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The ever-changing New England Patriots' offense

Bill Belichick's ability to adapt is his defining trait as a head coach. That includes changing the plan during a game, during a season and often during the team-building phase of the offseason.

They are a game plan organization, looking for smart, versatile players that can help the organization shapeshift on a weekly basis depending on their opponent. Belichick and Tom Brady don't stay married to a specific offensive philosophy for too long. Belichick repeatedly says he only worries about putting points on the board, no matter how it gets done. They adjust their offense to their personnel perhaps more than any team.

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The last three seasons are instructive. Brady led the league in percentage of passes completed to his tight ends in 2011 and 2012. He was dead last in the category this season, following Aaron Hernandez's arrest and Rob Gronkowski's season-ending injury.

Their recent transition to a power-running team is getting a lot of deserved attention. Brady has thrown only 75 passes over the last three weeks, the fewest of any three-game stretch in his career. The last time he completed so few passes in a three-game stretch was 2004, when the team won the Super Bowl behind clock-killing Corey Dillon.

Let's take a look back at how the Patriots have changed their offensive identity during the Belichick-Brady era:

2013: Landing on power running

This season represents New England's malleable approach more than any other. We can break down the season into three distinct phases. Early in the season, Tom Brady struggled more than he had since his first season as starter. He could not get on the same page with receivers. It was a below-average offense that struggled to overcome massive departures (Hernandez, Welker) and injuries (Gronkowski, everyone else.) The run game was solid throughout.

Things turned around dramatically Week 9 against Pittsburgh, not long after Gronkowski returned to the lineup. The Patriots figured out how to create yardage inside the hashmarks with Gronk, Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola. Brady was suddenly leading one of the best offenses in the league. The running game also picked up.

Since Gronkowski was lost for the season in Week 14, the Patriots have settled into their power-rushing approach. LeGarrette Blount, Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden represent the deepest and most versatile backfield in Belichick's tenure. This is still a top offense, just different. They have few options on the outside in the pass game, so they are playing to their strengths.

2012: Hurry up!

New England starts playing fast-break offense, helped along by one-word play calls. The emphasis on tempo leads to a lot of tired defenses that can't substitute. The Patriots lead the league in total plays, points and yards. Many teams around the NFL spend the subsequent offseason working on hurry-up approaches. It's not the first time the Patriots helped kickstart leaguewide trends.

2010-2011: Gronkowski and Hernandez

Everything changed in the 2010 NFL Draft. New England transitioned to a two-tight end offense under new coordinator Bill O'Brien. The approach made life difficult for opposing defensive coordinators who tried to match up to the Patriots. In the preseason, magazines had the Patriots possibly missing the playoffs, but New England wound up leading the league in points and got the No. 1 seed after the 2010 season. (They lost to the Jets.) By the end of 2011's AFC title season, many teams around the league were copying the Patriots' approach.

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2009: Transition year

In Brady's first year back from ACL surgery, they basically tried to recapture their '07 magic. Everything went through Wes Welker and Randy Moss. It was the rare Patriots offense that lost steam as the season went on, which meant change was coming.

2008: The Cassel year

This was the ultimate proof that Belichick (and coordinator Josh McDaniels) can adapt at the highest level. The Patriots managed to win 11 games and finished eighth in points with Matt Cassel at the helm. They led the league in first downs by playing a ball-control offense, with an emphasis on play action, and a four-pronged effective rushing attack, including guys like Sammy Morris and LaMont Jordan. There's an argument to be made that the Patriots were better on offense in '08 than in some of their early Super Bowl seasons.

2007: Star Wars

The ultimate proof that Brady was a fantasy football rock star waiting to happen. He just needed the weapons. The Patriots set every record imaginable while spreading defenses out and throwing like a college team. Randy Moss set the receiving touchdown record. Wes Welker led the league in receptions. Even Donte' Stallworth got some. The rest of the league wasn't ready for New England's bombs-away aggressiveness, especially early in the season. Spread offenses soon became the norm.

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2006: Talent craters

Brady seems to get more credit for the beginning of his career, when he won titles, but this is the season when Brady's career really took off. He's played far better from 2006 to 2013 than he did early in his career, which is a reminder of how many things have to come together to win a title.

Brady's best receivers in '06 were Reche Caldwell, Jabar Gaffney and Doug Gabriel. The run game, led by a declining Dillon and Laurence Maroney, was below average. And Brady still came a few minutes away from dragging the team to the Super Bowl.

2005: McDaniels shift

McDaniels wasn't officially the offensive coordinator until 2006, but the team's quest for a three-peat started a big change in philosophy. The Patriots were second in the NFL in pass attempts in '05, only one season after being 22nd. They had to throw because the defense and running game fell apart, much like '02. Early in Brady's career, the Patriots threw as much as they needed to. They didn't truly embrace a pass-first philosophy until they had more weapons.

2004: Dillon dominates

Perhaps this is the group most similar to the 2013 Patriots. Corey Dillon spearheaded an effective power-running game. The Patriots didn't throw the ball much, but they were far more efficient and explosive than when they threw in previous seasons. Deion Branch, David Patten and David Givens all took turns as favorite receivers, with Branch dominating the Super Bowl.

2003: Spreading the wealth

People think back on the '03 and '04 Patriots teams as juggernauts, but their offense battled for everything it got. There were no stars beyond Brady. The '03 team relied on winning insane, close games. Teams were never quite sure how the Patriots beat them. (Sound familiar?) The defense was first in points allowed, but the passing game only had one receiver over 550 yards -- Branch at 803. Four other players gained between 400 and 550 yards -- Kevin Faulk, Daniel Graham, David Givens and Troy Brown. Brady was below the league average in yards per attempt. No running back topped 650 yards rushing.

This was the height of New England's no stars, no frills, limited offense.

2002: Growing pains

Brady was forced to throw a ton in his second season as starter because the running game and defense both slumped. Brady made some personal strides, but he wasn't terribly efficient during a 9-7 year.

2001: Staying out of trouble

In Brady's first season as a starter, the offense was a run-heavy group that tried not to turn the ball over, allowing the defense to win games. Antowain Smith was the team's bell cow running back, while Brown enjoyed his only season as a true No. 1 option.

It's remarkable that the Patriots' title window has stayed open for 13 seasons, and Brady is still going strong. Belichick has kept that window open by never staying the same for long.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" interviews Carolina Panthers star Greg Hardy and looks ahead to the conference title games.

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