Why 16 - 0 Won't Happen
Early Dominance Evokes Thoughts of '72 Dolphins
First of all, I come here to praise the Patriots, not bury them. The very fact that we can even contemplate a perfect season is indicative of how good they are. That many experts are already discussing this after only 7 games is the ultimate compliment of their performance thus far. After all, the Colts are 6-0 themselves but are not being compared to the '72 Dolphins yet. The dominance that this team has displayed is making this a distinct possibility, so let's go through the challenges that stand between them and a perfect season.
The '98 Broncos won their first 13 games before being upset by the Giants. The Broncos also lost their next game, but went on to win the Super Bowl behind John Elway. The `05 Colts also started 13-0, and had wrapped up home-field advantage through the playoffs. Coach Tony Dungy rested most of his key starters, and ended up losing to the Chargers. The Colts continued to rest some key starters for the remaining two games, and ended up losing to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers in the playoffs. With the parity that free agency has brought to the league, these achievements are noteworthy in their rarity and highlight the fact that so few teams even have the opportunity to think about this scenario.
Now we must imagine the unthinkable. Despite his continued presence on the Patriots injury list, Tom Brady has been a very durable QB. The last time he missed a game due to injury was the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh during the 2001-2002 run to the Super Bowl. Every Pats fan knows that this team needs Brady more than any other player. Matt Cassel's performance in mop-up duty last week in Miami only reinforces that notion. But with NFL quarterbacks being injured at such a rate that Vinny Testaverde was signed off the couch to start for the Panthers recently, the possibility that Brady could be injured is a real one. Even a minor injury could sideline Brady for a week, especially if there's nothing to play for in the last weeks of the season.
The Patriots have managed to dominate so far, even with several key players injured. Richard Seymour just recently started practicing with the team after missing the first seven games. Laurence Maroney, Stephen Neal, Benjamin Watson, and Rodney Harrison have all missed time and the team hasn't missed a beat. Nonetheless, if the offensive line suffers too many injuries, Brady will have less time in the pocket, and will be more likely to take hits.
Randy Moss has been very durable so far, but has a history of hamstring troubles as recently as this pre-season. Donté Stallworth has had the same problem, missing several games last year when he played for Philadelphia. If the injury bug does take a big bite out of this team, while they have shown the ability to succeed through them, their chances of going undefeated would become miniscule.
With nine games left to play, there are still many obstacles for this team to overcome, not the least of which is this week's opponent, the Redskins. Coach Joe Gibbs and defensive coordinator Greg Williams have this team playing well on defense. Their two safeties, Sean Taylor and rookie LaRon Landry, are perhaps the best tandem in the NFL. Along with corners Fred Smoot and Carlos Rogers, the Redskins have a shot at slowing down the Patriots record-setting passing game. Despite coach Gibbs' thoughts to the contrary, this game is not a foregone conclusion.
There are still several games left on the schedule that could get in the way of a perfect season. On Nov. 4th, the Patriots travel to the Colts. Peyton Manning and company dealt Tom Brady his first defeat in a domed stadium in last year's playoffs, and are 6-0 heading into this weekend's games. With games left at Foxboro vs. the Eagles and Steelers, and games at the Ravens' and Giants' home fields, there are plenty of stumbling blocks left on the schedule. This is not an easy slate in the second half, and the Patriots will have to continue their current level of play to continue winning.
The Patriots nearest competitor for the AFC East division is the Bills, who are 2-4 so far. At this rate, the Patriots will have the division title wrapped up by week 11. If the Patriots do continue winning, they could have home-field advantage as soon as week 15. At that point, coach Belichick will have to decide how much, if at all, to play starters like Brady, Moss, Seymour, etc. The '05 Colts had this back-fire as they entered the playoffs rusty, but the Patriots would only be playing for the record books. Belichick may have an appreciation for history (e.g. Flutie's drop-kick, Testaverde's touchdown pass,) but never at the jeopardy of winning a title. If the Patriots have home-field, the starters may continue starting, but won't finish the game just to stay undefeated.
As the season end nears, if the Patriots are still undefeated, the media scrutiny will eclipse Camera-gate, Brady's love child, and Mike Vrabel's non-foul combined. Seeing how those things haven't affected the team yet, it's likely they won't then. In fact, seeing how they've circled the wagons when the media bashes them, the Patriots foes may be wishing that the pundits just leave the issue alone. All things being said though, if Cassel is being questioned about continuing the streak in week 17, do you feel that he'll be as cool as Brady against the Giants? Me neither.
It goes without saying that the Patriots are a great team. They have been so dominant that I'm actually writing a post in week 8 pointing out the obstacles they will face. The fact of the matter though is that they have a legitimate shot at this feat, and that while the odds may be long, this is just the sort of team that can pull it off.
While the players and coaching staff are focused on winning the next game (and really, is there any doubt about that with this team?), we as fans can contemplate what will happen for the rest of the season. Ultimately, they are driven to win the Super Bowl, and they will never sacrifice their chances just to get in the record book. That's why this team is so much fun to follow. They may have great players, and a great coaching staff, but the discipline and focus on their objective is the true feat.