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In retrospect, it's been an odd Patriots' season.
Even back in September -- when they were smarting from consecutive losses and the coach was stomping the sidelines like Rumpelstiltskin in his tiresome harangue of the replacement officials -- you vaguely sensed this team was able to turn it on at will, so you could tune them out for four months and check back come January without fear of missing much. And so it went, precisely according to such form.
In the Belichick era -- surely to be eventually regarded as halcyon -- Patriots teams have won more, played better, been more dominant, even been happier and haughtier. But never has one had it easier.
A major factor was the meekness of their division. They were a laughable 6-0 against their pathetic brethren in the East; 11-1 against all opponents in the increasingly weakening AFC. Against NFC foes, they were 1-3. Is that significant? Maybe! But I wouldn't bet the ranch on it. With just a bit more luck they might well have been 15-1.
Overall, the four games they lost were by a grand total of 11 points. A scant two touchdowns separated them from what passes in the NFL as "perfection". The point is made the more relevant when you consider that they scored 557 points, fourth most any team has ever conjured, and they've been playing this game a long time.
All season they had the capacity for the spectacular. In one frightening stretch of four games they rolled up 190 points, an average of almost 50 per game; near unheard of in the latter day NFL. No lead was safe against them. Even when down four touchdowns to the NFC team with the statistically toughest defense they were capable of suddenly exploding. Not even the old "Monsters of the Midway" were more monstrous when it came to piling up yardage and points in great greedy garish globs. Nor were they shy about gleefully rubbing it in, when they got the chance.
With a much improved ground-game, football's most balanced attack, another smartly rebuilt offensive line, a young and sassy defense growing each week in its awareness of how good it can be, a secondary at last maturing, and a grizzled quarterback whose edge seems improbably sharpening with age, the Patriots have the look of a team about to crest rather magnificently. The timing, obviously, could not possibly be better.
On the other hand, we have been down this road before. Have we not?
A year ago they lost only three tilts in the regular season, hee-hawed their way through the early playoff rounds, marched to Soupey as prohibitive favorites, only to lose again to a Giants team that had been life or death to even qualify for the post-season after being whipped seven times en route. It's a fact -- doubtless of exceeding discomfort to Bill Belichick -- that he's twice been significantly out-coached by the relatively humble Tom Coughlin of the Giants who has never thought of himself as a genius, let alone allowed himself to be called one.
If Patriots' eminence so far this millennium is beyond dispute the post-season indignities are no less piling up. There was that shocking ouster at the hands of the despised Jets after the boys from Foxborough had merrily rolled to a 14-2 regular season rampage in 2010. The boss has never endured a nastier rebuff. Earlier, Denver bounced them in a bumbling effort. Then there was that remarkable, come from behind, come-uppance delivered by the gallant Peyton Manning and his Colts in the classic that still deeply stings Tom Brady.
It's been seven years since they last won the Super Bowl. Time flies, even when you're not having fun.
Good as his team looks and smooth as many insist the path to Super Sunday might be for his lads, the anxiety must be rising fast for Boss Belichick. You suspect he utterly loathes the gathering consensus averring that his team is decidedly "the team to beat". Great expectations can be ruinous. Do the alleged experts enjoy pumping up a team merely to add to the joy when it inevitably fails? It happens. Nor do you necessarily have to be all that neurotic to believe it. Moreover, you need not remind the Patriots coach that he's not the most popular guy in his hardly amiable doge.
That still has mostly to do with the messy business called "SpyGate". It's no longer mentioned hereabouts. We in these parts have managed to block it out after first minimizing it and then disdaining it. Because the despised Jets were heavily involved in the matter and have lately become thoroughly ridiculous it's become all the easier to dismiss. But everywhere else in the Republic of Football they have not forgotten, nor do they intend to forget, nor do they remotely wish to forget. There's even a recently written book that alleges Belichick continues to blatantly defy the rules.
The fact remains that Bill Belichick has not won the championship since his mischievous antics aimed at compromising the defensive schemes of opponents were uncovered. And this unfortunate coincidence has not gone unnoticed.
New Englanders may go on quibbling about how important all that seemingly silly spy stuff was and disputing whether it really made much difference. But to the rest of the football world it was cheap espionage; clearly dirty tricks amounting to "cheating", cut and dried, and a major violation of such thin but vital and increasingly endangered codes of honor necessarily governing this all too savage game.
Until Bill Belichick goes all the way again -- and perhaps up to three more times, at that -- the three championships he's won with the Patriots will remain suspect and perhaps -- in the minds of many, like it or not -- deserving of an asterisk.
That, of course, is not going to happen. Nor will he be denied his game's ultimate honors. Even if he never wins another football game -- this or any year -- he's a lead-pipe cinch for swift elevation to football's hall of fame as soon as he's eligible.
But if there are to be no asterisks in the record books or pantheons it will be darn hard to erase them in the court of public opinion where the stature of one and all are truly maintained in the end. Or not maintained, as the case may be.
Belichick needs to win over the skeptics. One would guess it's a matter of great concern to him. For he seems the sort to whom this stuff would be mighty important.
He must win again almost as if for the first time, and he needs to do so convincingly and in a way that -- all agree -- is entirely free of blemish, however faint. Winning this one this year is crucial to Bill Belichick. In fact it's bloody huge. The more so because it's so possible, so very tenable. Indeed, it's widely expected.
And if he does not win, does the question about the legitimacy, of his "genius" -- admittedly, far more the media's term than his -- grow and with a mighty quantum leap? The answer is, 'Yes'!
Football, once the lovely game of autumn, now peaks in the very dead of winter. It's not quite the same and certainly not as pretty. But it is rawer, more compelling, and more important. This year, more than ever, your Patriots are at the vortex.
Here's a stab at what to expect. In the AFC finals, try the Patriots against the Broncos in Denver. The elegant Peyton against Tom Terrific or, if you will, Arthur against Lancelot. I'd pay to see that one.
Over on the other side, one has the hunch the match-up of the Vikings and Packers in the first round will decide who makes it to the grand finale.
After that, who knows?