FORGET PARITY. THE PATRIOTS HAVE AGAIN COBBLED TOGETHER A LINEUP THAT HAS BEEN SURPRISINGLY EFFECTIVE, THOROUGHLY TRASHING THE COLTS—AGAIN—AND BOOKING A SUPER BOWL TICKET FOR THE SIXTH TIME IN 14 SEASONS
This is an article from the Jan. 26, 2015 issue
THE MUSIC stops, the Patriots' locker room empties, and Darrelle Revis stands at his cubicle in Gillette Stadium, in no rush to leave. It took him eight NFL seasons to reach this moment, to soak in the aftermath of an AFC championship, all the fireworks, the defensive linemen dancing around shirtless, the silver trophy serving as a prop in an endless string of selfies.
Revis wears a wool sweater, red sneakers, a full beard and the look of a veteran who has seen it all. Almost, anyway. Six seasons with the Jets passed like a Lifetime movie, with two AFC title-game losses, a contract holdout, an ACL tear and the nickname that he trademarked, Revis Island, for the cornerback who makes receivers disappear. After a lost season in Tampa Bay, Revis signed a one-year, $12 million deal (with a team option for a second year) with his former rivals last March. The goal was clear: Super Bowl or bust.
The Revis-Patriots experiment continued on Sunday against the league's top passing team. Revis Island changed locations like something out of Lost—a title that also described third-year quarterback Andrew Luck. Revis blanketed veteran Reggie Wayne and rookie Donte Moncrief and 6'6" tight end Coby Fleener. He allowed the New England secondary to morph into different looks that confused Luck into the worst passer rating (23.0) of his career.
The final score, 45--7, was as notable for what was different about these Patriots (a secondary that Revis calls the best he's ever played with) as for what was similar (quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick in their sixth Super Bowl since the 2001 season). This time they will meet the Seahawks, a team that will attempt to become the first repeat champion in a decade, the first to win back-to-back titles since ... the Patriots in '03 and '04.
As the crowd around Revis's locker dwindled, he came back to one key moment and the prediction that preceded it. Late in the third quarter, with the Pats leading by 24, the defense huddled on the sideline. Someone asked, "Who's going to make a play?"
"I am," Revis told his teammates. "Next drive."
Facing third-and-five from his own 40, Luck forced a pass near the right sideline to receiver T.Y. Hilton. Revis, who recognized the call and guessed Luck's intentions, snagged the throw and sprinted 30 yards to set up yet another touchdown. That's why Revis signed with New England. That's why the team signed him. "I called it," says the cornerback turned clairvoyant.
THE PATRIOTS are the NFL's gold standard, a franchise as consistent as a metronome. Coaches leave, free agents depart, stars retire or are unceremoniously traded, and Brady and Belichick stitch together winning season after winning season, ending most years with a deep run into the playoffs. The NFL isn't supposed to work this way.
On Sunday, Belichick picked up a record 21st postseason victory, the most in NFL history, and his sixth conference title, tying him with Don Shula for the most in the Super Bowl era. Brady bolstered his record for postseason touchdown passes (49) and reclaimed the lead over Peyton Manning for postseason passing yards (7,017 and counting). In Glendale, Ariz., he will tie Mike Lodish, an obscure defensive tackle with the Bills and the Broncos, for the most Super Bowl appearances, with six.
Explaining New England's dominance starts with the team's approach. It's one thing to hear the Patriots try to explain the Patriot Way (cue the clichés), but it only really makes sense to players once they're immersed in it. During meetings, for example, when Belichick calls out Brady or when Brady talks trash even to stars as big as Revis. Jonas Gray, the running back who dropped 201 yards on the Colts back in November—and then nearly dropped out of sight—has his own aha moment. "We have this guy who does hand-to-hand combat training," Gray says. "And he's doing this drill with Tom, where Tom does a plank, and he's hitting him in the stomach, like thwap, thwap, thwap. He's going all in. You can see it in Tom's face. It's turning red. And I'm new to the team, and I'm like, man, this is Tom f------ Brady. He's getting after it."
But for all the accolades—and corresponding hatred—lobbed toward Brady and Belichick, the most overlooked aspect of the Patriots' success is the ownership of Robert Kraft. So says Tony Dungy, the former Indianapolis coach and once Belichick's chief rival for AFC supremacy. In all his years in football, Dungy says that franchises that win consistently—the 49ers, Giants, Patriots, Ravens, Steelers—share a consistency in approach, even if their approaches vary. "It comes down to philosophy," Dungy says. "Mr. Kraft doesn't care about how the public thinks he should operate. He doesn't deviate. There's stability there."
In an interview in November, Kraft stressed continuity as a staple of his life. He noted the paper business he started in the early 1970s that eventually expanded to 93 countries. He pointed to his marriage of 48 years to Myra, who died in 2011. "That's our competitive advantage," he says. "As long as you hire people who are at a high enough level, they don't have to be the best. They can be the best together, based on their approach.
"Of course, sometimes you get a quarterback in the sixth round," he continues. "That shows it's not an exact science. There's an element of fate."
LEGARRETTE BLOUNT is a 6'1", 250-pound running back who played at Oregon, at least when he wasn't suspended for violating team rules or for sucker-punching an opponent from Boise State. Blount, 28, bounced around NFL rosters, going from the Titans to the Buccaneers before landing with the Patriots for the 2013 season. He obliterated the Colts with four rushing touchdowns in a playoff game in January 2014, the highlight of his first tenure with the team.
Then he departed for Pittsburgh in the off-season, where he was arrested for marijuana possession in August (the charge will be withdrawn if he completes 50 hours of community service by Feb. 4) and was released on Nov. 18 for what was rumored to be selfish behavior. Talk about timing. Blount's walking papers came the week after Gray's breakout performance against the Colts, which was also the same week Gray arrived late to practice because he overslept after his cellphone died. Exit Gray from the lineup. Reenter the re-signed Blount.
On Sunday, Blount took 30 handoffs, gashing the Colts up the middle or plowing around the edge. At least twice he started left, then shifted toward the middle, away from arm tackles, into the open field. He matched Brady with three touchdowns and rambled for 148 yards.
He also continued the Patriots' dominance of the Luck-era Colts. Sure, Luck had amassed the most-ever passing yards (1,703) for a quarterback in his first five playoff games. But in the four times he has played New England (two in the regular season and two in the playoffs), including Sunday, he has thrown 10 interceptions and the Colts have been outscored 189--73.
Blount's strange season, from the Steelers' scrap heap to the AFC title game's hero, also typifies what the NFL has come to expect from the Patriots—which is that no one ever knows quite what to expect. Against the Colts in November, they often used six linemen. On Sunday they sometimes used four. One tackle, Cameron Fleming, was eligible as a receiver on 28 plays. Another tackle, the 6'8", 320-pound Nate Solder, reminded a national television audience why he'd been recruited to Colorado as a tight end, when he hauled in a 16-yard score in the third quarter, a Big Guy touchdown that warmed the hearts of linemen everywhere.
Such creativity underscored the duality evident in the Patriots' sustained success: continuity in key places (ownership, coach, quarterback), constant change everywhere else as needed. It doesn't always work. The Patriots, as much as any recent NFL team, understand that Super Bowl titles are earned—or not—by slim margins. They won three they almost lost. They lost two they almost won.
That's why, when they retooled this off-season, Belichick called the cornerback who always frustrated him.
REVIS GREW up in Aliquippa, Pa., a blue-collar city near Pittsburgh known for two things: steel and football players. Mike Ditka comes from there. So does Tony Dorsett. So do Ty Law, a former Patriots cornerback, and Sean Gilbert, Revis's uncle who played 11 seasons at defensive tackle for four NFL teams.
Gilbert is Revis's mentor, his harshest critic, and even now he'll refer to Revis as "my little slouch." He motivates Revis that way, even though Revis never needed much motivation. He's the kind of player who will stand parallel to the receiver he's covering when he's on the sideline, between defensive series, blanket coverage even during breaks.
Revis called Gilbert after Belichick called him. "Listen, Darrelle," Gilbert says he told his nephew. "We're from Aliquippa. That's football country. Our work ethic gives us the opportunity to win.
"Hard work is what Darrelle understands," Gilbert continues. "I told him, New England is basically the Aliquippa of the NFL. All you need to do is look at their history. All franchises are going to have their moments. New England just seems to have the blueprint."
Revis had made nearly $65 million in the NFL—no shame in that—but New England gave him what could not be bought: his best chance to win a Super Bowl. The Patriots also signed cornerback Brandon Browner from the Seahawks this off-season. They emphasized the back end of their defense, but while Seattle built through the draft, New England lured the final pieces of its secondary through free agency. Revis describes his fellow secondary members as hybrids, amoebas who shift into various positions and cover numerous receivers.
An hour after the Patriots' latest triumph, Revis stood at his locker. A stack of game balls rested on the shelf behind him. Perhaps they were fully inflated, perhaps not. No one was thinking of the 27-point loss to Kansas City on Sept. 29, when Brady looked old and the Patriots looked average. That was before Gray was in and out, before Blount was out and in, before Revis predicted the interception that highlighted his value to the team and sealed another AFC championship for Brady and Belichick.
"This is why I came here," Revis says.
With that, Revis turns and exits the locker room and heads into the night, his red sneakers squeaking in the corridor. He hardly cracks a smile on his way out. He is, after all, a Patriot now, and there is no time to celebrate.