COMMENTARY| The 2013 New England Patriots are a flawed team, decimated by injuries and often incapable of putting away even mediocre opponents. The Patriots are also a major threat to hoist the Lombardi Trophy in February.
It's a counterintuitive thought. How can a team with so many holes, so many questions on both offense and defense possibly be a serious contender for a championship?
The obvious answer is the coach and the quarterback. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady have led flawed teams to deep runs in the postseason before. But there's something different about the 2013 Patriots, something that makes them both impossible to predict and ridiculous to count out.
Sunday's loss to the Miami Dolphins is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Ryan Tannehill, who threw for 312 yards and three touchdowns, picked the Patriots defense apart. He compiled a passer rating of 120.6, and like many New England opponents, suddenly looked like an All Pro.
Meanwhile, Tom Brady's offense moved the ball efficiently, despite the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski. Of course, that efficiency ended once New England reached the red zone, where the Pats scored just one touchdown in four trips.
The Patriots did not play particularly well in many phases, yet despite it all, there was Tom Brady, with a chance to win the game in the final seconds.
It's become a weekly theme for New England. Whether by virtue of a molasses-slow start and a ferocious comeback, or a mid-game swoon and fourth quarter revival, the Patriots always have a chance to win at the end.
And it's not only against lesser competition like the Miami Dolphins, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Atlanta Falcons or Houston Texans. The Patriots have gone down to the wire with playoff caliber opponents in the Denver Broncos, Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals and New Orleans Saints as well. 11 of those 12 games (they played Miami twice, but beat the Dolphins by 10 in October) were won or lost by seven points or less. In fact, both the Patriots' margin of victory and defeat is less than a touchdown.
It doesn't matter the caliber of opponent, what remains of the New England Patriots is rarely able to blow out a foe, but always capable of winning.
No team has beaten the Patriots by more than a touchdown in 2013. That's impressive, but of their 10 victories, they've only managed to win by more than seven points three times.
So 11 of New England's 14 games have been nail biters, regardless of the opponent, coach, or opposing quarterback. Face off with Tannehill or Jason Campbell, it comes down to the final play. Stare down Peyton Manning, it takes overtime to decide a victor.
The battered and undermanned Patriots have played almost nothing but close games since September. They've developed a quiet confidence that, more often than not, they'll give themselves a chance to win before the final whistle blows.
But they're not alone. No team is without some pretty glaring defects this season, especially in the AFC. Manning's Broncos rushed 11 times, for 18 yards in a loss to the San Diego Chargers this week. It's hard to know which is more of a problem, the 11 carries or the measly 18 yards? History has proven a team can't just pass its way to a Super Bowl, especially as an outdoor team in January. The 20 points were a season low for Denver, and came just three weeks after the Patriots held it to just seven points in the second half. Meanwhile, the Broncos are 28th in the NFL in passing yards allowed, 23rd in total defense, and 24th in points allowed. Denver is a justifiable favorite to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl, but it is far from a complete team.
It won't always be enough for the Patriots, thanks to a talent drain that's seen multiple Pro Bowlers lost for the season. That was evident this week in Miami. But even without Gronkowski, Jerod Mayo or Vince Willfork, New England is still a threat. Keep him close, and Brady finds a way to engineer victory better than any quarterback in the NFL. He already did it to Manning, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethilsberger this season alone.
Brady may not have been able to salvage a miraculous win in the final seconds this week, but who's going to feel confident in stopping him next time?
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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