Watching the playoffs from home this year has to be especially difficult for the Patriots when they look at the NFC and see a team they beat by 40 points playing in the conference title game. But watching a player who will be going up against the Cardinals in the NFC championship game may be the most painful experience of all.
Asante Samuel spent the first five seasons of his career in New England, picking off 10 passes while being named an NFL All-Pro in 2006 and following that with six interceptions in 2007. The Patriots decided not to re-sign Samuel last winter.
Samuel hit the open market and brought his talents to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Patriots struggled with their secondary all season, giving them a reason to second-guess not signing the 28-year-old.
Samuel signed a six-year, $57 million contract with the Eagles and has been worth every penny, especially since the postseason began. He had four interceptions and 21 passes defensed during the regular season and has had a pick in each of Philly’s two playoff victories. His interception of Eli Manning last Sunday was his seventh career postseason pick, and his 44-yard interception return for a touchdown against the Vikings in the first round was his NFL-record fourth career return for a score in the playoffs (the first three came with the Patriots).
New England never seemed to fill the void left by Samuel. Many felt the secondary was the main reason the team was 26th in the NFL in third-down defense and 31st in the red zone. Those statistics show the Patriots’ deficiencies in pass coverage and the pass rush.
Yet it may be premature to pass judgment on New England’s defensive backs. Both Jonathan Wilhite and Terrence Wheatley were rookies, while Brandon Meriweather and Mike Richardson were in just their second seasons. Meriweather’s play at strong safety in place of Rodney Harrison, who was lost for the season in Week 7, drew raves from the coaching staff. He didn’t miss a single snap after Harrison went down. Samuel started just one game during his rookie season.
It was also Ellis Hobbs’ first year as a No.1 cover guy, and James Sanders’ second full season as a starter. Sanders started 14 games at free safety and had 64 tackles. The Patriots will have a decision to make on Sanders, who started 15 games last season as well; the fourth-year player is a free agent.
Veteran Deltha O’Neal started 10 games this season but was demoted late in the season and figures not to return next year. Harrison is rehabbing from a season-ending torn quadriceps and will be an unrestricted free agent. The Patriots could bring him back if he doesn’t retire.
Whether it’s through free agency or the draft, the secondary looks to be the team’s main priority this off-season. The consensus is that the Patriots, with so much talent on the defensive line — and a year after they drafted linebacker Jerod Mayo in the first round — will select a defensive back with their first-round pick in April.
“Part of it is evaluation of your team and part of it is looking at new opportunities, whether it is at the collegiate level, in the different free agents, players that are released, or guys that are in the National Football League that become available in one way or another,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
One facet of the Patriots’ game that was not impaired by injuries was special teams, which outperformed most teams in the league. Between Hobbs’ AFC-leading kickoff return average and Stephen Gostkowski’s Pro Bowl kicking, New England had the superior special teams unit in nearly every game.
Gostkowski has all but put to rest the debate over whether he could step in for Adam Vinatieri. This was a career season for the 24-year-old kicker, who was named to the Associated Press All-Pro team, the lone Patriot to make the first team.
Gostkowski, who will be entering the final year of his contract in 2009, led the NFL with 148 points and a league-high 36 field goals. He received 28 of the 50 first-place votes cast by a nationwide panel of 50 sportswriters and broadcasters. John Carney of the Giants was second with 13 first-place votes.
The Patriots did get one small bit of good news with the Cardinals (9-7 in the regular season) facing the Eagles (9-6-1) in the NFC title game. Regardless of who wins and advances to the Super Bowl, the Patriots move up one spot in the draft to the No. 23 pick. Both teams were pegged to pick ahead of New England (11-5) based on regular-season records, but the teams in the Super Bowl get picks 31 and 32.
Tom Wilcox covers the Patriots for OT and can be reached at email@example.com