A first round bye? Just what was expected

<p>The Patriots defeat of the Niners last week coupled with their regular season record earned them the #2 seed in the playoffs and a first round bye. Patriots Nation seems to be taking the news as if it were something that should be expected from this team.</p> <p>Matt Colantonio has noticed how Patriot's fan reaction has become eerily similar to Yankee fans.</p>

PHOTO: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady passes against San Fransisco 49ers Andrew Williams (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

A first round bye? Just what was expected
By Matt Colantonio, Site Contributor

The New England Patriots just concluded their second 14-2 season in a row, yet Patriot fans seem unaffected by the terrific regular season their beloved team just finished. Maybe this is what it's like to be a Yankees fan.

Think about it. When your team is as successful as the Patriots and Yankees, you adjust your expectations to what they have been giving you in recent years. The Patriots have won two of the last three super bowls, and finished the regular season having only lost two games for the second year in a row. Some teams in the NFC are making the playoffs with eight losses. Eight losses! Last week, there was an article advocating John Fox for coach of the year if the Panthers made the playoffs. They fell short by the margin of a blocked 60-yard field goal. They had a great season, though, finishing just under .500. They almost won half their games. Great job, guys!

Did John Fox do a good job? Sure he did. His team was plagued with injuries, and most people in his situation would have accepted the season as a lost cause after a rough 1-7 start. Half way through the season they had only won a single game, in Kansas City in week 2, yet they had a chance to make the playoffs with a win at home in their final game. That's a great effort, by any standards.

The question, though, is why has everyone over-looked the job Bill Belichick and his coaching staff, as well as the Patriots, have done this season? The Patriots are last year's "other" super bowl team, a team that has also been plagued with injuries all season long, yet they managed to win 14 games in the regular season. Even Patriot fans haven't made any noise about their hometown team's success. There hasn't been one mentioning of Bill Belichick for coach of the year, nor has there been one complaint about Rodney Harrison being left out of the pro-bowl, despite being 9th in the NFL in tackles (1st among non-linebackers).

So in a last minute effort to appreciate the regular season, before we get overwhelmed with predictions about who the Patriots will inevitably beat in the Super Bowl (gulp), let's look back at all of the key injuries New England has sustained this year, and the manner in which Belichick and his coaching staff calmly mended the problem, on the way to tying last year's franchise-best regular season mark of 14-2.

Offensively, the big question has been catching the ball for the Patriots. They have had key injuries to Bethel Johnson (has missed seven games with a thigh injury), David Givens (three games to an ankle injury), and Deion Branch (6 games early with a knee injury). On top of that, Tight End Daniel Graham missed 4 games with a rib problem, and rookie TE Ben Watson made an appearance in the first game of the year, only to be lost for the season.

What has this meant for the Patriots passing game? Tom Brady has completed passes to 15 different receivers, including Defensive Tackle Dan Klecko, and Linebacker Mike Vrabel. He tied his career high with 28 TD, and set a personal best with a QB rating of 92.6.

Running has been a different story for New England. After having a sub-par ground game with Antowain Smith the past couple of years, the front office went out and made perhaps the best off-season acquisition in the NFL (probably second to one Terrell Owens). Corey Dillon played in 15 of the Pats 16 games, and rushed for over 1600 yards, a franchise record. Not a bad move for the super bowl champs, who saw their ground game rise from 15th in the AFC last year, to sixth in the AFC this year, rushing for over 133 yards per game. To further enhance the running game, offensive coordinator Charlie Weis began using DE Richard Seymour on short yardage plays, a move that has been very affective.

Defensively, New England may have been hurt as badly as any team in the NFL this year. For starters, they lost pro bowl Corner Back Ty Law in week 8 against the Steelers, who was just placed on I-R, meaning he will miss the entire playoffs. The Patriots' other starting cornerback from last year, Tyrone Poole, played in only five games this year before being put on I-R with a knee injury.

The Patriots have had to turn to second year veterans Asante Samuel and Eugene Wilson, as well as rookie Randall Gay and third-year veteran Earthwind Moreland to fill the void. Despite minor injuries to Gay and Samuel, as well as recent shoulder problems to safety Dexter Reid, this motley crew has stepped up and held opponents in check. They have held opponents Quarterbacks to a 75.3 passer rating, 4th best in the AFC. Not only that, but they are tied for second with 20 interceptions, as well as tied for third in passing touchdowns surrendered (17).

This can be attributed to the great leadership and experience of Safety Rodney Harrison. Not only has he played in every game this year, but has only missed 5 games since the beginning of the 2000 season. Notorious throughout the NFL for his vicious hits and his NFL record in accrued fines, he leads all NFL safeties with 129 tackles, and has been the most reliant and important member of Romeo Krennel's defense.

Being overlooked for the pro-bowl seems to be commonplace for a Patriot. While the Philadelphia Eagles have 9 players on the team, only four Patriots were selected. This goes hand-in-hand with the Patriots theme of being a team, not a collection of individual players. Everyone remembers how they were introduced as a team in their first super bowl three years ago.

The most recent to go down is actual pro-bowl DE Richard Seymour. The Patriots have been quiet about the extent of the knee injury he suffered two weeks ago in Miami, and he is one man that will be tough for the coaching staff to work without. But needless to say, they will probably find a way. "Part of what you're facing when you play (New England) is the mystique of Belichick," said Carolina Panthers QB Jake Delhomme, who knows first-hand how tough the Patriots can be after losing to Belichick's squad in last year's super bowl. "You have to get beyond this feeling that, no matter how much you know going into a game, he knows more."

So while Belichick may not get recognized for coach of the year, and Harrison's leadership of a disastrously depleted secondary goes unnoticed, the Patriots will take their 14 wins and a bye into the playoffs and wait to see who they'll face in Gillette Stadium in two weeks.

Despite all of these injuries, the Patriots have kept winning. They have not only kept winning, but we have expected them to do so. And that's as good a compliment to Belichick and the Patriots as their fans can give them.

Matt Colantonio is a site contributor for the Patriots Insider. His passion is Boston Sports, helping others including those with special needs, and coaching kids sports. After a stint at NESN, Matt felt it was time he shared his sports wisdom and writing skills with the unfortunate masses. You can reach Matt on the Patriots Insider message Boards, or send comments to him here

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