December 26, 2010
Opportunity is Knocking. Will the Patriots Answer the Door?
BY: Kevin Rousseau
Maybe being too young to know about the ghosts of 2007 is a good thing. Maybe all the players who weren't around for that crushing Super Bowl loss will keep on keeping on and cruise towards a fourth Super Bowl banner over the next five weeks.
Opportunity is unexpectedly knocking this postseason. The question is, will this remarkable Patriots team answer the door?
Only the most rose-colored Patriots eyeglasses wearer -- you're out there, I'm sure of it -- would have predicted a number one AFC playoff seed at the beginning of the season. There were too many questions that didn't have answers for them. Where was any semblance of a running game going to come from? When you were counting on Laurence Maroney for rushing yards in training camp, it didn't leave you all warm and fuzzy. Could the offensive line survive the Logan Mankins holdout? Will Randy Moss show up and shut up in a contract year? Will Wes Welker be any semblance of himself coming off an ACL tear this past January? Can the Patriots get anything out of the tight end position, especially with two rookies? Will de facto offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien make the right moves in his second year of calling plays?
The reason this season has renewed my passion for this team is the surprises. Real life football doesn't play out like some Madden video game. No one could have imagined Danny Woodhead replica jerseys flying off the shelves for Christmas. And Deion Branch? Isn't he having a cup of espresso java whatever latte out in Seattle and not doing much else of anything? And trading away arguably the best receiver of all time for a third round pick? That sealed the deal that this season was a lost cause, didn't it?
If there were a few questions on offense, there was a boatload of unanswered issues on the defensive side of the ball as the season began. For instance, just who was in charge of play calling? The Patriots aren't going to rely on a rookie to be their shut down cornerback, are they? With such a young linebacking corps, is this going to look like a Kora Shriners parade act seven yards behind the line of scrimmage? And just where is a pass rush going to come from? Never mind wondering from where any turnovers or game-saving plays were going to originate.
After last year's fraudulent performance on defense, a lack of identity was clearly evident. Heading into this season, we were told the defense would be young and fast. With that, comes patience and an understanding that it would take time to find an identity. Perhaps 12 weeks or a season or two? We found that identity in the fourth quarter of the Ravens game in October. The defense bent but didn't break. It pulled the same stunt later in the season against the Colts and the Packers. And even the rose-colored glasses crowd could never have predicted the dominating performances against the Dolphins, Steelers, Jets and Bears.
After Sunday's 34-3 thrashing of the Bills, some guy that looks a lot like Mike Vrabel said "As a whole, the defense is really getting to the ball and that's where everything happens. That's where a fumble is on the ground, somebody picks it up, or a ball's tipped in the air and somebody grabs it for an interception. It's just everyone getting around the ball and playing fast team defense."
Rob Ninkovich is typical of why this is a special team that we are witness to. Only diehard followers of the team knew whom he was coming into this season. But his night in Miami in early October was so typical of this bunch that came into his own over the season. He had a key interception in the first half of that Monday night game against the Dolphins and proceeded to have the game of his life. As the season went on, other lesser-known players started to make a name for themselves.
There's that linebacker that looks like Ted Johnson named Fletcher making a play at the end of the Green Bay game. Rookie Devin McCourty is a shut-down, All-Pro corner back NOW for goodness sake. Linebackers like Gary Guyton, Brandon Spikes and Jermaine Cunningham actually looking like they know what they are doing. And all Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo do is make you want to go out and buy their replica jersey with that extra Christmas money your Aunt Edna gave you.
It wasn't supposed to play out like this. They were supposed to be okay this season and make the playoffs. Then with four picks in the first two rounds of next year's draft, including Carolina's second round pick, the Patriots were going to be back in 2011. An excuse me Super Bowl title. Does such an animal exist? We are about to perhaps find out.
Just when you think you've seen it all, you realize you haven't seen a thing yet. The 2010 Patriots are proof positive.
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