New England Patriots: Are they the one true champion or an upset waiting to happen?

Posted: December 31, 2010 in NFL
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See this article with photos on Bleacher Report

As the season wore on, it has looked more and more like the New England Patriots really are the one dominant team in the NFL this season.  They worked out the early season jitters of a very young defense, they disposed of a giant headache by dealing Randy Moss and replacing him with a familiar old friend, Deion Branch, who’s found the fountain of youth now that he’s been reunited with Bill Belichick.  All that and Tom Brady hasn’t thrown an interception in what seems like five years.  They’ve won seven in a row, including the Steelers, Colts, Jets, Bears and Packers in that stretch.  The offense is rolling with seven straight games with at least 31 points, they’re undefeated at home, and just blowing people out right now.  They are as sure a bet for a Superbowl title as anyone going.  But all that glitters.

Belichick has done an amazing job this season transforming this team into a championship favorite, and he would get my vote for coach of the year.  But let’s not crown them just yet.  For one thing, the league is surprisingly wide open on a week to week basis.  Remember, prior to these last seven games, these same world-beating Patriots got ran off the field by three touchdowns in Cleveland.  Even during the win-streak, they just barely held off a fierce comeback by an extremely short-handed Indianapolis team, and had to stage a late comeback of their own to beat an Aaron Rodgers-less Packers team two weeks ago.  That game was at home, no less.

The defense, which has improved mightily of late, is still young, and while they have responded very well to the rigors of the regular season, playoff pressure is an entirely different situation.  Pittsburgh, Baltimore, the Jets and Colts, if they make it, have all played significant playoff games over the past two or three seasons, and have numerous experienced players, particularly on defense.  They know what it takes to win in the post season.  Remember, Baltimore came into New England and ran the Pats off their own home field in last year’s playoffs.

Say what you want about Brady, and he has had the passing game humming with an array of no-name receivers, tight ends and backs, things tend to tighten up in the playoffs.  The Steelers, Ravens, Jets and even the Chiefs are capable of putting up good defensive efforts and controlling the clock on the ground.  And it’s not like any of those teams are warm-weather dome teams like the Colts.  New England’s vaunted home field advantage won’t be quite so intimidating to whoever’s coming in there.  The Patriots have gotten hot at the right time, and will likely end up with the best overall record in the league, but in this era of relative NFL parity, recent history shows that the team at the very top doesn’t take the crown all that often.

Since Green Bay won the trophy with the league’s best regular season record back in 1996-97, the best overall team in the NFL has only won the Superbowl once in proceeding 13 years.  Coincidentally, that one was New England in 2003.  The recent history for top seeds doesn’t really bode well for Atlanta, either, assuming they beat Carolina and end up number one in the NFC.  In the past 10 years, there have been 20 #1 seeds in both conferences combined.  Only 2 have won the Superbowl.  In contrast to that, 6 lost their first game at home in the Divisional Round.  That means, as a top seed in the past decade, you’re three times more likely to lose your first game than win the Superbowl.

I’m not saying that New England isn’t destined for glory this year, just let’s not jump the gun.  If they get knocked off this post-season, it won’t be the greatest upset in the history of sport.  It shouldn’t even be all that surprising.

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