It is no secret that the New England Patriots have been an excellent second half football team the last few seasons. When including the Patriots 55-31 thumping of the Steelers two weeks ago, the Patriots are now 24-1 in second half games since 2010.
That's, like, really good.
But as strong as that record is, it doesn't mean much in the grand scheme of things. These 2013 Patriots are not your 2012, 2011, or 2010 Patriots. These Patriots are their own football team, and their path is far from determined. This team could easily claim a thin AFC, but could just as easily sputter out and lose in the first round of the playoffs.
When looking at the two directions this Patriots team could head, one doesn't need to look further back than the 2010 and 2009 seasons. In both of those years, the Patriots put together strong first halves of football. In both cases, the Patriots were 6-2 at the halfway mark. Both teams had been marred by offensive inconsistencies in the first eight games as well as injuries and turnover on the defensive side of the ball. Both teams looked dominant in spurts, but then had plenty of frustrating moments (Denver and the Jets in 2009, the Jets again and Cleveland in 2010).
In 2009, the Patriots started the first half 6-2 and were ready to face an undefeated Colts team in Indianapolis. The team had shown an improved defense and some signs of explosion on offense. In this game, as you know, the Patriots would build a big lead and then proceed to blow it as part of the "4th and two" collapse. Two weeks later, sitting at 7-3, the Patriots fell in embarrassing fashion to the also undefeated New Orleans Saints.
The two losses accentuated the weaknesses of the team, and really set the tone for the second half of the year. The Patriots had difficulty overcoming the losses, and fans were faced with the reality that New England could not beat an elite team. The Patriots ended up finishing that season 10-6, but even most of the victories had more than their fair share of frustrating moments. The problems and inconsistencies that we saw early in the season were not fixed, and only became more apparent. Eventually, the Patriots would get ousted in the first round of the playoffs in a blowout loss to the Ravens.
Halfway through the 2010 campaign, you couldn't say with any certainty that the Patriots were better than the year before. The team had its issues, and following a 34-14 loss to the Browns, many were wondering if the Patriots were any good at all. However, the Patriots started the second half of the season with a huge win over the Steelers. They stuck to their opportunistic ways on defense, and generated an effective balance on offense. They won all eight of their second half games, including victories over very good teams such as the Colts, Bears, Jets, and Packers. While the season did end with a disappointing playoff loss, there's no denying that the 2010 Patriots were a special team.
This brings us to 2013. The Patriots are sitting at 7-2, but have had notable frustrations and struggles at times this season. This isn't unlike the 2009 or 2010 campaigns. Also similar to those seasons, the Patriots face some really tough opponents in the second half. Tonight, they'll face off against the 6-3 Carolina Panthers who are perhaps the hottest team in football. Less than a week from now, they'll host the Broncos, perhaps the best overall team in football.
Don't make any mistakes about it - the next week will determine how good of football team the Patriots have. If the Patriots are standing at 8-3 or 9-2 a week from now, it could be a special season. If the Patriots drop both games, Patriots fans could be in for a frustrating finish, even if it means backing into a division title. Was last week's offensive outburst a fluke, similar to the team's historic 59-0 blowout of the Titans in 2009? Or was the victory the start of something big?
Tonight, we just might find out.