Fewer than four months after entering the season with a suspect defense, a pair of rookie tight ends and mounting injuries, the Patriots yesterday secured the No. 1 seed in the AFC with a 34-3 victory over the Buffalo Bills. There is no longer any point in quibbling over details. For the regular season, the Pats get an A-plus.What happens in the playoffs, as always, is anybody’s guess, but there is no disputing the accomplishments of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots now that their regular season is effectively over. The Pats have the best record in the league at 13-2. The Pats also have the greatest point differential. New England is undefeated at home (7-0) and has not lost overall in its last seven contests, all of which may make this the most impressive New England regular season since 2001.
The 2007 campaign? Please. The Pats were loaded that year. If they hadn’t gone 16-0, they would have gone 14-2 or 15-1. They were that good. But what Belichick and Brady did with this team, at this point in time, is second to only the storybook season of 2001 in New England folklore.
Let’s all remember where the Pats were slightly less than a year ago. In the first round of the playoffs last January, the Pats got shwacked by the Baltimore Ravens, 33-14. The game wasn’t that close. In the subsequent months, Belichick overhauled his roster almost exclusively through the draft, forgoing free agents like Julius Peppers for young unknowns like Brandon Spikes, Jermaine Cunningham, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
When Belichick took yet another defensive back with his first-selection – Devin McCourty – much of New England groaned.
Now here we are, with only one week remaining in the regular season, and the Pats have positioned themselves as the best team in the NFL. Anyone who claims to have predicted this is either a liar or mentally ill. During training camp and the early weeks of the regular season, the Pats lost Ty Warren, Leigh Bodden and Kevin Faulk. Logan Mankins held out for half the year. The Pats cut ties with Randy Moss and have received virtually nothing from Fred Taylor (shocker) and yet they have defeated most everyone in their path, no small achievement given the depth and difficulty of their schedule.
Baltimore. Pittsburgh. Indianapolis. The Jets. Green Bay. Chicago. Minnesota. San Diego.
The Pats beat `em all.
In retrospect, the Pats’ most valuable wins might have come early in the season, when Belichick was molding a young roster, dealing with Moss and searching for answers. The Pats went 3-1 in their first four games, culminating in a 41-14 win at Miami that triggered the Moss deal. Even when they were not playing especially well, the Patriots were nonetheless finding ways to win.
Now, with the playoffs looming, the Pats appear to be a well-oiled machine. Since Deion Branch showed up, the Pats are 10-1. In December, the Pats lead the NFL in both scoring offense (36.5 points per game) and scoring defense (10.0). Belichick’s young defense still has identity issues – witness the Green Bay game in Foxborough on Dec. 19 – but the Pats have held opponents to seven points or fewer in three of the last four games.
And so now the Pats have just one regular season game remaining – at home next week against Miami – with a tidal wave of momentum behind them. With the benefit of a bye week, Belichick will have three weeks to get his roster healthy and in the best possible shape. New England could face any one of a number of playoff teams – the winner of the AFC North (Pittsburgh or Baltimore) will be the only exception – but we all know that Tom Brady has not lost a regular season home game since 2006.
Of course, the Ravens came to Gillette Stadium last year and throttled the Pats in the playoffs. No matter. Those Pats were a dysfunctional group with Adalius Thomas and Moss, among others. Especially on defense, these Pats don’t know enough to question their accomplished coach. (And thank goodness for that.) Over the course of 16 weeks, under the sculpting hand of Belichick, the Pats have molded themselves into the kind of team that warrants our praise and admiration for a few very simple reasons.
In 2010, the Patriots rebuilt themselves from the ground up.
They claimed the No. 1 seed in the conference the old-fashioned way.
They earned it.
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