I know it’s hard to get really motivated to watch a meaningless game against the Dolphins while praying for no injuries, so I’m using this week to appreciate the regular season that the Pats just put forth.
It’s strange to say it but this Patriots team exceeded just about everyone’s expectations. The schedule was a difficult one, and they laid waste to four of the other five AFC playoff teams and the entire NFC North. It wasn’t always pretty on defense. It usually was pretty on offense.
I wondered before the season how BB might evolve this offense to counter the anti-spread defenses that were popping up around the NFL after the 2007 aerial assault.
The answer was made easy by the additions of Alge Crumpler and Rob Gronkowski. Aaron Hernandez was just the icing on the cake.
But Gronkowski especially has added a dimension not seen in New England since Ben Coates. A big tight end who is a force in the run game, but also has excellent hands, runs solid routes and provides an enormous red zone presence.
Crumpler has added both leadership and a contagious attitude. We’ve often seen shots on the sidelines or heard bits of audio with Crumpler taking Gronk and Hernando under his wing. Challenging them to compete with each other, or reminding them of the big picture.
Smaller, less physical defenses who excel in pass coverage are ill equipped to deal with the diverse talents of the Pats three tight ends.
Defenders like Antonio Cromartie are useless against the Patriots new attack because New England is no longer trying to stretch the defense vertically. They’re stretching it horizontally.
Instead of chasing Randy Moss down the field, defenders like Cromartie are finding themselves having to defeat blocks from players like Matt Light, Wes Welker and Gronk.
And small, quick defensive lines like the Colts’ struggle because they no longer have any idea if it’s a run or pass. Back in 2007 it was pretty easy for opposing defenses to just pin their ears back and go for the QB (see Super Bowl 42).
Now Freney and Mathis have to respect the run instead of just focusing primarily on getting after Brady.
The road to the Super Bowl goes through Foxboro. If the Pats continue to play the kind of football they’ve played down the stretch it will take a perfect game from their opponent.
Have you ever seen Roethlisberger, Manning, Cassel, Flacco or The Great Sancheesy ever play a perfect game? Neither have I.
The playoffs will be an entity unto themselves, but for now let’s take a moment to appreciate what we’ve seen. The last four months have been a pretty fun ride, regardless if the next six are miserable or joyous.
Of the potential playoff contenders in the AFC, here’s there the order from team I think the Pats matchup best with all the way down to the team I least want to see.
- Jaguars - Brady might not have an incompletion if the Jaguars end up traveling to Foxboro. They’ve had a good season but there’s no way I can see David Garrard taking us down.
- Jets - We all saw what happened last time the Pats played the Jets. When you know a team as closely as BB knows the Jets it’s a lot easier to prepare for them. And we know the Pats would have no trouble getting uber motivated to crush the Jets again. I like this match-up and would feel really confident that Mark Sanchez would have another craptastic day.
- Chiefs - what an interesting match-up this would be! Cassel, Vrabel, Pioli, Crennel and Weis all return to New England to face BB and the Pats? The Chiefs are talented but away from home they’re a different team. Just for nostalgia factor alone I’m rooting for this game to happen. Also because I don’t think the Pats lose to the Chiefs in Foxboro.
- Steelers - It’s strange that every playoff game the Pats have played against the Steelers in the last decade have been in Pittsburgh. But I stick with the notion that the Patriots just know how to beat the Steelers when it counts most. It will just come down to execution.
- Colts - Peyton Manning always scares me. He makes defenses look stupid and Patriots fans everywhere were probably at least 90% sure we were headed to overtime before James Sanders got that interception. The Colts have holes but they know how to play the Patriots and would surely give us a run for the money. Ultimately it would come down to whose defense got that critical stop just like it did in November.
- Ravens - I’m not sure Joe Flacco has that “it” factor just yet. In the game against the Pats he went cold when they needed him most, and anyone who saw last night’s game against the Texans knows their defense is not the shutdown elite one it once was. But if the Ravens can peak they’ll be dangerous, and their three veteran wide receivers could be match up problems. Top to bottom probably the most talented team in the AFC, they just don’t have the qb… yet.
- Chargers - number one offense and number one defense. Yes the Patriots beat them once but that was without Vincent Jackson and it came down to the final play. The Pats would definitely have a big advantage in the cold outdoors of Foxboro. The crazy part is that if the playoffs started today they wouldn’t even be in.
If you’re looking for a great place to break down the playoff picture I recommend you head over to NFL.com standings page. Weirdest thing about this weekend is that if the Jets beat the Steelers it ensures the AFC East winner will get the #1 overall seed. In that case the Patriots would still need to win a couple games to seal the division up. If Pittsburgh wins the hunt for the #1 overall seed continues but the Patriots would effectively clinch the division, assuming they don’t have a sudden 3 game meltdown.