By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are back in the Super Bowl. Again.
Some may say that the Patriots’ landing in the sport’s biggest game was a fait accompli, that it was just a matter of time before Bill Belichick and Co. headed to the Super Bowl for the third time in four years. But to make such a statement is to overlook quite a bit.
Mainly, it overlooks how difficult it is for any team to reach this game. The NFL season is such a grind, and the sport takes such a physical and mental toll on its participants, that truly nothing can ever be taken for granted. And though the Patriots were made to be heavy favorites to represent the AFC in this year’s Super Bowl when the oddsmakers forecast the season last summer, getting to this spot was not a cinch. Far from it.
For some perspective, here’s a look back at what one dapper and shrewd writer said before the season about 10 potential pitfalls to the Patriots’ Super Bowl aspirations. We’ll judge how much the potential problem did or did not affect the 2017 Patriots.
Potential Problem No. 1: Injuries
Actual Impact: Very Real
The sterling sports writer said back in July that, like any team, injuries could derail the Patriots’ season. The writer’s head was in the right place, but he was nevertheless proven wrong by the Patriots.
Julian Edelman suffered a season-ending injury during the preseason, taking the team’s leading receiver from 2016 off the roster. That was a massive loss.
Dont’a Hightower, after re-signing with the Patriots in the offseason, played in just five games all year. He tore his pectoral and hasn’t been on the field since October, leaving the Patriots extremely thin at linebacker.
The team also lost Marcus Cannon, who by many measures was the best right tackle in the NFL in 2016, after he played in just seven games.
On a slightly lesser level, the Patriots got zero games out of second-year receiver Malcolm Mitchell after he was instrumental to that famed 28-3 comeback over the Falcons. The team’s highest pick, defensive end Derek Rivers, also didn’t make it through the preseason healthy, and he never got to play a down in his rookie year. Linebacker Shea McClellin also didn’t play at all after playing a noteworthy role on defense and special teams last year.
Defensively, Stephon Gilmore missed three games, but the rest of the secondary stayed healthy.
Nevertheless, here the Patriots are. Tom Brady stayed healthy, and Rob Gronkowski stayed (mostly) healthy. We’ll see if/how he plays in the Super Bowl after sustaining a concussion in the AFC Championship Game, but he’ll most likely be out there looking like himself.
Injuries were a major part of the Patriots’ season, but it has not stopped them yet.
Potential Problem No. 2: Fatigue
Actual Impact: Minimal
It’s incredibly impressive that the Patriots were able to go 11-1 in the final 12 games of the season. That’s not only because of their 2-2 start, but also because of their absurdly challenging schedule in the middle to late part of the season.
Coming out of their Week 9 bye, the Patriots played five of six games on the road. That included a trip to Denver (always difficult), followed by a trip to Mexico City (higher altitude than Denver), and capped off with a road game on a Monday night followed by a road game in Pittsburgh on the short week.
That was an insane six-week stretch; the Patriots went 5-1.
Including the playoffs, the Patriots have been in the prime-time spotlight six times; they went 4-2.
They played big games all year, with a ridiculous schedule, and yet they still managed to earn a much-needed first-round bye, and they then won their two home playoff games. The team does not appear to be as fatigued as one might have imagined when looking at the schedule last September.
Potential Problem No. 3: Stephen Gostkowski
Actual Impact: A Positive Impact
There were some questions about the kicker heading into the year. He had missed PATs in both the Super Bowl and the AFC Championship Game, a continuation of some misses in key spots that began the year prior in the AFC title game in Denver. He missed a handful of kicks during the regular season, and it was fair to ask before the 2017 season whether he might cost the team some points — and a game or two — along the way.
But Gostkowski has been money all year long for New England. He was a perfect 25-for-25 on all field goals under 40 yards, he went 45-for-47 on PATs, and he was amazingly a perfect 4-for-4 on kicks of 50 or more yards. That included a career-high 62-yard field goal in Mexico City that cleared the crossbar with room to spare.
He’s also proven to be arguably the best in the league at sending high-arching kicks to the goal line or thereabouts on kickoffs, helping the Patriots’ excellent kickoff coverage unit to limit opponents to just 18.9 yards per return (third-best in the NFL).
He did miss a 53-yarder before halftime in the divisional round, but he has been an absolute positive for the Patriots this year in his 12th NFL season.
Potential Problem No. 4: Greater Forces
Actual Impact: Non-existent … Yet
This point involved the Oakland Raiders, who were coming off a 12-4 season and appeared to be the greatest competition for the Patriots in the AFC. The idea was that with the development that the team would be moving to Las Vegas in a few years, and with hometown star Marshawn Lynch coming out of retirement, then the Raiders might be a bit of a team of destiny.
Instead, the Raiders were a team of a 6-10 record.
So much for that.
You could argue that the greater forces might have ended up in Philly, as the Eagles apparently have turned Carson Wentz’s injury into a positive. They’ve embraced the underdog spirit, and they’ve got their whole city going nuts and driving dune buggies up the steps where the Rocky statue stands. We’ll find out on Super Sunday whether it’s enough momentum to ride all the way to a championship.
Potential Problem No. 5: The NFC Has Some Very Good Teams
Actual Impact: To Be Determined
This is one area where we don’t know the answer just yet. Certainly, the Eagles are an excellent team and should present a serious challenge to the Patriots in Super Bowl LII.
At the same time, the team is playing with its backup quarterback after losing second-year sensation Carson Wentz late in the year. Nick Foles had an amazing 2013 season, when he set a TD-to-INT ratio record with 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. But since then, he’s thrown 28 touchdowns and 22 interceptions over the past four seasons. He had a great performance in the NFC Championship Game, but the general school of thought is that it’s going to take an MVP type of quarterback to outduel the Patriots and Tom Brady.
Is Foles up to the challenge? We shall see. But outside of Foles, the Eagles are an excellent team across the board.
Potential Problem No. 6: A Decline From Tom Brady
Actual Impact: Nope.
Tom Brady will one day be bad at football. Presumably. But that time is not now.
Brady will almost assuredly be named the MVP of the National Football League next weekend, the night before taking the field for his eighth Super Bowl start in 16 seasons as an NFL starting quarterback. He did slow down a bit with an underwhelming five-game stretch to end the regular season, but he proved with five touchdowns and no interceptions over two playoff games (one with stitches in his throwing hand) that he’s still as dangerous as ever.
Maybe he’ll get worse next year? Probably not.
Potential Problem No. 7: Weirdness
Actual Impact: Not Much Weirdness Transpired
This one hearkened back to the 2015 season, when the Patriots were in the driver’s seat to grab the No. 1 seed in the AFC and the home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But then they lost their first game of the year in Denver in Week 12 thanks to a Chris Harper muffed fumble on a night where Gronkowski left the field on a cart (but ended up being fine). They lost the following week to the 4-7 Eagles (a game remembered more for a weird kickoff that cost 16 yards of field position instead of the overall sloppy play of the Patriots). They ended the year with an overtime loss to the Jets (when the Patriots didn’t opt to receive in OT) and an inexplicable loss in Miami, where they kind of sort of tried to win but brought arguably the worst game plan of the Belichick era.
As a result, they ended up losing the title game on the road, costing them a trip to the Super Bowl.
This year, though, the Patriots got their weirdness out of the way earlier. They gave up some deep bombs to Alex Smith, who usually doesn’t throw more than 7 yards downfield. And they lost at home to Cam Newton and the Panthers. They slipped ever-so-slightly on a Monday night in Miami, but the weirdness went their way the following Sunday when Jesse James’ near-touchdown was ruled to have been an incompletion in Pittsburgh prior to Ben Roethlisberger throwing a mindless end-zone interception on a rushed fake spike.
Potential Problem No. 8: Getting Away From The Run
Actual Impact: None
In 2016, the Patriots didn’t have Tom Brady for four weeks. They also didn’t have Jimmy Garoppolo for two-and-a-half weeks. As a result, the Patriots had to rely on the running game, almost out of necessity. They ranked seventh in the NFL in rushing yards and fifth in rushing touchdowns, and it helped the offense become more well-rounded. (Super Bowl LI ended with a rushing touchdown, you might recall.)
But with LeGarrette Blount gone, and with Brady slated for a full 16 games, it was unclear what role running the ball would play in the plans of the 2017 team. The Patriots did drop to 10th in rushing yards and sixth in rushing touchdowns, but they actually ran much more efficiently, gaining 17 more rushing yards on 34 fewer attempts. Dion Lewis was outstanding, while Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead also contributed in the running game.
The Patriots ranked first in total yards and second in points.
Potential Problem No. 9: Regression From Marcus Cannon
Actual Impact: None Yet
The idea behind this potential problem was that Marcus Cannon was coming off an uncharacteristically outstanding season. His previous five seasons had their ups and downs, so it stood to reason that Cannon might come back to earth in 2017 and thus make for some tough days for the Patriots’ offense.
Well, Cannon played in just seven games before getting injured. Going from an All-Pro level of performance to not being on the field at all is the ultimate level of regression.
And yet, the Patriots survived. The duo of LaAdrian Waddle and Cameron Fleming held down the right tackle spot. Though they’ll face a stiff challenge from the Eagles’ pass rush, they’ve so far done an excellent job replacing Cannon.
Potential Problem No. 10: The NFL
Actual Impact: None
“The NFL” in this instance was not meant to represent the commissioner or high-ranking league executives trying their darndest to destroy the Patriots. Rather, it merely suggested that the nature of the NFL is for teams to have ebbs and flows from year to year. It is a league designed to not have repeat champions, as evidenced by the fact that only two teams have won back-to-back Super Bowls since the installation of the salary cap in 1994. The NFL just does not lend itself to really allowing for sustained success at the highest level.
Nevertheless, the Patriots are here. They had their opportunities to slip up, but they overcame them. They trailed 20-10 late in the AFC Championship Game, but managed to win by four. They had at least a dozen reasons or excuses to slide back to the rest of the pack, but yet they are still right where everyone expected them to be.
The team still has one more game to win. But as they prepare to make the trip to Minnesota, it’s clear that they’ve accomplished quite a bit just by reaching this point. A third Super Bowl title in four years would be historic, and given all the factors that come into play for every team in this league, it’s fair to say we won’t see such a thing again for a very, very long time.