Swiftly, Bill Belichick has seemingly rebuilt the Patriots. Eight weeks into the 2010 season, they alone have the best record in football, the backdrop of this football season suddenly changing as rapidly as the autumn leaves.
So here are the questions:
Can the Patriots sustain this?
And, if so, how far can they go?
Presented another challenge yesterday, the Patriots passed with flying colors in a 28-18 win over Brett Favre, Randy Moss and the remainder of the Minnesota Vikings at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots made plays, protected the football and executed when the game was on the line, closing out yet another victory by outplaying their opponents in the second half. If the Patriots keep this up, it won’t be long before people start mentioning them in the same breath as a certain trophy – and a big one.
In the interim, what is incumbent upon the Patriots now is to prove that they are completely unlike the team that inhabited Gillette Stadium last year, when the Pats were 6-2 entering an infamous game at Indianapolis that produced fourth-and-2 and triggered their demise. That team self-destructed in the second half at Indy and beyond. The Pats went 4-4 in the second half of the season, 4-5 including the playoffs, prompting a locker room overhaul and continued transfusion of talent.
So far, beyond the record, there is little reason to believe these Patriots have anything remotely in common with that team.
You want unfiltered, downright bubbly enthusiasm today? Of the Patriots six wins thus far, four of them – including each of the last three – are against teams that were in the playoffs last year. This is a considerable contrast to the last two seasons. The Pats of 2008 and 2009 generally beat up on the bad teams and lost to the good ones, paper tigers who ultimately imploded against the Baltimore Ravens last January thanks to their own ineptitude.
But this year? This year is different. No team in the league has fumbled fewer times than the Patriots. Only three teams have thrown fewer interceptions. One year after ranking in the bottom half of the league in second-half scoring, the Patriots now rank first, having scored more touchdowns after intermission than any team in the league. These Patriots have shown an ability to close, something never more evident than on the 13-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in the fourth quarter yesterday after Minnesota had closed to 21-18.
You want to talk resiliency? The Vikings scored three times yesterday on a touchdown, field goal and touchdown (the last with a two-point conversion). On all three occasions, the Patriots did not merely score on their next possession; they scored touchdowns. On the first instance, the Pats went 75 yards in eight plays. On the second, Tom Brady did a pirouette and fired a 65-yard strike to Brandon Tate. On the third, the Pats jammed the ball down the Vikings’ throat.
What Bill Belichick appears to have here, unlike last, is a collection of mentally tough, competitive, disciplined football players.
Nonetheless, we would be wise to remember where the Pats were a year ago at this time, when they were coming off consecutive wins against Tennessee (59-0) and Tampa Bay (35-7) that improved their record to 5-2. After a bye week, the Patriots subsequently began November with a 27-17 win over the Miami Dolphins. The Patriots appeared well on their way to 7-2 when they completely disintegrated under the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium, though it should be stressed that they came out the following week and beat up on the Jets, 31-14, at Gillette.
Then they got shwacked at New Orleans, a defeat that was every bit as demoralizing (or more so) as the Indy affair.
Here’s the point: historically speaking, on both the micro and macro levels, Bill Belichick teams are supposed to get better as they go along. That applies to the second half of any game as much as the second half of any season. So far, the Patriots have addressed the former. Now it is up to them to address the latter, particularly with back-to-back road games on the horizon (Cleveland, Pittsburgh) before a return date with Indy, right here at Gillette Stadium, on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
November is here, folks.
Time for the contenders and pretenders to start distinguishing themselves.
Home field in the playoffs depends on it.
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