'Tis better to be lucky than good, as the saying goes. Although in the NFL, it is best to be both.
And the Patriots certainly qualify.
Partly through their own doing, partly through the ineptitude of their competition, the Patriots will be standing by patiently when the NFL playoffs open on Saturday, just as they have been for so many of the last 12 years. Sunday was only the latest example of New England's tried-and-true formula. First, with everything to lose, the Houston Texans went out and lost to an Indianapolis Colts team that really had nothing to gain. Then the Patriots went out and did what the Texans could not, taking care of business against the Miami Dolphins to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC and an all-important bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Possessors of the top seed in the AFC entering Week 17, the Texans did not merely open the door for the Patriots on Sunday -- they put down a runner, they accepted the Pats' coat, hat, and gloves, too. Bill Belichick and his players then calmly and confidently strode through, proving an adage that has delivered the Patriots to at least the divisional round in eight of the last 11 seasons.
Ninety percent of life is just showing up.
Which is apparently too much to ask of a team like the Texans.
Or even, say, the New York Giants.
Slightly less than a year ago, lest we forget, the Giants defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, albeit off a 9-7 regular season. Nonetheless, a title is a title. The Giants were 6-2 midway through this season while the Patriots were 5-3 -- the Texans were 7-1 -- and New York loomed over the potential playoff field like a skilled, seasoned fighter still in the prime of his career.
Know what the Giants did? They fell asleep, going 3-5 the rest, losing two of their last three games. The Texans were 11-1 before they came into Foxborough and got their doors blown off, that defeat not nearly as revealing as the subsequent confidence crisis that produced two more defeats in the next three games.
The Patriots, by contrast, were seemingly on the way to a similarly dispiriting loss against the San Francisco 49ers when they decided to, you know, rally through Week 16 and 17, something that ultimately earned them a vacation week while both the Giants (out of the playoffs entirely) and Texans (hosting Cincinnati on Saturday) are trying to figure out, to varying degrees, exactly what went wrong.
The last 10 percent of life becomes much more difficult -- or downright impossible -- if you don't take care of the first 90.
For the Patriots, the last 10 percent makes all the difference in the world, of course, which speaks to the pedigree of the Belichick Era. Since they have been paired together, Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have been to six conference championships and five Super Bowls. And yet, the last seven seasons (and counting?) have failed to produce a Super Bowl title, which has left all of us wondering whether the Patriots have quite what it takes for the last 10 percent.
Over the last seven weeks, since the addition of defensive back Aqib Talib to the Patriots secondary, New England has ranked fifth in the league in defense based on points allowed. On third down, the Patriots have ranked 10th. Those are significant improvements over where the Patriots were prior to the addition of Talib, when the term "Patriots defense" too often seemed an oxymoron.
Beginning in the divisional round of the playoffs, those improvements should not be overlooked. In early December, after a huge Jerod Mayo sack stalled a Miami Dolphins drive and forced a field goal, the Patriots opened the month with a 23-16 win at Miami that featured an impressive, game-ending field goal drive that consumed most of the fourth quarter. Two weeks ago in Jacksonville, a game the Patriots won by an identical 23-16 score, the Patriots made a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions deep in their own territory to preserve the win. Miami and Jacksonville went a combined 9-23 this season, to be sure, but the Patriots showed at least some capacity to win the kind of game they have too frequently failed to win.
Prior to the Miami win, after all, the Patriots were 2-7 in their last nine games when scoring 23 points or fewer points. Their only two victories during that span came against Baltimore in last season's AFC Championship Game (when Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missed a a potential, game-tying 32-yard bunny to end the game) and against Dallas last season (when Cowboys coach Jason Garrett all but sat on his hands despite a chance to run out the clock). Tighter, lower-scoring games have been the Patriots' demise in recent years, largely because they could only win games with their offense.
Prior to the first Miami game, the Patriots' defeats this season followed a similar pattern. Arizona shut them down. Seattle shut them down. In the loss to San Francisco, New England was down 31-3 before the Niners backed off some. All three clubs succeeded by playing New England aggressively and physically, and the Patriots defense was not imposing enough to win what was left.
Whether this group is truly different is certainly open to debate, though the Texans certainly made things easier by shrinking in December. Houston will get another chance in New England if the Texans win on Saturday, but the Patriots have not lost to an AFC opponent at home this year. A Houston defeat would mean a Foxborough visit for either Baltimore or Indianapolis, the former of whom has an aging and fading defense, the latter of whom got throttled at Gillette earlier this season.
What happens after that is obviously anyone's guess.
But wherever the Patriots go now, it will have far less to do with how lucky they are, and far more to do with how good.
Tony's Top 5
NFL story lines in 2012