Hi everybody, I hope the sting of the loss to the Bills is healing abit for you, though I can't say it is for me. Anyways, these are my thoughts on where we've been and where we're headed.
I'll start with 2009, as, to me, 2009 was the beginning of a new era in Patriot football. Many defensive elites - Seau, Harrison, Seymore, etc - were gone by this point. The 2007-era Randy-Moss based offense was running out of gas, and was in the first stages of being phased out.
During this time, the Patriots developed what I saw as a choking problem - the 4th and 2 game being the prime example of this. In many ways, the 4th and 2 game symbolized everything that had gone wrong since 2007, and much of what would go wrong from 2009 onwards. It was the low-point of the post-2007 era, and the point at which the Patriot's likelihood of remaining dominant seemed to shrink. "Its time for new faces in the NFL," they commentators, bloggers, and fans said.
In reality, however, it was more of an off-year then the beginning of a trend. 2010 started off rough, with a loss to the Jets that seemed to reinforce the "Patriots are on the decline, Jets are the new kings" mentality. However, with the cutting of Moss, the return of Mankins, and back-to-back victories against the Steelers and Colts, the Patriots showed signs of life. The 4th and 2 game and 2010 Colts game were very similar - except the 2010 Pats pulled it off. It felt as though the had started winning games that they would have previously lost, as though there may indeed be light at the end of the tunnel.
Indeed, new era had begun, one in which far less focus was put on individual receivers, or players in general. A duo of new running-backs became relevant on the team, as did the to-this-day-invincible TE team. After back-to-back blowouts against the Jets and Bears, the Patriots seemed back to their dynasty form. The team now had a central focus: Protect Brady, win the turnover battle, and get off to a fast start. Using this strategy, the Patriots were able to claim the #1 seed and finish well-ahead of the Jets. But, come playoff time, the old weaknesses of 2009 reared their ugly heads again, and the Patriots were forced to return home empty handed.
In the span of one year, the Patriots went from looking like a team that may miss the playoffs and at best be in a state of rebuilding to a dominant, Superbowl-favorite.
Remarkably, even in 2011, they have still improved - While they play in the same spread-the-ball around, TE heavy, fast start style, they are doing it in a more refined and perfected way, where 30+ scores/300+ yards can be expected in nearly every game. There have been some bad signs with regards to the previously-important stat of turnovers, though it is in my eyes too early to judge them in this field.
As for the rest of 2011, I see this as possibly being Brady's greatest year. The 2011 offense, provided it continues as it has in the first three games, will dwarf the offense of 2007. The defense could be suspect, but even at its worst few teams are going to be able to outgun Brady's aerial attack. More importantly, perhaps, I see the Patriots winning their first playoff game since 2007. The Jets couldn't make it last year and have only lost talent, the Steelers have a history of missing the playoffs after they go to the SB, and the Colts look to be as good as dead without Manning. All thats left is the Ravens, Texans and Chargers, all of whom, at this point, look small and irrelevant next to the almighty Patriots. Things could change, and I'm not necessarily predicting a SB win - just that the Pats will do better in the playoffs.
Looking further down the road, I can also see 2012 being Brady's best year. In 2012, look for everything to fall into place - a finally-decent defense, still-invincible offense, weak AFC teams and easy schedule. I expect this will be the final year for the "turnover-based defense, spread offense, high-scoring team" Era. From 2012 onwards, the Patriots will begin to resemble more the 2010 Steelers - a balanced offense and defense designed to prevent big plays while controlling the game and clock. As the final Brady-lead game nears, I the Patriots will look to fill up the remaining holes in their D, beginning the "Era of balanced, get-the-job-done-without-being-flashy" Patriots. As I expect Brady to play until 2014+, chances are his final days will be played out in this style team. In 2012 they'll have their greatest shot at one more superbowl (and possibly last shot at 19-0) with the "flashy" offense, and then another in 2014 with the Brady-led "balanced" offense and defense. If the Patriots win the Superbowl in 2014, I think we should all expect that Brady will retire on that note. If not, he could play as last as 2016+.
Anyways, I hoped you enjoyed my post, and aren't too bothered by the fact that I posted it in the middle of the season. Hang your heads high Pats fans - while I can't say the best is yet to come, I can definitely say the worst is behind us.