The New England Patriots will begin their quest for the franchise's fourth Super Bowl championship on Saturday, and their first Lombardi trophy since 2004. For Patriots diehards, that's nothing new. What may be unfamiliar territory though, is just how this team has managed to position themselves nicely for another postseason run despite a wave of adversity that dates back to the preseason.
Let's face it: New England fans-by and large- are spoiled, arrogant, sanctimonious followers of a Belichickean doctrine that is predicated upon winning, and winning often. And why not? By kickoff tomorrow, the Patriots will have officially participated in 10 postseason tournaments since 2001. Coincidentally enough, only the Indianapolis Colts (with 11), have more playoff appearances in that span. New England also boasts an absurd home-field winning percentage of .778, having won 14 of 18 in Foxborough, and their overall postseason record of 24-17 is good for sixth best in NFL history.
The Patriots are only one of two teams to have made the playoffs for five straight seasons, the other being the Green Bay Packers. Subtract the 2008 season in which Tom Brady missed every game with a torn ACL, and the streak would be an unheard of 10 consecutive playoff berths. Although the Patriots failed to close the deal on what would have been the greatest season of all time in 2007, and were a few horses short again in 2011, the vast majority of NFL fans would gladly deal with the pain of seeing their favorite team fall in the Super Bowl. History may only remember rings, but logic tells us that to even make it to the biggest stage in the NFL is an enormous accomplishment.
It's easy to get caught up in the "Super Bowl or bust" mentality that has permeated throughout this fanbase in recent years, but will anyone be truly shocked or dismayed if the Patriots don't come away with the hardware this year? Given the obscene level of turnover at the offensive skill positions combined with the continual loss of key starters on both sides of the ball, it's hard not to be extra impressed with what Bill Belichick has managed to get out of this squad. If you need a comparison, just take the Atlanta Falcons or Houston Texans. Both teams were thought to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders entering the pre-season, only to let injuries to a few playmakers completely de-rail their seasons. After starting 2-0, Houston went on to lose 14 straight games, subsequently firing head coach Gary Kubiak and now slated to make the first pick in 2014's upcoming draft. Such disastrous tailspins aren't even a rare occurrence in the NFL, and just makes New England's final record of 12-4 and second overall seed in the AFC that much more impressive.
Patriots fans were crushed when they discovered that the team would play the rest of the season without Vince Wilfork, having been placed on injured reserve on October 3. Less than two weeks later, they thought the loss of defensive captain Jerod Mayo may be insurmountable. Then, Brady's most consistent tackle, Sebastian Vollmer was lost for the year with a broken leg on October 29. This trend continued in the form of first year Patriot Tommy Kelly, and perhaps most disheartening of all, stud tight end Rob Gronkowski. Amidst the overwhelming odds though, head coach Bill Belichick just plugged-and-played. 'Next man up' as they say in the football world. That little idiom sounds great in theory, but every team, no matter how deep, has a tipping point. This past Monday, the Patriots placed their second starting linebacker- Brandon Spikes on IR with a knee injury. With both starting defensive tackles and now the team's top two (and only two) experienced postseason LB's, the middle of this defense has been utterly decimated. And yet here we are, still thinking that the Patriots can win in convincing fashion against one of the best young quarterbacks in the league if they bring their best game. It's nothing short of remarkable, really.
Chris Jones, Sealver Siliga, Joe Vellano, Jamie Collins, Dane Fletcher, Matthew Mulligan- these are just a few of the guys who the Pats are leaning on heavily if they hope to make it to the AFC championship game. For a lesser team, it would be nothing short of a death sentence. For Belichick, it's merely a challenge. That fact alone deserves our admiration.
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