During a year in the NFL that has promoted parity by causing more head scratching moments than punters who still kick balls to Devin Hester, one team has seemingly nominated itself as the favorites for the Superbowl with it's dominant performances.
The New England Patriots have been playing unbelievable football during the past few weeks and have had onlookers drooling at their incisive offense and marveling at their emerging defense that benefits from a strong special teams unit. A franchise that went unbeaten throughout the regular season in 2007 looks to be playing even better this year. The Patriots may have lost two games already but they have looked unbeatable in recent weeks. Which begs the question; How do you beat the Patriots?
The first thing you must do is understand exactly what the Patriots have done to this point in the season to become such a feared outfit. The team sits atop the AFC with a 12-2 record going into the final two weeks of the season. In recent weeks they have dismantled recent SuperBowl winners and teams with realistic claims at this years crown.
The first major scalp of the season came when the Patriots beat the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in week 6. Its no secret that the Ravens weakness coming into this season has been their secondary. The defense had only half of its starters in the secondary during their Week 6 match-up, crucially missing Ed Reed from the free safety spot. The Patriots were able to escape with a victory in this game thanks to a big performance from Deion Branch who took advantage of Chris Carr, a cornerback who has predominantly been a kick returner throughout his career. Significantly the Ravens proved that you could run the ball against the Patriots defense as Ray Rice ground out 88 yards on the ground while the secondary, while outmatched talent-wise matched up well with the smaller receivers as the Ravens have shorter agile cornerbacks such as Josh Wilson, Lardarius Webb and the aforementioned Chris Carr.
While the Patriots lost early in the season to the New York Jets, a team with lofty expectations, in the new Meadowlands stadium, it was their trip to Ohio and their game against the lowly Cleveland Browns that really exposed their flaws. The Browns man handled the Patriots winning 34-14. The Browns were 3-5 at the time and are currently 5-9 with two weeks left in the season and lie second last in the AFC North. How can a team that has lost almost twice the amount of games that it has won beat a team that has broken records routinely this season?
A trap game?
It's much simpler than that.
The NFL is a league based on match-ups and the Cleveland Browns are the perfect matchup to beat the New England Patriots. The Browns lay out a game-plan for any team looking to beat the Patriots this season. During the offseason they picked up Peyton Hillis from the Denver Broncos. Hillis is a powerful runner who played fullback in Denver before being switched to running back in Cleveland. He punished the Patriot's defense carrying the ball 29 times for 184 yards and 2 touchdowns.
The Browns rode Hillis to over 38 minutes of possession keeping Tom Brady and his explosive offense on the sideline. The Patriots' defense lost Ty Warren, the team's second best run stuffer, before the season had even begun which has thrown rookie Brandon Deaderick into the starting lineup. This has been an often overlooked but nonetheless vital loss to the Patriots' defense.
The Browns rode their running game through the Patriots on offense while their secondary was the key match-up defensively. The Browns secondary is short and often overmatched by the height of team's receivers but their agility and speed allowed them to shut down the Patriots' offense. Starting cornerbacks Eric Wright and Sheldon Brown were aided by rookie first round pick Joe Haden while starting rookie safety T.J Ward also contributed to shutting down the Patriots corp of short and shifty receivers that most teams cannot keep up with. The Browns secondary is not one of the best in the league, the team is ranked 15th against the pass as a whole while playing in the run heavy AFC North but it held the Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady to 224 yards and 2 touchdowns(the second of which came when the game was out of reach)because of good depth at the position and the exact type of players who match up with the agility and speed of the Patriots offense.
While this may appear to be just a theory or a once off game, lets take a look at the Patriots' notable victories this season. They began their recent run of form in Pittsburgh when they went into Heinz Field and beat up on one of the best defenses in the league winning a blowout game by 39-26. The Patriots were able to take advantage of a Steeler's secondary that has been the team's achilles heal this season. Brady passed for 3 touchdowns and 350 yards while the Steeler's decimated offensive line did not allow them to run the ball to take advantage of the Patriots weak rush defense. The Steelers lack depth at cornerback while their best corner, Ike Taylor, is lanky and more suited to matching up against Randy Moss type of receivers opposed to Wes Welker or Deion Branch. The flurry of options available to Brady forced the Steelers to try to blitz the quarterback which meant that Ryan Clark, a free safety suited to cover deep zones or stuff the run, had to match up with the Patriots tight ends in man coverage. The Steelers' inability to matchup to the Patriots receivers led to the team being cut to pieces and made to look average all over the field.
The Indianapolis Colts were next up for the Patriots in Foxboro. The Colts are notoriously a poor running team and the secondary had been decimated by injuries throughout the year. Indianapolis ran the game close mostly due to the class of Peyton Manning running the offense and the vicious pass rush of the Colts defense. The Colts defense is built on speed which allowed it to compete with the Patriots but like every other team in the league the home team were able to run the ball all over the Colts' defense. The Patriots won the game 31-28.
The New York Jets came to town sporting a much vaunted secondary as part of one of the most complete defenses in the league. The Jets' corner tandem is touted as the best in the league with Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie both having earned reputations as shutdown corners. Revis, 5ft 11 inches, and Cromartie, 6ft 2 inches, both have huge wing spans and are not agile enough to keep up with the Patriots receivers. Both Revis and Cromartie use their huge wing spans so that they can specialize in taking away the oppositions first receiver. First receivers in the NFL are typically tall and rangy, such as Andre Johnson of the Texans or Calvin Johnson of the Lions, not one of the Patriots receivers is either tall or rangy. The Patriots' receivers are all built on speed, agility and soft hands.
The Jets are currently ranked 6th in the league in rushing and led the league in that category last year so you would have expected them to run all over the Patriots' defense however the Jets' running game is not as tough as last years version. When Peyton Hillis and the Browns ran through the Patriots' defense they relied on Hillis' strength and power, the Jets' do not possess this kind of player. Ladainian Tomlinson may go down as the best running back in history when everything is said and done but he is coming towards the end of a career that never possessed the ability to run through or over people. Tomlinson made his name by evading defenders and shooting through gaps on the offensive line. Ironically, the Jets' released the perfect player to erode the Patriots' defense during the offseason when Thomas Jones left for Kansas City. Jones is one of the toughest runners in the league and has proven that again with his performances for the Chiefs this season. The Jets' lost Alan Faneca from their offensive line also, a future hall of fame guard who earned his reputation by destroying offensive linemen over the past decade. His replacement Matt Slausen is much lighter and less capable of mauling his opposition.
That leads us to the Patriots most recent victory.
In a game where the Boston based team were heavily favored against the injury ridden Green Bay Packers, they struggled to press home their obvious talent advantage. The Packers defense is ranked 3rd against the pass and possesses cornerbacks that have similar traits to the Cleveland Browns with a higher level of talent.
Reigning defensive M.V.P Charles Woodson and his emerging teammate Tramon Williams kept the Patriots receivers in check with outstanding performances. Woodson and Williams proved that they could match up to the Patriots' playmakers which allowed the Packers' front seven to pressurize Brady and contain the offense. On offense the Packers were able to run the ball more effectively than they did against most other teams in the league. The Packers held the ball for 40 minutes but could not overcome the class of Brady, opposed to the inexperience of first time starter Matt Flynn, to win the game. The game came down to the wire but eventually finished 31-27 in favor of the Patriots.
There may not be any teams left that will go into a matchup with the Patriots as the favorites but there are a few teams going into the playoffs that will fancy their chances in a matchup with the AFC's top seed.
The New Orleans Saints are the most likely team to topple the Patriots even if they cannot meet each other until the Superbowl. The Saints will have a very strong running game once Pierre Thomas returns from injury. Thomas can carry the load against the Patriots with Reggie Bush complementing him on third downs. The Saints will need to be balanced on defense which they are certainly capable of with playmakers all across the roster both on offense and defense. Defensively the Saints match up effortlessly to the Patriots as the depth at corner is startling while the safeties are capable of making plays on the ball. Malcolm Jenkins will swing between safety and corner allowing Darren Sharper to come off the bench as an impact player.. The Saints rank 4th against the pass in the NFL.
The Baltimore Ravens' tough running game and dominant defense has already run them close this season. One play could be the difference if they meet each other again.
The Green Bay Packers showed this past week that they could compete with the Patriots even without their starting quarterback. The Packers will need to focus on reaching the playoffs before they can even consider meeting the Patriots in the Superbowl in February.
The Indianapolis Colts' defense is regaining it's health while Peyton Manning can overcome the lack of a running game on offense against any team.
The Kansas City Chiefs' playoff spot is not guaranteed but they have the best running game in the league averaging 168.8 yards per game, the only team in the league averaging above 160, with a young and agile secondary defensively. The Chiefs would give Thomas Jones a huge amount of carries in a matchup against the Patriots that would wear them down in the way Hillis did with the Browns but the Chiefs have more talent than the Browns and would benefit from Jones hard running by unleashing their other running back Jamaal Charles on the Pats' defense. Charles ranks third in the league with 1'303 yards and averages a league leading 6.4 yards per rush.
While it would be ridiculous to claim that only these teams could beat the Patriots in the playoffs, the very nature of the NFL and especially the playoffs is that anything can happen on any given day. These teams simply match-up the best to the Patriots and will be the greatest threat to their hopes of winning their fourth Superbowl in franchise history.
The Patriots sit atop the NFL as the favorite for the Superbowl however the aura of invincibility that surrounds the team is misleading and unjustified. The Patriots may very well win the Superbowl in Dallas this February but don't be fooled into thinking that that bet doesn't come with some risks.