The New England Patriots are headed for their fifth Super Bowl appearance in the last 11 seasons. For the last decade, head coach Bill Belichick and his celebrity quarterback Tom Brady rolled over opponents with ease. De facto AFC East champions every season, they won two Lombardi trophies since upsetting the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI.
Winning with such regularity turns off a population programmed to favor underdogs. A slightly aloof coach, a quarterback at Paris Fashion Week, the Tuck Rule, and that whole videotaping thing, have made the Patriots an easy target for scorn.
But despite all of their success, the last time the Patriots won a playoff game before this season was four years ago. They beat the San Diego Chargers to claim the AFC Championship, their 18th consecutive win that season and one game away from a date with the inevitable. They lost in the Super Bowl that year to the New York Giants, and have been struggling to get back there every since.
So what happened this season that landed New England back in The Big Game?
Defense Wins Championships
Rather than prove to be its undoing in the AFC Championship Game, New England's defense outplayed its more highly regarded Ravens counterpart. Future Hall of Famer Ed Reed was overshadowed by someone named Sterling Moore, who deflected what might have been a game-winning touchdown pass in the fourth quarter.
Sacks had been the Patriots' soft underbelly in their last three playoff losses, dating back to their last Super Bowl appearance. Again they reversed the script, sacking Joe Flacco three times while the Ravens pulled down Brady just once.
New England's offense is famous for their unique gameplans. Their defense did the same thing, shutting down Ray Rice and making the matchups work for them. Can they do the same against the Giants?
Protecting Tom Brady
Poor pass protection took the wind out of Tom Brady's sails over the last four seasons. Since then, the Patriots have improved their offensive line. Rookie tackle Nate Solder, a first-round pick, was able to step in for an injured Sebastian Vollmer early in the season, replacing him. In September, they signed 34-year-old guard Brian Waters to a two-year, $3 million deal. It might have been the best money they spent. Waters was their best lineman all season.
Double Tight Ends
The biggest change for the Patriots over the last three years has been the addition of tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. They can line up anywhere on the field, and be just as effective catching a dump off in the flat as they are running a seam route. They're too physical for corners and too fast for linebackers. Less experienced defenses split up their safeties to try to handle them, and it only makes it worse by giving them the middle of the field.
Gronkowski and Hernandez give a smart quarterback like Tom Brady the perfect weapons because he can control the looks he gets from an opposing defense by moving them around the field and changing their assignments as needed. Having those two and Wes Welker even adds to the pass protection by giving Brady sure-handed options for a quick pass.
The Education of Tom Brady
The year after their Super Bowl loss to end the 2007 season, Tom Brady had a full season to reflect on things from the sidelines, after suffering a knee injury in the first week of the 2008 season. For seven seasons before that, things had been, mostly, pretty easy for the quarterback. The UGG ads and runway shows mask an intense competitor. Watching someone else take your job and do it pretty well changes a person. It's easy to dispute something as subjective as the will to win when a team has the kind of talent the Patriots do, but Brady is one of those special players that can change the outcome of a game on his own. Sitting for a year probably didn't make him any better than he already was, but it sure seems to have steeled his resolve and honed his focus.
Fittingly enough, the Patriots will play the New York Giants in the Super Bowl this year, again. The Patriots have an edge in the odds as early 3-point favorites. Somehow, they feel more like the underdogs this time around.