FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With a regular season sprinting toward its final days and questions abounding about where the New England Patriots fit in the big picture, an authoritative voice surfaced on Saturday.
If anyone questions whether the Patriots have lost their edge – or fallen behind in the Super Bowl quest – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach has enough incredulity to take on all comers.
"Who doubts them?" asked Gruden, shortly after watching the defending champions dismantle his Buccaneers 28-0 – a win that easily qualifies as the Patriots' most impressive this season. "Right now, the people that doubt them, let's put their names in the newspaper so New England knows who they are. I don't know how you doubt them."
Doubting Bill Belichick's team certainly became markedly harder after its domination of Tampa Bay.
The Patriots displayed almost every hallmark of their three Super Bowl title teams against the Bucs. The three cornerstones of New England's dynasty – Tom Brady, dominant linebackers and controlled defensive aggression – once again found a rhythm that, taken collectively, provided a one-game snapshot of why the Pats once again look like a capable champion.
They are a team that, as defensive tackle Richard Seymour insisted, "can play with anyone in the league."
"We felt that (before)," Seymour said. "But until you go out and do it – we just hadn't done it against winning football teams. You can go back to the Denver loss, look at the Indy loss, and the fact that we pulled some games out late early on. It just feels good to do this against an elite team."
New England drove 76 yards on its opening drive to grab a 7-0 lead on a one-yard touchdown pass from Brady to offensive tackle Tom Ashworth, who – in typical Patriots fashion – reported as an eligible receiver while subbing as a blocking fullback. With that early lead, New England stacked the line of scrimmage to stop Tampa Bay's Carnell Williams and sprinkled in blitzes from multiple directions.
The result was a sputtering Buccaneers offense that felt the Patriots' vice tighten further after falling into a 14-0 hole. Suddenly, the Tampa Bay team that had won four of its last five and run roughshod over Carolina on the road one week earlier was reeling and depending on its least dependable component – the passing game – to dig itself out.
That set the stage for New England's defense to apply the finishing touches, sacking Chris Simms seven times and forcing him into a second-quarter fumble that led to a third Patriots touchdown and a 21-0 halftime lead. As first halves have gone for New England this season, it was unquestionably its most dominant and complete yet.
"We're a team that's getting better," linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "But let's keep away from the word 'dominant' for now."
Surely, the Patriots have needed to feel something close to dominant. Leading up to this season, they were a collection of unfamiliar parts, from new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini to a revamped roster that included what seemed like solid roster additions in cornerbacks Duane Starks and Chad Scott and linebackers Monty Beisel and Chad Brown. But what couldn't be known was how those pieces would fit together.
Five games into the season, the Patriots had their answer. Quite simply, the group meshed poorly. Scott was lost to injury, along with pivotal safety Rodney Harrison, and Starks, Beisel and Brown were all disappointments in starting roles. Even a shakeup among the linebackers and the return of Bruschi couldn't stop a slide that hit rock bottom at 4-4 heading into the middle of November – thanks in part to injuries suffered by Seymour and running back Corey Dillon.
Just three weeks ago, New England's injury report was as robust as ever with Belichick regularly shuttling in new starters, and a suggestion of dominance would have seemed absurd after the Patriots suffered a 26-16 loss at Kansas City. At 6-5, New England appeared destined to limp to its postseason execution.
But since that Week 12 defeat, the Patriots have slowly come together, thanks in part to a linebacking corps that has finally found cohesion and a secondary that has its most consistent rotation yet.
"Having Tedy back is a big reason," said linebacker Rosevelt Colvin, who notched his fourth straight game with a sack on Saturday. "It was a boost for the fans and a boost for the team. I think he and (fellow middle linebacker) Mike Vrabel are starting to feel real good out there. … Early in the season, it was a roller coaster and everybody was wondering what was wrong – (they said) it was this and that, this and that. But winning is the cure-all."
Where the playoff picture is concerned, nothing is more important than having a staple win in December. Not only did the Patriots clinch the AFC East title by beating Tampa Bay, but they also made a declaration. It's hard to argue this is just another above-average team beating the have-nots – as was the case the last two weeks when New England pounded the Jets and Bills by a combined score of 51-10.
Now, the Patriots can point to Saturday and the game that was supposed to be the playoff litmus test.
"It is a nice hat," said Seymour, referring to his white cap embroidered with 'AFC East Champions.' "I will add it to the others."
Don't close the lid on New England's collection just yet. For the first time this season, the Patriots look capable of adding more championship swag.