Over the years, Bill Belichick has displayed a wide range of talents. He’s a football mastermind, an amateur voyeur, a riveting conversationalist, and has a fashion sense that brilliantly combines the styles of Gianni Versace and a homeless guy. This year, we found out that Bill Belichick has another talent: he is a master arborist. Remarkably, the 2010 Patriots have been able to shed their Moss, add a Branch, and grow an elegant little Woodhead—developments which have seen the youthful Patriot sapling thrive into the towering New England Maple before us today. Following their oozy Thanksgiving explosion of touchdown syrup all over the Detroit Lions, the Patriots stand at 9-2, tied for the best record in the NFL with the divisional rival New York Jets and the Atlanta Falcons.
Entering the season, fans and prognosticators were skeptical of the Patriots’ Super Bowl credentials. The defense abounded with unknowns, as eight starters or major contributors had fewer than two seasons of experience, and anticipated starters and pro Bowlers Ty Warren and Leigh Bodden were placed on the injured reserve during preseason. The offense was subject to similar uncertainty. Pro-Bowler Wes Welker was recovering from a torn ACL, Pro-Bowl guard Logan Mankins missed preseason and the first nine games due to a contract dispute, and starting running back and former first round pick Laurence Maroney was traded to the Broncos after week one. As a cherry on top of the metamorphosis any given Sunday, surefire Hall of Fame receiver Randy Gene Moss was traded after week four to the Minnesota Vikings.
Amidst all this transition, the Patriots have played excellent football and find themselves in the familiar position of holding the league’s best record, mostly thanks to the fantastic play of quarterback Tom Brady. Brady, who is currently enjoying his second-best season as a pro, has received widespread praise, although his new haircut has been the subject of much heated criticism. When he attempted to defend his new ‘do during a game in Miami, Brady was told by Coach Belichick that “no-homo” was not an acceptable audible, and the NFL League Offices informed him that once his hair length was greater than six inches its awfulness was not subject to review.
Immediately following the Moss trade, the offense sputtered for a few weeks but has since seemed to find its rhythm and approached total dominance for the past three weeks. Rookie running back Danny Woodhead has been a revelation, and rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have already proven to be the best tight end pair Brady has ever played with. The defense has been less than stellar, ranking 22nd in points allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed, and 31st in third down defense. It is thought that Coach Belichick has emphasized a “bend but don’t break” defensive philosophy this season in part because his youthful defense (four rookie starters) is not experienced enough to handle more elaborate schemes. The lack of a pass rush in particular has plagued this team, and helps to explain how a secondary with individually strong players like Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty can be ranked last in pass defense. In a year where every contender has some major flaw, for the Patriots it is certainly the defense.
Looking forward, despite their excellent record the Patriots are facing a must-win game in Foxboro on Monday night against the Jets. Indeed, Monday night is without doubt the biggest game of the season for both teams, and perhaps more so for the Patriots. Should they lose, the Patriots would face the prospect of having to enter the playoffs as a wild-card, meaning they would have to play three road games to get to the Super Bowl since the Jets would likely win the division following a victory. This is despite the fact that the Pats could potentially have a better record than any team they play. Barring any injury to Tom Brady, the Patriots must be considered Super Bowl Contenders, and right now are probably slight favorites to win the AFC.