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Thursday Morning 3rd and Long: Next Men Up

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A 12-3 record. A potential #1 seed and home field advantage for the entire divisional playoffs. A playoff bye clinched.

7 games ago, sitting at 5-3 and having just endured a heart-wrenching loss to the New York Giants, I'm not sure if I would have believed this flawed New England Patriots team would be able to achieve all of the above.

Surprisingly enough the final Giants drive that cost New England the game also was the last time we've seen Brandon Spikes and Patrick Chung on the field. If I had told you seven games ago that neither player would return to the field and the Patriots would still be able to secure a first round bye, would you have believed me?

Certainly not after seeing how helpless Sergio Brown was at safety. Definitely not after seeing Tracy White completely clueless to the game's situation and biting on a play-action when the Giants had no timeouts left. Heck, this was still a week when people used Albert Haynesworth's name in a hopeful manner.

That all being said, I'm sure that none of us could have predicted Rob Gronkowski would reel in two touchdowns in each of four of the next five games, either.

2011 has been a turbulent season for the Patriots, but this particular team has shown a great resistance to adversity. This team has shown a heavyweight champions' resolve- maybe the contender will hit them with a haymaker early in the bout, the New England is going to scrap until the end- and in these last 7 games, they've shown that they can scrap with the best.

Heck, there isn't a lot different from this 2011 New England team compared with a recent resurgence of another team from this area- the Boston Bruins. Maybe it's not the prettiest team, and the flaws (power play scoring versus passing defense) are so glaring that they become hard to ignore- yet somehow, the TEAM overcomes. The spark can come from anything or anywhere.

When the champ regains his composure from his opponent's blow, you better not give him any room to gain momentum- because when the tide has turned, and the switch has been flipped for New England, a scrappy victory has almost become the inevitable.

The latest example of this lasting resolve came against the Miami Dolphins, after a 17-0 first half deficit caught Bill Belichick and his team right on the chin. The normally reserved head coach supposedly went on a tirade at halftime. The team, missing the left 40% of the offensive line and 1 of the 2 players who had started every game for that unit, lost the other in the first half. The grizzly Logan Mankins, a player who normally sets the tone for the physicality of New England's front, went down with what would be revealed as an MCL sprain- the third of the season for New England starters.

To their credit, the Dolphins were executing a pressure scheme perfectly against New England's normally high-powered and up-tempo game plan. Not only was Miami able to rattle Tom Brady, but they also maintained tight coverage on the Patriots offensive weapons that resulted in several sacks as well. Reggie Bush came out of the gates on a mission, and Brandon Marshall and Brian Hartline were able to make big plays to couple with several Patriot miscues and penalties that helped build a three-possession lead 30 minutes through the game.

Vince Wilfork keeps stressing that he thinks the Patriots are going to be a scary team once they learn how to play 60 minutes. I'd agree with him considering the following figures:

November 13th, 2011 @ Metlife Stadium: The Patriots battle in a tight first half against the Jets to a 16-9 advantage, despite allowing a safety. New England comes out and outscores New York 24-7 in the second half, including Rob Ninkovich's pick-six to secure the victory on the road.

November 21st, 2011 @ Gillette Stadium: The Patriots take on first time starter Tyler Palko and the embattled Kansas City Chiefs corps, only to be held scoreless at home in the first quarter and facing a 3-0 deficit against an unexpectedly tough pass rush. The Patriots are able to build a 10-3 lead in the second quarter, and blow the game open by following with a 17-0 third quarter. New England holds the Chiefs scoreless again in the fourth, dominating the final three quarters 34-0.

November 27th, 2011 @ Lincoln Financial Field: New England starts the game allowing the Eagles to gain 10 quick points as a result of several long receptions that expose the Patriots' coverage. Facing a two score deficit in a harsh environment, the Patriots go on a 24-3 run to close the first half and hold Philadelphia to a scoreless third quarter and a single fourth quarter touchdown.

December 4th, 2011 @ Gillette Stadium: New England takes a 31-3 advantage after 45 minutes, only to relinquish three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to Dan Orlovsky and the Colts.

December 11th, 2011 @ FedEx Field: The Patriots face a feisty Redskins squad and stumble to a 20-20 tie after the first half. The team edges out a tight victory, allowing only one score in the final half while scoring twice to secure the first win at Washington.

December 18th, 2011 @ Sports Authority Field: For the second time in two weeks, the Patriots find themselves in a first half battle in hostile territory. The Broncos come out of the gate with a furious rushing game and build a 13-7 first quarter lead. The Patriots use a 27-3 run over the middle two quarters and again hold their opponent to a single second half score to complete the comeback.

December 24th, 2011 @ Gillette Stadium: Victims of a depleted front line, the Patriots relinquish a 17-0 first half deficit in a bleak showing for the offense, allowing the second first-half shutout of the year. The team rallies with a 27-7 second half to overtake the division rival and clinch a first-round playoff bye.

What I take from this is a complete concordance with Big Vince's thoughts, and a stat that has passed me by before putting these summaries together- In six of the last seven games, the Patriots defense has allowed only a single score or less in the second half. In each of these circumstances, the offense and defense were able to play complimentary football and hold on for a victory. The single time that New England allowed multiple scores in the second half in this seven game winning streak was to the Colts, when the defense seemed content to surrender garbage time stats and a much closer score than was indicative of the competing performances.

The common sentiment is that defense and the ability to run the ball wins championships. Unfortunately, the Patriots are lacking in both area.

But after examination, I'm going to say that I think there are several areas that I think make the Patriots a championship-caliber team.

1. An elite passing offense, complete with two record setting receivers
2. Elite coaching, specifically Bill Belichick and Dante Scarnecchia
3. Fantastic positional flexibility- which reflects highly on Belichick and Nick Caserio as team builders and player evaluators
4. A focus on special teams as an integral part of team-building: Specialists Stephen Gostowski, Zoltan Mesko, and Danny Aiken playing at a high level, coupled with the fantastic coverage abilities of first-time Pro Bowler Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Tracy White, Sergio Brown, Niko Koutouvides, and a plethora of others
5. An enormous emphasis on ball-control and getting points off turnovers
6. Mental fortitude and resiliency in adverse situations, both at home and away
7. A playmaking defense that has the personnel to adjust when the game plan is ineffective
8. A tremendous added importance in the passing of Myra Kraft and the dedication of the season to her memory

I'm sure there are other areas to highlight, but these are the ones that come to me immediately. I think that the Patriots, despite all of the scrutiny, have a football team that is ignoring the distractions and focusing on the things within their control that can help win games.

It would be one thing if the Patriots were playing this season entirely healthy, but the fact that they aren't really makes the 12-3 record a pleasant surprise. If Logan Mankins doesn't start against Buffalo next week, which is the most likely situation, there won't be a single member of the offensive line that started every game. The Patriots have played with four different centers this season, and are most likely starting two rookies at offensive tackle and Donald Thomas, he of only a single NFL start, at left guard against the Bills.

The Patriots have a constant flux of unknowns in a constant rotation on the backend of the roster, including a player that has been involved in the most personnel transactions in one year in NFL history. They've started wide receivers, career backups, and week-of signings at safety. Their best defensive end, in the midst of a career resurgence, was put out for the season due to a quadriceps injury.

Despite every, this team is 12-3 and poised to earn home field advantage through the entirety of the playoffs. Vince is right- this team's potential is scary.

I'm wondering what the Hooded One's strategy is going to be this week. Personally, I think that we're going to be seeing our starters from beginning to end, unless the game is out of touch in either direction. The prospect of home field advantage until the Super Bowl would seem to outweigh the convential wisdom to rest starters, especially because of how mediocre the Baltimore Ravens have been on the road this season and how poorly the Patriots performed at Pittsburgh earlier this year.

Maybe the Patriots have shown a great ability to respond and react on the road this season, but why risk it? Having the home field will be a marked advantage, especially for the energy level of a struggling defense.

The interesting thought is if the Patriots do play all four quarters- is it possible that Tom Brady has a chance to surpass Drew Brees for the passing crown? At 5087 yards on the season, Brees holds a 190 yard advantage over Brady- definitely a steep advantage, but by no means insurmountable if Brees is taken out of New Orleans' final game early.

From Jerry Thornton, of Barstool Sports:

There was a 4-play sequence over 2 possessions where Nate Solder did this: Played tight end left alongside Mankins, came out of the game, went back in at right tackle (on the play where Mankins was hurt) then came out on the next drive at left tackle. 4 plays, 3 different positions. The perfect application of the Belichick principles of "Next Man Up" and "The more you can do..."

Nate Solder's versatility this season has been a fantastic asset to the Patriots, and I'm holding out hope that we will see him line up as a tight end and go out for a pass at some crucial point in the postseason. That scenario won't happen this week, as he will likely be starting at tackle on one side this weekend.

If Matt Light is healthy, the Patriots might be able to run their massive line package with Cannon at tackle and Solder at tight end. If not, they made the decision to sign veteran fullback Lousaka Polite, formerly of the Dolphins. In years past I've always noticed Polite making a play or two against the Patriots, so I'm excited to see what kind of value he brings.

Because Donald Thomas has to move to left guard in Logan Mankins' absence, the team is left without a fullback option and the additional blocking support should Light and Mankins both be out. In that case, Nate Solder would not be able to come in as a block end, and Cannon would light remain at right tackle. I'm not sure that Belichick would bring an unknown into his complex offense if he didn't see value in the player, so I have every reason to believe the team has confidence in his skill.

Some quick thoughts:

- If Pat Chung and Brandon Spikes do not play against Buffalo, they will have both missed the entire second half of the season. Spikes played fantastic while he was healthy, and could be such an asset if he were able to return in that form. There is concern about which Brandon comes back from his knee injury; after being suspended for the last 4 games of the season last year, Bill Belichick was frustrated with Spikes' conditioning upon his return.

- If Spikes doesn't come back, Dane Fletcher will fill his role admirably. Fletcher played every snap last week alongside Jerod Mayo and for the most part Rob Ninkovich. That seems to be an indication that Belichick wants to hone that unit for starting, possibly even if Brandon returns.

- I feel that Fletcher has the capability for several impact plays a game, if he only learns to finish. He consistently penetrates into the backfield and seems to have a great instinct for the ball. Combine that with two other players in Ninkovich and Mayo that are making plays and hitting their stride, and you have two of the three levels of the defense in great shape heading into the postseason.

- BenJarvus Green-Ellis is a team player, and I suspect that his injury from earlier this year has not yet healed completely. The Law Firm has lost a step from his 1000-yard performance last season, and this has allowed Stevan Ridley to showcase his ability to bring intensity in the second half. It seems to me that Belichick uses his running backs like this: BenJarvus to test the defense out in the first half; Danny Woodhead as the cutback and no-huddle option; Stevan Ridley for some violent, explosive running from a bigger back; and Kevin Faulk in situations that Belichick only trusts to Faulk. Benny has 9 touchdowns, so his season is still very productive- especially considering Brady's passing numbers.

- Back to Pat Chung- if he doesn't return, it puts the secondary at a definite disadvantage going into the playoffs. A healthy Chung is probably the best athlete the Patriots have at the position, which has been the biggest weakness of the defense by far.

- I like what I see out of Devin McCourty. He competed with a superior athlete in Brandon Marshall, and had one of his better days in coverage. His struggles might be illuminated because the completions were deep balls, but with better safety help those would be further reduced. McCourty played aggressive, which is a good sign as the season moves into the tournament.

Have a great and safe weekend everyone!