We have come a long way from the lofty expectations of an undefeated season that were attributed to the team at the beginning of the year. After the acquisition of Brandin Cooks and Stephon Gilmore, 19-0 was all that was on the mind of Pat’s fans. Who can blame them? Coming off of the team’s legendary comeback in Super Bowl LI, expectations were as high as ever as most of the roster was returning from the previous season.
Offensively, the addition of Cooks was huge for a unit that was already amongst the best in the league. Standout rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell was back with a year under his belt to complement Tom Brady’s dependable core of Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, and Chris Hogan. All of this goes without mentioning superstar tight end Rob Gronkowski, who was returning from back surgery.
Defensively, the addition of Gilmore gave the Patriots one of the best secondaries in the NFL as experienced players like Devin McCourty, Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon, and Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler were all back in the fold. The front seven was loaded with players like emerging star Trey Flowers, Malcolm Brown, Alan Branch, Rob Ninkovich, Kyle Van Noy, and freshly resigned star linebacker Dont’a Hightower. The Patriots even added depth by trading for Super Bowl 50 standout Kony Ealy (remember him?). Simply put, the team was stacked and primed to become just the second team in NFL history to repeat as Super Bowl champions on two separate occasions.
But this is football. Things never work out the way they are supposed to and the road to success is always under construction. The first roadblock came via Rob Ninkovich and his sudden retirement. Then reports out of training camp stated that Ealy had been struggling to make an impact on the field. His subsequent release from the team verified these reports as he was cut in late August. Fan favorite and number one receiver Julian Edelman then went down with a torn ACL during the preseason. This was a big hit to the team as he was one of the team’s leaders on the field and in the locker room.
In spite of these unexpected developments, the team still had one of the best rosters in the league and fans still had high expectations as they headed into the season. But the impending struggles that the team faced blindsided everyone like that pole that Eagle’s fan ran into. The team started 2-2, which included an embarrassing opening night loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.
These struggles were then compounded by an injury bug that really tested New England’s depth. Offensively, players like Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell never saw the field. All-Pro right tackle Marcus Cannon went down for the season with an ankle injury Week 8 versus the Chargers. Chris Hogan missed seven games with a shoulder injury he suffered versus the Chargers. Defensively, Dont’a Hightower suffered a season-ending pectoral injury Week 5 versus the Falcons. Key interior linemen like Alan Branch and Malcolm Brown struggled with injuries that affected their performance.
But did we really think these setbacks were going to hold the team back? If history has taught us anything, we should have known that our 2-2 start just meant that we were going to go to the Super Bowl as two of our five championship seasons started 2-2. Yes, this roster is talented, but the challenges this team faced throughout the season are almost as important as any offseason acquisition.
Their depth was tested as unheralded players like Johnson Bademosi, Eric Lee, Cameron Fleming, and LaAdrian Waddle put forth admirable efforts in the wake of injuries. The team won games with their offense, like they did during their shootout victory over the Texans in Week 3. The team won games with their defense, like when they held the Bills to three points in Week 13. And sometimes they were able to put together dominant performances on both sides of the ball, like when they blew out the Broncos 41-16. Those challenges helped the team grow as they finished the season 13-3, winning 11 of its final 12 games.
And now, as the team gets ready to take the field today, they will be as healthy as they have been all season. They have the tools and the experience to face any challenge they may face, including the Eagles and the NFL’s newest fad, the run/pass option (RPO). The RPO took the NFL by storm this year and followed other gimmicks like the wildcat and the triple option. But just like its predecessors, the RPO requires discipline, attention to detail, and sound fundamental play. I can’t think of a better coach and team to face such a challenge than Belichick and the Patriots.
Having had two weeks to prepare for the RPO and Philly’s high-powered offense, the defense will be able to hold its own and give the offense enough chances to shred this vulnerable Philadelphia secondary. The Eagles deserve credit for the playoff run they have been able to put together without their star quarterback Carson Wentz. But with backup quarterback Nick Foles running the show, the Eagles lack the playmaking ability at the quarterback position needed to beat the Patriots on this stage.
This team has been there and done that. They have battled injuries and faced adversities. They have struggled on both sides of the ball and they have grown as a team from the beginning of the season. So while the Patriots may not have put together the undefeated season that fans wanted, they gave us a team that grinded to the end and fought through their struggles. Today’s game will be another example of that. It will not be easy. The team will struggle with Philly’s strengths, which include a strong rushing game and a fierce front seven. But if this 2017 Patriots team has taught us anything, it is that they are more than ready to send the Eagle’s and their dog masks back home to Philly empty handed.
Patriots 27 – Eagles 23