If you had been stranded on a deserted island since 2004 and returned to civilization in time to watch Sunday’s NFL games you would have first marveled at HDTV and then thought that nothing had changed about Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
Well, one detail would require some significant explanation. Why Manning is wearing a Denver Broncos uniform, not an Indianapolis Colts one. Other than that it felt like football just as you left it.
The Patriots overcoming endless injuries to dismantle a paralyzed opponent in a big game and celebrate an AFC East title. Manning throwing for four touchdowns and racking up record stats. Brady content after winning a game with pedestrian statistics that belie his brilliance and surgical precision.
It was fitting that on the same day that Manning reclaimed the record for touchdown passes in a season, breaking Brady’s mark of 50 with a superfluous late tack-on TD against the Houston Texans, Brady and the Patriots turned back the clock to a time when they won with their quarterback as just part of the game plan, not the weekly bailout plan.
The 41-7 systematic dismantling of the Baltimore Ravens was vintage Patriots. It was all three phases of the game contributing in concert. It was old-school, retro, throwback. It was atavism with merit and without mercy.
It was reason to believe the Patriots can keep losing players and keep winning games into the new year.
What a difference a week makes for the Foxborough Faithful. Coming off a dispiriting loss to the Miami Dolphins that shook consumer confidence in New England, the Patriots took advantage of a wounded Joe Flacco and undressed the defending Super Bowl champions on their home field.
The Patriots didn’t even let Flacco complete a pass to a wide receiver until the second half. The defense forced four turnovers, delivered three fourth-down stops, and scored two touchdowns, even while losing safety Devin McCourty to a concussion.
It looked like the defense the Patriots showcased at the beginning of the season, before injuries to Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Jerod Mayo forced the unit to revert to dependent status — dependent on turnovers to mask their weaknesses and Brady to deliver them from defeat.
Led by Brady, who played like he had liquid nitrogen pumping through his veins, the Patriots’ offense was bloodlessly efficient, while being as aesthetically pleasing as a manila envelope. The Patriots’ offense pounded the ball 34 times for 142 yards. They converted all three of their red zone opportunities into touchdowns against the fourth-best red zone defense in the NFL, a week after a 1-for-4 red zone showing doomed them to defeat in Miami.
It did help that they got their weekly phantom pass interference call, which has become the NFL equivalent of Duke drawing charge calls simply for being Duke.
This is the way it used to be for coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots before they unleashed Brady on the league in 2007, raining passes and points down from the sky in pursuit of a fourth Lombardi Trophy. It’s the way forward for the 2013 Patriots. They simply don’t have the weaponry with Rob Gronkowski hurt and Wes Welker in Manning’s arsenal to rely on passing pyrotechnics.
Remember that in the three seasons the Patriots won the Super Bowl (2001, 2003, and 2004), the most touchdown passes Brady threw in a season was 28.
After going a workmanlike 14 of 26 for 172 yards and a score against Baltimore, Brady has 24 touchdown passes this season.
The hallmark of the Patriots’ Super Bowl teams was that like a great actor they could take on any air needed for the part. Then they morphed into an outfit that won primarily by filling the air with footballs.
The resounding win in Baltimore removed another potential playoff roadblock for the Patriots. It proved the Patriots can beat a quality opponent on the road. The Patriots had been 3-4 on the road, with victories over Buffalo, Atlanta, and Houston, who combined have one more win than the 11-4 Patriots this season.
It also ensured that the Patriots enter Sunday’s regular-season finale against Buffalo at Gillette Stadium needing only to wax their Washington Generals to secure a first-round bye.
All five times the Patriots have gone to the Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era they have earned the benefit of a first-round bye.
Given the state of the AFC, giving Brady and Belichick and Co., a bye is letting them pass go to the AFC title game.
A Manning-Brady meeting in the AFC Championship game feels inevitable. If it happens, the Broncos’ suspect defense, which allowed 34 points to the Patriots earlier this season, won’t have dynamic linebacker Von Miller, who is out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
Of course, we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves.
Before we go planning the first rolling rally of Marty Walsh’s mayoral tenure, remember how quickly circumstances and indisputable truths can change in the NFL from week to week.
Belichick cautioned as much Monday, saying that “if you sit back there and spend too much time feeling good about what you did in the past then you’re going to come up short the next turn at bat.
“We’re in a week-to-week business. We all see in the NFL every week that games that you think are going to go one way go another way.”
Despite a multitude of injuries, a shortage of offensive weapons, and a small margin for error, the Patriots are right where we expect them to be every season, closing in on a first-round bye and looking like one of the favorites to reach the Super Bowl.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.