When history remembers the 2014 Patriots, the first word that comes up will be "champions". The next should be "resiliency".
New England fans have seen plenty of great teams over the 14 year Brady-Belichick window, but this year's edition was probably the most battle-tested. Whether it was poor play at the start of the season, off-the-field distractions, or tough opposition, the Patriots overcame every obstacle thrown their way and emerged every time stronger and ready for the next challenge. They earned every bit of that championship, right down to the last seconds.
Trading a six time Pro Bowler and beloved team captain like Logan Mankins just 12 days before the start of the regular season was a bombshell that, combined with a lack of depth on the interior offensive line, threatened to submarine the Pats season just a month in. As we all remember, they were 2-2 a quarter of the way through the season, coming off of a brutal Monday night beatdown at the hands of Kansas City, with Tom Brady suddenly looking very ineffective behind a leaky offensive line.
Bill Belichick's stoic response to seemingly every question following that loss will go down in NFL history. "We're on to Cincinnati" perfectly summed up the team's singular week-to-week focus, and became a bit of a rallying cry as a battered team regrouped and prepared for a primetime showdown against the undefeated Bengals. Clearly pissed off after hearing talk of their leader Brady's decline all week, an energized and focused Pats team thumped the Bengals 43-17 and never turned back.
Losing key contributors Jerod Mayo, Stevan Ridley and Chandler Jones within the next two weeks couldn't slow them, as the Pats got major contributions from unsung heroes like Jonas Gray and midseason addition Akeem Ayers. The loss of Mayo was overcome due to Dont'a Hightower and Jamie Collins growing up before our eyes, developing into perhaps the league's best every down duo.
A brutal stretch of schedule that saw the Pats face six Pro Bowl caliber quarterbacks in a row? No sweat, as the Pats went 5-1 over that stretch, with the only loss being a close one on the road to an excellent Green Bay team.
Facing not one but two 14 point deficits to the hated Ravens? No problem for the Brady's Pats, who went deep into the playbook to come up with every trick in the book to aid the comeback. The dramatic home win will be remembered for ineligible receivers and Edelman-to-Amendola, but clutch plays on both sides of the ball (Brady's game winning touchdown to Brandon LaFell, Duron Harmon's interception) ultimately were the difference in that one.
The Colts provided little resistance on the field in the AFC championship, but it wouldn't be the 2014 Patriots without yet another unforeseen obstacle emerging to overcome. This time, accusations of manipulating air pressure in the AFC championship game took a life of their own, often thanks to misleading and often incorrect information getting leaked to the sheep-like media by "league sources". Soon, talk about football deflation overshadowed talk about the game, just when Brady and Belichick had finally earned another chance to cement their legacies with a fourth championship together.
Instead of being asked about facing an excellent Seattle defense and budding young star quarterback, the franchise found itself once again defending the legitimacy of it's success against jealous accusations that sound even more asinine now than they did then. Us against the world? Nothing new for the Brady/Belichick Pats, who did what they do best: rally around their franchise cornerstones.
"This team was the best team in the AFC in the regular season" Belichick said, after dropping some scientific evidence that put serious doubt in the NFL's already dubious case against them. "We won two
games in the playoffs against two good football teams. The best team in
the postseason, that’s what this team is. I know that because I’ve been
with them every day and I’m proud of this team."
You can bet the players were ready to run through a wall for their coach at this point. Hell, I was ready to do so.
After going through all of that, did you think the Pats would let Seattle's late second quarter/third quarter momentum swing seal the game their way? A 10 point deficit was nothing to a team with Brady behind center and a full quarter to work with.
Clutch play after clutch play from Brady and his frequently criticized cast of receivers helped the Pats offense roll down the field, with the drive culminating with a Danny Amendola touchdown to pull within three points of the defending champs. A proud, battle-tested defense followed that up with another clutch stop, getting the ball back to Brady.
We all know what happened there. Brady's had an opportunity for a potential game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of all of his record six appearances in the big game. Every time, he's come up with the key score, this time finding Julian Edelman for the go-ahead score.
Of course, there was still 2 minutes left on the clock, and another quarterback with an impressive history of clutch fourth quarter drives was about to get his shot at the game winner. With visions of last minute, title-blowing drives allowed dancing in their heads, Pats fans watched in horror as a Malcolm Butler pass defensed led to a Jermaine Kearse reception bizarre and fluky enough to rival Tyree's immortal helmet catch set Seattle. Most importantly, the improbable play set up a first and goal for a Seattle offense built around the power rushing of Marshawn Lynch. After all of that hard work, defeat seemed inevitable.
However, the game wasn't over yet, and true to form this Patriots team fought until it's last gasp. Nothing could sum up the team's "all-for-one" team philosophy better than Malcolm Butler, an undrafted rookie who was a healthy scratch for much of the season, coming up with a legacy-saving interception. The unheralded Butler recognized Seattle's intentions and did a masterful job of disguising his own, looping around a pick route to jump the slant route and pick off Wilson's ill-fated pass. After the game, a visibly overwhelmed Butler attributed the win to his preparation and film study. "Do your job", indeed.
Make no question, this was clearly one of the most talented rosters Bill Belichick has ever had at his disposal. The offseason additions of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, along with the development of front-seven draft picks like Hightower and Collins, transformed a defense that had been shredded in past big games into a stingy unit capable of shutting down even the league's best passing attacks. Critics looked at the offense's supposed lack of "weapons", but Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Brandon LaFell and Danny Amendola proved to be enough for a Brady-led unit to once again rank amongst the league's best. The special teams seemed to provide a game-changing play by the week, be it from a blocked kick, a big return, or suffocating kick coverage.
However, the perseverance and mental toughness shown by this team throughout the year was second to none. In the end, that proved to be the difference, as a team that fought off every obstacle imaginable throughout the season needed every bit of mental fortitude to finish the job.
Julian Edelman summed it up better than I ever could. The job is done. Brady has tied Montana and Bradshaw for the most championships ever won by a starting quarterback, while Belichick has to rename his boat from "V Rings" to "VI Rings". Given the circumstances the team fought through all season long, the fourth championship from this Brady/Belichick era may be the sweetest.