Watch CBS News

Hurley: Equal Reason For Concern, Optimism Regarding Patriots' Super Bowl Chances

BOSTON (CBS) -- The cold winter air has finally reached the Northeast, and that means just one thing: It is officially football season in New England.

Say what you will about the remarkable run of regular-season success that Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots have been able to sustain since the turn of the century -- and to be sure, it has been remarkable -- but happy Novembers and Decembers tend to lose their cachet when they are so often followed by disappointing Januarys and Februarys.

And for the Patriots, all too many calendar years have gotten off to unpleasant beginnings for the past decade. Fans who witnessed the same head coach and silver helmets rattle off three Super Bowls in four seasons are growing tired of a regular-season juggernaut that now seems to always come up short in the playoffs.

For that, they are right. You can ask the 2007 Giants, 2010 Packers or 2012 Ravens -- all of whom went 10-6 in their respective regular seasons -- if they would have preferred winning 12 or 13 games from September through December instead of hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. You can probably assume what their answer would be.

But overall, it's far too simplistic to say "Team X has been bad in the playoffs for 10 years." The fact is, history has been kind to those three Super Bowl-winning teams. They are looked back upon now 13, 11 and 10 years later as some of the greatest teams ever assembled, having an all-time coach, an embarrassment of riches on defense, a budding Hall of Famer at quarterback and a number of bit players on offense who could seemingly do no wrong.

But the reality is, just like most any team, those Patriots squads had their warts. If we're being honest, they were lucky to have won even one Super Bowl, let alone three.

That's not a knock on them to discredit their greatness. After all, the only thing that need be remembered is which team is left standing at the end of every season. It is merely an admission that for any team to win a championship in the NFL, it takes a great deal of good fortune.

The 2011 Giants were lucky that Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress was ruled to have been stopped in San Francisco, one of the worst calls these eyes have ever seen. The 2010 Packers were lucky that the Bears had to trot out a pair of backup QBs in the conference championship. The 2009 Saints were lucky that Brett Favre experienced the largest brain fart of his entire 20-year career. They were equally lucky to have been awarded possession following a Super Bowl onside kick, after which a multiple-minute pig pile ensued. And that's only looking back over the last few years.

Likewise, the Patriots that won their Super Bowls had many fortunate breaks along the way. The Snow Bowl alone had a handful. To begin with, there was the snow itself, which instantly changed the game plan of Jon Gruden's Raiders. Then, of course, Walt Coleman gave Tom Brady credit for having his arm moving forward, and the referee was later bailed out by the existence of the then-little-known tuck rule. Adam Vinatieri, as great as he is, is probably able to hit the 45-yard game-tying field goal on a snow-covered field ... what, three out of 10 times? There was Tom Brady's fourth-down pass in overtime which might have been intended for Jermaine Wiggins but was instead caught by David Patten to keep alive the game-winning drive. If any one of those events goes the other way, the Patriots' 2001 season ends after one playoff game. There would be no Super Bowl, and who knows what the future would have brought?

In 2003, Drew Bennett dropped a pass at Gillette that would have given the Titans a chance to win and at worst a chip-shot field goal attempt to force overtime in the divisional round. That postseason, too, could have just as easily ended after one game. Instead, John Kasay sent a kickoff out of bounds a few weeks later in Houston to help gift wrap the franchise's second Super Bowl in three years.

The following year, the Patriots admittedly did not rely too much on luck ... though it certainly didn't hurt that Donovan McNabb was too out of shape to be able to run a no-huddle offense late in what turned out to be a closer Super Bowl.

On the flip side of the good fortune, some years the luck just turns. The Patriots were unlucky in 2005 when Asante Samuel got called for a phantom pass interference penalty on Ashley Lelie in the end zone. They were unlucky when officials couldn't draw a straight line to see that Champ Bailey's fumble by necessity had to have gone through the end zone and therefore should have been a touchback, giving the ball back to the Patriots instead of a first-and-goal from the 1-yard line for Denver.

The 2007 Helmet Catch may have been the all-time luckiest moment in sports (or unluckiest, depending on your perspective), but really, the Patriots might have already used up all of their allotted luck for that one season. LaDainian Tomlinson and Philip Rivers both tearing their knees and being unwilling/unable to play to their potential in an AFC Championship Game in which the undefeated Patriots played arguably their worst game of the season? That simply does not happen.

The 2011 season would have ended in glory, but Wes Welker's untimely drop changed that. The Patriots nevertheless had a chance to win the game on what would have been the most unbelievable Hail  Mary in football history, but the luck needed to complete such a pass was simply not there.

The point of this long, winding trip down memory lane is to put the current outlook on the Patriots in context. To be sure, they are the best, most complete team in their conference. They should earn a trip back to the Super Bowl. But in the NFL, the things that should happen rarely do. Innumerable teams throughout history can attest to that, especially those that have been dispatched by the Patriots. The '01 Raiders still feel like they should have gone on to face Pittsburgh. The '03 Titans likely feel they deserved a shot at the Colts. The '11 Ravens were one Lee Evans drop, one John Harbaugh game management flub, and one Billy Cundiff shank job away from getting to the Super Bowl. (Though they were the rare team to be able to atone for that the following season.)

So as the Patriots enter the postseason this year, there are some generic concerns about the team. Their first-half offense has been lacking. Their offensive line depth is non-existent. There's not a No. 1 running back. The pass rush could probably be a little bit better. Brandon Browner could commit a costly penalty. These issues may prove costly or imaginary. Like so many other points of discussion over the years, it's most likely they'll be forgotten within a month's time.

What will actually transpire, and what will actually determine the outcome of the season is impossible to predict. All that can be known at this point in time is that the Patriots have put themselves in the best position possible to get back to the Super Bowl. For them to emerge holding the Lombardi after facing a superior opponent like Seattle or, to a lesser extent, Green Bay would require the Patriots to play their absolute best. But as history has shown, to really get over the hump and end a decade of disappointment, they'd also need a healthy dose of good luck.

Some might say they're overdue.

Read more from Michael Hurley by clicking here, or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.


View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.