FOXBOROUGH — We interrupt this controversy to bring you an actual, deflation-free football story.
A Patriots season that officially began with the team’s first training camp practice on July 25, 2014, comes to a close, win or lose, a week from Sunday. For a record-tying eighth time in franchise history, the Patriots will be playing in the Super Bowl, and for the second time, they’ll play the marquee game in Glendale, Ariz. Standing in the Patriots’ way in Super Bowl XLIX are the Seattle Seahawks, winners of last year’s Super Bowl. With a win, the Seahawks would become the first team since the 2003-04 Patriots to win consecutive titles.
A 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday’s AFC Championship game technically sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl. But any championship-level team makes a series of moves and experiences a number of developments over the course of a season that factor into the ultimate success. For the Patriots, with so many moving parts and highs and lows since the season began with a Week 1 loss at Miami, there are dozens of reasons they’re playing the Seahawks next Sunday at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Let’s mention 10:
1. Offseason additions
Obviously, this starts in the secondary, with cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Both have strengthened the pass defense, with Browner supplying a physical presence that had been lacking and Revis simply being Revis; he often blankets the opponent’s top receiver and was named to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl for his efforts. Safety Patrick Chung has started all but one game and was the Patriots’ third-leading tackler. On offense, Brandon LaFell (953 receiving yards, seven touchdowns) has given Tom Brady a reliable, versatile downfield threat, and tight end Tim Wright caught six touchdowns after being traded for longtime left guard Logan Mankins. Of the Patriots’ nine selections in the 2014 Draft, six are still with the team, with center Bryan Stork and offensive lineman Cameron Fleming — both fourth-round picks — earning the most playing time.
2. Rob Gronkowski
Perhaps the biggest question at the start of the season was if — and when — Gronkowski would resemble the matchup nightmare the tight end can be when healthy. Coming off major reconstructive knee surgery, and after a few tentative weeks to start the season, Gronkowski was turned loose in the Week 5 win over Cincinnati, when he had the first of four 100-yard games. He might not be as valuable to the offense as quarterback Tom Brady, but he’s not far behind. Gronkowski has caught a touchdown pass in each of the Patriots’ past five games.
3. In-season moves
Injuries occur on every team, and when the Patriots have lost key players, they went out and found capable replacements. Perhaps no addition has been more important than LeGarrette Blount, who has rushed for 430 yards, scored 7 touchdowns, and averaged 4.6 yards per carry since rejoining the Patriots after playing the first 11 games with Pittsburgh. With Stevan Ridley out for the season with a knee injury, Blount has become the go-to back. Akeem Ayers (acquired in a trade with Tennessee) lined up at right defensive end and gave the Patriots plenty of production (four sacks) when Chandler Jones missed six games with a hip injury. Defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebacker Jonathan Casillas also have contributed.
4. Vince Wilfork
There were questions at the start of the season about the veteran defensive tackle, one of only two players who were with the Patriots when they won their last Super Bowl in the 2004 season. His age (33) and the injury he was trying to return from (ruptured Achilles’ tendon) were legitimate concerns, at least before Wilfork took the field for the season opener. He hasn’t missed a game, and although his statistics might be down, he’s a team captain for many behind-the-scenes reasons. When the big man speaks, his teammates listen.
5. Blocking kicks
Special teams have been a strength all season, with Stephen Gostkowski missing two kicks (62 for 62 on extra points, 36 for 38 on field goals), and Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola providing pivotal field position with long returns. But these Patriots, perhaps more so than ever, have had a penchant for blocking kicks. Chandler Jones and Kyle Arrington scored touchdowns after blocked kicks, and Chris Jones preserved a 27-25 win over the Jets by blocking a field goal try on the game’s final play. All told, the Patriots have blocked five kicks this season.
6. Losing to the Chiefs
The Patriots didn’t just lose at Kansas City in Week 4. They were embarrassed by the Chiefs, who rolled to a 41-14 prime-time win on “Monday Night Football.” Instead of letting the defeat fester and splinter the locker room, the Patriots rallied after the loss. “It was an opportunity to show our character as a team,” said safety Devin McCourty. “We just used that as ‘We lost this one, it was a tough one,’ but to see how good of a team we are is all about how we bounced back.”
7. Beating the Bengals
Fortunately for the Patriots, next on the schedule after the loss at Kansas City was a home game against Cincinnati, which came into the game 3-0 and favored by oddsmakers to win at Gillette Stadium. No chance. The Patriots scored touchdowns the first two times they had the ball, rolled up a season-high 505 yards on offense, and launched a seven-game win streak with a 43-17 win over the Bengals. After four listless games, this victory turned the season around.
8. Stabilizing the offensive line
It was in that Cincinnati game that the Patriots first started what’s become their best lineup up front on offense: Nate Solder at left tackle, Dan Connolly at left guard, rookie Bryan Stork at center, Ryan Wendell at right guard, and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. In the nine games that lineup has been used, the Patriots have allowed Tom Brady to be sacked just six times, and they’ve won eight of the nine games; in the other nine games, Brady’s been sacked 18 times.
9. Duron Harmon’s interception
With the Ravens driving and the clock dropping in the Jan. 10 divisional playoff game, someone needed to make a play to help the Patriots advance. It was Harmon’s turn. On a second-down play from the Patriots’ 36-yard-line, Joe Flacco threw a pass into the end zone intended for Torrey Smith. Harmon caught it instead for his first career postseason interception, all but sealing the 35-31 victory.
10. ‘On to Cincinnati’
Bill Belichick’s gruff, repeatable answer to a series of probing questions looking back at the Week 4 loss at Kansas City — “We’re on to Cincinnati” — has become a team slogan of sorts. Take out Cincinnati and replace it with whoever’s next on the schedule. That’s been the mind-set of the Patriots, who seem focused only on the upcoming task. Anything else — possibilities, hypotheticals, controversies — simply isn’t worth their time.