NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
After Monday night’s 42-14 shellacking of the Houston Texans in front of a national audience, it feels like years ago that the New England Patriots stumbled out of the gates to a 3-3 record.
Since then, the Patriots have torn through their opponents one by one, and by not only beating but embarrassing the team that still holds the AFC’s best record on Monday Night Football, the Patriots proved they are once again the team to beat in the conference.
Monday night was a display of just how good the Patriots can be when they are healthy and carrying momentum. The Patriots have overcome the issues that plagued them earlier this season, and have become a complete team on both sides of the ball.
Offensively, the Patriots continue to produce and score at a pace that no other team in the NFL can match.
The Patriots lead the league with 425.7 offensive yards per game, and are one of only two teams in the league with more than 400 yards per game. They have been even more prolific when it comes to lighting up the scoreboard: With 36.3 points per game, the Patriots are a full 7.5 points per game ahead of second place, and are just .5 points per game behind their torrid scoring rate from their record-breaking 2007 season.
Against the Texans, one of the NFL’s top defenses, the Patriots looked stronger than ever. The Patriots finally established their deep-passing game on Monday, with two touchdown passes of 37 yards or more, and against one of the league’s best pass-rushing teams, the pass-protection held their own, allowing just one sack.
Offense, however, was never the issue for the Patriots this season. The biggest issue for the Patriots in their early-season struggles was poor pass defense. The Patriots have made a massive turnaround in that area over the past seven games, which has been the biggest factor in the upturn of their season.
The Patriots made moves to restructure their secondary at midseason, trading for cornerback Aqib Talib while moving Devin McCourty from cornerback to safety. These moves have paid massive dividends. The addition of Talib plus the development of rookie Alfonzo Dennard has given the Patriots a very solid pair of starting cornerbacks who have gotten better with each game, while the Patriots have their best starting safeties in years with McCourty next to Steve Gregory.
The Patriots’ secondary played their best game of the season against the Texans, and the Patriots also found creative ways to bring pressure against the quarterback that neutralized one of the NFL’s best pass defenses.
While the Patriots still have a subpar edge rush, they have been able to bring pressure from inside and from linebacker blitzes. Nose tackle Vince Wilfork has made the field his personal playground over the second half of the season, and has been bringing a great deal of interior pressure, while the Patriots have used blitzes effectively from linebackers Jerod Mayo, Brandon Spikes and Dont’a Hightower to bring pressure both up the middle and from around the tackles.
Suddenly, a Patriots team that appeared to have some significant holes at the beginning of the season now looks complete.
While the Patriots were always known to have talented playmakers at the offensive skill positions, the offensive line came into the season as an area of concern, but has ended up establishing itself as an area of strength. On the other side of the ball, opposing offenses had little trouble coming up with big plays early in the season, but thanks primarily to a greatly improved secondary, the Patriots have now become a challenging team to score against.
Now, the Patriots are getting hot at the right time. The Patriots have the NFL’s second-longest winning streak with seven straight victories, and the Patriots have historically played their best football in December and beyond in the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era. With a legendary head coach and legendary quarterback, plus a team with talent at every unit around them, the Patriots are now the team that anyone else in the AFC will have to go through to get to the Super Bowl.
That’s not to say the road to the Super Bowl will be an easy one. If the Texans win out, they will still earn the No. 1 seed with the conference’s best record. If that is the case, getting to the Super Bowl will almost certainly require the Patriots to take out Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos — who have the NFL’s longest winning streak at eight games — then travel to Houston to take on a team that will certainly be much better prepared and looking to make up for an embarrassing regular-season performance.
The Patriots must also have luck on the injury front. One of the reasons that everything came together so well for the Patriots on Monday night was that outside of tight end Rob Gronkowski, they had no key players missing due to injuries. There are some areas on the roster, however, where the Patriots cannot afford any key injuries. Depth at wide receiver and linebacker is virtually nonexistent, and one injuries to a starting defensive back could reshuffle the secondary to where they can fall like a house of cards.
What the Patriots have put on display is that if they are at their best in the postseason, it’s highly unlikely that they will lose to an AFC team. They have already beaten both the Texans and the Broncos, and there do not appear to be any other significant challengers to make a Super Bowl run in the conference.
Are the Patriots the team to beat in the entire NFL? They will have a chance to prove that when they play the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday night. The 49ers are the class of the NFC, so this matchup will be billed as a “Super Bowl preview,” and the winner will immediately become the favorite to hoist the Lombardi Trophy this year.