By Jeff Barker
Before drubbing Tebow’s stallions in what felt like a preseason game last week, the New England Patriots hadn’t won a playoff game since the 2007 season, when they eked out the AFC title against a hobbled Chargers team and came one game closer to perfection.
Though perennially regarded as a Super Bowl threat, the Patriots went three long seasons (2008-2010) without a playoff win. And while Belichick is lauded for stockpiling draft picks and plucking late-round gems, he’s turned over a lot of chaff these last few years.
Only eight players who went 18-1 are on the Patriots 2011 roster: Brady, Wes Welker, Vince Wilfork, the O-line trio of Dan Koppen, Matt Light, and Logan Mankins, ancient third-down back Kevin Faulk, and backup DT Mike Wright.
While five of the holdovers are key offensive starters, only one defensive starter stuck around. Stars Asante Samuel and Richard Seymour were let go, with the assumption that cheaper replacements could step in.
But no one has stepped in. No matter. New England cruised to a 14-2 record this year the same way the Packers went 15-1—despite their defense.
It’s tempting to compare this year’s squad with 18-1, especially with the possibility of a Super Bowl rematch against the G-men.
But lets take a step back first.
The 2007 squad differed from the three-time champs of the early aughts because they exploded offensively—they no longer needed to rely on late-game field goals. The Patriots had fundamentally shifted from a defensive-oriented team to an offensive-oriented team. And everyone thought it worked—until Brady got pummeled and Plaxico Burress became a short-lived hero.
Though obscured by Brady and Randy Moss breaking records, those 2007 Patriots still had a pretty good defense—they were fourth in the NFL in both yards allowed and points allowed. They were right up there with Pittsburgh.
Since then, the Patriots have gone off the offensive deep end. In Belichick-speak, they have a bend-but-don’t-break defense that can hold teams to field goals (15th in points allowed). In less whitewashed terms, they gave up an atrocious 411 yards per game (31st), just ahead of the other 2011 regular-season juggernaut, Green Bay.
New England enters this year’s AFC title game with far less recent playoff success than the Ravens, who have won in the playoffs for four years running, including a 2009 wild card match in Foxboro.
Despite their recent advantage in playoff experience, Vegas is giving Baltimore seven points, partially because no one’s ready to bet on Joe Flacco on the road to win the AFC, but mostly due to the overpowering force of Brady and the emergence of tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez.
There’s a chance that the Patriots dink and dunk at will on their way to 35 points and never look back at their defense, since they won’t worry about the Ravens scoring 30 on the road. But if the Ravens run the ball at will, force a few fumbles, and dominate time of possession, Brady will be staring down at that group of inexperienced scrubs, hoping he gets back on the field soon.