Items 10-6 illustrated some of the ways the Patriots set themselves up for the 2010-11 season...but the team still had to go out and actually execute the game plan every given Sunday. So my top five slots are dedicated to the most important and memorable games of the regular season...
At the Time (Week 3):
Nowhere was the alchemy of the Patriots' scouting approach more apparent than in the example of Danny Woodhead, signed Sept. 19 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.
~The Ballad of Danny Woodhead, Sept. 26, 2010
In Hindsight: Danny Woodhead is second only to BenJarvus Green-Ellis as a team leader in rushing yards this year, with 547 -- a little more than half what Beni has, but on less than half the carries -- 97 to Beni's 229, putting his yards per carry (5.6) higher than Green-Ellis's (4.4).
It's a good thing we all had a chance to learn his name and get the immature jokes about it out of our systems early in the season.
4. Staying ahead of the Pack
At the Time (Week 14):
I'm sure the first thing most Patriots fans will think of when they look back on this game will be offensive lineman Dan Connolly's 71-yard kickoff return toward the end of the second quarter. Much was made of the big man running, and the "loaf of bread carry" and so on.
"I don't think I've seen anyone carry a ball like that since I was about six," chuckled Cris Collinsworth during one of numerous replays of the anomaly from NBC's broadcast booth.
But from that moment until about halfway through the fourth quarter, whether Connolly steaming for the end zone was to be New England fans' consolation prize tonight, or the highlight of a win, was still in doubt.
[...]...as the final seconds of this game played out, as that go-ahead score from earlier in the quarter finally became the winning score, the ball was in Green Bay's hands, the defense were the ones on the field backed up to their own 32, and the final play was a strip-sack by Tully-Banta Cain, which was recovered by Vince Wilfork.
You could argue that the defense had put the Patriots in the hole to begin with, sure. But you could also argue that in the end, it was the defense that managed to pull them back out.
~Patriots survive Cheesehead invasion, 31-27, Dec. 20, 2010
In Hindsight: This was a game I still don't know how the Patriots managed to win. It's the game we can look back on and see as a high point of the resourcefulness and resilience that's marked this year's team, and who can forget Connolly's run?
But there's a stark reminder that comes along with this too -- the Patriots barely squeaked by Green Bay, now also involved, though distantly from New England, in the playoff tournament, in a game in which the Packers were starting their backup quarterback.
Perhaps a slice of Humble Pie for us fans?
3. Making a statement against the Steelers
At the Time (Week 9):
Off the field, many an interviewer has struggled to get more than the most lukewarm, milquetoast statements possible out of Brady, though he handles his non-answering in a much more polite and engaging way than does Bill Belichick, and so catches little of the same heat for his reluctance to dole out money quotes. It is this high-gloss veneer on which most people nationally base their impressions of him, for better or for worse.
But it's the messier, more impassioned Brady we saw tonight -- screaming obscenities and tearing at his chinstrap when forced to leave the field; hollering like a tent-revival preacher in the midst of his linemen when they'd had to punt; and slamming down that ball in the end zone -- that's been driving the rest of Brady Inc. from the beginning. If the rest of him, in his palpably pricey suits and enigmatic haircuts, is PR, then his ruthless, even pathological demand to win is the Product.
~The Big Swing, Nov. 15, 2010
In Hindsight: The Official Turning Point of the Patriots season.
2. 45-3 on National TV
At the Time (Week 12):
Hearts. Puppies. Kittens. Unicorns.
True, unadulterated happiness.
If a genie had popped out of a bottle before tonight and given me one wish on behalf of the New England Patriots, I would probably have said, "I would like for the Patriots to beat the everloving piss out of the New York Jets on national television in the biggest game of the regular season, after the Jets, their loudmouthed coach included, talk shit all damn week as usual."
That wish was tonight's command.
It may not exactly be healthy to be this emotionally affected by a sporting event. But tonight, at least it's in a positive direction.
~Patriots to Jets: How do ya like us now?, Dec. 6, 2010
In Hindsight: See the "In Hindsight" section for my #1 choice below, to find out just why in the blue hell (as I'm sure you're wondering, in exactly those words) I'd rank this utterly vindicating, perfect-in-all-possible-ways win over our despised rivals, which clinched the AFC East division for the Patriots, below any game -- and below a loss, at that.
1. Losing to Cleveland
At the Time (Week 8):
...step back, put it all together, and what you see is that in every phase of the game, the Browns looked like the more prepared, more disciplined, and more confident team yesterday. Not something we're used to as Belichick-era Patriots fans -- at least, not from the opposing sideline.
The brutality for the Patriots continued well into the later quarters, with the ultimate low point probably represented by Wes Welker having to fill in at kicker, due to an injury to Stephen Gostkowski.
But this game was really won in those early minutes of the first quarter, when the Browns came out swinging from the very first tick of the clock, and the Patriots still seemed to be waking up.
That's what touched off the avalanche, and the avalanche only grew.
~Mangini unleashes an avalanche on his mentor's Patriots, Nov. 8, 2010
In Hindsight: This was as ugly a Patriots game as I've seen in the Belichick Era. The Patriots were demolished, from Tom Brady on down. This game also ate up Rob Gronkowski, who had several crucial drops that day that saw him replaced with Hernandez in the second half.
The next week, against Pittsburgh, was the next time we saw Tom Brady, and this time there was a rip-roaring fire in him that led the offense to 39 points that day. Gronk, too, got back on the horse against Pittsburgh with his record-setting three touchdown catches.
The Patriots rebounded from their embarrassment in Cleveland with an impressive win against another of the AFC's playoff-bound teams, which was to be the first of a streak of wins against strong opponents that would see the Patriots finish the season with an overall record of 14-2, a first-round playoff bye, and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The Cleveland Game. It was was a terrible, humiliating loss, but it turned out to be the most crucial game of the season, in my opinion. It was the ultimate public serving of Humble Pie for a young team, and in retrospect, it came at exactly the right time.