The New England Patriots have Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and a 15-3 record. They are back in a Super Bowl rematch with the New York Giants. Therefore, they must be as strong as ever. Right? Wrong.
This installment of the Patriots dynasty has been built on an extremely weak foundation compared to their Super Bowl seasons past. Their 2011 schedule featured only three teams that made this year’s playoffs — the Giants, Steelers, and Broncos — and they lost two of those games. And frankly, beating Tim Tebow’s Broncos doesn’t have quite the cachet that it used to. Not even the second time.
So their one quality win on the year came last week against the Baltimore Ravens, a game in which Brady “sucked,” by his own admission. A game that they barely escaped. This lack of schedule strength is in marked contrast to their past Super Bowl runs:
2007: The 16-0 Pats faced six playoff teams — the Chargers, Cowboys, Redskins, Colts, Steelers and Giants — and faced another 10-win team in Cleveland, and beat them all.
2004: The 14-2 Pats faced five playoff teams — the Colts, Seahawks, Jets (twice) and Steelers — losing only to 15-1 Pittsburgh. They would avenge that loss in the conference championship.
2003: The 14-2 Pats faced five playoff teams — the Eagles, Titans, Broncos, Cowboys and Colts — and beat them all. They beat the 10-win Dolphins twice more for good measure.
2001: The 11-5 Pats faced five playoff teams — the Jets (twice), Dolphins (twice), and Rams — losing the first three, then winning the last two as they built a season-ending six-game winning streak.
That 2001 team comes closest to matching the current one in terms of weakness against a weak schedule. But the ’01 Patriots squad was a very different team from the Pats dynasty to come, though. That was Tom Brady’s first year as a starter, and Belichick’s team leaned heavily on Antowain Smith (an 1100-yard rusher) and defense (6th in points allowed) to win games. This year’s team doesn’t have either, but it does have Brady in his prime.
Of course, this year’s Giants have a dirty little secret also: they haven’t played anyone either. Eli Manning’s team has faced only four playoff opponents in the regular season — the Patriots, 49ers, Saints and Packers — and lost three of those contests.
The only team they beat? The Pats.
In other words, this might be one of those “throw out the record books” games. And as much fun as we’re having with the rematch, maybe there was a shred of truth in Baltimore linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo’s whiny proclamation that this was the “UnSuper Bowl.”