FOXBOROUGH -- The Patriots are done playing football games in 2011. Their regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills will come on the first day of 2012, and we are left to hope this really is going to be a new year with a new resolution for the Patriots, and not simply a painful repeat.
The Patriots' 27-24 comeback win over the Miami Dolphins Saturday, their seventh straight win, displayed why there is ample reason to believe in this Patriots team as we approach the playoffs and also why there is a blinking yellow caution light at the intersection of Patriot Place and Playoff Victory Lane.
The Patriots won a game in which they trailed by 17 points at halftime, didn't have the entire left side of their offensive line and played without their best pass rusher, Andre Carter. They won in part because the biggest tackle of the game didn't come from Jerod Mayo or Vince Wilfork. It was made by placekicker Stephen Gostkowski, who clipped Miami kick returner Clyde Gates as he appeared destined for the end zone and a 24-3 Miami lead, fitting for a team that has conscripted wide receivers Julian Edelman and Matthew Slater into duty as defensive backs.
Saturday's win reinforced the qualities -- perseverance, mental toughness, opportunistic play, versatility -- that make it quite plausible for the Patriots to land in Indianapolis Feb. 5.
"It doesn't matter how you win, but good teams find a way to do it," said nose tackle Vince Wilfork.
Absolutely. The Big Man is right, and the early- and mid-2000s Patriots were like the NFL's Thomas Edison, constantly inventing and engineering new ways to win. There is a healthy dose of that win-engineering expertise in this year's team, which has clinched a first-round bye.
At the same time, you can't ignore the presence of some of last year's flaws as well, the hyperventilation-inducing pass defense (the Patriots allowed pass plays of 39, 47 and 41 yards to Miami), the reliance on turnovers, the dependency on quarterback Tom Brady and a prolific passing attack, the absence of a reliable deep threat or chunk plays in the running game.
So, the lingering fear remains that the Patriots are just as likely to be setting us up for disappointment again, as they are for a prolonged playoff run. They're capable of either. It's why the playoffs remain the crucible that will define this season.
What is undeniable is that this team has the resolve and resiliency of a championship outfit.
"At halftime, we basically said we're going to see what kind of team we have," said cornerback Kyle Arrington of trailing the Dolphins. "I thought we did a great job of fighting back, not quitting. It's a pretty mentally tough team."
They proved that bouncing back from consecutive losses to pound the Jets in a must-win. We've seen it when they've trailed against Philadelphia, Washington, Denver and now the Dolphins.
"We've played enough games, and we know when we are down that we're not going to go in the tank," said Arrington. "We know how we're capable of playing, and it's all about just playing to that level. Once we get there we'll be alright. We'll be successful. That's what it was [Saturday]."
True. But it was also Matt Moore and Dolphins center Mike Pouncey botching a snap, and Moore underthrowing an open Brian Hartline, turning a would-be touchdown into Devin McCourty's first interception of the season, the same way Vince Young underthrew an open DeSean Jackson. It's also been Santana Moss getting called for offensive pass interference on a game-tying touchdown, then bobbling a catch that became a game-sealing interception, and Quan Cosby inexplicably muffing a punt he never should have fielded.
It's to say that the Patriots have benefited at times not only from their own reservoir of resiliency, but also their opponents' stream of miscues and misfortune.
Their winning streak is the result of some combination of both, but if the winning formula is more resiliency than opponent mishaps then this team will win in the playoffs. If it's the inverse and a false sense of security has been created by weeks of playing backup, has-been, wannabee and maybe QBs then the Patriots will be unmasked in the postseason again.
What you can get away with against Miami or Washington, you might not be able to get away with against Pittsburgh or Baltimore, if you catch Joe Flacco on a good day.
And while I think we have become spoiled by this team's exemplary success -- nine straight seasons of double-digit wins -- I would submit that Patriots' fans used to criticize the Indianapolis Colts as being simply a regular-season team. It was the ultimate putdown, casting the Colts as a team built only for the rigors of the regular season, when Indianapolis invariably padded its offensive stats and win totals against teams of lesser talent.
But when the competition and pressure were ratcheted up their brand of football was exposed as NFL empty calories. The Patriots are treading close to that moniker themselves, if they don't deliver in the playoffs this season.
With the Glory Days Patriots it wasn't always pretty, but it was often gritty. This Patriots team can be both -- sometimes in the same game. However, Deion Branch, a member of the 2003 and 2004 title teams, downplayed any comparisons.
"Nah, I just think overall it's kind of hard to compare this team with the guys in the past," Branch said. "This team is so young. We had a veteran team way back in the days."
This team's predecessors got their reputation and by extension the franchise's by winning in the playoffs. That's the only way the current Patriots can restore it and allay our fear that this might only be a new year on the calendar.
...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.