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With preseason finally over, and Monday nights opener against the Dolphins waiting on the other side of the weekend, the New England Patriots seem once again poised to make another promising run at the Lombardi Trophy.
Already loaded with offensive firepower, the Pats spent the off-season beefing up their d-line with the additions of Albert Heyensworth, and former jets defensive end Shaun Ellis; moving from a predominantly 3-4 based defense to a 4-3 in hopes of finally adding the all-elusive pass rush to their arsenal.
But with last year’s quick playoff exit to the Jets still fresh in fans minds, and the sting from a playoff romping at the hands of Baltimore in 2009 still palpable, there are certainly questions about the 2011 New England Patriots that go beyond personnel acquisitions and schematics.
Consider this; the Patriots haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Chargers in the 2006 AFC Championship game. Furthermore, their last three playoff exits have not been easy defeats to swallow; in three losses to the Giants, Ravens, and Jets, Belichicks teams looked weak, confused, and perhaps most concerning of all, under prepared.
What’s troublesome about this is that while the Super Bowl teams of 2001, 2003, and 2004 were all extremely skilled, they specifically prided themselves on always being defensively strong, mentally sound, and extremely well prepared. Perhaps these first three Super Bowl victories spoiled us all, letting us believe that no pressure, no situation, no one game was too much for the unflappable Tom Brady and his stoic puppeteer Bill Belichick.
But three Lombardi trophies and seven years later, has the allure been lost, the mojo run out? At whatpoint does the “Patriot Way” become not what it was from 2001-2004, but what it has become from 2007-2011? One also has to wonder what this season means to the legacies of Tom Brady and Bill Belicheck.
A Super Bowl win would undoubtedly secure Brady’s spot in the greatest of all time debate, making him only the third quarterback ever, along with Bradshaw and Montana, to win four Lombardi’s. For Belichick, another Super Bowl victory would give him six rings over all, with four as a head coach, tying him with Chuck Noll for the most by any head coach. But another playoff loss?
Without a doubt, both Belichick and Brady will go down as some of the best ever at their respective positions; no one can argue that. But a failure to win one more big game together could tarnish the twilight years of Brady’s career, leaving his lasting image as someone who won early, but faltered late.
Most importantly, if neither Brady nor Belichick win another ring, each will have a clear superior: Brady behind Montana and Bradshaw, and Belichick behind Noll. This season is not just any season for the Patriots; resting in the balance are the legacies of coach and quarterback, a prospect which makes Monday nights debut against Miami that much more exciting, as if it needed to be.