"Improbable Dream" meet "The Miracle in Foxoborough."
Let's go there, for just a minute.
Thrilling come-from-behind victories. Check.
Crazy and quirky personalities. We got that, even with Bill Belichick as coach.
Overcoming ridiculous odds. Been there, done that, multiple times.
Beards? Check out Tom Brady's postgame press conferences, never mind his offensive line.
So why not?
The first reaction in the wake of Rob Gronkowski being lost until 2014 is give up on the Patriots' chances for doing anything substantial the rest of season.
Sunday's 27-26 last minute-comeback win over Cleveland was the most miserable Patriots' victory since New England beat the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1 of the 2008 season. That day, Tom Brady was put out for the season thanks to Bernard Pollard's hit.
If you need inspiration, Patriots' fans, just look to the Red Sox.
Well, 130 games in to the Red Sox season, they had lost to the Dodgers and fell into a first-place tie. That was near the end of August. The pitching was starting to waver. The "Curse of the Dempstino" was looming. At that time, no one but Jonny "Just another day closer to the parade" Gomes was giving the Red Sox much of a public chance of winning the American League, ["The Tigers are just too good." and "The Rays' pitching is too deep."] never mind the World Series.
The injuries the Patriots have suffered are far more significant than any the Red Sox faced, for certain. More importantly, they are all too relevant. The Patriots' defense has been bent and broken all season. And when injured players return healthy, they've been remarkably ordinary, as we've seen with Aqib Talib the past two weeks.
But in 2013 neither the Patriots or Red Sox have ever counted themselves out of any game as long as there was a mathematical chance of winning. Opponents of the Red Sox didn't realize this until it was too late. Opponents of the Patriots have known but feared this for many years. And that spirit/clubhouse chemistry appears to be contagious, as long as the physics involved continued to work as well.
Resiliency, mental toughness and full effort, if not 60 minutes of competent execution, are the norm.
Nonetheless, this Patriots' team continues to slowly evolve into something special. Sunday's game was perhaps their second ugliest outing of the season, aside from the loss in the rain at Cincinnati. But there was some inner beauty, especially in the fourth quarter. The Patriots rallied from a 19-3 deficit. Shane Vereen had a dozen catches for 153 yards [12.8 average] and Stevan Ridley didn't fumble.
The Patriots are best and worst, and certainly the most perilous, 10-3 team in the NFL. They haven't put together a consistent 60 minutes of football in one game all season. Sunday, Brady again sat out the first half when it came to making worthy contribution. Passes were poorly thrown and receivers were obscured by an ineffective offensive line. He was Tom Brady at the game's most critical moment, though, leading the Patriots to pair of touchdowns in 61 seconds. Somehow, Brady threw for 418 yards [32 for 52, 2 TDs and 1 INT] but finished with an anemic 52.2 passer rating. He was sacked four times and New England didn't have anyone rush for more than 42 yards [LeGarrette Blount.]
And yet, the Patriots still won.
Matthew Mulligan, a lonely Patriots Nation turns its eyes to you, ooh, ooh, ohh. He will now get the call to start at tight end.
Brady will do with Mulligan as he's done with all the other parts that have been swapped out on his offense this year. He will adjust. Mulligan is no Rob Gronkowski, he's barely a Dan Gronkowski. But Mulligan has shown himself to be serviceable at the tight end position. He won't make spectacular diving catches that are Gronk's trademark. Nor will he be able to scoop up any of Brady's lowballs that have become all too common of late. But Mulligan won't be drawing double or triple teams like Gronk does, either. He can block, catch the ball and run. When Brady's at his best, that might be enough.
Speaking of improbability, the Patriots' final drive was set up thanks to their first on-side kick recovery since they scooped one up against Cleveland 19 years ago, when Belichick was coaching the Browns. CBS dutifully aired that play right before this one.
The final scoring drive, which began at the 40 after Kyle Arrington's recovery, was aided by a debatable pass interference call that gave New England a first and goal at the 1 and ended with Brady's pass to Danny Amendola.
Leon McFadden undoubtedly made contact with Josh Boyce in the end zone, but he was playing the ball and not Boyce. While it can been seen as "NFL reparations" for what happened to them at Carolina, the injustice doesn't do much for the Browns or the credibility of the NFL.
The league's officiating has deteriorated along with the Patriots' depth chart. It's as if the replacement refs are still on the job. While the NFL continues its two-month investigation of those texts between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the dysfunction that allegedly existed in the Dolphins lockerroom, the Patriots and the league's other 31 teams are all too often seeing the outcome of their games decided by the whim and whimsy of the league's bumbling officials.
Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin wanders onto the field and nearly trips Jacoby Jones on national TV and doesn't get flagged, but gets fined $100,000 and his team loses a future pick.
Depending on your perspective, the Patriots have now have at least four games this season [losses to the Jets and Panthers and wins over the Saints and Browns] decided or determined by either incorrect calls, picked up flags, non-calls, dubious calls or, in the case of the Jets game, a penalty that has been whistled once in the entire history of the league.
Gronkowski's all-but-officially-season-ending torn ACL was inflicted on a low but legal hit in these days of NFL football political correctness from Cleveland's T.J. Ward. Gronk was truly a victim of circumstances. Ward, who's been fined three times in his career for high hits, is listed at 5-10. Gronk is 6-6. Going low was his best and only option, at least in his mind. Avoiding a penalty and fine was his priority. That fact that Ward's his was clean , legal and in accordance with the prevailing rules in the NFL is a all one needs to know about the current state of affairs.
This was not Shawn Thornton thuggery/foolishness. It was what passes for football in Roger Goodell's 2013 NFL. American culture and the self-righteous barometers of sports and society went collectively bananas when the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin story broke. But intentional helmet-to-knee shots are somehow more virtuous than a high hit that ends up making contact with one's head.
We've written in this space multiple times on the damage being done to the NFL by this trend. The concern and fear over head injuries has morphed into open season on the lower extremities of skill players not named Peyton Manning, Drew Brees or [maybe depending on the levels of our Patriots' paranoia] Brady.
If Manning was hit in the same manner as Gronkowski, the perpetrator would be suspended until 2036.
That may be the next time all the Patriots' starters on offense and defense are healthy together again. But Brady and Belichick don't have that much time to wait.
2013 might just have to do.
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