This season has been surreal. Not in a dreamlike sense, where the weeks have glazed over and blended together, but in the truly bizarre sense. We're used to the Patriots being a complete automaton, devoid of human emotion and remorse. Cold, calculating, and without fear.
The Patriots have been a machine, notching win after win, division title after division title, and statistical impossibility after impossibility. Belichick is the head of the operation and his persona permeates through the rest of the franchise. This is a business. He's here to win and everyone should know it and prepare to kiss the rings. He won't explicitly say it, but it's clear: Belichick will deconstruct you as a human being and make you just another target on the team's hit list.
This season has been different, though. The Patriots aren't dismantling their opponents. They aren't gaining themselves any enemies, unless you count Tom Brady's outbursts against the refs. The Machine ordered replacement pieces that didn't fit or were broken. It took additional time to fix those pieces, and in the meantime the system continued to collapse.
The Patriots have looked human like they haven't looked since 2009. Or 2008. Before that? 2002? This is a brand new team in New England and it's time that we fully understand who this team is, where they've come from, and where they plan on going.
Patriots fans should make themselves familiar with the story The Wizard of Oz. The season has been a tornado from the start and we're still just leading into the climax of the story. Courage. Intelligence. Heart. Please, oh please, just let them get home safely. After losing the Wicked Witch in the middle of the off-season, the Patriots have been forced to embark on the journey of their lives.
Of the gifts the Patriots need in order to save the day, brains and intelligence might be the least of their concerns. With Bill Belichick and Tom Brady at the helm, the Patriots undeniably have the two of the most intelligent people in football setting the tone. But this isn't a journey of individuals, but the transformation into a unified team, representative of a greater whole.
For brains, we can look to the rookies who have had to do what few rookies have ever done before: learn the extensive, and bordering on asinine, playbook and contribute from the beginning. Greatness is a path and no one starts at the finish line. Together, the rookies have bonded and each played an integral role in getting where the team is today.
Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins are forever linked as the two rookies doing what few other have been able to do in the past decade: learn the offense from the beginning. Josh Boyce emerged this past Sunday and showed some basic skills to warrant additional opportunities.
On defense, the brains have been moved around to create a pseudo-monster-of-Frankenstein. With the veteran leadership of the team decimated, the brains had to be transplanted from Vince Wilfork and Jerod Mayo and placed into the green dot headsets of Steve Gregory and Dont'a Hightower. When Gregory went down, it moved again the Devin McCourty. When Hightower sat down in favor of Dane Fletcher, it continued to move.
Fact is, the Patriots have a myriad of players able to hold down the command center and, by the end of the season, they'll have needed every player to own their part.
When it comes to brains, the Patriots have plenty to spare, even if the football gods keep challenging that notion.
Halloween has never been more relevant and Brady is at the top of the list when it comes to courage. Only one other quarterback has had the same unfortunate [Andrew] Luck as Brady when it comes to the health of his offense and Brady's been playing with the best of them. While his completion percentage is merely average, he's 6th in yards, 9th in touchdowns, and 8th in interception rate, and back up to 12th in passer rating. While his field production leaves him as a top-third quarterback, as opposed to his top-three typical ranking, Brady's fire has never burned brighter.
Brady's been sacked the 6th most in the league, up with more mobile or statuesque quarterbacks like Ryan Tannehill, Ben Roethlisberger, Geno Smith, Robert Griffin III, and Cam Newton. He's seen 42 dropped passes on the season, good for 410 yards in the air (per Pro Football Focus), and what could have resulted in many more yards after the catch.
Ever since Aaron Dobson fought the Eagles cornerback Cary Williams in the preseason, there was no backing down. Even if they were overmatched, or out of their league, they never quit. Dobson, Thompkins, and now Boyce have all played like they belong on the field.
On defense, players like Duron Harmon and Logan Ryan have grown from tentative rookies to two of the most important players on defense. Joe Vellano and Chris Jones have had to take over the giant holes left by Wilfork and Kelly and have played every single snap to the whistle. Jamie Collins and Michael Buchanan have taken their roles and have become two of the better special teams players on the roster, while Collins has emerged as a solid linebacker and athlete.
In the face of adversity, there's been no quit in any of these players. If one player falls, the team is there to pick them up. If the defense is not playing well, then Belichick, McCourty, and Rob Ninkovich will provide the leadership. If the offense slows, Brady will bring his fire. If Brady is struggling, well, there's always Minitron.
The Tin Man
There's no question about the heart and resolve of this team. There's no adversity this team won't be willing to give their all in order to overcome. And the most important person on the team has just become a quarterback not named Tom Brady.
Julian Edelman just might be the most important player on this team.
Reason 1: He's seen 110 targets, caught 76, for 775 yards and 5 touchdowns. That extrapolates to 135 targets, 94 receptions, 954 yards, and 6 touchdowns. He's been the most reliable target on the team.
Reason 2: He leads receivers with a 69.1% catch rate, which makes him Brady's favorite target on the team. Edelman can be trusted to catch the ball and move the chains.
Reason 3: He makes some of the most important plays. He leads the Pats with 28 targets on third or fourth down, converting a receiver leading 71.4% of them. The only player on par is Shane Vereen (75%). Gronk is at 55.0% and Amendola is at 61.9%.
Reason 4: He fires the team up. He is the leader of the wide receivers. He knows when to be vocal. He knows when to lead by example. He knows if you've been bad or good, and he'll spike the ball with all of his might if it will change the team's outlook.
Reason 5: He's one of the best punt returners of all time. He changes the field in ways the Patriots offense will inevitably need again.
Reason 6: He's finally healthy and he means everything to this offense as Mr. Consistency. Without him, there's not a player left for Brady to lean on.
Reason 7: If push comes to shove, he'll absolutely line up at defensive back. Just saying.
So cases could be made for Vereen, or Ninkovich, or Devin McCourty, and I'd listen and understand. But Edelman has been the cornerstone of the offense this season and has been the heart the Tin Man didn't realize he had the whole time.
And we're not talking about Giselle. This is a team that could have two mentalities at this point. One could be the desire to finish the season with no more injuries. They could be exasperated at the horrible hand that has been dealt, and could be mailing in the rest of the season. They just want to go home.
Or, they could express the desire to finish the season and ante up for whatever the next hand is going to be. Home for this Patriots franchise is not with the mere relief of escaping another season, but it lies at the top of the hill with the odds ever mounting against them. This Patriots team has the fire to take this season home and to once again tear down the myth and expose the Manning behind the curtain.
The Machine is still fighting and adding the brains, the courage, and the heart that we haven't seen in some time. It's still a long road until they reach the Emerald City. But through all the hell they've been through, I'm sticking with them as they find their way home.