New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) spikes the ball after scoring a touchdown during the first half against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, Nov. 26, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
The first four weeks of the New England Patriots’ season may have been a mirage, or a necessary cleaning of blotches, or a rough patch best dismissed as fluke, or some combination thereof.
With the hindsight now available, it is clear that that initial, bumbling version of the Patriots was an impostor. The team that emerged is steamrolling anything in its path, which is to say it is the team widely expected at the start of the season.
After four games, the Patriots stood a fortunate 2-2 with a porous defense historic in its generosity toward opposing quarterback. New England’s defense played so poorly it became impossible not to question the preseason laurels heaped upon the Patriots. The earnest debates about whether the Patriots would go undefeated instantly became antiquated, and instead turned, rightfully at the time, to their viability as a Super Bowl defender.
Two months later, the notion of the Patriots as a superpower doesn’t seem silly after all.
The Patriots have become the juggernaut we expected, a complete transformation reinforced Sunday by their 35-17 dispatching of the Miami Dolphins. Since a 33-30 humbling at home to the Carolina Panthers in Week 4, the Patriots have reeled off seven consecutive victories behind the unsurprising brilliance of Tom Brady and the surprising stinginess of their defense.
The Patriots will clinch their ninth consecutive AFC East title, and 13th in 14 years, soon, probably in two weeks. They have become the runaway favorite, in a terrible conference, to reach their sixth consecutive AFC championship game and to win the conference for the eighth time in 16 years.
New England’s astonishing consistency and the arc of its season illustrate the same two points. One is obvious: Brady is their quarterback. The other is more layered, but maybe just as important: When they have a problem, Bill Belichick diagnoses it, and they get it fixed.
In September, the Patriots’ defense faced a crisis. In the first four games of the year, the Patriots allowed 42, 20, 33 and 33 points, surrendering at least 300 yards to every opposing quarterback. Cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a big-money free agent addition, experienced a series of catastrophic communication breakdowns. The pass rush was non-existent.
On the fly, Belichick and longtime defensive coordinator Matt Patricia turned the unit into a strength. The Patriots have not allowed more than 17 points in a game since the Panthers scored 33, and they have yielded 13.1 per game during their seven-game winning streak — including the seven the Dolphins scored on defense, after a botched snap. Gilmore sat out four weeks with an injury, but on Sunday he intercepted a pass in the end zone, and the Patriots had seven sacks.
When almost any other team has such a clear deficiency, it can sink its season. Belichick and the Patriots have the experience, knowledge and wherewithal to clean it up. Belichick’s trusted assistants — offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, special teams coordinator Joe Judge, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, Patricia and others — have been together so long, they understand how to work with one another and how to patch over any holes that develop.
This season, it means the Patriots are decimating teams as anticipated. The Patriots have outscored opponents by 104 points during the winning streak, or about two touchdowns per game. Running back Rex Burkhead, finally healthy, is giving Brady a receiving option out of the backfield and toughness near the goal line. Brandin Cooks, who caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown Sunday, is one of the most dangerous and productive receivers in the NFL. Dion Lewis rushed for 112 yards, flashing the ability he always has when at full health. The Patriots, again, have the highest-scoring offense in the NFL, having adjusted to losing Julian Edelman for the season. They can advance the ball and score in so many ways it is difficult to envision a defense shutting them down.
New England is a machine, same as it ever was. It may have been easy to doubt the Patriots at the start of the season, but we should have known how foolish that was.