Patriots Now Two Wins From Another 'Hat and T-Shirt Game'

Ian Logue
December 26, 2010 at 11:09pm ET

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Facing an opportunity to lock up the AFC East and a first round bye, the Patriots went out on Sunday and beat up the Bills 34-3 in front of the Buffalo home crowd and essentially made it where they’ll need just two wins to make it back to the Super Bowl.

That’s all it will take – just two wins. Two wins to put them back in position to wear another T-shirt, and it will give them a shot at one more game that could get them another t-shirt and also a ring to go along with it.

It may be considered a bit too early to look that far ahead, but with just a meaningless game against the Dolphins now facing them in Foxboro next Sunday, it’s hard not to start pondering what could actually be on the horizon. After all, we’re in a year where there seems to be more parity than we’ve seen in past seasons. There’s no powerhouse team out there that heading into the playoffs you would believe they’d have no chance against. We’ve seen them hold their own against some of the better defensive teams this season, and have also seen their young defense handle some very good offensive teams. Not bad for a Patriots team that some thought would be an average one at best. A lot of the “experts” out there felt they’d battle for a postseason birth at the start of the season, but now they’re riding high with a record of 13-2. They’ve wrapped up the AFC East division and have a pretty good shot at going far into the playoffs.

We may enjoy wondering what the future may hold, but Bill Belichick as usual downplayed it after the win.

"We're happy about it. It's great, but we'll just see what comes and take whatever the next step is,” said Belichick. “We'll play Miami this week, get ready for them, and take whatever comes after that."

What comes after that, if nothing else, will be a week of observation and a week of rest. Considering some of the injuries to their interior defensive linemen, having an additional week off is likely going to do them quite a bit of good. We saw the Bills have a fair amount of success early on in Sunday’s game running the ball, before – as usual – the Buffalo coaching staff abandoned what had been a decent game plan and put the ball into the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Seven turnovers later the Bills found themselves playing in front of a home crowd in which only about 25% of them were still on hand to witness the final outcome. The rest apparently had seen enough and were heading home to beat the weather.

"It's great to be able to take advantage of those opportunities,” said Belichick after the game on the Bills turnovers. “We had a couple where we had the ball stripped out, the ball batted up in the air - we came up with it, we caught it, we had a couple good catches. When you get those opportunities, you've got to take advantage of them. Certainly we've dropped our share. We'll keep trying to stay after the ball and hopefully when it's loose, we can have enough people around it to come up with it."

Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork's leadership has been a key reason why they've been able to overcome personnel losses this season. (PHOTO:Icon/SMI)
It’s pretty obvious that against some of the better teams in the playoffs, New England will need to get healthy up front and give Vince Wilfork some assistance should they face teams who have a better rushing attack. They’ve been without Mike Wright for a couple of weeks now as he continues to recover from a concussion, as well as Myron Pryor and rookie Brandon Deaderick who are both battling injuries. In their absence we’ve seen some new guys fill in fairly well, with recently signed Landon Cohen and Eric Moore doing a serviceable job this afternoon. They struggled a bit in the first series against the run when the Bills drove down and got a field goal. However, after Brady led the offense to a couple of touchdowns, Buffalo went into panic mode and melted down from there. They stopped running the ball while the Patriots didn’t let up with their own rushing attack, and finished with 217 yards on the ground on the afternoon.

"Good blocking, good running, good play calling,” said Belichick on the play of his runningbacks and the blocking that helped open things up for them. “The players are the ones who gain the yards. They're the ones that blocked; they're the ones that ran. Our receivers have been doing a good job in the running game."

This may be one of the best coaching we’ve seen from Belichick during his tenure, accompanied by some great personnel decisions. Despite the loss of Kevin Faulk, Jarvis Green, Leigh Bodden, Nick Kazcur, and Stephen Gostkowski, all of whom were lost for the season thanks to injuries over the course of this season, Belichick has done a good job of evaluating different players to help fill in the holes. The Patriots lost Faulk, and have replaced him – perhaps permanently – with Danny Woodhead. He stuck with BenJarvus Green-Ellis after Fred Taylor suffered an early season injury, and it ended up being the right move. Following Sunday’s win Green-Ellis is closing in on his first 1,000 yard season and has provided New England with the running game they’ve been sorely lacking in recent years.

But one thing that can’t be overlooked has been the play of Tom Brady, who has been the main reason why they're on the cusp of another championship run. He’s been flawless, throwing just four interceptions all season. He broke Bernie Kosar's streak of passes without an interception on Sunday, and has accomplished this feat after the guy he was forcing the ball to was shipped out in what may be one of the most surprising moves by a head coach during a team’s regular season. Want to question whether or not Belichick is afraid of anything? The trade of Randy Moss proved that he’s not afraid to get rid of a player who he feels is a detriment to his roster, and the guys in the locker room have seen them lose just one game since he left. Meanwhile Moss found himself traded from New England and then waived by his next team in 2010, with both of the teams he’s been a part of (the Vikings and now Titans) currently sitting with 9 losses, with the latter having a 1-4 record in their most recent five games.

It’s hard to believe that’s a coincidence, and anyone who doubts Belichick’s decision making ability and how much he understands the locker room dynamic hopefully has changed their minds. Following the Moss trade there were quite a few people unhappy with what transpired. Now many of them are singing a different tune. Winning will do that, and while it’s the players that ultimately are the ones who win and lose the games, good coaching gives them the best chance to go out and achieve that success.

“Our coach is tough on us,” said Brady. "As I said earlier in the week we take the coaching from him. He's a pretty smart coach. I think when we can understand what he is teaching us and the way that we need to do things it ends up turning out pretty good.”

It’s turned out pretty well to this point. Now here they are with one game left in the season and just three games that could help them achieve the new identity that Belichick hoped they’d find at the start of the season.

Needless to say there’s plenty of reason to be excited. There’s a new hat and t-shirt to buy and just a few games before they may be able to wear a couple of different ones. But considering the outlook at the start of the season, the fact they’re in this position has to have fans feeling pretty confident for what the future may hold in the coming weeks.

“We have a sign coming out of our stadium saying ‘Don't believe the hype’,” said Vince Wilfork after the game. “I think that speaks for itself, from being the greatest team and then being one of the worst teams, we heard it all.”

“We've got a lot of work to do but at the same time with this team, you've got to keep getting better. There's no doubt in my mind that we won't keep getting better. That's where we're at right now.”