In 2014, the New England Patriots were embarrassed by the Kansas City Chiefs and the dynasty was declared dead on departure. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick decided to refocus the squad with his infamous “We’re on to Cincinnati” press conference and the team went on a tear that ultimately ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLIX.
There were no such dramatics in 2016 since the team only lost twice all year- one coming with a rookie 3rd string quarterback with a hand injury under center- but that won’t stop the Patriots from pointing to their other loss as a turning point of the season.
“I don’t like to compare season to season, but I think we had that Seattle game, a game that we felt like we didn’t play our best and obviously wasn’t the result that we wanted,” Patriots captain Matthew Slater said. “We definitely had a choice; we can sulk and feel sorry for ourselves, or try and move on and keep getting better. Since that game we’ve continued to improve. We haven’t become complacent. We’ve put ourselves obviously in a good situation. I wouldn’t say it’s the same as that Kansas City destruction that we experienced, but it was kind of a turning point in the season.”
The Patriots fell to the Seattle Seahawks 31-24 and were a last-second goal line stand by the Seahawks away from forcing overtime. That remains the worst performance by the Patriots defense and they have allowed an average of just 13.3 points per game since facing the Seahawks.
“I want to say that the San Francisco game [one week after the Seahawks] was the biggest jump that it kind of came out,” fellow Patriots captain Dont’a Hightower said. “I feel like we were a little bit more aggressive in our play calls and Matty P [Matt Patricia] called a heck of a game and from that point on I definitely feel like just overall everybody just kind of fell in and we’ve been able to execute a lot better just maybe doing a little bit different things. I think, overall I think, maybe that San Fran game kind of turned things around and [we] kind of knew our identity and just kind of ran with it.”
Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia started calling more creative defensive schemes over the second half of the year, including defensive back blitzes and an increased rush off the edge. The improved Patriots defense has forced two or more turnovers in seven of their past eight games.
The Patriots also vanquished a few bogeymen teams over the final four weeks of the season, too. They defeated the Ravens despite losing the turnover battle 3-to-1; they finally beat the Broncos in Denver; they crushed the Jets, ending a string of close matches; and they walloped the Dolphins in Miami.
“That was big for us, especially the win in Denver,” Slater said. “It felt like we had the yips or something when we go in there. We couldn’t get it done, so to go in there and finally get a win I think gave our team a lot of confidence. And then obviously the Baltimore win prior to that was big for us as well. I think those three games in that stretch, you’re right, it said a lot about who we were not only physically on the field, but mentally to be able to get through that and win out. That was definitely big for us.”
New England has one final challenge this year in the form of QB Matt Ryan and the Atlanta Falcons. The revitalized defense and confident offense of the Patriots will need to show up to leave with yet another Super Bowl title.