In a Happy Place
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — With 5:45 remaining in the Patriots’ 45-7 beatdown of the Colts, Tom Brady was shown on the Gillette Stadium video boards, sitting on the bench. Normally Brady stays in his zone and keeps his head down. The game’s not over. There’s more work to be done.
This time, not only did Brady acknowledge the crowd by raising his right hand, but he stood up and whipped 68,756 soaked fans into a frenzy.
Moments after receiving the Lamar Hunt trophy, awarded to the AFC champion, for the sixth time, Bill Belichick smiled and allowed a pregnant pause, ready to deliver a great line.
“The only thing I have to say is, We’re onto Seattle,” said a beaming Belichick, and no, that wasn’t an oxymoron on this day.
Who are these Patriots, and what have they done with the robots America loves to hate?
It’s been 10 years since New England headed to the Super Bowl with a team this good. And they know it. The 2007 squad went to Glendale, Ariz., with the enormous pressure of being 18-0. The Spygate scandal was a major storyline that season, and would be a major distraction (and later, retraction) during the week of Super Bowl XLII.
The 2011 Patriots were playing with house money after surviving a 23-20 battle with Baltimore in the AFC title game. Four years ago the defense was in shambles, to the point that Julian Edelman, who caught nine passes for 98 yards on Sunday against the Colts, was playing slot cornerback, covering Anquan Boldin. And a leg injury to tight end Rob Gronkowski put his Super Bowl in doubt (he would have zero impact, playing on one leg).
No, these Patriots head to Glendale, their personal house of horrors in Super Bowl XLII, in an entirely different place. It’s a very happy place. Brady is still on top of his game, with a healthy Gronk and proven targets like Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola. They also have a multi-pronged rushing attack, with LeGarrette Blount’s thunder and Shane Vereen’s lightning rotating in the backfield.
Defensively, they have impact players on all three levels: linemen Vince Wilfork, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich; linebackers Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins; and Darrelle Revis and Devin McCourty in the secondary.
These Patriots have been a buzzsaw since a 41-14 defeat at Kansas City on national television shook them to their roots. They’ve lost just once in their last 13 meaningful games. There was nothing that Andrew Luck and the Colts could do about that on Sunday night, and they knew it.
“Everybody had to play their best game of the year,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “I think we ran into an outstanding football team, and they beat us in every phase of the game.”
Soundly. And that doesn’t just happen with better players. It comes from coaching as well. Belichick, and aide-de-camps Matt Patricia (defense) and Josh McDaniels (offense), were playing chess against the Colts’ checkers.
Luck, who is the best young quarterback in the game and is on his way to becoming one of the greats, was harassed and confused into an ugly 12-for-33, 126-yard performance that left him with a 23.0 quarterback rating, the lowest in his three seasons in the NFL.
“It seemed like they were more on the details and we weren’t,” Luck said.
Every team uses different looks and packages. Nobody else throws out the minutiae that the Patriots do. On one play Luck would look out and see a secondary of Revis, Brandon Browner, Kyle Arrington, McCourty and Patrick Chung. On the next the Patriots would trot out Revis, Malcolm Butler, Arrington, McCourty and Duron Harmon. Collins would drop into the hook zone, and then on the next play be at outside linebacker rushing the passer.
Who’s the best matchup? Where’s the rush coming from? Those are the questions that were input into the Luck supercomputer, and it was bound to overload, in the form of late interceptions by Revis and Collins.
“It’s very effective,” said Browner, who came from Seattle, where coverages and personnel don’t deviate much. “That’s why the score and outcome was the way it was. It’s a change-up. He’ll see one play or two plays and then he’ll have Malcolm Butler. That posed a challenge to those guys.”
If the Patriots have a weakness, it’s on the offensive line. Left tackle Nate Solder has, inexplicably, struggled most of the season. Sebastian Vollmer has been steady at right tackle, but the interior of (from left to right) Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Josh Kline is a trio of undrafted free agents thought to be too small or too slow. Kline is one of six different guards to get a start after the preseason trade of perennial Pro Bowler Logan Mankins.
No one personifies the resiliency of the line more than the 28-year-old Wendell. For the better part of two seasons he was an anonymous practice squad player and rose to be a solid starter at center in 2012. In ’13, Wendell’s play slid, and he was forced to sign a minimal contract as a free agent this past offseason. During training camp his days appeared to be numbered, as he spent more reps watching other players try to take his job than he did competing. Wendell made the team out of camp, but seemed to be holding a place until fourth-round pick Bryan Stork returned from injury. However, after Marcus Cannon, Jordan Devey and Cameron Fleming all failed miserably at guard during the Patriots’ 2-2 start, Wendell was inserted at right guard in Week 5 and immediately calmed the unit that was most responsible for Brady’s shaky start to the season. And when Stork was injured against the Ravens in the divisional round, it was Wendell who slipped back to center and helped deliver back-to-back victories.
“He’s tough, and he works his butt off,” Connolly said of Wendell. “When he didn’t have the opportunity, he just kept working. And when he did have the chance, he proved he was the guy to get in that spot.”
Even with Wendell’s unselfish play, coaches knew that with Stork down they were at a disadvantage. Solder-Connolly-Stork-Wendell-Vollmer was a solid unit capable of executing at a high level. Solder-Connolly-Wendell-Kline-Vollmer couldn’t go toe-to-toe with an opponent for 60-odd plays.
So what did the Patriots do? Against the Ravens they used three plays that featured a skill player as an ineligible receiver, as well as a receiver-to-receiver pass. Against the Colts, the Patriots declared an ineligible player 26 times.
Those moves are aimed at planting a seed of doubt in the defense’s mind. The coverage is a little looser, the rush is a little bit slower, and the run defense is a bit more conservative. The added beef doesn’t hurt either.
Blount, who was cut by the Steelers after leaving a Monday night win in Tennessee early, rushed 30 times for 148 yards and three touchdowns against the Colts. Brady, whose lone glaring mistake was a poorly thrown ball up the seam that was intercepted in the second quarter, wasn’t pressured much and completed 23 of 35 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. Solder was left uncovered for a touchdown that gave New England a 24-7 lead that all but ended the game.
Chess to checkers.
“I think it speaks to the guys that we have in our room, including the coaches, and not just [line coach Dave DeGuglielmo] but McDaniels and Belichick and all the offensive coaches,” Wendell said. “Everybody’s doing everything they can to get this offensive line to where it needs to be.”
The Patriots are now headed to their sixth Super Bowl in 15 years, a league record. Belichick notched his 21st career playoff win, also a record, and is going to his sixth Super Bowl, which ties Don Shula for most all-time. Brady’s sixth Super Bowl start will be a record.
Then there are guys like Revis, the former Jet and Buc, who will be going to his first Super Bowl. He passed up more money elsewhere to sign with the Patriots, and his shutdown ability has allowed this defense to work coverage combinations they previously only dreamt about.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Revis said. “There are rookies that get drafted by a great team. There are rookies that play their first year that go to the Super Bowl. There is one every year. Eight years later for me is very surreal.”
Browner will be going against his former team, which decided it didn’t need him this season.
“No hard feelings at all,” he said. “I was blessed and fortunate. I was suspended over there [by the league, in 2013] and I was still able to get a ring. That was a decision by the owner and the coach to give me that. They didn’t have to. I’m always going to have love for those guys, but at the end of the day, it’d be sweeter to beat those guys, you know?”
And then there are the head coaches. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has hired two of them since taking control of the Patriots: Belichick and the man who preceded him—Pete Carroll. The latter, who did not have a losing season in his three years in charge of the Patriots from 1997 to ’99, now has a chance to join Belichick in directing back-to-back Super Bowl champions.
“I’ve hired two coaches, and I’m happy to say they’re both winners,” Kraft said.
When the Patriots arrived in Glendale for Super Bowl XLII, their attitude reflected the immense pressure of 18-0. Seven years later they are all smiles. The feeling is much different this time around. Will the outcome be different too?
“We’ve had a lot of good teams in the past,” Brady said. “This one is going to have to win a very important game to leave our legacy.”
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