The NFL regular season has come and gone and the Patriots find themselves where they always seem to be: atop the AFC East Division with some time off during Wild Card Weekend. They will play again in Foxboro in the second weekend in January while teams around the league are firing their coaches. Bill Belichick, who became the longest tenured NFL head coach this time a year ago when the Eagles fired Andy Reid, is preparing for a playoff game while the only coaches who have beaten him in the playoffs during his Patriots tenure–Tom Coughlin, Tony Dungy, Rex Ryan, John Harbaugh, and Mike Shanahan–are all either out of the playoffs or out of football.
The Patriots will face either the Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, or Kansas City Chiefs in two weeks. In a year full of flawed teams and devastating injuries, the Pats have as good a chance as anyone to reach the Super Bowl. None of the QBs on those teams have had a ton of January success, while Tom Brady won three Super Bowls in his first three trips to the playoffs. Last year the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, but this year they are already finished. Two years ago, the New York Giants beat the Pats in the Super Bowl, but they will not be there this year when the big game is in their home stadium. The Patriots are always there, which means they always have a chance. It’s been nine years since the Pats won the Super Bowl, but the road to get there looks as good as any year since then.
Playoff wins are no sure thing, and despite what the Patriots have accomplished, neither is getting there. This season was no cake walk for the Pats. They played most of the season without Rob Gronkowski. They lost key defensive personnel in Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Tommy Kelly midway through the year. Wes Welker is playing for the Denver Broncos, and Danny Woodhead is playing for the San Diego Chargers now. Aaron Hernandez is in prison and awaiting trial. The Patriots had every reason to pack it in and not answer the bell this season, but they’re still going to play in January. Bill Belichick put together one of the greatest coaching performances of his career in 2013. Julian Edelman deserves a lot of credit for bailing out the offense and filling the void left by Wes Welker. Tom Brady deserves credit for continuing to make it work with the offense he has to work with. LeGarrette Blount, who I wrote about during the preseason, was one of the biggest acquisitions of the year for the team despite being one of the last players to make the roster in September. Blount has added another dynamic to the offense, and the running game could be the key to winning in January. This is not the most talented Patriots team we’ve seen, but they’ve shown a lot of toughness overcoming the adversity they were dealt this season. There’s a lot of football to be played and a lot of stories to write about in the coming weeks, but it’s a good moment to sit back and reflect on what the Patriots have accomplished…yet again.