That's the Bill Belichick I like to see. Smiling, happy with his player's performance, and the Head Coach of the AFC East Division Champions. Kind of has a nice ring to it, right? With this win, the New England Patriots return as kings of the division, and a close return it was. The Miami Dolphins were always there, ready to take the title away at any moment, but this year we wouldn't allow a tie breaking situation to occur. After our 1 point loss on December 6th to the Fins, I was pretty dejected. This team had not returned, Tom Brady was not back, and the lack of viable targets was becoming obvious. 3 games and 3 wins later, our New England Patriots scored when they needed to, stepped up when they needed to, and won when they needed to. Pretty doesn't factor into the equation. The uptick of the W column is the only thing that matters. And the AFC East title.
Part of me feels a bit blase about the whole thing, like it's expected we take the title. After all, wearing the crown 7 out of 9 seasons can make one feel it to be normal. Maybe it's the attitude of the players and coaching staff. Maybe the old timers don't think it's that big of a deal. Maybe they've set their sights on bigger things. Leigh Bodden wrapped it up nicely, though:
So while some players treated winning the division like they found a $20 bill on the ground -- this team's goals are always bigger than just taking the AFC East -- it meant a little more to Bodden.
"I’ve never been a part of something like this," Bodden said. "I’m definitely excited. I’ve been in the league for seven years, and I’ve worked hard, and finally something’s come of it. But we’re not done. Hopefully, we can do a lot of good things after this."
Yeah, it's a big deal. There's only 8 division winners in the NFL. Only 25% of the teams can say they own that crown. I think it's a big deal. Given all the adversity this team has faced in 2009, it's evident their efforts to obtain this crown were nothing short of spectacular. At the beginning of the year, when Wes Welker and Randy Moss were telling the media they knew the system better this season than 2007, I was concerned. When the media was proclaiming the return of Tom Brady as the second coming, I was concerned. Other bloggers would ask me how I felt about Brady and the 2009 Patriots. My response was always, "Cautiously optimistic." There were too many things that didn't seem perfectly aligned, too many subtle differences from the 2007 season. I wasn't any smarter than the next guy, I just wasn't smiling while choking down the same old pablum.
Do I believe Tom Brady is back? Define "back". If you mean 2007, that's an anomaly. I've wiped that out of my brain when comparing anything. It's pure silliness to use that season as a basis for comparison. Does he look good? I'd say he's getting better. One play in particular made me grin from ear to ear. With a pass rusher coming at his back, Brady ducked and the defender totally whiffed on a potential sack. Our very on LegendaryTadpole did a great job of putting a lot of Brady's struggles in context. But what made me smile was to see a "Brady-of-old" habit emerge: the habit of pocket ESP. Mr. Bundchen doesn't have the quickest release (Peyton Manning) nor does he possess stellar scrambling abilities (Ben Roethlisberger), but he does have Jedi-like instincts in the pocket.
The Hill did a fine job of breaking down what our Patriots needed to do to win this game. With anemic pass protection, David Garrard wouldn't have much time in the pocket, even with our struggling pass rush. What to do, what to do... Maurice Jones-Drew!! Yeah, we'll hand it off to him...constantly. Well, guess what? Pocket Hercules was limited to 18 for 63 yards, well below his 87.3 yards-per-game average. Wow, New England discovered a rushing defense.
On the offensive side of the ball, Brady needed to move the chains with Wes Welker and he did. With 13 for 138 yards, the little engine that can is second only to Andre Johnson in yardage. Did I mention he's done this missing 2 games? Wes is a scoring fantasy league's nightmare, but he's every real opponent's nightmare, too. In my discussions with rival bloggers, at the top of their "how we win" list is, "Stop Wes Welker." They also tell me he's on their fantasy team. How's THAT for respect.
Another key element was establishing a running game. Aside from Laurence Maroney's untimely fumble, the Patriots balanced their aerial assault with some nice ground yardage to the tune of 197 yards. Sammy Morris had a big day with 12 for 95 yards, a long of 55, and 1 touchdown. One of my favorite rushing plays wasn't a rushing play at all. Knowing full well the Jaguars expected Fred Taylor to participate in the game, Brady faked a handoff to "Fast Freddy" drawing 4 Jaguar defenders to their former teammate. Fred acted the part while Brady tossed it to Randy Moss for a nice grab and stretch to get the ball over the goal line plane. Great stuff.
But the performance I'm most excited about is the Brady to Moss connection. You can say what you want about strength of opponent, 27th against the pass...whatever. Truth is, Brady was missing passes to Moss this season even without stellar coverage. That's why I'm happy he's now putting the ball where only Randy can grab it, something I've been complaining about all season.
Finally, the play calling is better. Moss wouldn't be that open if the coaching staff didn't recognize soft spots in Jacksonville's defense. Whether or not there have been changes, it's apparent the Patriots coaches are doing a better job of utilizing their players and giving them opportunities to make plays.
AFC East Division Champions. It has a nice ring, doesn't it?