You’ve been hearing and evaluating all the possible playoff scenarios for New England for the past two weeks. The Patriots want to avoid playing the Steelers. Denver has always been a House of Horrors for the Patriots. Kansas City hasn’t lost a game since mid-October. But all that doesn’t matter. The Patriots’ toughest opponent on their way to their seventh Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick Era will not be Kansas City, Pittsburgh, or Denver. Their toughest opponent will be themselves.
After eleven weeks of the season, the Patriots were, far and away, the best team in the NFL. Brady was only months away from getting his fifth Super Bowl ring. There was little doubt about it. The only question was if the Patriots would go undefeated. The offense was clicking. The defense was quietly emerging as one of the best in the NFL.
Then Julian Edelman broke his foot. Then Devin McCourty suffered a high ankle sprain. Then Sebastian Vollmer was carted off the field with a leg injury.
But the Patriots’ problems go beyond just injuries. Bill Belichick made some dubious decisions in the final weeks. He called for an onside kick when his opponent was down by fourteen points and showed no signs of life. He deferred a kickoff in overtime after winning the coin toss. He played Tom Brady in the final regular season game despite a first half game plan which indicated Belichick was trying to protect his quarterback.
And then, of course, this week the Patriots have had to deal with the Chandler Jones’ fiasco and distraction. Jones showed up, acting erratically, last weekend at a Foxboro police station barefoot and bare-chested, only wearing sweatpants. He was acting disorientated and was obviously strung out on some form of drug. This is stuff that happened to the Michael Irvin-led Cowboys of the 1990s, or Eugene Robinson and the Atlanta Falcons at the 1999 Super Bowl. Off-the-field embarrassing incidents were common place with the Patriots of the late 1980s.
But this stuff doesn’t happen to the modern day Patriots. That’s not the Patriots Way.
The Patriots will be happy to have Julian Edelman back on the field for the first time since breaking his foot on November 15. His return will be huge for an offense that has become stagnant in his absence.
Sebastian Vollmer is expected to give it a go on Saturday after injuring his leg in a Week 16 loss to the Jets. He was already filling in at left tackle for Nate Solder, who got injured in Week Five and was lost for the season.
The return of Edelman and Vollmer should help protect Brady. Brady has been getting crushed behind an offensive line that can’t give him the additional time he needs for his secondary receivers to get open.
The return of Edelman and Vollmer has been offset by the news this week that Rob Gronkowski missed practice time this week with, not only, a knee problem, but also a back injury. Belichick has stated that the reason the Patriots have come up short in previous playoff runs has been the unavailability of Gronkowski.
So, say what you will about the Patriots’ opponents, the Patriots will need to battle themselves to get back to the Super Bowl. They will need Edelman and Gronkowski getting open and catching passes. They will need Vollmer protecting Brady’s blind side. They will need Devin McCourty healthy enough to cover ground deep in the secondary. They will need Dont’a Hightower on the field to stuff the run.
The Patriots will need to block out any distractions. They will need to block out the Chandler Jones incident. They will need to ignore the black cloud of Deflategate which constantly hovers over their head.
Even Coach Belichick needs to look in the mirror. He needs to learn humility. He needs to learn to respect his opponents. Sure, he might talk like every team he plays each week is the best team in the world, but his in-game decision-making has indicated otherwise. Stop trying to run up the score. Stop trying to be cute. Just win, baby.