By: Mike Saver/Saver-Sports.com
December 30, 2010

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Entering the 2010 season, no one knew what to expect from the New England Patriots. Last year Boston fans watched a group with virtually no characteristics of the ones they'd seen be the class of the NFL all decade.

They were a team that lacked mental toughness. They couldn't win away from home - losing every true road game but one. They had plenty of 4th quarter meltdowns and costly turnovers. Though they still won the AFC East, they were knocked out handily by the Baltimore Ravens in the first round. It was Tom Brady's first home playoff loss in his career.

The disappointing season and disastrous loss had many questioning the future of the New England Patriots. After a decade of winning, a market correction seemed inevitable, as ESPN's Howard Bryant wrote at the time.

Coupled with that, the blockbuster off-season moves of the division rival New York Jets had solidified New York as many's pre-season favorite to win the AFC East. The end of the Patriots' reign seemed inevitable and a changing of the guards was expected.

Not by the Patriots.

During training camp in July, Tom Brady held his first press conference with the media. When a reporter brought up that expectations were down for New England it lit a fire under the 3-time Super Bowl champion.

"I don't give a damn, really. I don't care what you guys think", barked back Brady. "I know what we think and what we think we can accomplish. What my dad thinks, I don't really care about. What my mom thinks, I don't care about, because they don't know. The only guys who can do anything about it are the guys on this practice field. It feels pretty good to me what we are doing, what I see out here. We just have to continue to put the work in".

The Patriots now sit atop of the AFC East once again, the eighth time in 10 years. Having clinched not only the best record in the AFC but also home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. They've scored over 30 points in every one of their games since November 14th and viciously blown out 3 of the last 4 teams they've faced. Once again, the Patriots are Super Bowl favorites and Brady is the likely MVP candidate.

A 6th round pick in the NFL draft, Brady is no stranger to being over looked. He's heard that he's not good enough before. The re-discovered underdog role before this season certainly served as a motivator.

"When you're sitting there and [the media] is picking everybody else [to win the Super Bowl], it gets you kind of fired up", said Brady on WEEI back on September 8th, before the season had started. "Last night when I'm watching [ESPN], I'm going 'Oh, really? Is that really what you think?'...and then you think about standing up on the victory stand at the end of the year, MF-ing everybody about them picking other people. So that is a bit of a motivator. We've got a lot of guys that have chips on their shoulders like I do and always will have".

Back in October, while getting ready to face the Miami Dolphins, Bill Belichick showed his team the latest issue of the team owned newspaper, Patriots Football Weekly. In it, every single expert had picked the Dolphins to beat the Patriots. It lit a fire under the team, adopting the "nobody believes in us" attitude. New England went on to win that game, 41-14.

Over the course of the season, the Patriots have faced 8 teams that were favored by NFL experts to win the super bowl before the season. The Jets, Bengals, Steelers, Ravens, Chargers, Vikings, Colts and Packers. The Patriots went 8-1 against those teams, with the lone loss coming in their first meeting in week 2 with the Jets, a meeting the Pats followed up with a 45-3 trouncing the second time around.

It's not just that they've been successful. It's that they've done it because of all of the reasons they were supposed to fail.

They've done it all with undrafted players like Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis and one of the youngest defenses in the league - one with virtually no household names.

They did it despite losing three major projected starters in the pre-season: Nick Kaczur, Leigh Bodden and Ty Warren.

They did it despite trading away Randy Moss, a move most NFL analysts saw as crippling to the Patriots' season. Deion Sanders even speculated that the trade meant that the Patriots "knew they weren't very good" and were giving up on the season.

"That means a lot to us, to be able to come out and just silence the critics", Vince Wilfork told the media after clinching the AFC East with a 34-3 win over the Bills. "A lot of people doubted us. Some people still might. At the same time, all year we know what we had in this locker room.

"The guys did a really good job all year of just staying focused and not even paying attention to the stuff that was in the papers or media, whatever it may be. We have a sign coming out of our stadium saying 'Don't believe the hype.' I think that speaks for itself -- from being the greatest team to the worst team, we heard it all. I think guys really buckled down and just trusted one another that we can be a really good football team if we just stay focused and outwork our opponents."

The season is not over yet. One more game is left in the regular season and then it's onto the playoffs, where anything can happen. For now though, the Patriots can savor the moment. After last year's disappointing run and the emergence of an upstarting Jets team, nearly no one had them picked to be as successful as they have. The Patriots have already proved them wrong.

However, as Jerod Mayo said on Sunday, "We're not satisfied yet".

Mike Saver is a regular contributor to PatsFans.com and covers Boston Sports for Saver-Sports.com and CelticsLife.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @SaverSports, as well as Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/saversports)


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