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Patriots could have been a contender, and despite injuries, maybe they still are one

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  December 16, 2013 06:59 AM

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Maybe there's too much of a what-might-have-been factor to what I'm about to say, too much pining for something that's probably not going to happen without an extraordinary level of cooperation-by-incompetence by any team figured to be superior to the Patriots at the moment.

But I do believe this to be true: If they had reasonable health right now -- if, if, if -- the New England Patriots would be the best team in the AFC this season without a rival.

All other things being equal, I'd give the nod to the Patriots in a hypothetical head-to-head showdown against the ferocious Seahawks in the Jersey snow in February, if primarily because Pete Carroll teams have this charming habit of melting into a puddle right when you fully believe in them.

Like I said, though -- we're dealing in a hypothetical rather than a reality. Excluding all injuries from the equation -- again, that's the game we're playing here -- I'll take their 45-man game day roster, their 53-man roster, heck, even their shadow roster that should probably include Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss at the moment, over that of any other team in the NFL.

Had the Patriots stayed reasonably healthy this season -- had they not lost Rob Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo, and Vince Wilfork among others along the way -- I'm convinced the elusive fourth Lombardi Trophy would have been coming back to Foxborough with them in a little over a month.

I know, I know -- a lot of good that daydream does right now. The Patriots fell to the Dolphins Sunday, 24-20, with Tom Brady's bid for a fourth straight ridiculous comeback victory settling into the hands of little-known defensive back Michael Thomas for an interception on the game's final play. It was a reminder that every game here on out is going to be a grind, and not every one will deliver the conclusion Patriots fans desire. They're depleted, and Brady can't rescue them with a fourth-quarter miracle every week.

There's no shame in losing to the Dolphins in Miami. They're a resilient team with an improving quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, and they had plenty on the line Sunday. They're legitimately in the hunt for a playoff spot, and at 8-6, they're two games back of the Patriots in the division. Catching them is unlikely, but they did prevent the Patriots from having a hat-and-t-shirt party on their home turf.

It's not that the Patriots lost at Miami that was so troubling -- in a sense, the Patriots' short-circuited comeback was as impressive as any of the ones they've actually won.

They nearly pulled it off in the Miami heat with a makeshift offensive line (Nate Solder out, someone named Josh Kline in) and Brady having few options other than to throw to undersized Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola (33 targets between them) before he got buried by the Dolphins' bloodthirsty pass rush.

Nothing is coming easy now. Every game against every opponent will be a brawl. As Tom Brady himself said on WEEI Monday morning, there's very little margin for error now.

Brady will need to be as perfect as the media portrays Peyton Manning as being. The defense, which has allowed more than 700 passing yards to Tannehill and Jason Campbell over the past two weeks, will somehow have to find a way to be opportunistic (it has gone two games without forcing a turnover ). The small receivers -- Austin Collie and Josh Boyce among them -- will have to find ways to make big plays. Shane Vereen (just 21 total yards Sunday) must be a consistent factor. Stevan Ridley must re-emerge, and when he does, he must hold on to the damn football.

It's an extraordinary credit to the Patriots that they're 10-4 despite all that they've endured. But that doesn't make it easier to take.

In fact, it stinks, because you can't help but think what would be possible this season if not for the injuries. I mean, that's how it goes in the NFL -- it's a league of attrition-aided parity, and no one in, say, Houston or Atlanta or any other football city with a decimated roster is going to offer much sympathy.

Those who like to scold us that injuries aren't an excuse are right. They're not an excuse. They're a reason. The Patriots have lost the fulcrum of their defense. Both cornerbacks are hobbled. And wouldn't you think the Patriots would have been better than 1 for 4 in the red zone Sunday had Gronkowski still had both knees intact?

We knew they'd miss Gronk. But did the reminder have to be so blatant? Did it have to be soon and so stark? He's one of the most fun players to watch in recent NFL history. He's also one of the most unstoppable. And now the Patriots are resigned to throwing fade patterns to sub-6-foot-tall receivers with the game on the line.

No wonder Brady was in no mood to elaborate during his postgame press conference, at least beyond this:

"Made some good plays, made a lot of [expletive] plays."

We can only imagine what he was saying as he peeled away with Gisele in the getaway car a moment later.

It's fulfilling to watch this Patriots team put up a fight week after week, especially since it usually emerges victorious. But it's frustrating to know that it's probably not going to be enough to get them where they want to go.

The next-man-up mind set is useful for maintaining focus when teammates are falling and there's a task at hand. Still, there's a point of diminishing returns that is occurring right now -- some players just cannot be replaced. The next man up just isn't good enough.

The Broncos are soft, and the Bengals are the Bengals, and no quarterback/coach combination matches Brady and Bill Belichick. For those reasons alone I'd never entirely give up on the Patriots winning the AFC.

But watching them now, with their reduced talent and still-admirable will, I can't help but think: Imagine how exceptional this team would be without so many cruel twists along the way.

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.

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