FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – What was the highlight of the Patriots’ 45-7 AFC Championship win over the Colts Sunday? Was it when the Patriots didn’t need to onside kick at the end of the game? Or when they didn’t need the opposing coach to botch the game? Or when the star quarterback on the other side ran around, because he is perfectly healthy, and still couldn’t beat them?
Perhaps it happened Friday. Practice was over. Patriots owner Robert Kraft stumbled upon a ritual that has grown, week by week, since New England defensive lineman Sealver Siliga introduced it last year. Patriots players of Polynesian descent gather to drink a traditional ceremonial drink made from the kava root.
“There were like 18 of them in the corner,” Kraft said Sunday night, in a locker room atmosphere that felt like a prelude to the real celebration in Arizona in two weeks. “And it was late afternoon. They were just joshing around and having fun. It was really special. I remember saying to Bill [Belichick]: ‘I don’t remember guys just hanging out and doing that on a Friday afternoon,’ which is nice. They enjoy each other’s company and they trust each other …
“There is a special karma with this team that I felt in training camp. I mentioned it to friends.”
There is something a little different about this Patriots team, something that may separate it from the last 11 groups and finally bring Kraft, Belichick and Tom Brady their fourth Super Bowl title together. It is hard to define, and harder still to say how it started. Kraft and several players say the team is closer, and they insist they aren’t just saying it because they just won the AFC championship. They sensed it in July, and felt it more as the season went on.
“It happens organically,” Kraft says. “It’s like when you’re married: You’re either together or you’re not together.”
It probably started last summer. The Patriots, coming off an AFC title loss to the Broncos, had just signed star cornerback Darrelle Revis, and everybody in the locker room knew: This team had a chance to win it all. All the pieces were there. They weren’t so sure about that last year, when Rob Gronkowski was injured, the team was reeling from the Aaron Hernandez murder allegations and Brady was working with the most inexperienced receivers of his career.
But they were sure they were good enough this season, and they were determined to seize the chance. Who knows? Maybe that’s the difference between barely losing Super Bowls (which Brady’s Pats have done twice) and barely winning them (which they have done three times).
For all the drama and thrills in Seattle Sunday, the team that whipped the Colts Sunday sure looks like the best team in the NFL. The Seahawks didn’t even look like the best team in Seattle. As great as the Seahawks played at the end, the Packers started blowing that game long before Seattle’s onside kick bounced off Brandon Bostick’s facemask. You can start with Mike McCarthy’s inexplicable decision to settle for field goals when his offense was inches away from the end zone in the first half, move along to McCarthy’s inexplicably conservative play-calling in the fourth quarter, and dwell for a moment on safety Morgan Burnett’s inexplicable decision to slide when he intercepted Russell Wilson with more than five minutes on the clock in a 12-point game.
Yes, the Seahawks made plays at critical moments. But we also saw a limited Seattle offense, and a defense that had been devouring bad-to-mediocre offenses for two months.
You will read and hear an incredible amount of football analysis in the next two weeks. Some of it will be so detailed, some of it will be brilliant, and some will be way off, and maybe this seems ridiculously simplistic, but here goes: this feels like the Patriots’ time.
Brady doesn’t have to fool people into thinking a good team is great anymore. He has dealt with a full spectrum of football heartache since he last won a Super Bowl 10 years ago, from the truly unbelievable (David Tyree’s helmet catch) to the simply devastating (the second Super Bowl loss to the Giants) to the frightening (Aaron Hernandez turning out to be a sociopath, apparently).
All of it has helped the Patriots realize how thin the margin is. Last summer, with Revis on board for what looks like a one-year deal (his contract makes him too costly to keep, unless he signs a longer-term, more team-friendly deal) everybody implicitly understood: This is the chance. Don’t be selfish. Don’t be the one to mess it up. And here they are, on the brink.
We find storylines in every Super Bowl, but this one overflows with them. Kraft has hired two coaches in his 21 years as Patriots owner: Belichick and Pete Carroll, who now coaches the Seahawks (Kraft inherited Bill Parcells). Tom Brady gets to face the defense that flustered and ultimately humiliated Peyton Manning in last year's Super Bowl. Seattle’s Richard Sherman and the Revis get to make their case, in the sport’s biggest game, for being the best cornerback in the world.
Revis was asked about that last one, and he said it won’t be a story. But it will, he was told. No it won’t, he said. Why not? “Because I’ll deflect the questions.” It was the ultimate Patriot answer, but I’m going to go take a flyer here and say Sherman will not deflect those questions. He may ask them himself.
The story within a story there is that Sherman almost always lines up on one side of the field while the Patriots prefer multidimensional players who can adjust to Belichick’s tweaks every week. Now Belichick has two weeks to mold his defense to take away Seattle’s offensive strengths, and the truth is that Seattle doesn’t have that many offensive strengths this year. Meanwhile, Brady, Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels have two weeks to figure out how to use all their weapons against Seattle’s outstanding defense.
Eleven years ago to the day on this same field, against the same franchise, the Patriots beat Indy, 24-14, to advance to their second Super Bowl of the Belichick-Brady era. That game was notable for two reasons. It was the pivot point the Brady/Peyton Manning stats-vs.-clutch narrative that helped define their careers; and the Patriots mugged the Colts’ receivers throughout the game, drawing Indy’s ire and spurring rules changes that helped offenses.
So much has changed since then. Manning won a Super Bowl, lost two more, switched franchises, looked like he might have to retire, and might actually retire now. The Cleveland Browns have had seven head coaches.
Meanwhile, the Patriots look the same year after year, though February 6, 2005 was the last time they were Super Bowl champions. Brady remains the quarterback you would most want on your team in the playoffs, though a healthy Aaron Rodgers is right there with him. Belichick is still outsmarting people, partly by plowing through the tiniest loopholes in the rulebook, spurring talk of rules changes. You can safely assume that his use of ineligible receivers will be discussed at league meetings this spring.
Yeah, these look like the same Pats in many ways … but Robert Kraft saw a different team last summer, and a different team when they were drinking kava together after practice. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said of the kava: “I would like to think it’s more and more guys each week … I’d like to think it’s helped our guys come together. It’s our job, but it’s much more than that.”
This team looks a lot stronger than it did a year ago. It looks ready to bring a fourth Lombardi Trophy back to New England.