In the NFL, there is now a distinct line between the regular season and the postseason, and the border is growing thicker by the year.
What all of this means to the Patriots remains to be seen, but the numbers over the last five years tell an interesting story. Beginning with the 2007 season, the Patriots are 64-16 over the last five season; entering last night, the Giants were 49-31. And yet, in the playoffs, the Patriots have gone just 4-4 while the Giants have gone 8-1, New York winning a pair of Super Bowl titles to New England's zero.
And is it too much to ask for both?
Given coach Bill Belichick's emphasis on discipline and structure, he may be striving for both this year, and he may have all the elements to do it. The Patriots certainly had their share of issues during a preseason that revealed weaknesses on the offensive line and, perhaps, in the secondary, but Belichick placed an obvious emphasis on making the Patriots a more complete football team over the summer. The Patriots spent a pair of first-round draft choices on defensive players who will be starters for them Sunday in Tennessee, and New England now seems fully committed to a younger, faster, more aggressive style of defense that can actually make plays.
Thanks partly to a schedule considered the softest in the league, players like Chandler Jones might be able to make their mistakes now and still win, and the Patriots could be a far better football team in January as a result.
Really, isn't that what this all about? As captivating as New England's Super Bowl run was last season, the Patriots got there virtually untested. Until New England defeated the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game, the Patriots had not won a game all season against a team that finished 2011 with a winning record. Even then, it took a missed 32-yard field goal by Billy Cundiff to deliver Belichick and Tom Brady to their fifth Super Bowl together, no small achievement.But when the Patriots got there, they found themselves squared off against a team that was better than they were, at least head to head.
In the last five years, in fact, there may be no team in football that provides a more stark contrast to the Patriots than the Giants. While the Patriots methodically marched through the regular season, the Giants stumbled against teams like Washington (twice), Philadelphia and Seattle. But once the Giants actually got into the playoffs, they elevated their play and rattled off wins against Atlanta, Green Bay, San Francisco and the Patriots, who combined for 51 victories last year, an average of roughly 13 per team.
So which would you rather have, a team that causes you consternation during the season but has elite talent? Or one that plays more consistently during the year but has had some difficulty elevating?
And are they mutually exclusive?
Make of this what you will, but three of the last five Super Bowl champions have barely squeaked into the playoffs - the Giants twice (in 2007 and 2011) and the Green Bay Packers (in 2010). The Giants were a No. 4 seed last year, but they went 9-7; in 2005, New York was a No. 5 seed. The Packers were the sixth and final playoff entrant in the NFC in 2010, but they, too, rumbled through the playoffs.
Maybe that is all merely a coincidence. Or maybe it is an indication that regular season and playoff football have gone the way of the NHL, where the intensity, defense and style of play change dramatically once the most critical games start.
If you are the Patriots, here is the good news: Belichick was focused not solely on making the Patriots better defensively over the summer, but in making them a little more physical and meaner, too. Dont'a Hightower plays with edge. Jones looks like a potential freak. The presence of those players could have a profound impact on the Patriots defense, setting the stage for a rather interesting scenario.
What if, say, the Patriots offense slips some this year but their defense improves? Would you be disappointed? Over the last five years, we have come to expect the New England offense to perform at the highest level, right there with New Orleans and Green Bay. And yet, the Patriots have invariably suffered in the postseason, defenses of the Giants (twice), Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets sufficiently stifling the New England offense to bounce the Patriots from the playoffs.
On those occasions, while some have focused on New England's inability to keep scoring, the point has been lost. The Patriots haven't been able to defeat the real football teams anymore - teams like the Giants - when the game turned into a more traditional, physical affair. (Namely, the playoffs.) Since the start of the 2002 season, the Patriots are 8-14 when they score 20 points or fewer. In the last two season they are 1-6, their only victory coming last year against a Dallas team that basically choked.
In last season's 21-17 loss to the Giants in the Super Bowl, the Patriots simply could not get off the field on defense. They allowed the Giants to dictate the pace of game and the style of play. New York's talent and physicality was simply a little too much for the Patriots to handle - at least on that side of the ball - and it certainly seems as if Belichick knew it.
And so now, entering 2012, the gap between the Patriots' offense and defense appears to have shrunk. Starting Sunday, over the next four months, we may get to see by how much.
And in January, we may find out just how much better off the Patriots will be for it.
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