Bill Belichick and Tom Brady set the bar pretty high around here when they won three Super Bowl titles in a four-year stretch.
“It’s not good enough to win a playoff game. It’s not good enough to make it to the AFC Championship game,” former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison said. “Bill Belichick, he doesn’t go into a season and say, ‘Hey, this is a successful season if we win 12 games.’ No, it’s about getting to the Super Bowl and winning.”
The Patriots have earned all the superlatives over the last decade — the most regular-season wins in the NFL, the most division titles, the most playoff appearances, the 16-0 season.
All the accolades but one.
That fourth Super Bowl ring still eludes the Patriots. It has been nine seasons since Brady and Belichick last hoisted a Lombardi Trophy.
Despite the gaudy regular-season numbers, the Patriots just seem to putter out in January — whether it’s the defense getting ripped apart against Baltimore, or Wes Welker dropping a pass in Indianapolis, or Peyton Manning tearing them to shreds in Indy and Denver.
“It’s time to win a Super Bowl,” Harrison said, “and everybody has to be held accountable.”
There’s little doubt the Patriots are going to dominate the regular season like they always do. But is this team different from the last nine? Was signing Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner and Brandon LaFell and trading for Tim Wright enough to overtake the Broncos in the AFC? Are they built to actually win in January and bring the Lombardi back home?
“Any time you have Tom Brady, you’ve got a chance,” one NFL general manager said during training camp. “This is a quarterback-head coach league, so that’s the key element. They’ve had another year with their receivers, and their defense, they brought in Darrelle Revis and still have a lot of the key names from before. They’re definitely a team to be reckoned with.”
Brady proved last year that he’s still the driving force behind the team’s success. Even without Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, and Sebastian Vollmer for the majority of the season, the Patriots still won 12 games and reached the AFC Championship game before running out of gas against the Broncos.
Injuries happen every year, and a few key players will probably go down this season. The difference between reaching the Super Bowl and watching from home will come down to whether they can keep their superstars healthy in January — Brady, Revis, and Gronkowski.
“If they stay healthy, they are even better than they were last year, especially with Gronkowski coming back,” former Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said. “This is the only team out there on paper that can beat Denver right now. New England is going to be a much better football team this time.”
That’s been a common refrain among front-office executives and scouts interviewed throughout the preseason. The Patriots have been a good team over the last decade, but now look like a great team with the additions of Revis and Browner and several players returning to health.
Getting a healthy Gronk back will obviously do wonders for Brady and the offense. The Patriots averaged 32 points per game in Gronk’s seven games last season, a full touchdown more than they averaged without him. Adding him and Wright to the mix, and having Brady’s entire receiving corps back from last year (plus LaFell), should make the Patriots much more dangerous on offense.
But the Patriots have had a good offense over the last decade. The difference with this team is that, on paper, it looks like a dominant defense. Revis, now in his second year back from ACL surgery, is a big reason for that. Adding him and Browner to the secondary turned a weakness into a strength — having Alfonzo Dennard, Logan Ryan and Kyle Arrington as their Nos. 3-5 cornerbacks gives the Patriots tremendous depth.
“Whether they passed the Broncos, I’m not sure about that. But they certainly have a lot more weaponry to be able to defend Denver,” former Colts coach Tony Dungy said. “If they’re ready to go and [be] 100 percent at the end of the year, they’re going to be very formidable.”
Like the Seahawks last year, the Patriots now have physical cornerbacks who, on paper, can intimidate and shut down an offense in the January cold.
“I spent some time at training camp, and I saw size and physicality at the cornerback position,” Harrison said. “That’s the biggest thing they’ve struggled with over the past three or four seasons, is just inconsistent play in the secondary. They’ve played well, but they haven’t had great, consistent players at the cornerback position. Now they have it.”
Then add in the continued development of Chandler Jones — who looked dominant as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the preseason — and emerging star Jamie Collins, and the Patriots have “the best defense we’ve seen here in quite some time,” said one AFC scout who attended multiple Patriots preseason games.
“They definitely needed to get more physical in the secondary, and having Revis and Browner gives them really good matchups against teams like Denver,” the scout said. “I really like their linebackers — Collins is a kid we really liked out of college — and if he doesn’t play well, they’ve got [Dont’a] Hightower, too. They have a lot of moving parts on defense, which is what you’re used to seeing around here a decade ago.”
That’s right. When the Patriots won three of four Super Bowls, it was on the strength of their defense. They finished first (2003), tied for second (2004), and sixth (2001) in points allowed. Since then, Belichick’s defenses generally finish in the top-10 in points allowed, but often in the bottom third in yards allowed — meaning they haven’t been able to stop teams (mostly the Giants) in crunch time.
“In my era, no matter what the offense was doing, the fans knew you could count on us to make that big stop,” former cornerback Ty Law said. “Now over the last few years, it was always a question — what is the defense going to do? But now that you have Revis, who is the elite of the elite, and you add Browner, it’s going to help all the other guys.”
“I’m looking forward to seeing Jones with another year. Rob Ninkovich, Wilfork. This is going to be incredible. As long as health prevails, the Patriots are going to be right back in the mix competing for a Super Bowl.”
Even if health doesn’t prevail, the Patriots still might look good for another Super Bowl. Keeping Brady, Revis, and Gronkowski healthy is essential — and Gronk’s health, especially, is the biggest question mark surrounding this team. But the Patriots look like they have the most balanced team on both sides of the ball, and much better depth than last year.
The Patriots still have a solid quartet of running backs despite losing LeGarrette Blount. Shane Vereen looks primed for a big breakout season, and Stevan Ridley is still the team’s most decisive runner, despite his fumbling issues. And the passing game should be better, even if Gronkowski misses time. Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson are a year older, Danny Amendola now has a year with Brady under his belt, Julian Edelman proved last year that he can be every bit as good as Wes Welker, and Wright should give the Patriots that “Aaron Hernandez” element as a versatile H-back they clearly were missing last year (although expecting Wright to replicate Hernandez’s production is probably a bit much to ask).
On defense, Belichick spent the entire preseason cross-training his players to play multiple positions — Arrington and Ryan at safety, Collins as a pass rusher and pass defender, Jones and Ninkovich as defensive ends and outside linebackers. This should give the Patriots the ability to switch seamlessly between three- and four-man fronts, and give them myriad options to overcome injured defenders, in case this year’s team turns into a M.A.S.H. unit like last year’s.
Despite some questions at linebacker and the offensive line, this might be the deepest Patriots team since their last Super Bowl victory.
“This feels like the year,” team president Jonathan Kraft said of having a much-improved defense. “Clearly on defense, in addition to adding guys like Revis and Browner, you’ve got Chandler and Dont’a and Jamie and Devin [McCourty] and Ninkovich, who are going to be the nucleus of this team going forward.”
“It feels like it’s going to be exciting, and fun to watch, and really be a different team on both sides of the ball than it was 24 months ago. Really a shift.”
At minimum, the Patriots should accomplish what they always do — win 12 games, win the AFC East, and earn a first-round bye.
“They can run the ball, and their defense is really good,” said another AFC scout who watched the Patriots in the preseason. “It really just comes down to health for them, because I like their team a lot.”
The fans don’t want to hear excuses about health, though. As long as Brady is upright and playing, they expect a championship.
“It’s high standards around here,” Law said. “But now I think they’ve got some pieces to the puzzle. It’s time to put it all together.”