New England Patriots

With Tom Brady better than ever, the NFL is the Patriots’ to lose

Saturday, September 17, 2016: Former Michigan quarterback Tom Brady watches UM's game against Colorado, Saturday at Michigan Stadium. Brady was serving as an honorary captain for the game, which Michigan won, 45-28. (Photo by Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire)
Lon Horwedel/Icon Sportswire

It was another ho-hum performance for the New England Patriots on Sunday.

Not “ho-hum” in respect to the quality of their performance or effort on the field, but “ho-hum” in respect to the ease with which they dispatched their latest opponent, the former playoff contenders known as the Cincinnati Bengals.

It’s not like the Patriots dominated the Bengals statistically, they just sort of did what they do best – making the big plays when they needed and averaging more than seven yards per play in a masterfully efficient offense. The next thing you know, a narrow 10-7 halftime edge becomes a 35-17 runaway and you wonder what happened.

It fits right in with the pattern the Patriots have displayed through their first six games of the season, as they have run out to a 5-1 record seemingly without even breaking a sweat. And looking at the way the NFL is laid out more than a third of the way through the season, it’s pretty clear that Bill Belichick’s team is the best in the league.

You’ll certainly get an argument – and a strong one at that — from the Dallas Cowboys, who are 5-1 after dismantling the Green Bay Packers on Sunday. Unbeaten Minnesota also has a case, as does twice-beaten Pittsburgh. But none of those contenders have the across-the-board balance the Patriots possess, and all of them have questions that have yet to be answered.

For the Cowboys, you wonder how long rookie quarterback Dak Prescott can keep up his Pro Bowl-level play, and how the team will react to an emerging quarterback controversy that is sure to blossom with the return of Tony Romo. As for the Vikings, they likely don’t have enough offense to contend for a title, while the Steelers don’t seem to have enough defense. On top of that, Pittsburgh now has the additional concern of the health of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will undergo an MRI on the knee he dinged up in Sunday’s loss to Miami.

03 January 2016: New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines during the NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)

03 January 2016: New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick on the sidelines during the NFL football game between the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins at the Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)

In addition to all of this, none of these other contenders have had to deal with the challenges Belichick’s staff and players have had to deal with to get to this point.

No matter what has been thrown at them, they just keep chugging along and churning out victories, and nothing appears able to slow them down. Not a four-game PED-suspension to Rob Ninkovich to start the season. Not a tough opening schedule that started with three teams – Arizona, Houston and Cincinnati – that were in the postseason a year ago.

Not even the questionable results of “Deflategate” could slow the Patriots, who weathered the four-game suspension of star quarterback Tom Brady by going 3-1, a stretch that included a shutout of the Texans. The only hiccup thus far has been a 16-0 defeat to a Buffalo Bills team that increasingly looks like a contender, and that came in the last game of Brady’s suspension.

How have the Patriots accomplished this?

They’ve done it with coaching and efficiency on both sides of the ball. They’ve done it by taking the ball away from opponents (eight turnovers caused) while not giving it up themselves (four turnovers surrendered).

They’ve done it with an improved offensive line that, while still not great, is good enough for Brady, who makes quick reads and gets rid of the ball faster than any other signal-caller in the league. They’ve done it with a defense that is more quietly-stingy than it is flashy, an upper-third unit that is one of only four teams to allow fewer than 100 points so far this season.

And they’ve done it with a tight end duo in Rob Gronkowski and Martellus Bennett unlike any the NFL has ever seen, a pairing that gives Belichick the ability to stretch his creative scheming muscles and pressure the defense with mismatches all over the field.

With all of these positives, plus the fact that the Patriots have Brady back and in the flow, it’s hard to find a flaw with this team.

“As you see, he is their football team,” said Cincinnati’s Carlos Dunlap after Brady sliced and diced the Bengals for 376 yards and three touchdown passes. “He’s the heart of the city; he’s the heart of the football team.”

Two games after the end of his suspension, the heart of the Patriots appears to be beating more vigorously than ever, as Brady has passed for 782 yards and six touchdowns with zero interceptions. That’s the first time in the 39-year-old’s storied career that he has passed for more than 375 yards in consecutive weeks.

As good as he’s playing, Brady says his team can only get better.

“We’re still building,” he said. “We’re only six games into the year, so there’s still a lot more work to do, there’s a long way to go.”

That’s a frightening prospect for the rest of the NFL, and doubly scary in that it was delivered with the same matter-of-fact precision that has marked the Patriots’ season as a whole.

If the 3-1 start without Brady didn’t serve as warning enough, the Patriots’ play since he returned certainly should make it clear that this season, the NFL is theirs to lose.

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