The Patriots are 7-2, the third-best record in the AFC (tied for fifth-best in the NFL). But compared to the hype and worry that often surrounds New England (and did coming into this year), the Patriots are positively flying under the radar right now, with plenty of other teams — many of them big names with middling records — getting the attention instead.
That’s the way the Patriots like it. In fact, they like it so much that it’s worth wondering whether some of their early-season stinkers are perhaps planned in some way, like Bill Belichick wants a horrid performance against the Bengals or a kick in the shorts from the Jets to make sure the Patriots pull off the rest of the season the way he wants without too much fawning.
The Patriots are at their best when they’re not the top-heavy favorite that can do what it wants from the beginning. The undefeated Patriots of 2007, no matter how much they said their record wouldn’t affect their preparation, had to deal with extraordinary mental and emotional fatigue throughout the year. The front-runners of other recent years have had similar concerns, doing enough to win week after week because they had talent but failing to get back to that place where they had to dig deep and make sure they were really shored up before the true testing time of the playoffs.
The best Patriots teams have been the ones that have had underwhelming-on-paper squads that improved as the year went on until — poof! — New England had double-digit wins and a poise few could match in the playoffs. It happened in 2011 when the Patriots grew incrementally and then went to the Super Bowl. And this year — with the Patriots having lost several of the big guns that put them well ahead of the pack at the beginning of the season — it could happen again.
While the team did have holes coming into the season, most notably among the receivers, it’s the team’s loss of strength at other positions that could aid New England in the second half of this year. The Patriots, while strong across the defense and methodically improving on offense, never dominated early this year. As a result, the player groups were each pressed to develop from the ground up, building their skills with the preparation and patience that pays off far more than those games when winning comes easy.
The injuries that have struck have been rough for New England. No one knows what this team could be now that Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo, to name two, are gone. But those same injury losses have also pressed the Patriots to become more cohesive and versatile, and they came early enough that this team, over many, many weeks, can learn how it will play game in and game out, rather than relying on big moments to rescue them (as many of Aqib Talib’s early interceptions did in saving the Patriots’ skin).
With Rob Gronkowski back, the Patriots can again dominate on offense — but their inability to roll despite his addition, and the deficiencies of the other receivers, shows why the Patriots are still thought to be struggling offensively. With the defense playing well without its starters at several positions, the Patriots are capable of shutting down teams — but their giving up big plays again, a la 2007-2012, shows why few will trust New England with a lead. The Patriots are good, but they’re considered very beatable.
But the Patriots still have enough talent at key positions, and the way the backups have plugged the holes has been a good learning exercise as New England figures out now what works and what doesn’t. The Patriots may not be the dominant team they looked to be at other points, but their ability to produce the same results without the flash may actually be better when it comes to making a playoff run — especially if Talib, a huge factor in the defense (the most defining key to the team’s chances of success), can rejoin the team and provide a healthy fraction of what he was doing before.
Those watching the Patriots have seen this tale before — a team that is not as fearsome as its NFL counterparts choke up early games and fail to impress in some wins. But come January, the Patriots often pop their heads above ground with a double-digit win record in tow. They make the playoffs. The Patriots teams that have developed and found their consistency across the board throughout the season advance past teams that have had higher highs in the regular season — but are primed for lower lows.
Belichick and Tom Brady will always make the Patriots a possibility when it comes to Super Bowl runs. But as history and the makeup of this team shows, the Patriots may be more prone to such success this season, no matter how under the radar they want to be.
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