I’m sure that this wasn’t Tom Brady’s New Year resolution, but unfortunately, for the first time in his NFL career, Mr. Brady lost a game in January. Of course it was no entirely Tom’s fault, but for a man and a team that prides itself so much on its postseason success as of late, it was not an ideal start to 2006. After going 10-0 since the turn of the century in the playoffs, the Patriots were finally bested by the Denver Broncos, temporarily ending one of the more dominant dynasties in recent memory.
Many discounted the first half of the Pats ’game against the Jaguars. It was an aberration, not the real Pats. They were just getting the bad play out of their system. And everyone pointed to the second half as evidence. Those were the real Pats. Everyone expected the Pats to carry that into Denver. While the Pats didn’t play very poorly against the Broncos it wasn’t enough to get them by. The loss brought everyone back to reality. For the last few years we’ve seen the Pats as immortal on the playoff gridiron. They were too good, their quarterback had nerves of steel, Belichick could out coach the best of them. While none of these statements are incorrect even now, we failed to acknowledge the other reasons the Patriots won. Nearly flawless execution of defensive schemes was a huge factor in the Patriots’ success. Even more so, the schemes needed certain players on the field. Maybe letting Ty Law go was too much, maybe he was a bigger piece than we thought. Maybe we should have had Troy Brown play both sides of the ball more often. Let’s also not forget a huge physical and mental presence: Rodney Harrison. No team wins or loses because of one player, but Harrison is a big asset. Just imagine if the Broncos were without John Lynch, for instance. While someone may be able to fill in and do a good job for him, he won’t bring that same fear and respect. A receiver coming across the middle may be more focused, knowing some second stringer is in his back pocket, as opposed to a hard hitting foe such as Harrison or Lynch.
Execution is the one word that most sums up the Patriots’ success. It wasn’t severely lacking this season, but it was not at the level that it was when the Patriots won their Super Bowls. Injuries, certainly added in the difficulty of maintaining a high level of execution, but still, the Patriots have been dealing with that kind of adversity for the last five years.
What we’ve overlooked is that while the Patriots would be a good team even without their near robotic play, they would not be this Patriots team. On pure talent alone, the Patriots shouldn’t have won one Super Bowl, let alone three. Why do you think the Colts and, before now, the Eagles were favored every year? Talent. Yet the Patriots kept making their mark because they executed better than their rivals.
Last weekend the Patriots ran into a team that, on paper, was better. Only this time, the Pats didn’t execute. The Broncos came prepared, again. Maybe Denver is the Patriots’ kryptonite, for after all they have the most victories against New England since 2001. Denver seems to be the only team who has been able to execute at about the same level. So for the Patriots, it is back to the drawing board.
This season should not be seen as a failure, though. The Patriots were essentially given a taste of their own medicine. You can look at it like the flu. For a few years the Patriots have been incurable, a new strain no one could figure out. Not anymore. So now the Patriots have to develop a new strain, one that will again leave opponents guessing. Given some of the people still driving this organization, I wouldn’t underestimate New England next fall.