On the surface, the New England Patriots, winners of two Super Bowls in the last three years, appear to be an anomaly in an era of parity and competition.
The Patriots have all the makings of a dynasty, with a brilliant coach, a stingy defense and a quarterback as cool under pressure as any since the advent of the Super Bowl. Tom Brady is now 6-0 in the playoffs, and New England coach Bill Belichick, like he did in 2001 with then-Raiders coach Jon Gruden and Rams coach Mike Martz, has stood up to and outwitted the best of his peers. This year, Belichick led his team to postseason wins that ended the seasons of Titans coach Jeff Fisher, Colts coach Tony Dungy and Panthers coach John Fox, three outstanding coaches in their own right. In a few years, fans could be comparing the Patriots of today to great teams of the past.
But the Patriots, who strung together 15 consecutive wins to close the season, are different from any dynasty the NFL has ever known. Unlike the Steel Curtain or the Doomsday Defense of the 1970s, or the West Coast attack of the 49ers in the 1980s, or even America’s Team, the 1990s’ Dallas Cowboys, these Patriots often seem to lack an identity. They beat teams in high-scoring shootouts. New England scored more than 30 points five times this season, including against playoff teams Indianapolis, Tennessee, Denver and Philadelphia. And they also won in low-scoring nail-biters, like their two 12-0 victories against Miami and Dallas down the stretch as they wrapped up the AFC East crown.
As Brady marched the Patriots down the field for go-ahead scores twice in the final three minutes, though, it became apparent exactly who these Patriots are. They are fighters who will not lose. They are confident, even arrogant, and it would have been a surprise for Brady not to lead the Pats within range for Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal, whether the drive started on their 40-yard line or the 4.
In fact, moments after Vinatieri’s kick sailed through the uprights, Brady was looking ahead to next season.
“I asked him once, which was his favorite (championship) ring, you know?” Brady said in a news conference Monday, referencing a conversation with a trainer when he was at the University of Michigan. “And he kind of thought about it for a little while and finally said, ‘The next one.’ That’s how I feel right now. This is great but you already want to start thinking about the next one.”
Brady said he is committed to working out all off-season, getting a head start on next year’s title defense. Other NFL teams can’t be excited to hear that news.
“There are still a lot of things to improve on,” the two-time Super Bowl MVP said. “There is still a lot of room for growth. The thing is, I enjoy playing football. I enjoy the game. I like being in the weight room. I like training camp. I like practicing. And I hope to be doing this for a long time.”
If Brady is as devoted as he says and one of the most anonymous defenses in the NFL remains intact, the Pats could be among the best ever. Belichick’s genius has been evident the last three years, as a nameless defense has garnered much recognition. But he will have to further prove himself when free agency rains on his parade.
Two weeks ago, I wrote that great teams will not exist in the NFL anymore. After seeing the Patriots’ playoff run to finish a great season, though, I am convinced they will be a modern-day dynasty. They will not dominate teams because the truth is they are not that much better than the rest of the league. They will continue to win more games behind the leg of Vinatieri than with a blowout offensive attack, but the formula has gotten them this far and they look to have it perfected.