On June 10th, the Patriots signed quarterback and walking controversy Tim Tebow to much fanfare (even though New England did a great job of keeping him out of the spotlight).
On June 18th, Gronkowski had back surgery, which, in conjunction with his numerous arm surgeries and his back surgery back in 2009 that caused him to miss his junior season of college ball, set the timeline for Gronk's return to sometime in September.
On that very same day, fellow tight end Aaron Hernandez became involved in a murder investigation and had the police search his house.
On June 20th, the Patriots banned Hernandez from the team facilities. On June 26th, Hernandez was taken in to custody.
This is what happened before the Patriots' pre-season had even started. And we thought they had a chance this year?
The Patriots have always gone with the bold restructure of their offensive position groupings in order to inject youth into the roster. In 2010, the Patriots released tight end Chris Baker and let Ben Watson walk and filled their spot with the two rookies in Gronk and Hernandez. In 2011, the Patriots traded running back Laurence Maroney to the Broncos and picked up Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley in the draft.
The Patriots hoped to have that same effect when they traded in their 34 year old Deion Branch, 32 year old Wes Welker, and 32 year old Brandon Lloyd for 28 year old Danny Amendola, 25 year old Donald Jones, and 22 year old Aaron Dobson. Unfortunately, Donald Jones was unable to finish the off-season due to a kidney disease and had to retire, but undrafted free agent rookie 25 year old Kenbrell Thompkins stepped up in his place.
But this is an old horse. You know that Brady lost all of his targets from last season. You know that he never really fully adjusted to life with Gronkowski on the sideline in the first half of the season. You know that the offense was plagued by drops as rookies Dobson and Thompkins were thrust into roles far too great for them to be expected to handle. You know that Amendola and Vereen were hurt and that Ridley was fumbling and that there was absolutely no way the Patriots offense was going to right the offensive ship until their key players returned.
Until they returned, though, the defense was going to have to keep the team in every game, and my word did they ever. Aqib Talib emerged as a premier cornerback. Defensive ends Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich created one of the best tandems in the AFC. Devin McCourty developed into the league's best safety. And the defense was a top 10 unit, keeping the team in every single game while the offense couldn't produce.
After a noxious outing against the Bengals, it looked as if the Patriots offense turned a corner against the Saints and could possibly be relied upon to take this team to the next level and cement their status amongst the elite. But before the cement could dry, the Patriots watched their defense fall into disarray. The Patriots lost both captains and All Pros in defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo in week 4 and were trying to compensate for their loss when fellow defensive tackle Tommy Kelly was hurt against the Bengals and cornerback Aqib Talib was hurt against the Saints.
What was a strength became a weakness and what could be expected from this Patriots should have broken down. There was no way the Patriots could overcome the loss of their veteran defensive leaders while still trying to allow the offense to transition back into mediocrity. Yet the Patriots still fought and clawed their way to a 7-2 record into the bye week, setting up the Patriots for a strong stretch finish.
But the hits are lasting. A three point loss in the sludge to a ferocious Bengals defense and a clearly-a-violation-but-why-the-heck-would-they-call-it-here-for-the-first-time-ever loss to the Jets in overtime. All Pros Wilfork, Mayo, tackle Sebastian Vollmer out for the season, along with another starter in Kelly. Rookie Thompkins disappeared from the offense leading into the bye week, while Ridley still needed to work on his ball control.
Teams like the Chiefs and Broncos managed to escape mostly unscathed, while they both put up league leading defensive and offensive output (respectively) and it looks like the Patriots were relegated to be a second tier team in the AFC. A potential AFCCG competitor, but clear fodder for whoever was going to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.
And then last night happens. Vereen, Gronkowski, Amendola, Ridley, Dobson, and Thompkins are all available on offense for the first time ever. The offense continued its upswing, putting together seven drives, all of 8+ plays and 6 for 55+ yards. Were it not for Ridley's fumble, the Patriots could have been in position to score on all but their initial drive (and would only have needed a field goal at the end of the game to win it).
But the Panthers beat the Patriots, luring the Patriots into their style of football and owning them at it. Carolina managed to slow down the Patriots uptempo offense by issuing methodical and clock draining drives of 5:03, 5:33, 6:01, and 8:21. Keeping the ball out of Brady's hands has always worked by tiring out the Patriots already depleted defense and preventing the Patriots from using home run plays to dictate the Panthers offense. The Panthers clearly won the strategy game.
And then there was the Patriots secondary. Already hurting from the loss of safety Steve Gregory and cornerback2 Alfonzo Dennard, the Patriots saw cornerback3 Kyle Arrington tweak his groin/thigh on one of the most unreal/impressive/drunk plays you'll ever see in Cam Newton's scramble, which definitely played an impact in how Arrington could defend Tedd Ginn Jr on the game winning touchdown play.
Oh, and Talib. Talib was owned, beaten, and discarded by the Panthers' Steve Smith. Smith was the player of the game by dragging Talib into a pissing match and using Talib's already heated disposition against him. Smith empowered himself with the fire. Talib burnt out. Talib was beaten and let his emotions prevent him from ever playing a part in the game before he reinjured his hip and had to sit out.
That's the Patriots top three cornerbacks and strong safety all nicked up in the span of a week, after they were the last remaining relatively healthy unit on the team.
This team was beaten by the Panthers because the Panthers had a better team and that's okay. No other team has gone through the same string of misfortune that the Patriots have come across. There's a point where depth can carry you, and that was to a 7-2 record in the bye week, good enough for the second seed in the conference. And then there's a point when that depth is gone and it's leads to the game being decided by one play- and that's the source of aggravation about this season.
All three losses can be pointed as the failure of three plays. The goal line throw to Nate Solder against the Bengals. The field goal push against the Jets. The pass interference against the Panthers.
This is 2009 all over again, where the Patriots couldn't win on the road in a hostile environment and where the teams of the past wouldn't let the game come down to that one play in the first place. Where the depth of the team wasn't enough to pull the team out of another hole, as they had done against the Saints, and against the Bills, and against the Jets (round 1).
This has been a season of coin flips and, as of right now, the Patriots are a cool .500. They're winning as expected in the situations they've allowed themselves to fall into. Games decided by one play. Half their way, half the other.
So now the Patriots are 7-3, with the daunting task of hosting the Denver Broncos, fresh off their victory over the last undefeated team in the NFL. The Patriots aren't expected to win, nor should they be with their current roster.
But all is not lost. The Patriots are lucky that the top two teams in the AFC reside in the same division in the AFC West. The other two division champs vying for a first round bye are also two teams that could challenge the Patriots for being the most impacted by injuries in the NFL.
The Colts are without their starting left guard (former Patriot Donald Thomas), their starting tight end (Dwayne Allen), their starting wide receiver #1 (Reggie Wayne), their starting running back (Vick Ballard), their other starting running back who took his place (Ahmad Bradshaw). The Patriots are fortunate that their offensive players are coming back. All those Colts players are done for the season.
Indianapolis has been playing on borrow time the same way the Patriots have been, with Luck and the offense falling behind laughable amounts in the opening half in the past few games. And with the surprising Cardinals (an elite defense), Bengals, Chiefs, and a divisional game against the Texans (who, while terrible, play them tough a la the Bills), it's possible that the Colts could lose more than just a couple of their remaining schedule, crucially against conference foes.
There's also the Bengals. They lost All Pro and current best defensive tackle in the league Geno Atkins and All Pro cornerback Leon Hall to the injured reserve. Their starting linebacker Rey Maualuga and both their starting guards Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling are fighting injuries. The Bengals have an upcoming bye week to heal, but Atkins remains the most talented player in the league to be lost to a season ending injury. A closing schedule of the challenging Chargers and Colts, as well as two division games against the Steelers and Ravens (both fighting to win the division) means that the Bengals don't have a cake-walk to the finish line.
And then there's the Patriots. New England sits with a two game division lead. Both the Jets and the Dolphins have the Panthers remaining on their schedule, have a desperate AFC North match-up left (Steelers for the Dolphins, Ravens for the Jets), have both of their head-to-heads left, and the Dolphins have another match-up against the Patriots.
But note: Even if the Patriots lose to the Broncos, the only way for either the Jets or Dolphins to pick up ground is for one to sweep the other. If they don't sweep, that's another loss on their record that cancels out the loss to the Broncos. And if one sweeps, then the loser is effectively out of the running. And if the Dolphins are the one that sweeps, well, the Patriots have their head-to-head to remain.
The Patriots don't have an easy schedule to finish the season. They get the Broncos, Texans, Browns, Dolphins, Ravens, and Bills. All games that could go the other way. All games that the Patriots could conceivably win.
The bottom line is that even after all of the adversity the Patriots have faced over the course of this season, they still have a chance at a first round bye. In fact, the Patriots have as good of a shot as any in the conference.
And that's where we stand with New England. The Patriots could notch another 12-4 season on their bedpost, solidify a first round bye, and make whatever noise they possibly can in the playoffs with whatever players remain in this ungodly war of attrition. (I'm expecting the Patriots to field a team of just Tom Brady and Logan Mankins in the playoffs, with Julian Edelman playing every single receiver spot and defensive back position.).
But the losses linger because we haven't felt the truest victory in nearly a decade. We know what potential would be at their fingertips, if Belichick wasn't required to perform a blood sacrifice with a key player in order to win a game. We know what this team could become, if all the pieces were together.
The wins that come are expected- these are the Patriots. They're supposed to win. When a coin toss goes their way, it's because of their superior execution and clutchness, but when the coin falls astray it's because the coin is clearly loaded. The losses hurt more than the victories satisfy, even if the losses occur when the Patriots have no business being in the game in the first place.
But this is a team of fighters. They didn't give up against the Bills, Jets, Bengals, Saints, Jets (again), or the Panthers. They will always find a way to be involved at the end of the game. Three plays are the difference between 10-0, 7-3, and 4-6. But these Patriots can't be defined by those three plays. These Patriots have made their living by playing smart football for the first 59 minutes so the last minute isn't in question.
The Patriots will have to regroup and duct tape together their 7th ranked defense and their 8th ranked offense as they hobble together to the season's finish line. This season wasn't ever going to be a story book. But this story has just as much potential to become legend as does any other team in the AFC.
This team isn't the front runner, but they're in just as good of a position as the other teams in the AFC.
This season, that might just be enough.