FOXBORO – As part of the ongoing effort to make the Patriots seem less than invincible in the AFC, I asked Jerod Mayo a few weeks ago what he thought their Achilles' Heel is.
His answer surprised me. And, as the Patriots begin active pursuit of their fifth Lombardi Trophy tonight, it’s a concern that probably isn’t going away quite yet.
The Patriots haven’t been in enough close games, said Mayo. He wants to see them tested.
It’s one thing for you or me to make that observation, but for Mayo – in his first year of retirement and a former captain – to cite that as important means a little more.
The frenzied final minutes of a one-score game aren’t easy to navigate. Nobody’s ever done it better than New England, that’s a fact. The 2014 Super Bowl run is the most impressive of their four, in my opinion, because they erased 14-point deficits twice against the Ravens and a 10-point deficit against Seattle in the fourth quarter.
But the 2016 regular season will be remembered as one in which the Patriots were rarely challenged. Just three games had enough drama to make palms sweat.
They beat Arizona 23-21 without Tom Brady when the Cardinals missed a field goal at the buzzer.
The lost to the Seahawks 31-24 coming off their bye. Tom Brady had two “Are you s****** me?!” completions on the Pats' final drive – a 30-yard completion to Julian Edelman on a third-and-10 with 2:33 left and a 26-yarder to Gronk on second-and-14 with 1:29 left that put the ball on the Seahawks 2. But the Patriots were rough on their final four plays. Brady got 1, Blount got stuffed, Brady fumbled a snap and a fade intended for Gronk wasn’t close to being completed.
They erased a 17-13 fourth-quarter deficit against the Jets with a field goal, touchdown (failed two-point conversion) and a strip sack on the Jets final drive.
The average margin of victory in their wins was 14.57. With Brady at quarterback, the Patriots only two of their 11 wins came by fewer than 11 points – the 22-17 victory over the Jets and a 23-16 win over Baltimore that New England led 23-3 in the third.
The final minutes of tonight’s game could be tight. But with the Patriots favored by 15 over Houston, that’s not likely. Next week against the winner of Kansas City-Pittsburgh? Perhaps. If it comes to pass that the Patriots get to Houston, the NFC rep will undoubtedly be seen as a still greater challenge.
It seems odd that this team, which some harbor reservations about because of the lackluster teams they’ve pummeled, could get to the Super Bowl without being truly tested in a tight game after Thanksgiving.
For some, there’s a whiff of foreboding, a waiting for the shoe to drop, the veil to be pulled back and the 2016 Patriots to be exposed.
Which is in weird contrast to the 2007 Patriots, the gold standard for dominance even if they didn’t finish it off. Their air of invincibility was unmistakable.
That team, because it finished the regular season 16-0, had a cross to bear that this team didn’t. Because the ’07 team was chasing history and every opponent they faced had the chance to make history itself by being the team that put a halt to them, the games got tighter and so did the Patriots’ collars, it seemed.
Despite having a preposterous point differential of 315 (compared to the 2016 Patriots point differential of 191), the ’07 team was actually involved in more close games than the 2016 Patriots with three three-point wins (Giants, Eagles, Ravens) and a four-point win (Colts).
And it could be argued that the 2016 Patriots are a more diverse and close-to-as-potent offense entering the playoffs as the 2007 team was. It’s hard to argue that this offensive line has better players than the ’07 team, but they are playing at a comparably high level. Brady may have lost a modicum of speed and arm strength (I say that because he must have, not because I believe it’s been obvious), but he’s a smarter quarterback now than he was then. The running backs are currently better, the tight end position is a wash and the wide receivers are not as good.
Defensively, that group had more talent position-by-position but this group allowed 24 fewer points (against lesser offenses, to be sure). The only truly poor game they played as a unit was against Seattle and that came in the wake of the Jamie Collins trade when the team was still trying to enmesh players in new roles and the group’s confidence was at low ebb.
It’s bizarre to think how truly close to 16-0 this Patriots team was. A loss to the Bills that was so league-engineered even Rex Ryan couldn’t adequately revel in it. And a one-touchdown loss to Seattle in which the Pats played like ass and still were on the doorstep of sending it to overtime.
The “Drive for 5” (that’s what we’re calling it at our place) starts tonight. And – if things go as expected – it will be another drama-free game which will conclude with us trying to find blemishes and uncover “what if…” scenarios that up the angst level.
Weird path to history.