COMMENTARY| The New England Patriots were not supposed to be able to do this in 2013. Remember, they got worse in the offseason. They let Wes Welker go to Denver. They let Brandon Lloyd go to a "B" movie career. They let Aaron Hernandez go to deal with some legal issues. They didn't have Rob Gronkowski, then they did, and then they didn't again. Meanwhile, they put a defensive Pro Bowl team on injured reserve, with Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly all going down for the year.
The New England Patriots are supposed to be in decline. That's why, if they can win out and hold on for the top seed in the AFC, Bill Belichick should be the NFL's coach of the year.
Forget the offseason. You only need to look back to early October to see just how far this team has come. That's when the Cincinnati Bengals held it out of the endzone for the first time since 2009, and ended Tom Brady's 52-game touchdown streak.
The New England offense was in chaos. Brady completed less than 48-percent of his passes, for just 197 yards that day. LeGarrette Blount led the Patriots with just 51 yards on the ground. He, by the way, also lost a fumble.
It appeared that Belichick's offseason gamble had failed. He turned away from the reliable Welker in favor of brittle Danny Amendola, who was playing in just his second game of the season. He had no reliable outside threat to replace Lloyd since rookies Aaron Dobson and Kenbrell Thompkins were leading the galaxy in drops at the time. And despite a 4-1 record, with their toughest games still in front of them it seemed that the Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East was in jeopardy.
But that was on October 6th.
Two months later, not only does Belichick still have a firm grasp on the division, his team now controls its own destiny for the AFC's number-one seed.
It's a remarkable turnaround, and one that required no shortage of miracles along the way.
First, there was Brady's Houdini act just a week later to escape from sure defeat against the New Orleans Saints. Behind by four, Brady drove New England 70 yards with less than a minute to play, culminating in a 17-yard game-winner to Thompkins. It was a win so unlikely, only half of the fans in the stadium were left to see it.
Then there was that impossible comeback against the Broncos, trailing by 24 points at the half, only to beat Peyton Manning 34-31 in overtime. Or how about that nonsensical win against Cleveland, which required two touchdowns in the final 61 seconds, with the team's first successful onside kick since the Clinton administration sandwiched in between?
So plenty of fortune smiled down on Belichick this season. But let's not pretend the ball didn't bounce the other way as well. A call here or there against New England could have turned around any of those incredible wins, but blown or ill-timed calls at the end of games with the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers also led New England to a pair of losses.
In overtime against New York, the Jets missed a potential game-winning field goal in overtime, only to see the Patriots whistled for the league's first example of pushing on the line. The penalty gave the Jets new life, and they'd make their next field goal to win.
But at least that call was correct. Against Carolina, a flag was thrown in the endzone as Rob Gronkowski was mugged on the Patriots' final chance to score and take the lead. But instead of having one final try from the one-yard line, the flag was picked up, and the Panthers handed the win.
So it's been a year of highs and lows for Belichick's group, but as the regular season comes to a close, his team is doing what it almost always does, playing its best football when it matters most.
Brady's thrown for almost 1,900 yards and 12 touchdowns in the last five games. Shane Vereen has returned from injury to become one of the NFL's most dangerous passing backs, hauling in 40 passes in just five games. Julian Edelman is 7th in the NFL with 76 catches, three more than Welker. But most importantly, at 10-3 and with that head-to-head victory over Denver, New England once again sits in the drivers' seat in the AFC.
And it's not just the offense. Belichick's defense isn't what it was before losing the triumvirate of Wilfork, Mayo and Kelly, but rookie free-agent defensive linemen Joe Vallano and Chris Jones have proven to be stellar finds. Aqib Talib, who Belichick brought back on a one-year deal, has been one of the NFL's best cornerbacks. Second-round pick Jamie Collins has begun to make an impact, especially in sub-packages, and 2012 first-rounder Chandler Jones has blossomed into a force.
This defense doesn't shut teams down without all those stars, but Belichick has consistently put it in position to make plays when it counts most.
Just in the last three games, the New England defense held Denver to 14 points after the first quarter, kept Houston off the scoreboard for the final 11:31 while Brady engineered a comeback, and somehow held on against Cleveland while the offense outscored the Browns 16-7 in the final quarter.
The defense mirrors the team as a whole; it plays best when it matters most. That's the hallmark of a Belichick coached team, and 2013 has been one of its best examples.
There's plenty of football left to play, and the Patriots have no easy road. After facing the Dolphins in Miami, Belichick's group must travel to Baltimore before finishing at home against the Buffalo Bills. But if this team manages to hold on, and does clinch the AFC's top seed, it would cap a coaching job that's among Belichick's best.
And that's worthy of coach of the year.
Evan Fitzgerald grew up near Boston, and has covered the NFL for nearly a decade. He can now be seen covering college sports for the Big 10 Network. Follow him on Twitter @evanwfitzgerald.
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- Bill Belichick
- New England Patriots
- New England
- Rob Gronkowski
- Tom Brady
- Wes Welker