BOSTON (CBS) — One day before they take the field for the 2016 NFL postseason, the stakes for the New England Patriots are, as always, stratospheric. The Patriots are two wins from another Super Bowl. And while the Houston Texans are merely a doormat, they provide entry onto what is ultimately hallowed, uncorrupted ground.
No coach has ever won five Super Bowls. Nor has any quarterback. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are now within true striking distance, the Patriots possessing the best record in the NFL, home field advantage and favorable odds.
They may never get another chance like this, you know. Not with Brady still performing at such high levels that Pro Football Focus recently deemed his 2016 performance the best not only of Brady’s career, but the best of any quarterback since the website started grading quarterbacks in 2006. Not with a relatively soft field in the AFC and, to some degree, the entire NFL. And not with the usual list of variables, beginning and ending with health.
Could the Patriots still have three more years left in this run? Five? Maybe even 10 depending on the choices that surround Jimmy Garoppolo? Of course. But as good as the Patriots were last year, things did not align properly in the final weeks of 2015. The Pats had some injuries. Belichick overplayed his hand. The road led them to Denver, where the date with destiny died, reminding us all that every detail matters and the tumblers must all fall into place to unlock any championship, let alone a fifth one.
Has this been a perfect year for the Pats? No. The defense struggled early and Jamie Collins was jettisoned. Rob Gronkowski started off injured, came back, then got hurt again (this time for good). Stephen Gostkowski struggled. Jabaal Sheard got benched and their top draft pick (Cyrus Jones) looked so downright dizzy that you couldn’t help but wonder if he belonged in the concussion protocol.
And, of course, their all-eternity quarterback was suspended for four games.
The truth? If Brady had played all 16 games and if Collins (and the defense) had their heads screwed on from the start … given how the schedule turned out … the Pats could have won every game.
But we digress.
For now, at least, we are where we are, which is to say that the Patriots are prohibitive favorites to reach the Super Bowl again – for a preposterous seventh time, no less – and favorites to win it. There is still much ground to be covered between now and then. But opportunities like this one, especially, do not grow on trees, and Belichick (and Brady) certainly know it. Belichick built an offensive roster to withstand the loss of Gronk, from Martellus Bennett to Chris Hogan to Malcolm Mitchell and a seemingly legitimate running game. The Pats have three running backs who can make a contribution. They have a stable offensive line.
The defense? Well, that remains something of a question, no matter where the Pats finished in points allowed, because anyone with a brain knows the Patriots played a potentially unprecedented succession of “offenses” that ranked at the bottom of the league. That is hardly their fault. But the Pats don’t get undue credit for that, either, especially after being wind-burned by Russell Wilson and the Seattle Seahawks in Week 10.
Nonetheless, the Pats have improved since then. Or at least it feels like they have. Gostkowski has kicked better. All systems are a go.
Sixteen years ago, when Brady first trotted onto the field, no one could have possibly known what was to come. In the many games and seasons since, we have learned what it takes to win here in New England, and we know that is not all about talent. You can have the best coach and the best quarterback, and that still may not be enough. You can win every game, to the seeming very end, and that still may be enough. You can have luck and health and commitment, and that still may not be enough.
And then, you can generally have them all at the same time, amid a favorable field of competition, and know that some opportunities just don’t come around all that often.
That fifth Super Bowl championship is out there again. You can see it more clearly than ever this time. Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots begin the final legs toward it.