Following a 24-20 Week Nine loss to the Giants, the Patriots didn't make us here at Pro Football Weekly look very smart for picking them to win Super Bowl XLVI in the preseason.
The Pats had lost back-to-back games and were 5-3, which included a loss to the Bills. The Patriots were fortunate to escape with a win against the Cowboys in Week Six, otherwise they would be sitting at .500.
The reason expectations were so high heading into the season was the fact that the Patriots, who had the league's best record last season, returned most of their starters and had made high-profile offseason additions in Chad Ochocinco, Brian Waters, Andre Carter and Albert Haynesworth.
There seemed to be an aura around the Patriots during the summer. A "team on a mission" type of sentiment for a franchise that had lost home playoff games in back-to-back seasons.
That "team on a mission" mantra was questioned after the loss to the Giants. Ochocinco and Haynesworth were busts, and the defense was worse than it was last season.
Then, just like they did last season, the Patriots rattled off eight consecutive wins to end the season, clinching the AFC's top seed. But in 2010, the Patriots dismantled opponents. In '11, they had to fight back after digging holes in each of their last four games against the Redskins, Broncos, Dolphins and Bills.
On Saturday night in the divisional round against the Broncos and Tim Tebow, Tom Brady and company reminded everyone why the preseason hype was justified. In a 45-10 thrashing, the Patriots looked like a "team on a mission." Their confidence is high and suddenly they appear to have earned the "Super Bowl favorites" tag back. While returning to the Super Bowl will be no easy task against the Ravens this week, the Patriots are playing their best football at the right time.
The PFW Spin
Only one time all season had the Patriots opened the game with the football. Bill Belichick always defers, and most opponents, should they win the toss, would rather keep the ball out of Brady's hands.
But John Fox also likes to defer, and, despite winning the coin toss, the Broncos chose to give the Patriots the first shot. It might not have seemed like a poor decision: In the final three games of the regular season, the Patriots were outscored 37-7 in the first quarter.
It took less than two minutes for the Pats to go up 7-0 on the Broncos. And after outscoring the Broncos 21-7 in the second quarter, the game was well out of reach.
On the offensive side, Brady made sure the team put the pedal to the metal from the get-go, utilizing some early no-huddle and a different look with TE Aaron Hernandez in the backfield. The Broncos had no answer.
But it's the defensive performance by New England that has them as Vegas' odds-on favorite to win the Super Bowl, especially with the Packers and Saints now sitting at home. The stop unit was finally healthy with ILB Brandon Spikes and S Patrick Chung back and it turned out its best game of the season, holding the Broncos to 252 yards of offense and forcing 14 negative plays.
The front seven was extremely disruptive, from Rob Ninkovich setting the edge to Gerard Warren and Vince Wilfork getting into the backfield. It's the kind of physical play that New England will need on Sunday against Ray Rice and the Ravens. Rice, who was slowed by the Texans, has averaged 145.3 yards of offense in three meetings against New England, including a run that Ravens and Patriots fans will never forget. On the first play from scrimmage, Rice ripped off an 83-yard touchdown run, part of a 24-point first-quarter effort that led the Ravens to a wild-card win in Foxborough two years ago.
Joe Flacco has had some playoff success, and plenty of quarterbacks have thrown against the Patriots with ease. Getting into a shootout that will force Flacco to throw more than the Ravens would like still has to be the Patriots' strategy. The pass rush has improved this year and the Pats can look at how the Texans' front line managed to cause problems for Flacco on Sunday.
On offense, the Patriots' pass protection will get a stiff test from OLB Terrell Suggs, but just like the defense, the blockers turned in a tremendous performance. They held the Broncos without a sack, something that had not happened to Denver all season long.
With a chance at their first Super Bowl appearance since the 2007 season, the Patriots finally look like that team on a mission.
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