Friday, December 11, 2015

Patriots' Record Inconsequential; Health Implies Return To Juggernaut

The 31 National Football League teams that reside outside of Massachusetts are shaking in the cleats.


Well, not because the New England Patriots have lost two straight games and have fallen behind both the Denver Broncos and Cincinnati Bengals for the two top seeds in the American Football Conference - as anyone who has played the Patriots at Gillette Stadium in January will attest, not having to travel to Foxborough is an excellent thing...

...and not because those Patriots are staring down a Houston Texans' team that have won four of five and are playing the best pass defense in the NFL right now, while New England goes into Sunday night's contest with more question marks than healthy pass catchers on offense.
Brady has had to make due recently, but all for the better come post-season play

In fact, the Patriots could lose a third straight at Houston to fall another game back of their conference rivals and still have both teams quivering in fear - and the reasons are two-fold:

First, while it's true that the Patriots have lost those two straight and barely squeezed by the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills before that without their top receiving target - wide receiver Julian Edelman - in the line up, the fact remains that they had enough to beat the aforementioned Giants and Bills without Edelman, and had given themselves a chance to win both of the games that they lost to Denver and Philadelphia.

As a matter of fact, had it not been for precipitous special teams errors in each game, we'd probably still be talking about the Patriots being undefeated instead of 10-2, losing in overtime to the Broncos after their low-diving secondary took out tight end Rob Gronkowski with three minutes remaining in regulation and New England driving, then falling to the Eagles when a furious fourth-quarter comeback fell short when the receivers they do have developed a case of the Wes Welkers...

...battle-hardening this team like no other contender can state, and giving their cast of back ups much needed NFL game day experience while waiting for the other shoe to drop.

That other shoe, as it were, is the fact that both Edelman and Gronkowski are back at practice, Edelman way ahead of schedule after having surgery just three weeks ago to mend a fractured bone in his foot, and Gronk just chilling with his knee in a brace and waiting for an "all clear" from the Patriots' docs.

And while it remains a long-shot for either to play on Sunday in Houston (particularly Edelman), it doesn't change the fact that both will be ready for the stretch run, probably just in time to run roughshod all over their final three opponents to secure a first round bye.

Of course, that will take either the Broncos or Bengals losing a game or two here or there, but it's hardly beyond the spectrum of possibility - especially since they must play each other in Denver on the second-to-last Sunday of the regular season.

Denver has the resurgent Raiders, then travel to Pittsburgh before hosting the Bengals and the always disappointing Chargers, while Cincinnati hosts the Steelers this Sunday, then travel to San Francisco and Denver before closing out with the cupcake Baltimore Ravens - with the winner of their head-to-head matchup likely becoming the top seed in the AFC.

But the Patriots can't concern themselves with that, nor should they, because once whole and healthy again, Bill Belichick's crew will resume their juggernaut status and resume their Scorched Earth Tour, blowing folks out of the stadium, be it Gillette or elsewhere. It just doesn't matter.

A top two seed would be nice, as it would give the Patriots a week to rest and mend after the arduous regular season, then only have to play two games to get to the Super Bowl in San Francisco - but if they have to host a Wild Card game and be forced to win three in a row to make to Levis Stadium in February, they will be poised to do just that.

So do not fret, Patriots' Nation. Instead, think of this like having dinner at your Aunt's house, and you've finished your steak, but have to consume a heaping helping of canned spinach before you can have any dessert.

You know the dessert is going to be awesome, so it makes the spinach a little easier to choke down.

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