Earlier this year, it was hard to believe just how good the New England Patriots were playing. It wasn't just the fact that they were fielding another talented, well-coached squad, it was how seemingly automatic their success had become, thrashing and embarrassing team after team.
Tom Brady's perfectly thrown passes seemed to glide effortlessly into the hands of Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Donte' Stallworth. And after a while, they just became fun to watch because you had to admire how easy they were making it all look.
Just five weeks ago, the Patriots were sitting high atop the AFC East with a 10–0 record. With four of their next six games scheduled to be played in the friendly confines of Gillette Stadium, it appeared that New England would be fully capable of embarrassing another half a dozen teams on their way to a perfect season, causing potential playoff adversaries to wonder if anyone could stop these Patriots.
And with a win Saturday night against the New York Giants, they will etch their names into football lore as the first team to record a perfect 16–0 season.
But over the last five weeks, the wins have been far from easy, including a pair of games where New England's perfect season appeared to be in jeopardy. The seemingly unbeatable team nearly lost to Philadelphia despite a 380-yard passing performance by Brady. Then New England narrowly escaped a loss in Baltimore while the Patriots quarterback completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
Bouncing back with an impressive performance against the Steelers at home the week after the Ravens game created the impresssion that the two-game slump was over and was simply an aberration. But since then, the Patriots have played the Jets and the Dolphins — a pair of teams with a combined record of 4-26 this season — and the Patriots looked far from being the model of perfection they were projecting earlier this year.
Brady threw a total of just three touchdowns over the course of the two games while throwing three interceptions. The Patriots accumulated just 355 yards through the air in two games against a pair of the league's worst teams. Their aerial assualt, which rolled up 399 yards against Pittsburgh, was sputtering once again.
Just as it took me a while to believe that the Patriots were simply as good as they were during the first ten games of this season, it's taken me a while to acknowledge that these Patriots are no longer that good.
In an incredible stroke of irony, the home field advantage that New England has fought to earn could be the very thing that keeps them from reaching the Super Bowl this season. As the cold winter winds have blown into Foxborough, Brady and his receivers have seemingly gone into hibernation.
Over the last five weeks, the Patriots offense has averaged 28 points per game despite playing against four opponents who will be watching the playoffs on television after this weekend's regular season finale. That's a decrease of 13 points per game from the pace they set during the first ten outings.
Tom Brady sets up to throw a pass against Miami.
AP Photo/John Cetrino
After throwing 38 touchdowns and just four interceptions in the first ten contests, Brady has thrown just 10 touchdowns and four interceptions in the last five games. And seven of those touchdowns were scored in two games, meaning that in three of his last five outings he's averaged just one passing touchdown per game. To make matters worse, he's posted his three worst single-game completion percentages during the last four weeks, including two embarrassing performances of just 140 yards passing against the Jets and 215 yards against the Miami Dolphins.
New England's passing attack simply doesn't look so terrifying anymore. Meanwhile, the Colts and the Jaguars are heading into the playoffs with a full head of steam.
The Colts' lighting-quick defense combined with a balanced offense lost to New England earlier this year by four points. But that was inside a dome, providing the Patriots' passing game with optimum conditions to keep pace with the Colts. If Brady throws for roughly 200 yards and completes only 50 percent of his passes against the likes of the Colts, New England won't be making a Super Bowl appearance this year.
The Colts, winners of their last six games, have worked through a rash of injuries this season that have regularly sidelined multiple starters. With the exception of defensive end Dwight Freeney, who was placed on injured reserve following knee surgery, the defending champions should be at 100 percent for their playoff run, something they haven't seen since the first month of the season. The biggest boost will come from the return of wide receiver Marvin Harrison, who hasn't seen any action since the Colts' fifth game of the year.
Meanwhile, Jacksonville has become a real force to contend with as they've won six of their last seven games convincingly, coming up short by just a field goal against the Colts while battling them in Indianapolis. During that span they've beaten both the Chargers and Steelers as the visiting team and have humiliated weaker teams. Jacksonville took out Buffalo 36-14, slapped the Panthers with a 37-6 loss, and rolled over Oakland 49-11.
Jacksonville is likely the best team in the NFL that no one is really talking about right now.
While the Chargers will have an important role in the scenario that could cause the Patriots to fall short of their Super Bowl dreams, it's not likely to be through a head-to-head matchup. They simply aren't in the same class as the Patriots, Colts and Jaguars, despite their five-game winning streak.
San Diego was 2-4 this year against teams that have already qualified for the playoffs or who are still alive for a wildcard spot heading into this weekend. One of those two wins was fueled by Peyton Manning's bizarre night where he threw six interceptions followed by the usually-automatic Adam Vinatieri missing a chip-shot field goal at the end of the game. The other win, against the Titans, went into overtime before the Chargers claimed the win. During their five-game winning streak, San Diego has beaten the likes of the Ravens, Chiefs, Lions and Broncos in addition to their overtime win against Tennessee.
Excuse me while I yawn.
That said, the Chargers are certainly talented enough to win this weekend against Oakland and to hold off their resulting wildcard opponent at home, whether it's the Titans or the Browns. That would send them to Indianapolis for a divisional playoff game.With a Chargers win this weekend, Jacksonville heads to Pittsburgh for wildcard weekend. And without running back Willie Parker, who landed on the injured reserve list this week, the Steelers will have an even tougher time keeping up with Jacksonville than they did suring their loss a few weeks ago. Since their November 18th overtime loss to the Jets, the Steelers haven't struck much fear into anyone, winning three games against weak opponents — the Rams, Dolphins, and Bengals — while losing to both the Patriots and the Jaguars. Pittsburgh is a divisional champ that is ripe for a one-and-done playoff appearance.
With a win in Pittsburgh, Jacksonville would head to New England for the other divisional playoff, potentially setting the stage for the toughest road possible for the perfect Patriots to earn a Super Bowl berth.
Maurice Jones-Drew battles a Bills defender.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Think about it. Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew chewing up the clock while Tom Brady watches from the sidelines. Jaguars quarterback David Garrard, who has thrown only three interceptions this year, fails to provide New England with turnover opportunities that have been instrumental to their dominance this season.
All the while, the cold winter winds blow in Foxborough, keeping Brady and his receivers in deep-freeze mode, helping to slow an offense that has come to rely on big plays and plenty of passing to win games.
Oh, and they'll have to try to move the ball against a pretty darn good Jaguars defense that won't be as accommodating as the Steelers defense was three weeks ago.
If the Patriots survive that test, they'll then have to regroup for Indianapolis, assuming that Peyton Manning and Adam Vinatieri don't play like Eli Manning and Mike Vanderjagt against the Chargers.
Both the Colts and the Jaguars have been tested by cold weather conditions recently and both performed well, so playing in New England may not be as big of a challenge as some would think. The Colts played in Baltimore on a cold night that included some chilling rain. Peyton Manning completed 76.5 percent of his passes and threw four touchdown passes while the Colts defense forced five turnovers. The game was over by halftime with the Colts holding a 30-point advantage. No late-game heroics were required for Indianapolis to emerge with a win as the Patriots had to rely on a week earlier.
In four of his last five games, Manning has completed 68 percent of his passes or better and has thrown at least three touchdown passes per game. He's tossed just three interceptions and has posted a passer rating of at least 113.0 in all but one game during that span.
And that's been without Marvin Harrison on the field. Think about that for a minute.
The Patriots will likely earn their 16th win Saturday night against the Giants and will be deserving of all the praise they receive for that incredible and historic accomplishment. They've played football at a level that has raised eyebrows and respect around the country this year while leaving many opposing fans and players shaking their heads in disbelief.
But if they have to battle the one-two punch of the Jaguars and the Colts in consecutive weeks, the Patriots could be the most shocking knockout victim of the 2007 playoffs. And if that happens, they'll be remembered instead as the first perfect team that didn't win a championship.