Going into the season, the Patriots’ best defensive lineman was Vince Wilfork, their best linebacker was Jerod Mayo and their best defensive back was Devin McCourty. New England was without all three on Sunday.
McCourty left the game just minutes into the second half after banging his head on Ravens tight end Ed Dickson‘s leg. The details of his injury are not known, but it can be assumed he suffered a concussion, which likely will not keep him out long. Wilfork and Mayo were lost for the season months ago. It’s downright amazing that this team has an 11-4 record despite all the injuries it has been through.
It goes far beyond just Wilfork, Mayo and McCourty, too. All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are out for the season. Pro Bowl defensive tackle Tommy Kelly is also out for the year. On Sunday, New England was without left tackle Nate Solder, wide receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce and linebacker Dane Fletcher. Third-down back Shane Vereen didn’t make it past the first quarter after hurting his groin — Vereen was spotted later on the sideline, meaning the injury likely will not keep him out long.
And the Patriots still won. And they still hold an 11-4 record. How is this possible?
Obviously, as it has for 13 years now, it comes down to Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Belichick is the reason guys like defensive tackles Chris Jones and Sealver Siliga, cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon are able to come in without the team skipping a beat. Brady is how the offense can continue to put up points even after losing nearly every meaningful skill-position player from 2012.
This season is the equivalent of a basketball player choosing to shoot left-handed because it’s no longer a challenge to shoot righty. The Patriots basically made Brady put a hand behind his back this year. And the team is 11-4 through all the injuries and turnover.
No Wes Welker? No problem. Nah, don’t worry about it. Here’s a guy who used to play quarterback in college. No Danny Woodhead? No Vereen? Eh, here’s Brandon Bolden. Sure, sometimes he forgets to turn around to catch the ball, but that’s the only way to keep it fair.
The players deserve their fair share of accolades as well, obviously. Julian Edelman is one of the toughest players in the league right now, despite his lack of size. Ryan and Harmon are constantly waiting on the edge of the bench to get their turn, and it’s rarely noticeable when they, rookie defensive backs out of Rutgers, are replacing All-Pros.
Jones and Siliga are not Wilfork and Kelly. Not even close. They’re players that other teams in the league did not want. But Belichick has morphed them into players who believe they can be the starting defensive tackles on a playoff team. And guess what? They are.
The Patriots needed to win on Sunday to prove to the league they were a legitimate Super Bowl contender. And they marched into Baltimore and beat the Ravens 41-7. And they were without two great players throughout the second half.
It’s not as if the team doesn’t see a noticeable drop-off when these guys go out. The defense had to adjust without McCourty, and the offense struggled to move the ball without Vereen. But they’re always able to adjust.
At a certain point, this season became about more than just talent and play calls. If that were the case, New England would not be in the running for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. The players and coaches have talked all season about how this team is mentally strong. And it’s true. When Gronkowski went out against the Browns, no one panicked, and the team won anyway.
And when they were without McCourty and Vereen, once again, no one panicked. We’ll see how long the Patriots can keep this going, but at this point, it’s not out of the question that they can go all the way. The season seemed half over when they couldn’t go into Miami and win. Now, they’re looking like the best team in the conference again. And that was without McCourty and Vereen.