Doubt begins with 'D'
There has been only one pertinent question concerning the 2011 New England Patriots, and it’s not, “Which 1960s or ’70s ABA player is Tiquan Underwood’s hairdo a tribute to?’’
It’s the same question we had on Sept. 25, when Ryan Fitzpatrick led the Bills to victory with 369 passing yards.
It’s the same question we had on Oct. 2, when Oakland’s Jason Campbell threw for 344 yards and a touchdown in a losing effort.
It’s the same question we had on Oct. 30, when Ben Roethlisberger threw for 365 yards and two touchdowns in a Pittsburgh victory.
It’s the same question we had on Nov. 6, when Eli Manning orchestrated a game-winning touchdown drive by the Giants highlighted by a pass interference call on the hapless Sergio Brown.
It’s the same question we had on Nov. 27, when Philadelphia’s Vince Young threw for 400 yards, albeit in an easy Patriots victory.
It’s the same question we had Dec. 4 when Indianapolis’s Dan Orlovsky was 30 of 37 for 353 yards and two TDs, again, granted, in a Patriots victory.
It’s the same question we had on Dec. 11, when Washington quarterback Rex Grossman and wide receiver Brandon Banks combined to throw for 301 yards and three TDs, yes, in a Patriots victory.
And it’s the same question we had on New Year’s Day, when Fitzpatrick threw for 307 more yards and got the Bills off to a 21-0 start before the Patriots straightened themselves out and emerged with their eighth straight triumph.
The question can actually be phrased in a variety of ways, but let’s settle on this: “Do the Patriots have what anyone could identify as a playoff-caliber defense?’’
Didn’t we all know that we would be asking that question, even as Stephen Gostkowski approaches the ball on the opening kickoff - and they are always kicking off first - of the first playoff game? It was the question du jour before and it will be the question du jour tomorrow.
You might say the Patriots are the strangest 13-3 team in NFL history if it weren’t for the presence of the Green Bay Packers, who would have to qualify as the strangest 15-1 team in NFL history, since the same question can be asked of them.
That we are in a new chapter in NFL history is beyond dispute. Once upon a time, a quarterback who threw for 3,000 yards in a season was a big deal. Throwing for 4,000 was almost unimaginable. We have now completed a season in which three men - Drew Brees, Tom Brady, and Matthew Stafford - have thrown for more than 5,000 yards. And in terms of individual game accomplishment, my former colleague Michael Smith, now of ESPN, summed it up early in the season when he said, “400 is the new 300.’’
People point to rule changes that have liberated receivers from the clutches of aggressive defensive backs (such as the earlier Bill Belichick teams always had), but I think it’s more than that. I think it’s talent and attitude, the former belonging to the players and the latter belonging to the coaches.
Some of these quarterbacks are truly amazing. Even the average ones can really zing it. They don’t need much of an opening to get the ball in there.
But it’s the receivers who have really changed the game. There weren’t too many Larry Fitzgeralds or Andre Johnsons 20 or 30 years ago. And Calvin Johnson? Pick a word: sick, ridiculous, inhuman, unstoppable. Then you get teams such as Green Bay and New Orleans, who have what appear to be platoons of great receivers.
Have I mentioned the tight ends? We think Rob Gronkowski is great, and he is. New Orleans would probably say, “You know, we’re very happy with Jimmy Graham, thank you.’’
With these talented quarterbacks in abundance, and with all of this astonishing power and athleticism available at the receiving spots, why would any self-respecting offensive coordinator not exploit them? It’s probably fair to say that third and 10 is the new third and 5.
That’s the world we’re living in, and the Patriots reflect it perfectly.
Then again, it’s nice to have a defense that can get the other offense off the field at strategic moments.
That, of course, is the issue as we enter the playoffs. Yards allowed? Look at it as base hits. Does the team with the most base hits win the baseball game? No. It’s the team that has scored the most runs. Or, in the spirit of this discussion, the team that has allowed the fewest runs. The Patriots are far from the worst team in the league when it comes to allowing points. They are 18th from the bottom.
They have supported their superb offense by doing fewer dumb things than their opponents, and by feasting on opportune turnovers, some generated by their positive acts, and some caused by The Man Upstairs, or something equally mystifying.
But why is the defense in general so vulnerable, so shaky, so scary? Why do the Patriots have to live on the edge, week after week? That’s a question for Chief Grocery Shopper Bill Belichick, but it’s a question for another day. We’re here with the personnel on hand, and it will have to be good enough.
The Patriots are not going to march through the playoffs, winning, 45-10. At some point, the defense will have to make a stand. Will it? Hey, we’ve been asking that question for four months.