FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Two years ago, following a 2009 campaign that saw the New England Patriots lose a home playoff game to the Baltimore Ravens, I was talking with Bill Belichick about his team. The Patriots coach kept hammering home one conclusion: "I need to make this team tougher and any player we bring in here must be really tough."
Just two seasons removed from nearly achieving absolute perfection, the Patriots were in the midst of great change. New England revamped much of its roster in the 2009 season, starting with a trade of Pro Bowl defensive lineman Richard Seymour a week before the season opener. But those changes failed to produce the kind of players Belichick desired, and after the playoff loss he set out to fully redesign his team around toughness.
Yesterday, that goal became a reality. Belichick now has a tough-minded team that will not quit, and certainly won't "fade away when they get punched in the mouth," as Baltimore running back Ricky Williams claimed early last week. This team's newfound grittiness was on full display against the Ravens, as it won a game without star quarterback Tom Brady playing like a star. Brady himself admitted after the game he played "horrible," but his teammates showed the toughness to keep competing when things were not going well.
Brady was off all game, and it wasn't because of constant pressure from the Ravens' defensive front. He had time to make the throws, but the ball just wasn't coming out of his hand smoothly and he continually missed open receivers running down the field. This was not the Tom Brady of a week ago, when he torched the Broncos with six touchdown passes. The Ravens' defense does deserve credit, though, forcing turnovers and dominating the Patriots in the red zone -- the classic recipe to beat New England. When a defense holds Brady to a 57.5 quarterback rating, it should win. However, this Patriots team proved yesterday it can win without Brady being Brady. These Pats have the toughness to keep fighting and the defense is better than the numbers indicate.
People have questioned New England's defense all season long. The unit has given up chunks of yards through the air and has generally been seen as the step child to the Patriots' potent offense. In New England's three losses this season, the offense failed to dominate the game and the defense couldn't pick up the slack. Yesterday, while the Patriots allowed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to gain yards through the air, they stepped up and made plays in the clutch, helping guide New England to its fifth Super Bowl appearance in the last 11 seasons.
Clearly, toughness is not the only requirement to being a good team. Talent is essential to success in the NFL, and the Patriots' front seven on defense are as underrated as they are talented. With defensive tackle Vince Wilfork playing the best football of his career, two physical outside linebackers (Mark Anderson and Rob Ninkovich) setting the edge and two big inside 'backers (Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes) wreaking havoc, the Patriots are hard to move. Everyone is tough-minded, physical and competitive. They have improved throughout the course of the season and appear to be peaking at just the right time. These 2011 Patriots are coming together as a band of brothers, much like the 2001 team that began this current New England dynasty.
There is a sign that hangs in the Patriots' office that describes mental toughness as, "Putting the team first when everything is not perfect for you." New England put this on display in a key sequence on Sunday, when Danny Woodhead lost a fumble on a kick return. Just prior to this play, the Patriots had allowed the Ravens to control the clock for over five minutes and take a 17-16 lead late in the third quarter. After this quick change of possession, the Ravens suddenly had the ball at the Patriots' 11, with a chance to take full control of the game with a touchdown. However, the defense responded in a big way, holding the Ravens to three points. This stop required the willingness to fight through adversity, which has become a trademark of the new Patriots.
In 2009, this team would have folded, just like it did when Ray Rice took the first play of that season's divisional playoff game for a touchdown. The '09 Patriots never recovered, never showed the mental toughness to keep fighting. Belichick knew that had to change, and it has.
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots will face the only team to beat them at home this season: the New York Giants. Back in Week 9, the Giants used the fact that they were significant underdogs heading into Gillette stadium. Tom Coughlin motivated his team all week with the classic "No one thinks we have a chance" battle cry. The G-Men responded with a thrilling 24-20 win in the waning seconds.
Now we get to watch the rematch in Super Bowl XLVI, four years after New York ruined New England's run for perfection on the big stage.
In their current playoff run, the Giants have knocked off the NFC's Nos. 1 and 2 seeds after losing to both teams during the regular season. One big reason: New York is finally healthy. The Giants present a deadly combination with a great defensive line, excellent skill players and a red-hot quarterback.
However, something tells me the Patriots will be ready for the rematch. Brady will be better, and the team will to rise to the challenges that await them in Indy because this has truly become a tough-minded squad.
Things I Loved
» I loved how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tried to hire Oregon coach Chip Kelly. Late Sunday night, it sounded like Kelly and the Bucs were very close to a deal. But Monday morning, Kelly apparently had a change of heart and decided to remain at Oregon. It is always difficult to get a college coach to leave. Part of it is because of the ties to the school and another part is because of the total control most every college coach has to run his program. But I love how the Bucs did in fact think outside the box to try and gain Kelly's services. They fell short, but I love the effort.
» I loved how Joe Flacco played and shut up his critics who believe he is the reason the Ravens can't get to the Super Bowl. The best quarterback on the field in Foxborough was Flacco, not Brady. Flacco made every tough throw and led his team down the field to kick a game-tying field goal. Flacco had to listen to his own teammates, specifically safety Ed Reed, talk about his failures and put the burden of winning on his shoulders. He accepted it and delivered. The Ravens leave Foxborough devastated by a tough loss, but they should find comfort in the fact they have a big-time passer who is capable of out-dueling Tom Brady in the biggest game of the year. The future for Joe Flacco is brighter than ever.
» I loved how the Giants defense limited the 49ers from making plays to their receivers on the outside. They also destroyed San Francisco on third down, only allowing one conversion in 13 attempts. Michael Crabtree, the 49ers' best receiver, had just one catch for three yards. The Giants were able to limit the amount of time the Niners had the ball, thus never allowing them to control the game. As good as the Niners' defense played, so did the Giants when it really mattered.
Things I Hated
» I hated that the Ravens had to suffer a painful loss as a result of mistakes in the kicking game. The missed field goal by Billy Cundiff was tough to fathom, but perhaps the Ravens should have called a timeout there to allow Cundiff to not feel hurried. The ball was snapped with just one tick on the play clock, and the kick seemed rushed. Cundiff might have missed the kick regardless, but from my vantage point, he seemed really quick with his footwork.
» I hated that San Francisco's normal return man Ted Ginn was injured. Kyle Williams was pressed into return duty and his two fumbles resulted in 10 Giant points. Williams will be the goat for the 49ers, but never is just one player the reason a team loses. The Niners had their chances to win in regulation and overtime but could not drive the ball into David Akers' field-goal range. Their inability to make a critical play is as much of a reason they failed to win as the two turnovers.
» I really hated that Crabtree failed to make a play in the game. Crabtree held out as a rookie in 2009 because he felt he was slighted in the draft and should have been the first receiver off the board (as opposed to Darrius Heyward-Bey). Yet Crabtree has not played well as a 49er and his lack of production has hurt the team. Again, Williams will be the most publicized reason the 49ers lost, but for me Crabtree not being productive was just as much to blame.
Things on my mind
» I really wish the league would play one conference championship Sunday night and the other one Monday night. These games are too good to share the same stage.
» Had Cundiff not missed, the Patriots would be kicking themselves for not converting the third-and-4 right after the two-minute warning. Normally the Patriots put the game out of reach in those situations.
» John Harbaugh made the right decision when he passed on a 50-yard kick to go for it on fourth-and-6 late in the game. His chances of making that kick were worse than his chances of coverting the down. Most of the game, Flacco made incredible throws on pivotal downs.
» Undrafted cornerback Sterling Moore made the play of the game, stripping the ball from Ravens receiver Lee Evans in the end zone right before the missed field goal. Moore has been really good for New England the past month.
Follow Michael Lombardi on Twitter @michaelombardi