Patriots evolving into mean counter-punchers

The presence of Gronkowski helped the Patriots offense evolve into a second half juggernaut.
The great teams answer.

The New England Patriots have officially had the weirdest season on record for an NFL team - both troubling and comedic at the same instant - at times so downright confounding that fans of the team sometimes don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

There has been plenty of both, what with the plague of injury which has forced the team to rely on the youth on the depth chart far more than what anyone would consider reasonable, which has led to some wildly erratic performances and a spike in the usage of blood pressure medications.

But one thing that everyone needs to remember is that this team always answers.  From the opening bell against the Buffalo Bills and Danny Amendola's gritty performance to set up Stephen Gostkowski's clutch game winning field goals to Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski doing the same just this past Sunday against the Houston Texans, the Patriots always answer like champions.

What is maddening to most, however, is how the team plays poorly enough early in games to get themselves in spots where they either have to respond or go home.

And that happens often enough - like just about every game this season - that speculation runs rampant in regard to how they are able to come back to put themselves in the position to pull the game out every single time.

Hell, just this past weekend Houston Texans' defensive end Antonio Smith caused quite a stir when he suggested that New England had moles planted around their practice facilities, armed with the latest in high-definition video recording equipment and shotgun microphones that can pick up a fly buzzing from a thousand feet in high wind.

But it's really no secret, it's just that no one wants to believe that after 14 years of Bill Belichick punking the rest of the NFL that the Patriots are still running on a full tank of game plan mojo - along with the creativity and built-in leverage to make halftime adjustments to the game plan that are so precise and so cunning and so cruel that no one can stop them.

They score in bunches, and by the time they're finished there is usually enough points on the board to win with some to spare - but only due to second half comebacks, because in the first half of games it's almost like they're spotting the opposition a few touchdowns before they really start to try.

And while that's not true, the fact is that the Patriots have developed the style of a mean counter-puncher, seemingly taking their opponent's best shot, then coming off the ropes and stomping them like roaches.

In the first half of games this season, it seems, the Patriots offense wouldn't be able to score in a roomful of cougars with a serious football fetish - like wallflowers, never truly engaging in anything, big pale frowns lining their features...

...but in the second half, it's like Austin Powers back in the late 60's - it still looks funky, but from a pure animal magnetism standpoint, the end zone finds the lot of them irresistible.

Consider: In the past five games since the disputed loss to the New York Jets in mid-October, the Patriots have had 27 possessions in the 1st half, producing 7 scores, 12 punts, 2 interceptions, four fumbles and a missed field goal attempt...

...but in the second half New England had as many scoring drives as the total number of possessions in the first half, scoring an astounding 27 times in 36 possessions, punting just five times, with an interception, a fumble and a missed field goal - and those numbers become even more impressive if you consider just the past three games.

In the controversial loss to the Carolina Panthers and close wins over the Denver Broncos and the Texans, the Patriots have scored a ridiculous 13 times in 16 second half possessions, punting just twice and, of course, there was the interception in the Panthers' game that should never have counted.

That is dominance, that is having the best on-the-fly tactician in the NFL as your head coach, and that is the mean counter-puncher mentality of this team.  And where did all this mojo come from?  No one can say for sure, but it seems to have coincided with the return to the lineup of a certain number 87...

...who is second on the team in receptions and yardage despite playing in just six games.  New England endured the first part of their season having to rely on rookie receivers while waiting for the big guns to get healthy - and now that they have, the New England offense can finally be what it was supposed to be all along.

This team developed their style in those harrowing weeks of waiting for their offensive stars to heal while watching their defensive stars drop like flies - having to improvise at every turn and tenure be damned - fighting their way out of a corner week after week.

Sometimes it wasn't enough.  Sometimes the team left themselves in a position to have their games decided by the officiating, sometimes they ran into Mother Nature - and that bitch don't play fair.

But every single game this season the New England Patriots have been able to put themselves in position to win football games at crunch time - now relying on the veteran core of Gronkowski, Edelman and Amendola and letting their young rookies contribute in spots, all the while in the knowledge that they have gained valuable real-world reps as their boost for a prime post-season and beyond.

So the simple truth of the matter is that the Patriots are in full fledged rope-a-dope mode, having to feel out their foes, studying their habits and weaknesses, testing theory and gaining intimate knowledge that will never show up on film - going back into the locker room at halftime and assimilating all of this intelligence into an adjusted game plan.

And it works - it has worked every game this season, winning nine of them while dropping three - a record that could very well have been 12-0 just as easily as it could have been 6-6, but it is right in between those two extremes which puts every opponent at a decided psychological disadvantage...

...because these teams have seen it often enough that they now know that no lead is safe, no number of points is ever going to be enough - the Patriots counter-punching style making them appear to be unbeatable and conjures demons in the hearts and souls of opposing player and coach alike.

And in that respect, the New England Patriots have teams beaten before they ever step on the field.

Photo credit - David Silverman/New England Patriots