Over the past several years, the Pats have not been a great playoff team for two reasons in my opinon:
- Poor pass defense, with a penchant for giving up big plays in the passing game at inopportune times
- Lack of diversity on offense, with too much of the offense depending on two or three players and therefore extremely vulnerable to either an injury to, or an off day from, one of those players
I think the team this year (at least prior to the injuries) solved the problems:
On defense. The addition of Talib and emergence of Dennard, along with the move of McCourty to safety created a very sold secondary (Gregory too is better than people think). The depth in the secondary is better than expected as well, with Arrington, Ryan, and Harmon all adding some quality behind the four starters. While the front seven was mostly unchanged, Kelly added some real talent at the second DT position, Chandler Jones advanced to near-elite status, and the LBs were deeper and more experienced. So overall, the D was still effective against the run and greatly improved against the pass. Early in the season, it was a D that could control the pace of a game, something the Pats Ds of the early 2000s were great at, but which the post 2008 defenses were awful at. Prior to all the injuries, this was a championship defense, I think. Now, I'm not so sure. I will say they play hard and come up with the big plays when they need them. But giving up 30 points a game isn't a great thing to do. I like the attitude of this defense. I worry about the big loss of talent thanks to a series of injuries.
On offense. When healthy, this team has a much more diverse group of talented weapons than they've had in a while. The past few years, the team was too heavily dependent on just three guys, all of whom were primarily short field receivers: Welker, Gronk, Hern. Now they have young guys in Dobson and Thompkins who may not be great receivers yet, but are beginning to add some legitimate threats on the perimeter and in the deeper parts of the field. These guys have a combination of size, speed, hands, and athethic ability to threaten D-backs in a way Welker and Hern really couldn't. Gronk continues to be almost uncoverable when healthy. Edelman and Amendola allow the slot position to continue to be productive despite the loss of Welker. And the running back position continues to improve. Vereen adds an explosiveness in the passing game out of the backfield we haven't had since Faulk was in his prime. Ridley is a quality runner (if only he can protect the ball). And the back-ups are solid. We even have a fullback when we need him. So when healthy (and with the maturation of the outside receivers) this offense is nearly as explosive as the offenses of the past few years, but even more versatile and diverse, which I believe makes it less likely to stall out even with an injury or two.
I'll just add that the special teams look good too . . . especially the punter and place kicker. I haven't paid close enough attention to the stats to be absolutely sure, but it seems to me that kick and punt coverage has gotten a bit less effective this year than last (does it seem to anyone else that Slater, Cole, and Arrington aren't getting downfield as fast?), but I still think it's good.
Anyway, I like this team. I think it has a winning attitude and I won't be surprised if it finally gets that fourth Lombardi. However, the injuries are a big hurdle to overcome, especially on defense. It's tough to win giving up 30 points come playoff time and unfortunately the loss of Wilfork, Kelly, and Mayo is a big, big challenge. Those are three quality players right in the heart of the defense. Not many teams could overcome that, but if any team can, it's this one.