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Itís time to take the New England Patriots seriously, once and for all

BY CHRISTOPHER YOUNG

Three years ago, the New England Patriots finished 5-11. Five years before that, they were 6-10, and during one of the darkest stretches of the franchiseís history ó from 1989 through 1992 ó the team put together seasons of 5-11, 1-15, 6-10, and 2-14. At that point, the Patriots were a league laughingstock, and even though they could remind their critics that theyíd just been in a Super Bowl in 1986, the howls would continue once the final score of that New Orleans debacle was recalled: 46-10.

Somewhere along the way in the last decade, things began to go right for the team. It most likely started with Robert Kraftís nick-of-time purchase of the team from James Orthwein, a man who nearly moved the franchise to St. Louis. Soon Bill Parcells came on board, and the New England Patriots ó save for the 6-10 1995 season that was the Tunaís one coaching aberration ó moved irrevocably into the elite realm of the National Football League. Yes, it has come to pass that the team once viewed as one of the most foolhardy franchises in all of pro football has moved into the upper echelon of standard-bearers in the NFL, and it would seem that this step is irrevocable and unyielding.

Sunday nightís sleep-inducing 12-0 victory over Parcellsís Dallas Cowboys not only solidified the teamís standing as pacesetter in the tough AFC East, but also signaled to the rest of the league that this team is indeed one to be reckoned with. Whereas many still regard the Patriotsí 2001-í02 championship season as a fluke, no one can argue with the record that the team has thus far put together this season. Bill Belichickís lads have collected tough road wins in Philadelphia, Miami, and Denver to go with impressive home victories over defensive stalwarts Tennessee, the NY Giants, Cleveland, and now Dallas at home. Thatís eight wins in 10 games to date under the terms of a very difficult schedule, and the teamís only two losses should certainly have asterisks attached. The shocking emotional blast of losing a defensive co-captain just five days before the season started ó and then seeing him across the line in an opponentís uniform in the season opener ó was an obvious factor in New Englandís pitiful 31-0 loss at Buffalo. In a 20-17 loss at Washington, the Patriots were at their peak as far as injury-decimated status went, and yet the team still rallied from a 20-3 deficit and overcame four turnovers to nearly pull off a late-game stunner.

Only Kansas City with its 9-1 log has a better record than New England does at the five-eighths pole in the NFL schedule, and among those also at 8-2, Indianapolis has suffered a loss at Jacksonville and a narrow 38-31 victory over the beaten-up Jets at home in the past two weeks (and will host New England in two weeks), Tennessee is already down for a loss to the Pats, and Carolina has six wins by a field goal or less along with a loss at lowly Houston two weeks ago.

New England probably needs only two more wins in its remaining six contests to go to the playoffs for the second time in three years. Furthermore, three of those six are against teams with sub-.500 records (Houston, Jacksonville, and Buffalo) and another is against the cold-cursed Dolphins at chilly Foxborough on Pearl Harbor Day.

What has transpired with the Patriots this season is nothing short of remarkable. It is common knowledge that the team lost a ton of defensive and offensive weapons to injury during the seasonís opening weeks, yet the team continued to succeed, and is currently on a six-game win streak. Now some of those walking wounded are beginning to return to action, including gargantuan nose tackle Ted Washington and linebacker Ted Johnson, both of whom played on Sunday after missing the last two months with leg injuries.

No oneís calling them the "Patsies" anymore, thatís for sure. The team that went 1-15 just 13 seasons ago has been to the Super Bowl three times in the last 17 seasons, a feat that only the Broncos (five), Bills (four), Giants (three), and Cowboys (three) can match. Notice you donít see any Raiders, Redskins, Dolphins, 49ers, Bears, or Rams on that list ó all teams that have established reputations as hallmark franchises of the NFL. Not only have the Patriots appeared in three Super Bowls, they won one of them and have reached the playoffs in five of the past nine seasons, thrice as division champions. With a two-game lead over Miami in the AFC East this season, it would seem as if the Pats could be headed to their fourth divisional crown in eight years (and last seasonís 9-7 record was tied for the divisional lead, but the team lost out to the playoff-bound Jets in the convoluted tiebreaker system).

So many things have changed about the New England franchise in recent years. No longer sporting the "Pat Patriot" logo on their helmets, the formerly red-clad players now sport spiffy royal-blue uniforms with the Flying Elvis logo on their silver helmets. They are no longer coached by overmatched mentors like Dick MacPherson or Rod Rust, but have been instead molded by seasoned coaching icons like Parcells and Belichick, and even Pete Carroll, who is exhibiting his coaching muscles these days with a National ChampionshipĖcaliber program at Southern Cal. The team no longer plays in the worst stadium in the NFL, but now competes in arguably the leagueís best venue, Gillette Stadium. No longer are incompetents like Bobby Grier overseeing the draft process; instead, guys like Belichick and personnel guy Scott Pioli have crafted teams that have exhibited remarkable chemistry and depth, as evidenced by the Patsí recent success despite the numerous man-games lost to injury.

While the players themselves may or may not care much for Belichick as a person, the head coach obviously has the respect of the players, as evidenced by their embrace of his and Romeo Crennelís defensive game plans. It was Belichickís perceived "genius" that propelled the Patriots to their Super Bowl victory two seasons ago, and it is his wizardry that is again credited for the teamís resilience and steady climb into the upper echelons of the leagueís elite.

Itís also obvious that in drafts and off-season maneuverings, the Patriots are selecting quality people as well as players. This squad seems to have no bad apples, no troublemakers or malcontents of the Terry Glenn variety. Instead, there are solid citizens like Tedy Bruschi, Tom Brady, Damien Woody, and Richard Seymour to lead by example. The team may not lead the league in offense, defense, or special-teams stats, but itís getting the job done through hard work, passion, and an unswerving allegiance to the coaching staffís vision.

Patriots fans no longer expect the worst from their team, as long-suffering Red Sox fans often anticipate from theirs. No, New Englandís football fans are getting accustomed to this teamís penchant for late-game comebacks and its ability to turn adversity into good fortune. The team realistically had no business coming back to defeat Miami and Denver on the road last month, but it hung around long enough and capitalized on some opportune breaks and opponent miscues to emerge victorious, and thatís often what it takes to become a championship contender. And while this teamís upcoming fortunes are difficult to predict at this point in the season, there is little reason to doubt that the Patriots will come prepared to play every week, and only a fool would count them out in advance. Belichick and his talented staff have a knack for implementing strategies that put their team in a position to win week in and week out, and New England is rapidly becoming the team that no one wants to meet in the upcoming playoffs.

Two years ago, the New England Patriots snuck up on a few people and made the nonbelievers pay for their visions of superiority. This season the Patriots are not sneaking up on anyone ó they have played solid and outstanding football ever since they shook off the week-one fiasco in Buffalo. Belichick has emerged as a front-runner for Coach of the Year honors, and the team itself has jelled and continued to believe, just as the 2002 squad did en route to its post-season glory.

No oneís snickering at those funny boys up in that dilapidated stadium in Foxborough anymore, and this remarkable transformation of the once-belittled franchise has given our region a source of tremendous pride and admiration.

The Flying Elvises would seem to be headed back to the playoffs after a one-year hiatus. And they may once again have the last laugh during a possible return visit to Houston this coming February.

"Sporting Eye" runs Mondays and Fridays at BostonPhoenix.com. Christopher Young can be reached at cyoung@phx.com


Issue Date: November 17, 2003
"Sporting Eye" archives: 2003 |2002
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