The New England Patriots’ rise to the top of the AFC this season has not been a long journey, but it has been a surprising one.
A year ago, they were the No. 2 team in the conference behind Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. They maximized their chances by taking care of an overmatched Indianapolis Colts team in the divisional playoffs, but they were dispatched with ease by the Broncos in the AFC championship.
When the Broncos added defensive specialist DeMarcus Ware in the offseason and outside linebacker Von Miller returned to full health, the difference between the two teams seemed even greater than it had been. NFL observers also figured that the Colts would be stronger this year, while the Pittsburgh Steelers have a phenomenal offense and the Pats might even get a push from the Miami Dolphins in the AFC East.
They did get that push in the first week of the season when the Dolphins came from behind to punish Tom Brady with a hard-charging, Cameron Wake-led pass rush, but the Pats have grown dramatically since the first month of the season.
After starting the year with a 2-2 record, they have been playing an all-around game that has not been seen in Foxboro in seven years or more. It’s no longer just Brady slinging the ball around. This is now a much more complete and formidable team.
The Patriots have added elements like a power running game, and they also have something that Bill Belichick earned his reputation on. They are playing game-changing defense, and that’s what gives them a huge advantage over all of their AFC opponents and what just might help them get a fourth Super Bowl ring.
Start off with a ground game that has seen LeGarrette Blount become one of New England’s key players once again. After walking his way off the Steelers, Belichick brought him back and gave him a chance to become the Pats’ lead back. The one thing Blount knew he had to do was hold on to the ball, because Belichick does not abide fumbles. Blount learned this last year, and he has had an extra-secure grip on the ball.
Blount does not go down on the first hit. He is a Mack Truck of a back, and he has gained 202 yards on 42 carries in the three games he has played for the Pats this season. That’s a 4.8-yards per carry average, and it makes life much easier for Brady.
Don’t forget about Jonas Gray, either. While he worked his way into the doghouse by oversleeping last month and coming in late for practice, he can do just what Blount does. He had a 201-yard game against Indianapolis, and you can rest assured that Belichick has not forgotten.
The running game has softened up opposing defenses, and that means Brady does not have to obsess with the pass rush. He can look for Rob Gronkowski and watch him bowl over tacklers, or shoot for Brandon LaFell and Julian Edelman. He has the opportunity to pick and choose from a slew of receivers, and he knows that he doesn’t have to carry the team this season.
It’s the defense that has really turned things around for New England. The stats say they are little better than middle of the pack since they rank 13th in yards allowed, but they are really much better than that. They have the best cornerback in the game in Darrelle Revis, and he can lock down any receiver and basically shut him out for the majority of the game.
They have an emerging superstar in linebacker Jamie Collins, who can rush the passer, cover receivers out of the backfield, and deliver forceful hits in the running game (team-best 95 tackles). They have a huge man in the middle of the defensive line in Vince Wilfork who continues to shut down the interior run. Wilfork got a big assist in Sunday night’s win at San Diego from backup Sealver Siliga, who plays with a nasty edge.
Don’t forget about defensive end Rob Ninkovich, who plays more snaps than any other Patriots defender. He is almost always in the right position, and he is simply a playmaker with 51 tackles and 7.0 sacks. The Patriots defense will get even better when pass-rushing phenom Chandler Jones (4.5 sacks) returns to the lineup from his hip injury. He has missed the last six games, and he could return this week against Miami or next week against the Jets.
These playmakers have allowed the Pats to come up with big plays at the key moments in the game. Revis sets the tone, and everyone else follows.
The Pats seem to be getting better each week, while Denver has seen Peyton Manning go through a bit of a downturn as the Broncos have been forced to turn to their running game. Manning has thrown for 352 yards total in the last two games, and his passes just don’t seem to have the zip they did earlier in the year.
That leaves the AFC to New England for the taking. They will clinch the AFC East with a win this weekend, and the celebrations may continue to go on through the beginning of February when Super Bowl XLIX is played in Glendale, Arizona.
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