At this time of year, I typically will write about a struggling team or coach and the challenges that present themselves in a losing season. God knows there is plenty of material for that this year.
As they approach the midpoint of the season, the Pats are beginning to face the enviable task of answering questions like, "Do you guys think you can go undefeated?" or "Is this your best season ever?" They aren't exactly the kinds of questions that are going to upset anyone ... Except Bill Belichick, who knows that, win or lose, these kinds of questions are just distractions, things that will take away from your immediate focus of the next week's opponent. (See: "We're on to Cincinnati.")
The Patriots are coming off a Thursday night game against a hot Miami team that was the biggest win over the Dolphins (29 points) since 2010. They have swept the division this season and won every game by a touchdown or more. They are the only team in the NFL to score at least 28 points in each game, haven't turned the ball over in five of their seven outings and are playing as good as (or better than) the 2007 16-0 regular-season team. Brady is on pace for a 5,509-yard season, which would break Peyton Manning's single-season record from 2013.
First off, this organization has more experience than any other in the league at holding distractions -- good and bad (winning streaks, seasonal records, wins, Spygate, Deflategate, etc.) -- at arm's length. What possible situation could come up in the remainder of the season that Belichick and the Patriots have not already faced over the last 16 years he has been the head coach -- including losing Tom Brady in 2008, when they just happened to go 11-5.
Next, the sting of falling just short of a perfect 19-0 season in 2007 -- and consequently, missing out on being deemed the "greatest team of all time" -- still sticks with Bob Kraft, Belichick and Brady. They will tell you it doesn't, but they are lying. Aptly, it might not be what they are focused on right now, for they know that would serve no purpose. However, for a proud organization and two future Hall of Famers at coach and quarterback, you can't tell me that coming that close to historical brilliance -- and missing -- is not a motivating factor.
Belichick will be on constant alert for any telltale signs that his team is letting up. Stuff like ... An unusually sloppy locker room, players not bussing their trays in the dining hall, not as many game tape viewings (or downloads) as usual, meetings breaking up a little earlier or players skipping extra treatment. Basically, anything that says his players are buying into the hype. You do not want to be the guy Belichick goes off on for doing any of the above.
Legend has it that during a similar winning streak, Belichick mentor Bill Parcells was going out to practice with a member of the national media and pulled a roster out of his pocket and quipped, "Let's see who I am going to go off on today." Someone had to be the foil for Parcells to jump on, to use as an example of his winning team losing focus and reading the press clippings.
For Brady, a perfect run in 2015 would be the ultimate redemption of his summer of discontent. I lived through the 2000 season with Ray Lewis, after his offseason difficulties. Like Brady, he is a man possessed with the ability to block out anything that might distract him from his goal. I vividly remember Ray standing up in front of his team the first day of training camp and proclaiming, "Men, I need to go to a Super Bowl."
So, notwithstanding the playoffs, where might the Patriots trip up? Where are the inevitable "trap games"? The two worst teams the Patriots will face come in a two-week stretch in mid-December: at Houston in Week 14 and home vs. Tennessee the following week. In Foxborough, Brady is 60-4 over the last 64 regular-season games, so it is unlikely that Tennessee will be the one to hand the Patriots a loss. Given that record at home, even games against Washington, Buffalo and Philly will find the Patriots heavy favorites.
The road schedule is not an easy one, with games against the Giants, Broncos and Texans -- before finishing the season with back-to-back road games against the Jets and Dolphins. The last two games seem the most likely for the Patriots to falter. The Jets gave the Patriots all they could handle last week in Foxborough, and by Week 16, New England could have not only the division wrapped up, but home-field advantage throughout the playoffs -- how scary is that? -- and a first-week bye. The Patriots have lost their last two games in Miami, with that alone being enough motivation for them to end the season well.