This afternoon, the 2010 Patriots reminded me in many ways of the Belichick teams from the early years of the last decade, the gang of no-names, draft picks and second-chance signings that would be built up, following that first Cinderella Super Bowl, into a well-oiled machine that brought home a second and third championship.
It's easy to forget, looking back from the other side of those championships, how up and down those teams could be, and how thin their margin of error, back when Mike Vrabel was still a salvage project from the Steelers scrap heap and Tom Brady was still a former 6th round draft pick trying to prove he wasn't a flash in the pan. That is, until you see a game like this.
Once again, the Patriots' player development organization is mining the dregs of other teams' depth charts, and molding recent draft picks, with a Moneyball-like approach that -- at least in the past -- has proven capable of creating a whole that far outstrips the sum of its parts. As was often the case with those squads of the early aughts, this wasn't a pretty win, with a first half that saw a half-dozen lead changes and a second half which ended with 30 points on the board for Buffalo.
But it was a win nonetheless, one which saw mistakes being recognized and corrected after the humiliation at the hands of the Jets, and that steady, dogged pace of improvement from week to week that has been a signature of Belichick's more successful teams.
After two games this year that saw a second-half collapse, the Patriots stayed more consistent through the later quarters today. The offense, in particular, showed a major turnaround compared with last week, with a pointed statement in the third quarter that included two touchdown drives. I think I can guess which hypercompetitive Movado model was behind that -- probably the same one spotted pumping his fist and yelling after an uncharacteristic 9-yard run for a first down in the third quarter.
Meanwhile, in the face of pregame fretting about the state of the Patriots' running game with Kevin Faulk on injured reserve and Laurence Maroney traded to Denver, the team that came into this afternoon without a rushing touchdown this season and averaging just 85 yards on the ground finished with two rushing TDs and more than 200 yards gained on the run.
Oh, and that scrap heap? Once again it seems to be alive and well.
Nowhere was the alchemy of the Patriots' scouting approach more apparent than in the example of Danny Woodhead, signed Sept. 19 off the Jets' practice squad after he was cut by the Jets. It was Woodhead who suddenly emerged through an interstate-wide hole in the line opened by right guard Dan Connolly, football in hand, with just over three minutes to go in the first half and the Patriots down 13-7. Before Patriots fans could even Google his name, Woodhead was cutting back toward the left side of the field, taking a long diagonal path upfield and into the end zone, putting New England back ahead by a point.
Defense avoids disaster with INTs
While the inexperience of this team, especially on defense, was apparent today, so too was its youthful energy. The Patriots' offense bailed out the defense by scoring 38 points, but in two big instances, the emerging leaders of the defense also showed they could help themselves off the field, too, with interceptions for journeyman safeties Patrick Chung and Brandon Meriweather.
In Chung's case, the play came as Buffalo drove downfield, taking advantage of the relative inexperience of the Patriots' secondary to draw the defensive backs toward the line of scrimmage, then beating them with long passes. On the previous two plays, Roscoe Parrish had burned them for 31 yards, and Lee Evans had carved off another five yards, to put the ball on the Patriots' 20 as the final minutes of the third quarter ticked away.
On the ensuing play, the Patriots defensive line created pressure on Buffalo QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, starting in place of an underperforming Trent Edwards, showed guts and tenacity today, but in this instance he seemed to panic, and sent the ball frantically in the vicinity of Roscoe Parrish, overthrowing him by a wide margin. The pass instead settled into the arms of Chung, waiting in the end zone, as if he'd been the intended receiver. Parrish grappled briefly with Chung, but finally fell at his feet in the end zone while Chung took off running, tumbling down back at the 25 and handing the ball back to the offense. They would drive down the field and score what turned out to be the winning points, pulling ahead 38-23.
Meriweather's pick was even more crucial. Toward the end of the fourth quarter, now just a touchdown and a two-point conversion ahead of Buffalo, the Patriots' offense stalled; a sack and multiple penalties forced them to punt after they failed to convert a third and 26. There were still more than three minutes left to play, and Buffalo had already demonstrated that was more than enough time for them to score again.
Fitzpatrick went all in on his first play of the possession, throwing deep for David Nelson, but the pass sailed high. Meriweather jumped up from behind Nelson, and made a leaping midair catch that would've made a wide receiver's highlight reel. In some parallel universe in which Meriweather missed that play, this game might still be in overtime.
The glass-half-full viewpoint
Yes, it had been the defense that put the Patriots in that 8-point situation in the first place. But they were also able to defuse it, almost immediately. Last week, thrust into a similar position by an offense that imploded late in the game, they showed no such spark.
And yes, there's plenty in the 'con' column this week. I'm not pretending otherwise. But something about those two picks to save the day had me thinking of those earlier Belichick teams again, and the way their defensive leaders always seemed to be able come through and turn the tide when they were most needed.
There will certainly be more rough spots and setbacks for the new-look Patriots. But right now, in the glow of this hard-fought win, I have hope that the lifecycle of this team is starting over, and that we're witnessing the first moments of its renewal.