Winning a Super Bowl is never easy — especially in a league boasting the likes of Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson and a science-fictionally rejuvenated Brett Favre. But in the current decade, the Patriots have certainly managed to do it more than any other team. They've got a shot again this season, but the task became that much harder for them last Sunday, when receiver Wes Welker crumpled to the Reliant Stadium turf with a torn anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament.
Welker, who has since been placed on injured reserve and will be unavailable for the playoffs, may have been the difference-maker for the Patriots this season. Bigger even than quarterback Tom Brady or headline-grabbing wideout Randy Moss, Welker served as the team's backbone for much of the season.
The Patriots have never been a team to back down from a challenge and they've certainly managed to shock people with their winning ways before — particularly in 2001, when they improbably found themselves in the Super Bowl as 14-point underdogs. They've won Super Bowls without the likes of Welker and Moss and it's not impossible that they can do it again. But perhaps the best way for the Patriots to bring home another ring will be to get back to basics and play as if no one thinks they've got a chance.
In order for the Patriots to take down all comers, there can't be any fourth-and-2, Indianapolis situations. This is not to say that Bill Belichick shouldn't make gutsy coaching decisions in the playoffs — but he's going to need to play the percentages and his team is going to need to deliver. There are no infallible teams this year and there is no reason the Patriots can't be the ones to take down the favorites.
The absence of Welker leaves the Patriots without one of their most dangerous weapons: the short slant route. Impressively adept at turning short passes into 20- or 30-yard gains, Welker provided the middle ground between the long passes to the likes of Moss and the running game, which utilizes Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, Fred Taylor and Sammy Morris. Without Welker, the Pats will need to rely on the more conventional passing or running game.
Paramount for the playoffs will be the protection given to Tom Brady. If Brady is given ample time to throw, there are few things he can't do. But Brady is nursing some injuries of his own (reportedly a broken index finger and three cracked ribs) and likely won't be so quick to pop up again after absorbing hits.
Motivation will also be a factor. In Sunday's wild-card game, the Patriots' offense will be matched against noted trash talker Ray Lewis and the always-frightening Ed Reed, both of whom are salivating over the prospect of disrupting Brady's game. Brady's record in Foxborough in playoff games is astounding (8-0), but Baltimore's defense doesn't care one whit about stats. What they care about is knocking Brady down and shutting down Moss.
The Ravens are also still fuming about being flagged for questionable roughing-the-passer calls when the two teams met back in October, as the Ravens felt that the officials were overprotecting Brady. Be ready to hear them chirping about it in the press. If the Patriots turn any Baltimore trash-talking into bulletin board material the way they have in the past, they'll create their own motivation. After all, the Pats have always been most dangerous when they thought they were being disrespected.
To be successful in playoff scenarios, Belichick would do well to remember what he has been preaching to his players since they were introduced as a team during the 2001 Super Bowl in New Orleans: No one person is above the team. There are no celebrities in Foxborough.
This seems to be a ridiculous claim for a team boasting the likes of Brady and Moss, but frequently, the biggest name in New England football has been Bill Belichick. He's seen coordinators come and go — many to NFL head coaching positions where they floundered (Josh McDaniels) or flat-out failed (Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini). But some humility on Belichick's part could go a long way toward playoff wins. Keeping the team — and the coach — grounded is the best way to win in January.
On the other side of the ball, the Patriots will need to get back to one of their old standbys: exploiting an opponent's weaknesses and taking away its top weapons. For years, the Patriots were a classic bend-but-don't-break defense, but the message got muddled during the 2007 perfect regular season, when their offensive firepower was enough to blow everyone away. It's time for the team to get back to fundamental, hard-nosed defense. Clean plays, big hits and explosive penetration to opposing quarterbacks are the key. If a team is particularly gifted at the run, force it to pass. If it has a Pro Bowl receiver, shut him down and make the team resort to the run. Use the opponents' strengths against them and force them into being a one-dimensional team. The Patriots have done it before, and they can do it again.
Football, more than any of the other major sports, is a game of strategy. The Patriots still have arguably the best chessmaster at the helm and a quarterback who, with any supporting cast, gives them a good chance at victory. But perhaps the best way to win it all this time around is to remember what it was like 10 years ago, when no one thought they could.