When the New England Patriots landed in Denver for their American Football Conference (AFC) Championship bout on Sunday, they knew that the task at hand was daunting. They understood the odds and the nature of the beast that stood up against them. The Denver Broncos were equipped with all kinds of playmakers on both sides of the ball, not to mention one of the most dominant quarterbacks in the history of the game – coming off the best regular season in the history of regular seasons.
The stakes were high, the pressure mounted, and the Patriots ultimately fell short to a team that was just plain better. This was by no means an underachievement. The AFC title game featured a clear favorite (with an offensive arsenal for the ages) and a clear underdog (a motley assembly of journeymen that scraped and ground its way all season to an impressive record), both overcoming major injuries and disappointing performances along the way.
In the end, the bona fide favorite put together a dominating display, making the underdog look as underwhelming as ever. I didn’t expect anything different today.
This cast of gritty Patriots was tasked with playing in a hostile environment and with significantly less talent. Tom Brady saw one or two playmakers line up alongside him, flanked by a band of also-rans. The defense ran into a legendary quarterback with one talented pass-catcher after another and an effective running game to boot. Any other outcome would’ve been an upset for the ages, since this team really shouldn’t have been in this position at all.
Given the talent on the roster and the injuries suffered along the way, Tom Brady should’ve been on a sandy beach somewhere days ago, reminiscing about yet another lost season and looking far away at a rosy sunset, with disappointment in his mind and regret clouding his judgment. Bill Belichick should’ve been laboring away in the film room weeks ago, calling up old friends for a serviceable receiver or two while planning ahead for future matchups and simultaneously surveying the draft boards. And yet, they weren’t. Brady and Belichick – two aging warriors that should never be separated, only revered and feared – were slugging it out on the gridiron at Mile High, playing deep into January once more and coming up just short.
For that reason, this football season was a success for the New England Patriots and their loyal fans, myself included. It was a week-in-and-week-out display of mental fortitude amidst adversity, giving new meanings to perseverance and toughness. Grit and grind. Scrape and scratch. Fight and keep on fighting. These Patriots just kept churning out close wins, week after week – even when they weren’t supposed to, just like how they weren’t supposed to be playing in Denver on a surprisingly warm Sunday at the tail end of January.
Aaron Hernandez met the full force of the law earlier in the year of 2013. Alfonzo Dennard found himself weighed down by the legal and the physical, and struggled to deal with both. Vince Wilfork stumbled and never got back up, with a torn Achilles tendon to blame. Rob Gronkowski’s knee was struck by meat, turf, and football pads, and the anterior cruciate came away mangled. Jerod Mayo hit a brick wall, as did Brandon Spikes and Aqib Talib and Shane Vereen, among others. Some recovered in time, while others couldn’t quite stand back up.
Yet, through it all, the team kept on fighting and fighting and fighting. Julian Edelman carried the slack with his crafty cuts and timely catches, en route to a career-best statistical output. LeGarrette Blount experienced a resurgence of sorts, combining power running and a renewed focus to ignite an uninspired rushing attack. Leaders on the defensive front, from Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones to Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower, stepped up to provide some semblance of stability.
In the face of season-ending injuries and legal issues of all kinds, the head coach kept on plugging away with the roster, filling gaping holes with unspectacular acquisitions and even uncovering some diamonds in the rough. Met with underperforming receivers and a plethora of dropped balls, the quarterback kept on dropping back, zipping it through the seams, and orchestrating the unlikeliest of comebacks – from one city to the next, on one Sunday and then the other and another. Those two just kept on doing their jobs, as they would tell you in their weekly press conferences, and everyone else just followed suit.
The leaders led the way, as was expected of them.
One irritable head coach and his quarterback consistently find a way to overcome one obstacle here and one there with a steady dose of routine and an unwavering belief in the system that produces results year after year. This year was no different in that regard, given the winning record, another division title, and numerous performances that deserve rewinding. The consistency of the approach translated into touchdowns, interceptions, sacks, tackles for loss, and all sorts of winning drives in high-pressure situations.
The Patriots should be proud of their accomplishments given the adverse circumstances set in front of them, no matter the disappointing result in Denver this past Sunday.
In the end, you win some and you lose some, and this group of players ended up winning much more than expected. And that should be commended. That sort of achievement against all odds, sparked by the steady greatness of two legendary football minds, should be appreciated.
The final outcome was disappointing, but almost inevitable. This one doesn’t eat at me like some defeats have in the past. I took this team – my team, to be clear – for what it was, a motley crew of random pieces that performed better than expected and kept plugging away, as one collective unit – as one final assembly of scrappy, nasty, and gritty football players tough to the bone.
I am proud of these New England Patriots, who are still led by two of the best and brightest. Brady and Belichick. Belichick and Brady. They just refuse to fade into the sunset, to the despair of football fans in Buffalo and Miami and Indianapolis. One more season to remember, and may there still be more to come. They proved, once again, that a football can overcome and achieve – and I’m glad that I could watch this team come together and persevere through the toughest of times, Sunday after Sunday.
May they be healthier on that next Sunday afternoon down the long road of summer and autumn, and just as scrappy and nasty and gritty.
I will be watching, as I did this past Sunday and every one prior. They certainly deserved it.