The goal is to win the final game of the year. The 2018 New England Patriots did that.
They did it with heavier doses of guile, smarts, scheming and versatility than we've seen since the 2001 Super Bowl champs knocked off -- coincidentally -- another Rams team with a mastermind head coach who never figured out how to adjust in the biggest game of his life.
Like that 2001 team, these Patriots went 11-5 and peaked at the very end as they embraced a different way of doing business. Both the '01 team and the '18 team relied on smart, efficient, ball-control offense and aggressive, physical defense that forced mistakes.
Their coaching and game-planning over their final five games (six games, if you want to include the defensive performance against the Steelers) was outstanding and -- again -- it hit its apex in the playoffs.
When you have a 66-year-old head coach who's chasing his eighth Super Bowl ring, a 42-year-old offensive coordinator who's after his sixth, a 41-year-old quarterback who's seen and knows more than almost every head coach in the league, a defense led by a couple of on-field Einsteins (Dont'a Hightower and Devin McCourty) and a defensive playcaller who's dying to release the hounds, you're in a great position to overcome any roster shortcomings you may have.
And there were roster shortcomings in 2018. Especially on offense, where the passing game developed an outsized reliance on Julian Edelman and didn't get enough from its outside players or -- until the final stretch -- tight end.
In November, I wrote about bills coming due and the reboot the Patriots would face after the season. I wrote it with an air of foreboding because -- at that point -- they were 9-3, on their bye and fresh off an ass-booting by the Titans.
But all the tumblers fell neatly into their slots in the final five games and the safe opened to reveal another Lombardi. And now from the outside and --– more importantly -- within the organization there is a huge sense of optimism that the Patriots are ready for the reboot.
Even though there will be attrition -- Rob Gronkowski could retire, as could Devin and Jason McCourty. Trey Flowers and Trent Brown are pending free agents and losing either means there will be big shoes to fill.
But the Patriots not only have the draft capital and cap space to fill holes, they also have a pack of guys who "redshirted" in 2018.
For instance, if Trent Brown parlays his season at left tackle into a huge payday -- and it would be a stunner if he didn't -- Isaiah Wynn, a first-round pick who tore his Achilles in August. is in the bullpen. He didn't play a snap in 2018.
Neither did Duke Dawson, a second-round pick from Florida. He hurt his hamstring, landed on IR, was elevated to the 53-man roster in November but was too far behind the other corners to get on the field.
Ja'Whaun Bentley, a fifth-round pick from Purdue, started the season brilliantly at linebacker but wound up on IR as well after three games.
Sixth-round picks Christian Sam (speed linebacker), Braxton Berrios (slot receiver) and seventh-round pick Ryan Izzo (tight end) also ended the year on IR. These three are bigger question marks than Wynn, Dawson and Sam, but at least they are in the mix. And they will be challenged because the Patriots have a pile of draft picks.
The Patriots currently have four in the first three rounds. When the compensatory picks for losing free agents Malcolm Butler and Nate Solder are doled out, they will likely have six in the first three.
That gives them a ton of collateral if they want to jump up and get a tight end (there's a good crop) or wideout, or if they want to package picks and pick some sad-sack team who'll probably be at the top of the draft in 2020 and fleece them of their first-round pick so they can take a top-10 quarterback.
It will be fascinating to see which course the Patriots choose. It's likely they don't even know what it will be yet, given so many things have to happen in the course of the next two months between free agency and the draft.
But one thing is certain. Whether we call it a rebuild, a reload or a reboot, it's a lot less ominous now than it seemed in mid-November.
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