CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER
Barry Chin/globe staff
The Patriots are a win-by-any-means-necessary operation.
That’s not a commentary on the contention of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen that the Patriots played up an injury to buy time for an instant-replay challenge last Sunday or the Patriots Paranoia across the NFL, fueled by their uncommon success and perceived dabbling in the football dark arts.
It’s the defining characteristic of a team whose identity is being able to change styles, tactics, and approaches to be whatever team they need to be to get the win, a trait that bodes well for December and beyond.
Pinning down the 2018 Patriots has been a challenge. This hasn’t been the smoothest or most reassuring of seasons, at least measured by New England’s own lofty standards. The results — 9-3 and a win this Sunday in Miami away from a 10th straight AFC East title — are there. So are some signs of vulnerability. But if you’re looking for a reason that the Patriots are destined for an eighth straight AFC title game appearance, it’s the variety in their victories.
The best teams in any sport possess the versatility to win in multiple fashions. They’re not limited to a particular path to victory: great defense, explosive offensive, astute strategy. They can do it all. They can beat you at their game or at yours. That ability has been a hallmark of the Patriots dynasty. Like their Foxborough forebears, these Patriots are a protean team, morphing into whatever type of team they need to be to prevail.
The Patriots have a master’s degree in finding a way to win. Let us count some of the ways the Patriots have won this season: with prolific point production offensively, penurious pass defense, special teams scores, and a dominant rushing attack.
The Patriots have a saying: “The more you can do, the more you can do.” That’s true of this year’s team. They don’t do anything great, but they’re capable of doing different things well enough to exploit opponents’ weaknesses and win — particularly inside the friendly confines of Patriot Place. That admirable attribute was on display against Minnesota last Sunday.
Coming into the game, the rhetorical bouquets were being tossed at Minnesota’s top-10 defense, many of them by Patriots coach Bill Belichick. But it was Belichick’s defense that dictated the terms of engagement.
The Patriots stifled the Vikings and arguably the league’s best wide receiver tandem, Thielen and Stefon Diggs, holding Minnesota to 278 yards of offense and that dynamic duo to just 77 yards receiving, to propel the Patriots to a 24-10 win. The defense frustrated and confused the Vikings and quarterback Kirk Cousins with varied looks, blanket coverage, and airtight tackling.
The week before against the New York Jets, the team with the apotheosis of a franchise passer in Tom Brady rode a punishing and dynamic ground game to victory. The Patriots racked up 215 yards rushing and averaged 6 yards per carry to vanquish the J-E-T-S.
In their best road victory of the season, a 38-31 win over the Chicago Bears in Week 7 that featured a hold-your-breath Hail Mary at the end, the Patriots prevailed on the strength of a pair of special teams touchdowns. Cordarrelle Patterson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score, and the Patriots broke a 24-24 tie in the third quarter with a blocked punt that was taken to the end zone by Kyle Van Noy.
Their most impressive win of the season and the one that could ultimately deliver the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs was a 43-40 shootout with the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 6. Brady, who threw for 340 yards that evening, and the offense won a high-octane duel with Patrick Mahomes and the league’s highest-scoring offense.
They bailed out a defense that allowed 31 second-half points by scoring on all four of their fourth-quarter possessions. In a situational football clinic, the offense marched down the field for the winning 28-yard field goal while eating up the final 3:03 of the game, proving its best defense that Sunday night was a great offense.
It turns out that Brady isn’t the most flexible part of the Patriots. He preaches pliability in his workout regimen. He also has it in his team. That’s good because it could mean it’s not all on the 41-year-old quarterback’s shoulders to carry the team to a third straight Super Bowl.
In a year of passing pyrotechnics, Brady has been an outlier. He has not matched his MVP performance from last season. He has been merely good and not great. What he hasn’t been, contrary to sports-talk radio babel, is mediocre. There’s room on the performance scale between league MVP and mediocre, no?
Winning games without Brady being transcendent this season could benefit the Patriots in the playoffs. That’s the way it used to be early in Brady’s career. That’s not the way it has been this decade. In the last playoff game the Patriots played, Super Bowl LII, Brady threw for 505 yards, and it wasn’t enough. His lone mistake, a strip-sack, was all it took to seal the Patriots’ fate.
If this year’s Patriots team had a theme song, it would be “Whatever It Takes” by Imagine Dragons.
They are not one-dimensional in their path to victory. They’ve shown versatility in their winning ways. That bodes well for the postseason. The best teams have multiple methods of getting the job done and the game won. So, while this hasn’t felt like a classic Patriots season, this is a classically Patriots team.
In a year when it has been hard to define the Patriots, their elusive identity is the absence of a clear-cut identity. Their identity is adaptability. It’s victory by any means necessary.
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