All of the stars were aligned Monday night in Foxboro, Massachusetts. A prime-time matchup between the 9-3 New England Patriots and 11-1 Houston Texans was set to take center stage in front of a nationwide audience on Monday Night Football. The game was being proclaimed as “The Game of the Year” across the league. Texans wideout Andre Johnson even went so far as to call it “the biggest game in franchise history” for Houston. For the Patriots, it was just another day at the office in a 42-14 win. Here are 5 reasons why the Patriots are the team to beat in the AFC and favorites to return to the Super Bowl:
1. Defense is finally starting to come around. The Patriots bend, but don’t break defense is finally starting to mold into a solid unit. Bill Belichick no longer has to solely rely on Tom Brady to bail the team out; the defense has been making plays as well. The teams +24 turnover differential leads the league, by a lot. After the midseason acquisition of cornerback Aqib Talib, the Patriots have been able to move Devin McCourty to safety, and also allow linebackers Jerod Mayo and rookie Donta’ Hightower to blitz and play more freely. Defensive captain Vince Wilfork has been a steady rock in the run and pass defense all season as well, consistently taking on double teams while allowing defensive ends Rob Ninkovich and Chandler Jones to regularly put pressure on the quarterback. The team ranks #8 in the league against the run and held perennial pro-bowler Arian Foster to just 46 yards on 15 carries Monday night. Since acquiring Talib, the defense has allowed just 18.3 points per game to opponents. With the Patriots offense averaging just over 36 points per game (which leads the league by a longshot), you have to like their chances.
2. Offense, as always, is explosive. Led by quarterback Tom Brady and complemented by receivers Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots potent offense has not been stopped all season. New England’s balanced attack has been said to be better than the 2007 record-setting team, mainly because the Patriots finally have a run game. The team no longer has to rely on Brady’s right arm, as running backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen, and Danny Woodhead have carried the teams 7th ranked rushing offense. The play-calling by offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has been nothing short of brilliant, as the Pats steady diet of run and pass plays have kept the opposing defenses on their toes all year long. Brady and company can hang 40+ on you in a heartbeat, and no team so far has proven they can slow them down. For instance, the vaunted #2 Texans defense was absolutely shredded by New England, giving up 42 points and 419 yards of total offense. Don’t forget, the Patriots seemingly haven’t missed a beat without arguably their best offensive player (besides Brady), Rob Gronkowski, who should be back in time for the playoffs after recovering from a broken forearm. Until someone can find a way to even slow down the lethal attack of the Patriots, nothing stands between them and playing in New Orleans on February 3.
3. The team is on fire. The Patriots mantra ever since Bill Belichick was hired as head coach in 2000 was to start playing their best football after Thanksgiving. Besides a rather sloppy win against Miami in Week 13, the Patriots have certainly done just that. Riding a 12-game December win streak into this week’s contest vs. San Francisco, it’s safe to say the Patriots are hot. Winners of seven in a row and nine of their last ten after a 1-2 start, New England is catching fire at just the right time. In fact, the last time the Patriots lost a home game in December was a 30-17 loss to the New York Jets in 2002. Remember when the Patriots lost a home game to the once 4-0 (and now 4-9) Arizona Cardinals way back in Week 2? Yeah, that was a long time ago. This Patriots team now is completely different from the team that lost that game back in September. New England is excelling in all 3 phases of the game heading into Week 15. It is fairly difficult for the naked eye to single out a weakness on this team, disregarding injuries. And as the New York Giants have shown the league over the past few years, it’s not always the best team that wins the Super Bowl, but the hottest team. The Patriots seem to be on the right track for both.
4. Playoff seeding favors the Patriots. The Patriots control their own destiny when it comes to seeding for the playoffs. If the team wins their remaining 3 games, they are guaranteed a top-2 seed and a first round bye. New England owns the tiebreaker over the 10-3 Broncos after their 31-21 win in Week 5, and also owns the tiebreaker over the Texans after their 42-14 beat down of Houston on Monday night. Although the Patriots trail the Texans by 1 game for the #1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the team can only hope for Houston to lose 1 or more of its remaining 3 games in order for the Pats to gain the #1 seed in the AFC. The Texans play 2 of their final 3 games against the very dangerous Indianapolis Colts, which gives a real possibility for New England to win the top seed in the AFC. Having to travel to Denver or Houston would not favor the Patriots, so it is very important for New England to gain home-field advantage throughout. If the Pats can pull out a win against the 49ers this Sunday night (which isn’t an easy task), the team should be able to handle Jacksonville and Miami in the season’s final weeks. All of the cards have to play out, but New England is at least in the drivers seat for a top-2 seed in the AFC.
5. Brady and Belichick. As many fans would agree, there is no better coach-quarterback combination in NFL history than Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. After competing in 5 Super Bowls together and winning 3 of them, the Patriots know what it takes to win games in the postseason. They’ve been there, done that. With 134 regular season wins together and a 16-6 playoff record, the combo has proven they can win the “big game”. After losing the last 2 Super Bowls in heartbreaking fashion, there is no question both are coaching/playing with a chip on their shoulder. The Patriots are the NFL’s model franchise, and Brady & Belichick are almost like the president and VP of the organization. The winningest coach-QB combination in NFL history will be more than ready to lead the Patriots to their 4th Super Bowl title in the last 12 years and to hoist the Vince Lombardi trophy in New Orleans yet again.