(Brady photo courtesy of the New England Patriots)
(Tannehill photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
With Tom Brady sidelined the first four games of the season, the expectation is that, for the first time in over a decade, the AFC East is wide open and that a vulnerable New England can be caught.
Maybe. But I’m not buying it.
And neither are my colleagues, Ron Borges and Rick Gosselin – both of whom choose New England to win the division. Reason: Simple. It’s the AFC East, and as long as Tom Brady finishes a season on his feet, everyone else plays for second.
You can look it up. Only once in Brady’s career have the Patriots not won the division title when he finished the season and that was 2002 … when they tied for first but lost the tiebreaker to the New York Jets. The 12 other seasons he’s been healthy it’s a game of solitaire.
Yeah, I know what Rex Ryan says in Buffalo. I know the Jets believe they have a defense to rival the Pentagon. And I know Ndamukong Suh just joined a Miami team that thinks this is its year. And that’s great. But those teams don’t have what New England does.
Tom Brady and Bill Belichick.
OK, so Brady misses four games. Big deal. He plays the other 12, and last time I checked New England won the division by no fewer than three games each of the past five seasons – including a five-game spread in 2011-12.
So there’s a lot of ground to make up, people.
Second, New England often starts slowly. A year ago, the Patriots dropped two of their first four, provoking a “sky is falling” response and irate fans to call for Brady's benching. He didn't happen, of course, but this did: New England went on to win 10 of its next 11 before running the table in the playoffs.
And that’s where Belichick comes in. He’s a believer in strong finishes; not fast starts. In 2012, for instance, the Patriots dropped two of their first three, and the AFC East braced for a shakeup. Except there wasn’t one. New England won 11 of its next 13 and reached the conference championship game.
The year before the Patriots lost one of their first three, which isn’t a big deal, but it is when you finish 13-3 and go to the Super Bowl. Then there was 2010 when they lost one of their first two … again, nothing unusual – until you realize they lost only once the rest of the regular season.
Bottom line: It’s not extraordinary for New England to have the hiccups early. But that’s not where championships are won and lost. November and December is, and there’s no one better down the stretch.
Third, look how the Patriots respond to adversity. After they were turned in for “Spygate” in 2007, they lapped the field – winning their next 17 starts. But it wasn’t just that they won; it’s how they won. They hammered opponents, beating the six poor saps that followed that season-opener by an average … an average … of 26.5 points, with nobody closer than 17.
OK, so they lost the only game that mattered, Super Bowl XLII. Hey, it happens. Someone’s got to win, and someone has to lose. Only the Patriots lost only once in 18 games after “Spygate.”
Now, fast forward to “Deflategate,” and tell me what happened after deflated footballs were removed at halftime of the 2014 AFC championship game? Uh-huh, the Patriots outscored Indianapolis 28-0, and Brady was 12 for 14, with two touchdowns.
Now tell me what happened two weeks later in Super Bowl XLIX. Brady not only rallied the Patriots from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit; he put up more points (14) in the final period vs. Seattle than the Seahawks’ previous eight opponents (13).
But that’s not all: He was 13 for 15 in the last period, with two touchdowns – including 8-for-8 on the game-winning drive.
I think you get the idea. When the Patriots have been faulted for wrongdoing, they pay their fines, forfeit their draft picks, then wallop their opponents.
Look, I know Buffalo is improved and coming off a winning season for the first time in years. I also know the Jets hurt New England with the addition of Darrelle Revis and should have one of the top pass defenses in the league. And I know Miami thinks that, with Suh and an improved Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, it has all the pieces in place to make a run at the top.
Except they’re forgetting something: They don’t have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, and New England does. Simple as that.
Nope, I don’t care that Brady misses the first quarter of the season; I care that he plays the last three. Because history tells us what the rest of the AFC East either can’t or won’t acknowledge. And that’s this: When he finishes the year on the field, you’re finished.