Feb 1, 2017; Houston, TX, USA; New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick during a press conference at the JW Marriott Galleria in preparation for Super Bowl LI. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
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For the seventh time in the Brady-Belichick era, the New England Patriots are off to the Super Bowl. Here are five key moments from the season.
It was a more eventful season than most for the New England Patriots with the pre-training camp courthouse drama to in season injury issues. Here are five key moments from this season.
1) Opening Night Win in Arizona
For the first time in fifteen years, somebody other than Tom Brady was going to be the starting quarterback in the season opener. It was a strange feeling going into Sunday Night Football as there was no real idea of what to expect from Jimmy Garoppolo. With Brady you could assume that there was going to be at least some level of productivity but there was no knowledge base for Garoppolo. All fans had seen him in the regular season was in some mop up action in a few different games.
On his opening drive, Garoppolo missed on his first throw before hitting his next four passes, finishing the drive off with a perfect 37-yard pass to Chris Hogan down the left sideline. Overall it was a solid performance with a few errors from the first time starter, including losing the ball on a Markus Golden strip sack, but he finished on a high note, driving the Patriots into position for what turned out to be the game-winning field goal.
While it was not the prettiest performance, and given Arizona’s record they were not the NFC Championship team of 2015 but it was a great sign of the mental toughness this team showed throughout the year. Starting the season off with a win on the road in primetime cannot be understated in terms of giving the team confidence in their ability to function without their offensive leader.
Oct 9, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) during warmups before the game against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium. The Patriots won 33-13. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
2) The Return of the Brady
Week 5 saw the team travel to Cleveland in Tom Brady’s return to the lineup from his suspension. Coming off a shutout loss at home to Buffalo the fans were eager to see the team turn things around and get back on the winning track.
One thing Brady has done over the years is make sure that no matter what his physical state, he was out on the field on Sundays (or Thursdays… or Mondays). The past two weeks had been dominated by talk over the toughness of his replacements and whatever the fans thought of that issue, their regular guy was back after a month off.
Any concerns over some rust where quickly removed as Brady expertly dissected the Browns defense in a clinic, throwing three touchdowns to Martellus Bennett in a 400-yard day. While the day was not perfect for the offense, it was a nice reminder of the difference when Brady is running the show compared to another player. It was also a game that provided glimpses of what the defense could be as they knocked out Cody Kessler on a big hit that generated a safety for the team. With that win the team moved to 4-1 and it was on to Cincinnati.
Sep 22, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots outside linebacker Jamie Collins (91) and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels celebrate a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
3) Jamie Collins Traded
So much for the hopes of a calm and relaxing bye week. Bill Belichick was working the trade machine throughout October, bringing in Kyle Van Noy to a linebackers group that seemingly had plenty of numbers. The best way to address that glut of linebackers was to take one out of the equation and it was one of the budding superstars in Jamie Collins that was shipped out for a low price.
It brought out the fun part of the Boston sports media with some making their usual claims that Bill Belichick was losing his mind and making a questionable decision that was going to mess up the team’s Super Bowl hopes.
On the other side, there were plenty of questions about Collins’ work ethic and commitment to the team, with Michael Lombardi leading that charge. While nobody will know for certain what made this trade happen, it did and everybody had their chance to voice their opinion.
From there, the defense suffered an embarrassing beating at the hands of Russell Wilson before seemingly turning a corner and finding ways to make bad offenses look bad, which is a step up over some other seasons where Tyler Thigpen was posting Drew Brees level numbers.
Dec 12, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) walks off the field after a game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium. The Patriots won 30-23. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports
4) Back to Back Wins against Baltimore and Denver
Last season, the Patriots stumbled into the playoffs, losing four of their last six games to some lowly opposition. This time around, Bill Belichick made sure that there would be no letdown as they faced an incredibly tough December stretch with a Monday home game against Baltimore before facing Denver in Denver six days later. Both opponents still held faint playoff hopes and would be doing everything in their power to keep their season alive.
Baltimore has long been talked about as the team that comes to Gillette Stadium with no fear of the venue or the opponent. A final score of 30-23 might reflect another close battel between the Patriots and Ravens but it was far from it with the Patriots jumping out to an early lead and having the opportunity to put the game away before Brady threw his second interception of the season. Still leading by 16-3 at halftime, the Patriots let Baltimore back in the game on the back of a couple of unfortunate special teams mistakes. With the Ravens threatening to mount a comeback, Brady stepped up and capitalized on a blown coverage, hitting Chris Hogan for a 79-yard touchdown pass to put the game out of reach.
Up next was a trip to the house of horrors in Denver and they surprisingly took the ball out of Brady’s hands, instead asking Dion Lewis and the defense to handle the Broncos. Brady only threw for 188 yards and did not get the ball into the end zone, instead it was Lewis who helped keep the game moving on a frigid evening and the Patriots left with an all-important victory.
Jan 1, 2017; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) leads his team out of the tunnel before an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium. The Patriots won 35-14. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
5) Securing Homefield Advantage in Miami
It might not have been the most monumental of victories, but Week 17 brought about another win in a venue where the team has struggled to get them. A comfortable 35-14 win was done thanks to a fast start which yielded a 20-0 lead before the Dolphins, playing for pride more than anything else, had found their footing.
Matt Moore, in for the injured Ryan Tannehill began to get himself going, finding holes in the Patriots’ zone coverage to build two touchdown drives to make it a game once again. Then came one of the plays that this season will be remembered by as Julian Edelman took a quick pass and turned it into a long touchdown reception with a little help from recent acquisition Michael Floyd. His crushing block several highlight clips that were shared to death on social media.
Capping their impressive turnaround since the Seattle thumping, the defense made the final big play of the regular season with Devin McCourty forcing a fumble which Shea McClellin returned deep into Miami territory. From there it was once final touchdown and the Patriots sealed home field advantage in the playoffs once again.