Patriots remain NFL's standard since 2001
The franchise quarterback is receiving shoddy protection from an injury-disrupted offensive line. The premier tight end was injured and out. The defense is underperforming. The star-power talent level looks to be down.
One of the NFL's elite franchises just isn't the same.
The Steelers at 2-5?
No, the New England Patriots at 6-2.
When the Steelers travel to Foxborough, Mass., on Sunday for their 10th game against the Patriots since Tom Brady arrived, they'll tote with them an enviable 128-70-1 (.646) record since 2001.
“Every team in this league would take their record, with two Super Bowls and an appearance,” said former longtime NFL general manager Charley Casserly. “Not many teams have done better than that. You can count them on one hand, and you can't fill a hand.”
But you can count on the Patriots to be the NFL's one slump-proof team. They're an even-better 152-48 (.760) since 2001, and their 2013 season alone appears to defy logic.
This isn't close to being New England's best team over that enviable span. In fact, it's probably one of the worst, yet they lead the AFC East by two games.
Brady, the only active three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, began the season with his talented 2012 receiving cast stripped away. Aaron Hernandez was in jail. Rob Gronkowski was injured and out. The consistent Wes Welker was in Denver.
Brady appears to be fighting through a right-hand injury. His offensive line has contributed to his 23 sacks, only four fewer than last season's total. The offense ranks an uncharacteristically low 18th, and an inconsistent defense is 19th.
But for troubles that appear to mirror those of the Steelers, who began the season 0-4, the Patriots are a game better at midseason than they were a year ago, when they were 5-3 before finishing 12-4.
“Their team has gone through adversity themselves but have found a way to win,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Patriots' never-wavering approach, Casserly said, is what has helped them succeed.
“Obviously, Brady is a tremendous quarterback, (Bill) Belichick is a great coach, and they've been able to do fairly well in the draft — well enough to keep them stable,” said Casserly, the former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans GM and an NFL Network analyst. “They've had virtually no coaching turnover, which I think helps them. Even when they've had it, it's no big deal because they seem to be seamless when they lose coaches. That's something that goes back again to Belichick.”
It always seems to go back to Belichick, who, by beating the Dolphins, 27-17, last week, joined Don Shula and George Halas as the only NFL coaches to be 100 games over .500.
This Patriots team, Belichick said, has persevered by making plays when needed, such as the game-winning drive against the New Orleans Saints that required just one minute of clock time.
“The bottom line it comes back to is the players have been able to, most of the time, make the plays that they needed to make at the end of games that were critical plays that determined the outcome,” Belichick said. “We win because our players make good plays, make good decisions.”
So do the people above them.
“They've been solid in personnel, and the one thing they've done is acquire multiple draft picks,” Casserly said. “By trading back and continually having multiple picks, they've been able to fortify themselves. I don't think they draft better than a lot of teams; they've just had more picks to work with. That's a strategy and a credit to them. It's no accident. They had to create them. That's the difference.”
Since 2009, for example, the Steelers drafted nine current starters and one Pro Bowl player, injured center Maurkice Pouncey.
But the Patriots have loaded up by stockpiling higher-round picks. They had two second-rounders and two third-rounders this year. Last year they had two first-rounders. They had two second-rounders and two third-rounders in 2011 and four picks in the top two rounds in 2010. In 2009, they had four second-rounders.
The players acquired during that time include Gronkowski (and the troubled Hernandez), safety Devin McCourty and linebacker Brandon Spikes in 2010; left tackle Nate Solder and running back Stevan Ridley in 2011; defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and safety Tavon Wilson in 2012; and two defensive starters, lineman Joe Vellano and linebacker Jamie Collins, plus receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson last spring. Receiver Julian Edelman and cornerback Alfonzo Dennard were seventh-round steals.
The Patriots also manage the salary cap as well as any team, especially those with an elite quarterback.
The cap hits of Brady ($13.8 million) and Roethlisberger ($13.595) nearly are identical, but the Steelers have eight players who count $4,750,000 or more against the cap, the Patriots only three. Brady and guard Logan Mankins ($10 million) are the only two above $4.8 million.
Since the 2011 season, when the Patriots were 13-3 and the Steelers 12-4, New England has an 18-6 record to Pittsburgh's 10-13. And the Steelers have dropped 10 of their past 14.
“They have great leadership at all levels, but the system may have caught up with (the Steelers) for the time being,” Casserly said. “You win every year. You've been to a couple of Super Bowls. You have a salary cap. You have free agency. And it might have caught up with them.”
Even when he's not 100 percent, Brady manages to stay a step ahead of the competition. He has nine touchdown passes and six interceptions compared to 16 touchdowns and three interceptions at this point a year ago.
He nearly was unstoppable for the couple of years after the Patriots built around two tight ends. Now he's managing to win with a different collection of receivers and without Hernandez and the trusted Welker.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said, “We always like to stop the run and make people throw, but I don't know if that is exactly the thing you want to do with Tom Brady.”
Just like the rest of the NFL doesn't know quite what to do with the Patriots.
The Patriots are 6-2 against the Steelers with Brady since 2001 (he sat out a 2008 Steelers win with a knee injury).
“There is only one team in the NFL in the last decade that has avoided dips,” Casserly said, “and that's the Patriots.”