What a difference a week makes.
Seven days ago, the New England Patriots were facing a must-win game on Monday night, hosting the Jets with the AFC East lead and a possible playoff bye at stake.
Today, two games later, New England is the best team in the league, and getting better as the playoffs approach.
In slightly more than six quarters, the Pats went Mike Tyson on the Jets and Chicago Bears, outscoring the pair 81-3 in the cold of Foxborough and in snowy Chicago.
It would have been an impressive pair of wins against anyone; coming, as it did, against teams with records of 9-2 and 9-3 respectively, it put to rest all arguments about who should be favored to win Super Bowl XLV.
(All in all, it’s been an impressive week in Boston sports: two big Patriots wins, the Red Sox acquiring Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, the Celtics stretching their winning streak to ten, the Bruins winning two of three and pulling within two points of division-leading Montreal, Boston College taking its ACC opener on the road against Maryland. All that was missing was the Car Guys winning Powerball.)
With equal assuredness, Tom Brady separated himself from a crowded MVP race that at various times seemed to belong to Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Michael Vick, Phillip Rivers, and Aaron Rodgers.
As they did in the early stages of their 16-0 season, the Patriots showed they can go whoosh on an opponent at any time. In the last five games, they’ve put up 45 (29 in the second half) on Pittsburgh, four touchdowns in three quarters against Indy, 35 in the second half in Detroit, 17 in the first quarter (and 45 overall) against the Jets, and 26 in the second quarter in Chicago to take a 33-0 halftime lead.
The ’07 squad scored 34 or more in their first eight games, climaxing with 48 (at Dallas), 49 (at Miami), and 52 (vs. Washington) – and a 56-pointer against Buffalo in week 11 thrown in for good measure. But its last six games included three three-point wins, evidence of some cracks in the armor that the Giants rushed through in their Super Bowl matchup.
Brady has flourished in New England’s revamped offense, retooled to take advantage of his quick throws and intelligence with the ball. He’s thrown for 29 touchdowns and just four interceptions; his last pick came in Week 6 against Baltimore, 268 passes ago – and that one was a 44-yard Hail Mary on the last play before overtime.
The defense is not as strong as their past Super Bowl teams, and the ten points allowed in the last two weeks probably says more about the Jets and Bears than it does about the Patriots. On the whole, the Patriots’ defense ranks in the middle of the pack; it is 17th out of 32 in the most important statistical measure, scoring against. The pass defense has given up the second-most yards per game in the league, but that partly reflects the opposition’s need to throw to catch up to New England’s offense; in yards allowed per attempt, the Pats are tied for 21st, right alongside the NFC team with the best record, 11-2 Atlanta. The Pats also lead the league in interceptions, with 20.
Looking ahead to the AFC playoffs, the only likely qualifier with the kind of offensive firepower to give New England problems is San Diego, still a game behind Kansas City in the AFC West but holding the tie-breaker after routing the Chiefs on Sunday. Curiously, in a year when the AFC has seemed far stronger than the NFC, teams like Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Green Bay might be tougher opponents for the Pats than they’ll face in getting to the Super Bowl. (Green Bay’s going to have a hard time reaching the playoffs after falling to 8-5 and with Aaron Rodgers suffering a concussion against Detroit. The Packers travel to face the Patriots next week with Rodgers’s availability uncertain, then host the Giants and Bears in the last two weeks. Only New Orleans – at Baltimore, at Atlanta, Tampa Bay – has as difficult a route to the playoffs, and the Saints have a two-game edge over the Pack for the wild card.)
Get ready for a whole lot of stories about Danny Woodhead, Deion Branch, Julian Edelman, and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Brady and Belichick are back, in a big way.