You can point to any number of seminal moments in the Patriots' season as the Tipping Point, the exact instance in which the they went from retooling to the ruling class of the league again.
Take your pick. There was the blowout win in Miami on a Monday night; the redemptive overtime victory over the Ravens, which had grizzled vets like Matt Light giddily running off the field; Tom Brady's biology-class-worthy dissection of the Steelers a week after the team got rocked by the Manginis in Cleveland; and of course James Sanders game-saving interception against Indy arch-nemesis Peyton Manning.
My pick is ... the draft. ESPN did a 30 for 30 film on the 2004 Red Sox entitled "Four Days in October" and the story of these Patriots should be entitled, "Three Days in April" because that is when the seeds of being the AFC's top seed were sown. You don't get home playoff games in January without last April's draft victories.
After a disappointing 10-6 campaign that exposed a paucity of developing players on the roster and an over-reliance on imported veterans, Bill Belichick and the Patriots needed an infusion of young talent, stat. I stated at the time that the 2010 draft was going to be the most critical of the Belichick era. It would decide whether the Patriots were a dynasty in decline or if the 2009 season merely represented pressing the pause button on their run of success.
The 2006 through 2008 drafts, always a point of contention in these parts (please stop telling me that Randy Moss and Wes Welker constituted draft picks in '07), were not "Grapes of Wrath"-style barren dust bowls. However, they weren't exactly good and plenty either with the assorted Chad Jacksons, Kareem Browns, Terrence Wheatleys and Shawn Crables dotting the register.
The 2009 crop, featuring four second-round picks, had shown promise, but Belichick still needed a home run in the draft -- badly. He hit a vintage David Ortiz walkoff. Totally clutch.
After Backwards Bill (said endearingly) traded down twice, he drafted Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty, a shutdown corner and a Ty Law clone, with the Patriots' first-round pick, on day one. Many media members, myself included, panned the pick. Mea culpa, coach. Next to Tom Brady, it might turn out to be the best selection Belichick's made in Foxborough, considering the circumstances and timing of the pick.
On day two, the Patriots used three second-round picks to take tight end Rob Gronkowski, who set a franchise record for touchdown catches by a tight end (10); outside linebacker Jermaine Cunningham, who was the Patriots' most reliable edge-setter outside and had the pressure that forced Manning's aforementioned interception; and inside linebacker Brandon Spikes, who brought a rugged presence in the run game, despite his short attention span.
Day 3 brought fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez, a first-round talent who dropped because of character concerns. The Patriots took a gamble on the former Gator, and it's paid off in a big way. Along with Gronkowski, Hernandez allowed the Patriots to reshape the offense around the tight end position and move away from Moss. That in turn cleared the path for Deion Branch's return and Brady's transcendent season.
Hoping to find the punting version of Gostkowski, the only player left from the '06 draft, the Patriots took Zoltan Mesko in the fifth round. Mesko finished 11th in the NFL in net punting average (38.4). Seventh-round pick Brandon Deaderick started four games and had two sacks before being suspended, and sixth-rounder Ted Larsen, who landed with the Buccaneers, started 11 games in Tampa Bay.
Of their first seven of 12 selections in the draft, six of them -- McCourty, Gronkowski, Cunningham, Spikes, Hernandez, Mesko -- combined to start 59 games, catch 87 passes for 1,109 yards, score 16 touchdowns, intercept eight passes, force four fumbles and record two sacks. And for all the talk of veteran leadership on this team, it's these young guys who have reoriented the locker room in the right (read: obedient) direction.
In one draft the Patriots went from a dominant crew in remission to one that had been reignited. Not a bad three days for Belichick, director of player personnel Nick Caserio and director of college scouting Jon Robinson.
By comparison the Colts have not gotten near the impact from their picks that the Patriots have. First-round pick Jerry Hughes has six tackles and is still looking for his first NFL sack. Linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have started 20 games and look promising. But they were forced into action by injuries, and the Patriots abused both in the teams' regular-season meeting.
Another usually well-drafted outfit, the Ravens, used its top pick on linebacker Sergio Kindle, who hasn't played a down yet. Kindle fractured his skull falling down the stairs in July and was arrested on drunken driving charges the day after Christmas. The Ravens drafted a pair of tight ends, Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta, and they've combined for 12 receptions for 153 yards and a touchdown.
The Jets? They took a corner Kyle Wilson one pick after McCourty. He has yet to record an interception. The Snack Pack gets a fail because the drafting of running back Joe McKnight clouded their judgment on Danny Woodhead. Pittsburgh got nice pick-ups in Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, but their class lacks the overall depth of the Patriots'.
The importance of the Class of 2010 for the Patriots is heightened by the fact that some of their predecessors from '09 have endured sophomore slumps. Where would the Patriots be at cornerback if McCourty was a bust, considering that Darius Butler's play has plateaued? Julian Edelman is learning that the transition from college quarterback to pro pass catcher isn't that simple.
Games are won on the field, but championship teams are often forged in the front office. If they're able to complete their journey the Patriots will be no different. The road back to the Super Bowl started with three days in April.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.