Over the years of the Belichick-Brady regime, the New England Patriots have been one of the model franchises for the NFL. Not only did the duo win three world championships together, but their dominance throughout the decade was second to none.
Hated by most, Belichick was different from any other NFL head coach. The quiet, uninteresting Belichick led teams powered by a strong defense and an offense that scored just enough points to win. But then, in the middle of the decade, the Patriots philosophy shifted. The defense first, run oriented Patriots became a dominant passing juggernaut. At the helm was QB Tom Brady. Brady, who had already won three Super Bowls with the team, vaulted to the ranks of the NFL's elite quarterbacks and started to put up Dan Marino like stats.
In 2007, the Patriots aerial attack reached its peak. New addition Randy Moss was determined to prove himself after a disappointing stint with the Oakland Raiders. He did just that by eclipsing Jerry Rice's single season touchdown receptions record with 23 touchdown catches. Aided by an excellent receiving core, Brady set a record of his own by throwing 50 touchdown passes of his own, breaking the mark of rival Peyton Manning. The Patriots flew through the regular season with the NFL's first ever 16-0 season and advanced all the way to the Super Bowl, before falling to the New York Giants 17-14.
Since then, the Patriots have not won a playoff game. Affected by the retirement of veteran defenders Tedy Bruschi and Rodney Harrison, the Patriots defense never achieved the same success it had in the Super Bowl seasons. The problem got worse when the Patriots' dealt All-Pro defensive end Richard Seymour to the Raiders due to salary cap limitations. The Patriots defense has been a liability since the deal.
But, regardless, the Patriots have won at least 10 games every season since. Despite the regular season success, Brady, Belichick, and Co. have not won a playoff game since the 2007 AFC Championship Game. However, every year, New England is considered a Super Bowl favorite by the media. Just the season, more than half of ESPN's published NFL predictions included the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
In 2011, the Patriots raced out to a 5-1 start, their only blemish being a close loss to the emerging Bills. But, it was not hard to see that New England had key flaws. Losses to the Steelers and Giants in the last two weeks have just proved the notion, the Patriots are not a great football team. When watching the Patriots, it is quite easy to see how this team is successful. They are carried by an elite quarterback and possess a mediocre run defense and a below average defense. It has become abundantly clear this season that this is an average team with a great quarterback. Other than Brady, this team does not have elite talent compared to the rest of the NFL.
They do not possess a running back who is capable of being a #1 NFL back for a team that runs that ball a lot. Ben-Jarvus Green Ellis is a solid back, but no one will confuse him for a franchise back. Woodhead is a quick scamper back that is looking more and more like a one season wonder.
With the exception of Welker, the wide receivers are below average. There is no deep threat on the roster, with the exception of young backup Taylor Price. Brady's receivers have consistently created little separation from defenders, making it extremely hard on their quarterback to move the ball down-field.
The tight ends have been the lone shining star in the passing game. Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, both 2010 draft picks have been match-up problems all season for opposing defenses. Gronkowski is a huge red zone target than Brady desperately needs and Hernandez has the size to out-muscle corners and the speed to beat safeties and linebackers.
The New England offensive line that came into the season looking solid has been shaky at best. Free Agent addition Brian Waters has been fantastic at right guard, but All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins has been wildly inconsistent. Center Dan Koppen was lost for the season in Week 1, and converted guard Dan Connolly has his ups and downs as relief of the veteran Koppen. However, possibly the biggest disappointment has been 2011 first round pick Nate Solder. Solder, a 6'7" tackle from Colorado has struggled to make it on the field and has struggled when on it as well.
The defense in general has been torched all season, ranking dead last in the league in total yardage. Pro Bowl cornerback Devin McCourty has been suffering from a major sophomore slump and on the other side, Kyle Arrington is as inconsistent as it gets in the NFL. Arrington, who started the pre-season on the fringe of roster cuts, has intercepted 5 passes half-way through the 2011 season, but has been beat for big plays on numerous occasions. Losing Jerod Mayo for a few weeks showed just how crucial to this defense the young linebacker really is. The former Tennessee Volunteer is a tackling machine and without his presence in the middle of the field, New England struggled mightily against the run.
Many people still expect this team to make a deep playoff run and last week Peter King projected them to defeat the undefeated Packers in the Super Bowl. But realistically, this team is not a legitimate Super Bowl contender. As important as great quarterbacks are in this league, and the Patriots definitely one, you cannot win with an average team and a great quarterback. Dan Marino's Dolphins are a perfect example of this. Unfortunately, the Patriots are in that same category this year. Not only can this team not stop the run or the pass and is an extremely one dimensional offense.
Realistic expectations for this team seem to be an AFC East title and possibly a playoff win but not a Super Bowl title.
I'll post a blog about how to fix the Patriots later.