revis said in March, when the Patriots inked the corner after being cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “I want to win. What better organization – the New England Patriots – to be a part of that? If you look at their track record, New England has won year-in and year-out or been to the playoffs, had playoff berths.”

That they have, but finishing on top has remained the issue, even in ’07 when Project Overload resulted in embarrassment at the hands of the New York Giants. But this time, Belichick isn’t simply giving Brady the toys to match his record book to Manning’s. This time, Belichick is out to stop Manning cold en route to winning a fourth for Foxborough.

Anything less than a Super Bowl victory will be a monumental disappointment for the New England franchise. No pressure though.

“I think everybody’s goals are the same,” Belichick said during last month’s mini-camp. “It’s a new season. It doesn’t matter where anybody was last year; it’s where we are this year and how we come together as a team. It’s about our training, our conditioning, about the execution of whatever it is we’re doing. I think everybody is in the same boat on that. I wouldn’t separate anybody really. We all have to do it – coaches included. I haven’t called a play in five months, whatever it’s been. I have to rebuild all that myself, we all do.”

Camp should be a hoot. Only six more months of that sort of Billspeak until New England and Denver go at it. Hoo-boy.

Are we there yet?

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