Just like the teenage defenders of the earth from the popular 90’s television show that overcame the powerful forces of evil, the New England Patriots have been vanquishing what seem to be more potent and prolific offenses and defenses for decades.
The Patriots managed to advance to their ninth Superbowl in nearly two decades, fifth in the last decade and third straight as they secured their sixth championship with a dominant defensive performance and stellar special teams play in a 13-3 victory over the Los Angeles Rams on Feb. 3.
Their sustained reign of excellence in the postseason and domination in their conference should not be overlooked since the turn of the century when they upset the then St. Louis Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf” in Superbowl XXXVI.
The Rams defense played absolutely lights out for the first 45 minutes of play and gave their top-flight scoring offense plenty of opportunities to put up points. LA’s high-flying Rams offense led by young up-and-coming coach Sean McVay were unable to get off the ground and make the plays they needed to derail the Pats in the pursuit of their latest title.
The Pats have enjoyed the luxury of playing and often bullying the teams within their own division of the AFC East for the last two decades. With exception of a few aberration years in which one of the other teams in the division managed to make the playoffs, New England has maintained a stranglehold on the East, winning 10 straight division titles.
The disparity in the level of competition in the East compared to the other division in the AFC (American Football Conference) have often given the Patriots a competitive advantage over the other division leaders when it comes to playoff seeding because they are almost assured to win 4-6 division games a season.
Despite these perceived advantages, the NFL is a league when the old cliché of “Any Given Sunday” can apply to any team, in any game at any time. However, the Patriots and their future Hall of Fame head coach in Bill Belichick pride themselves on being the most prepared team in the NFL. They rarely lose the proverbial “Trap Game” that befalls just about every team outside of New England.
Outside of their historic 2007 season in which they finished the regular season undefeated, they hardly ever field the most talented roster.
Instead, they chose to maintain unwavering belief in the system that has produced five world championships and eight straight AFC title game appearances dating back to their last championship bout with the New York Giants in Superbowl XLVI. They’ve become a well-oiled machine over the years, often devoid of star power but still equipped and full of championship pedigree.
Coach Belichick designs and adapts the game plans of both his offensive and defensive units to suit their strengths as well as exploit the weaknesses of the other team that they picked up when watching film or making in-game adjustments.
He will try to force the opponent to essentially play “with one hand tied behind their back” because he will often sell out on defense to neutralize the aspect on offense that they do best and make them try to play outside of themselves and their preferred game plan.
The cardinal sin that many of the teams, especially arrogant opponents, fall victim to when facing the New England Patriots, (such as the Los Angeles Chargers in the divisional round this year) is the use of zone defenses.
When their opponents try to use this style of defense against the Tom Brady led Patriots and with defensive backs giving their receivers too much cushion and free releases off of the line of scrimmage, Brady will matriculate the ball down the field with dinks, dunks and draw plays.
He will find the soft spots in the zone coverage; his targets will sit in those spots and pick up first downs and more often than not touchdowns. The Patriots seldom turn the ball over and capitalize on the opportunities given to them when their opponents do make mistakes.
The blueprint to taking down the juggernaut that is Belichick, Brady and the New England Patriots can be reduced to five keys that are easier said than done. Pressure Brady up the middle so that he can’t step up in the pocket, disrupt the timing routes of the receivers at the line of scrimmage, play man coverage, don’t turn the ball over and score touchdowns instead of field goals because the latter rarely ends well for the Pats opponents.
Despite their annual early season struggles and what seems to be the yearly sounding of alarm that their reign is in jeopardy of coming to a swift and long overdue conclusion, the most adaptable team in the league continues to contend for and collect championships by morphing into whatever versions of themselves that they need to assume from week to week and year to year to keep the train rolling right ahead.