BOSTON (CBS) – We heard the term from Patriots head coach Bill Belichick when describing New England’s next opponent in the days before a visit to Carolina. His counterpart from Baltimore, John Harbaugh, repeated it late last Sunday afternoon, addressing his players after their win over the New York Jets.
And in the earliest minutes of Monday morning, Julian Edelman coined the same phrase to frame the Patriots comeback to beat Denver, 34-31, in overtime. In many respects — because it reflects every phase of the game — it is the ultimate compliment for a football team.
Simply put, it’s the product of everyone, regardless of role, doing what he’s supposed to.
“We got contributions in all three phases: the offense, defense, special teams and our linemen, our skill players, our semi-skilled players, the specialists,” Belichick summarized. “We just had a lot of contributions from a lot of people. It couldn’t be more of a team win.”
“The defense did their job, we did our job, we played complementary football, handled the punts and kickoffs,” Edelman echoed. “It was a good team comeback victory.”
There’s another way of phrasing the historic rally, as the Patriots overcame the largest deficit they’ve ever confronted en route to victory. For the final 43 minutes and four seconds, after falling into a 24-0 hole, New England staged a complete performance.
As much as the stars shined — starting with Tom Brady, of course — victory was earned by lesser-known teammates. Choose from any number, who each reflect Belichick’s philosophy on filling out a roster: it’s about building a team, not collecting talent.
Consider the case of the player who recovered the last muff in Monday’s midnight hour. As a reserve defensive back, Nate Ebner has played only a handful snaps this season in the secondary. But Ebner, a relative late-comer to football who walked-on to the Ohio State Buckeyes, often excels in not-so-obvious duties on special teams.
And while the units he spends most of his time on — competing on various kicks and punts — are the game’s most overlooked in most circles, they’re of utter importance in Foxborough. Just as they should be.
After all, Ebner was employed on 33 plays on special teams against the Broncos. That’s as much time on the field as starting linebacker Dont’a Hightower (33 snaps) spent on defense and leading rusher Brandon Bolden (34 reps) played on offense.
In the end, Ebner — once a national rugby star — was the last man standing after a scrum, setting up Stephen Gostkowski’s game-winning field goal.
Complementary football, played by a team as perennially complete as any in the NFL since 2001, enables the Patriots to vie Sunday for their 13th consecutive winning season. They’re already guaranteed a .500 finish to the regular campaign.
No other team in this era of free agency and salary caps has gone the last 13 years without at least a hiccup. The last franchise to enjoy more than a dozen straight winning seasons were the 1983-98 San Francisco 49ers.
Opposing the Pats are the Houston Texans, who won their first two games of 2013 in defense of back-to-back AFC South Division titles. But they have since lost linebacker Brian Cushing and running back Arian Foster, and lost faith in quarterback Matt Schaub.
All while losing their last nine contests.
This time a year ago, the Texans looked whole enough to contend for a Super Bowl championship. But they showed up at Gillette Stadium in December with an 11-1 record, only to get blitzed by New England, 42-14.
From that point on, Houston has gone 3-12 in 15 regular-season games. In the midst of that stretch, the Texans were beaten a second time by the Patriots, 41-28, in an AFC Divisional playoff.
As they meet again, for the third time in a calendar year, Houston’s season is done, for all intents and purposes. And incomplete by all preseason expectations.
Meanwhile, the Patriots are in position to keep playing complementary football well past the completion of the regular campaign.
THREE AND OUT
• Eight of the Patriots’ first 11 games were decided by a touchdown or less: they’re 5-3. The Texans also had eight of their first 11 contests settled by seven points or fewer: they’re 2-6.
• Despite five giveaways the last two games, the Patriots are tied for sixth in the NFL with a plus-8 turnover differential. Houston is tied for 30th (with Atlanta) at minus-12. Only the New York Jets (minus-16) have a worse margin.
• Since 2000, the Patriots’ 71-38 (.651) record on the road is the league’s best. But after winning their first two away games this season, they’ve dropped three straight. The last time the Pats lost four consecutive road games was 2009, including the regular-season finale at Houston.
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.
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