6 reasons the Patriots look like the team that started 10-0
The New England Patriots got off to an intimidating 10-0 start to the season this year, but after injuries decimated their lineup in the final six weeks of the season, they began to look quite pedestrian.
Tom Brady dispelled that notion on Saturday when they beat the Kansas City Chiefs -- who entered the game on an 11-game win streak -- by a 27-20 score in an AFC Divsional Round playoff game. There were some mishaps for New England, but there was also a fair share of the typical dominance that has plagued the rest of the NFL for more than a decade. Simply put, the Patriots showed why they ripped off 10 straight wins to start 2016. Here are six reasons why those Patriots are back.
1. Julian Edelman makes his triumphant return
After being sidelined since Nov. 15 with a broken foot, Edelman sprinted full speed onto the field for introductions, and he was hard to stop from that point on. Edelman's impact on the Patriots' offense was immediate and obvious; his first catch went for 11 yards on third-and-10 on the game's first series. He made another catch on that same drive to help the Patriots march 80 yards for a touchdown.
Edelman finished the game with 10 catches for 100 yards to lead all receivers in both receptions and yards. He also recorded eight first downs, the type of contribution which is of the utmost value for a Patriots team that converted just 29 of 86 third-downs in the final six games of the regular season. With Edelman back on Saturday, the Patriots were 6 for 12 on third down. But Edelman was not satisfied.
"I dropped some balls that I shouldn't have," Edelman said afterward. "You can't win ball games doing those kinds of things, so I'm personally going to have to get back and do a lot more."
2. Rob Gronkowski looks healthy, dominates
While Edelman was a first-down machine, Gronkowski was the go-to guy once again in the end zone. The tight end had two touchdowns in the game, which upped his postseason career touchdown total to eight, the most by a tight end in NFL history.
It is almost impossible to defend Gronkowski and it is even tougher to defend against him when Edelman is on the field. Gronkowski's seven catches (for 83 yards) in Saturday's game were the most he’s had since Edelman left the lineup. Now that Brady has his two favorite weapons back, defenses might want to watch out.
Special teams captain Matthew Slater went so far as to label Gronkowski one of the greatest of all time.
"It changes everything," Slater said of having Edelman and Gronkowski on the field together. "Julian Edelman is a very unique player in this league and the things that he's able to do, inside and outside route running-wise, poses a lot of problems. [Gronkowski], you're maybe looking at the tight end of definitely his generation, but may be the best tight end that's ever laced them up. Obviously that says a lot in itself."
3. A not-so-perfect-Brady is still a dominant Brady
Brady wasn’t sharp on Saturday. He missed receivers a few times and made a couple of questionable lobs under pressure. But a Brady who was not at his best still racked up 302 total yards and two touchdowns. In fact, Brady threw two touchdown passes for the 17th time in a postseason game, an NFL record.
Those numbers also came despite a total lack of a running game by the Patriots. New England recorded 17 first downs by passing the ball and just three off the rush. The Chiefs knew to expect the pass and defend against it, but they still couldn't stop Brady.
4. Defense injured, but not out
Although the concern for the Patriots coming into the game was injuries on offense, the defense also got banged up as the game went on. Linebackers Jamie Collins, Dont'a Hightower and Jerod Mayo all suffered injuries, but it didn't seem to make a difference. Chandler Jones overcame a week of off-field distractions to force a key fumble, and he sacked Alex Smith, who was also hit five times.
5. Patriots protect the ball
One of the hallmarks of a successful Patriots playoff team is a dominant edge when it comes to turnovers, and New England once again made no mistakes when it came to protecting the football.
6. Contributions from everyone
While the Patriots have their share of star players, New England also benefited from some key plays from some of their lesser-known personnel. Brady connected with James White for a 29-yard catch and run to extend a drive that ended with a Patriots field goal, giving the Patriots a 24-13 lead at the time.
Keshawn Martin had a 26-yard kickoff return in the third quarter and a 42-yard catch in the second quarter to move New England from its own 9-yard line to the Kansas City 49-yard line. The Patriots are at their best when they get these types of contributions from the less-mentioned names on the roster.