By Sam McPherson
On the surface, the 2016 season looks like it's been a breeze for the New England Patriots, with a 14-2 record, the top scoring defense in the NFL and two home playoff victories by an average of 18.5 points each. However, digging a little deeper reveals just how many challenges the New England organization overcame this year on its way to the franchise's seventh Super Bowl appearance under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.
The Patriots overcame the four-game suspension for Brady to start the season, winning three games with inexperienced QBs, and New England has emerged victorious in nine straight games since dropping a mid-November decision at home to the Seahawks. Belichick and Brady are favored to win a fifth Super Bowl, which would be a record for a coach and a quarterback, respectively. Standing in their way are the Atlanta Falcons, but before game time on Sunday in Houston, it is necessary to understand just how the Patriots got to the Super Bowl this time around.
The Sunday Night Football Win In Week 1 Was Huge
On the road against the Arizona Cardinals with a backup QB to start the season didn't look promising for New England. Most experts just assumed the Patriots would lose to the defending NFC West champions. But New England jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter behind QB Jimmy Garoppolo's touchdown pass to WR Chris Hogan, and the Cardinals weren't able to recover until the fourth quarter when they took a one-point lead. However, Garoppolo gained 62 yards through the air on a six-minute drive that ended in the go-ahead field goal by kick Stephen Gostkowski.
The Pats caught a huge break when Arizona K Chandler Catanzaro missed a 47-yard FG attempt in the final minute, as New England did more than just win a football game. The Patriots served the rest of the league notice that they could win without Brady, and New England went on to win its next two games at home to start the season 3-0. It's very possible that the Pats might have suffered a crisis of confidence if Catanzaro hits that field goal in Week 1, and the 3-0 start could have turned into a 1-2 start. We might not be having this conversation today, in fact.
Dominating Pittsburgh On The Road In Week 7 Served Notice To The AFC
New England has owned Pittsburgh this century, and in 2016, the Patriots beat the Steelers twice—including in the AFC Championship Game just last week. But the regular-season win in Pittsburgh definitely put New England atop the AFC hierarchy. Brady had returned from his suspension to lead his team to wins over the struggling Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals. Brady left no doubt he could still play at a high level, despite the suspension and his advanced age (39). He posted a 124.2 QB rating for the game, throwing for 222 yards and two TDs as the Pats won easily, 27-16.
The victory pushed New England's record to 6-1, and with other power teams in the conference struggling, the Patriots became clear favorites to earn home-field advantage for the postseason. Brady's perfect throw to tight end Rob Gronkowski for a third-quarter TD broke the game open, and the New England defense did the rest. If Pittsburgh had won this game, it's possible the AFC title tilt would have been played at Heinz Field instead, and perhaps that could have derailed New England's Super Bowl hopes.
Week 15 Victory In Denver Erased Doubts After 2015 Postseason Loss
After 14 weeks of the regular season, the Pats had the best record (11-2) in the conference, but the Kansas City Chiefs (10-3) and the Oakland Raiders (10-3) weren't far behind. New England had no room for error, even as they prepared to face the fading Denver Broncos (8-5) in Week 15 on the road. Denver still possessed a dangerous defense, one that defeated the Pats in January 2016 with a Super Bowl 50 berth on the line. It was a defensive battle, as New England won the game, 16-3, proving it didn't need to score a lot to win a close game over a good team away from Gillette Stadium.
Running back LeGarrette Blount scored the game's only TD in the second quarter to give the Pats a 10-3 lead, and once again, the New England defense did the rest: The Broncos managed only 58 rushing yards while turning the ball over three times. This impressive road win wiped out the bad memories of the 2015 postseason. The road to the Super Bowl would come through Foxborough, Massachusetts in January 2017.
Postseason Focus Pays Off With Another Super Bowl Opportunity
All New England had to do on its way through the AFC playoffs was win two regular-season rematches against fellow conference division winners from Houston and Pittsburgh. The Patriots had lost at home in the playoffs before, but there was no way it was happening this season. In Week 3, New England had blanked Houston, 27-0, in Foxborough, but in the divisional round, the Pats struggled just enough to keep the game too close for comfort. A strong second half buried the Texans as New England won, 34-16, but the erratic performance gave Belichick and Brady just the fuel they needed to ensure the Steelers would not be as lucky.
The Pats jumped all over Pittsburgh this time, building a 33-9 lead by the end of the third quarter, and New England was on its way to another Super Bowl. The road to championships are rarely paved smoothly, and title teams always overcome some adversity to reach their destination. These 2016 New England Patriots are no different, and the Atlanta Falcons surely have taken notice of the road to the Super Bowl for the AFC champions.
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