When an NFL team enters a new season with reasonable postseason aspirations, conclusions on whether it was a success or failure can't be drawn until the final down of the final game has been played.
While there are occasional exceptions to this -- such as the "Dream Team" Eagles, who have become Andy Reid's worst nightmare since that time he woke up convinced that his favorite steak joint had converted to an all-hummus menu -- context is usually only available after the final shred of confetti has rained down on the champs.
Yeah, I know: You're muttering "No kidding, Sherlock." But I bring it up not only in a transparent way to mock the Eagles, the latest professional team to embarrass itself by behaving as if a championship is won during free agency (team slogan: They Are Who We Thought They Weren't), but also because it applies in particular to the 2011 Patriots.
We knew before Tom Brady threw for the first of his 511 yards in the opener at Miami that the context and perspective will become available regarding this football team only after two questions are answered:
- Will they earn their first playoff victory since the 2007 AFC Championship Game against the Chargers?
- Will their postseason journey culminate on February 5 in Indianapolis?
The standard set by Brady and Bill Belichick, the two chief architects of the franchise's run of excellence that has now surpassed a decade in length, is both rewarding and relentless. Win 13 games in the regular season but lose in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year, and it's recorded as an epic failure. There's an element among us that revels in that. They haven't won a Super Bowl in seven years! Sell on Belichick! He inherited Pete Carroll's players, just like Theo stole Duquette's glory!
The drought -- between Super Bowls, between playoff victories -- is frustrating for sure, even to the most levelheaded fans. Tom Brady is 34 years old. He might want to play until he's 40, but the game and 290-pound speed rushers tend to make decisions on career length for quarterbacks.
There is desperation to some degree to get that fourth championship before there are cracks showing in No. 12's foundation. But the blessing of high expectations is countered by a nagging curse -- an inability to appreciate the best moments along the way because the focus is always on not punting away a perceived championship opportunity.
That some of the most prominent sports radio programs in the market habitually emphasize the negative even after an efficient, impressive victory over a team they touted in the buildup as the Patriots' biggest challenge the rest of the way only adds to that vibe.
Will this Patriots' season be considered a success by the conventionally grand standards around here? Ask me again in February. What we know for sure is that they're 8-3, in full command of the AFC East, and have a decent shot at running the table over the next five weeks given that their remaining opponents have a combined 18-37 record. It's mostly been fun so far, and there are more good times ahead in December.
We also know that Eagles scatter-arm Vince Young isn't the last erratic passer they will face; this week, they cross paths with the Colts' Curtis Painter, who is literally caught in a can't-win situation and whose surname probably suggests a more reasonable career choice for his skills than NFL quarterback. It's telling that Tim Tebow, who could someday be a devastating H-Back but right now is an extraordinarily fortunate quarterback who often appears to be throwing with the wrong arm, might be the most dangerous QB ahead, save for perhaps Ryan Fitzpatrick. Can't wait to see utility player Julian Edelman shadow Tebow from sideline to sideline two weeks from now.
We also know that teams that don't need exotic schemes to get to Brady -- the Giants, Cowboys, the blitzing Steelers -- are the teams that can keep the Patriots below their average of 30.1 points per game. We know, as LeSean McCoy also does, that the defensive line can stop the run (12th in the NFL) and has played better and better the deeper the Patriots get into the schedule. We know Bill Belichick, animated and encouraging on the sidelines to his mix-and-match defensive backfield, likes something about this group that most of us are yet to recognize. We know that Gronk is unstoppable, possibly indestructible, and always remembers to spike the ball even after he's been hit so hard he looks like he might not remember his name.
We know that there's a lot to like about the 2011 Patriots. We also know, especially if you have your radio on, that there's a lot to wonder about. The postseason begins roughly six weeks from now, and the ultimate answers about this team will be revealed soon thereafter. in the meantime, try to enjoy getting there as much as you can. Or you'll leave me no choice but to revisit the Tommy Hodson Era in great and agonizing detail.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.