Mark E. Vogler
---- — Doubters have been dogging the New England Patriots ever since training camp opened last summer.
The national sports media downgraded the Pats from the NFL’s elite class of teams expected to compete for a championship when it became clear that quarterback Tom Brady would begin the season without his top five receivers from the previous year.
No way New England makes a Super Bowl run this year, the pro football experts said. Not with Brady’s favorite target — Wes Welker — defecting to rival Denver to catch passes from the great Peyton Manning, star tight end Aaron Hernandez going to jail after being arrested for murder and the NFL’s best tight end Rob Gronkowski unavailable until the middle of the season as he recovers from arm and back surgery.
But the Pats defied the doubters by getting off to a 6-2 start despite losing two of their best defensive players for the year to injuries: tackle Vince Wilfork in the fourth game and linebacker Jerod Mayo in the sixth game. Even with season-ending injuries to more key players, things were looking up with Gronkowski back in the lineup for seventh game. The offense again established itself as one of the league’s best, making up for a weakened defense that was the strength of the team during the first half. Receiver Julian Edelman more than made up for the loss of Welker.
A gruesome knee injury that knocked Gronk out for the year in game 13 revived the skepticism. Many fans believed the rash of injuries had finally taken its toll, jeopardizing the Pats’ chance of making the playoffs. At 10-3 with three games to go — including road games in Miami and Baltimore, things looked bleak again.
“When Gronkowski went down, I thought they were done,” recalled long-time Patriots season ticket holder Walter Fitzpatrick, 68, of Lawrence.
“If you told people at the beginning of the year, ‘You won’t have Welker, you won’t have Hernandez, you won’t have Gronk, you won’t have Wilfork and you won’t have Mayo,’ they say we won’t even make the playoffs. So, when we lost Gronk, I thought that was the icing on the cake,” the retired Haverhill High School English teacher said in an interview last week.
Fitzpatrick, like many New England fans, was wrong about the Pats — a team that could have easily gone 7-9 or worse after the injuries piled up.
Instead, rookies and other ‘no name’ players stepped up to keep the team winning every time another starter went down. In several games they should have lost, the Pats — led by their future Hall of Fame quarterback — kept fighting to pull off miraculous, last-minute comebacks to clinch their 11th AFC East Division title in 13 years under Coach Bill Belichick. Despite all the adversity, they accomplished something the Pats’ three Super Bowl teams didn’t — they were in every game until the end. They were outscored by a combined total of 18 points in their four losses, with the worst beating by a touchdown. Just 22 more points in the right spots in those games, and they could have gone undefeated.
After a gritty roller coaster ride to overcome obstacle after obstacle, the Pats are just a win away from going back to their sixth Super Bowl in the Brady-Belichick era and eighth in the team’s history. Propelled by mental toughness, determination and grit, they have somehow made it to the NFL’s final four. They are underdogs as they battle the Broncos for the AFC Championship in Denver today (3 p.m.)
“Amazing,” said Fitzpatrick, a Pats season ticket holder for 41 years
“I have never seen any team have this many injuries in any sport and be this successful. It’s amazing that they’ve gotten this far, given all that’s happened to them,” he said.
Year is already a success
Like each of the local Pats’ fans interviewed last week, Fitzpatrick marvels over how a season filled with great adversity turned into a remarkable playoff run that could end with New England playing for another NFL title in two weeks.
“From my point of view, the year has already been a success. It’s going to be a close game. If the game were here, I’d be more confident. I really have my doubts as to whether they can beat Denver. They’re playing with house money and Denver has been expected to win since last year. But, you can’t bet against these kids because they keep coming back. They never quit,” he said.
After being down 24-0 to Denver back in November, Brady led the Pats to their greatest comeback in team history, winning 34-31 in overtime.
But going up against Manning — the prolific passer who had the greatest year any quarterback ever had — and the highest scoring team in NFL history in their home stadium will be the ultimate challenge for the Patriots.
“This AFC Championship game makes me afraid,” said Patty Cresta, 50, of Salem, N.H., who touts herself as “a crazed Pats fan” after more than two decades of following the team.
“But I’m going to watch this game knowing we’re going to the Super Bowl. I know we can do it because of the mental toughness of this team. From the beginning of this season, we’ve had some trials and tribulations. We had a lot of injuries and it wasn’t looking good. We’ve lost some key veteran players who were key to us and getting to the playoffs,” said Cresta, assistant branch manager at Bank of New England in downtown Haverhill.
“When those veterans went out on injury, I kept my faith in the team. The young players stepped up and were amazing. I feel these young rookies are hungry, rambunctious and they got the eye of tiger. I feel like they have the heart that we’ve been missing for a few years,” she said.
Cresta is a passionate fan, who loves to spread the Patriots spirit at work, decorating her bank office for big games and dressing up in Patriots gear like many of her coworkers. She thinks they got a good shot of winning the Super Bowl this year.
“If they win, you’re going to hear me screaming all over this town like a mad woman,” she said.
Mark Feigenbaum, 55, of Andover, said he’s already elated at what the Pats have done this season and doesn’t expect much more out of the team.
“They got a chance, but I’m not optimistic,” said Feigenbaum, a Pats season ticket holder who has gone to more than 350 games since 1972. To win today’s game, the Patriots “have to play great” while the Broncos “have to play below what they have all year.” The Patriots have scored close to 28 points a game while an average game for the Broncos is about 38 points.
Feigenbaum calls it “exciting just to be in the AFC championship game” for the third consecutive year.
“Usually, you want them to win the Super Bowl, or you’re not satisfied,” said the financial planner.
“But they have performed so far above expectations, it’s incredible. Even if they lose, it’s a great year. The fact they got a first round bye is unbelievable. I don’t know how we’re winning all these games. They’ve spotted all the teams big leads, and gotten back into the game with the adjustments they made at half time. Definitely, the coaching has been amazing,” he said.
“If they get to the Super Bowl, it would be unbelievable. But I don’t see them winning it. I would be shocked if they did it. I don’t know how the Pats could beat San Francisco. If they go all the way with what they have, it would be amazing,” he said.
Former Pats season ticket holder Michael Miller called the Pats “an overachieving team.”
“I thought they would make it to the playoffs, but didn’t think they would be competing for the Super Bowl,” said Miller, 45, of Lawrence, who is manager of the Lawrence Municipal Airport. He cited the injuries that softened the Pats’ tough defense and the loss of Brady’s offensive weapons.
“There were times I turned off the television and went to bed, only to wake up and find out that they won. The last Denver game was a shining example. They were way behind, and I said ‘that’s it, it’s not worth staying up for’,” he said.
Fan: Could be best team in franchise history
But watching how the Pats have performed over the final month has restored Miller’s faith in the team’s potential, particularly with a stout running game that takes the pressure off Brady.
“They can win,” Miller said of the Pats’ chances against Denver.
“It’s going to be a nail-biter, but I think they will come out on top. I’m excited. it’s good to be the underdog again. I think the Patriots play at a different level when they are the underdog. They have perseverance. They just won’t give up. They’re going to fight hard to prove what they have and what they can do,” he said.
Peter Abel, 59, of Methuen, said this year’s Pats have the potential to become “the best” in franchise history if they beat Denver today and go on to win the Super Bowl.
“I think they should keep the same young guys next year and get rid of the old fogies,” Abel said.
“You can call these no names ‘the Brady bunch.’ They’re where they are because they have awesome depth. They’re a good team for a reason. They aren’t guys they picked off the street. They’re professionals. These kids have just been waiting for a chance to play and they’ve been awesome. The coaches, players and management all did an excellent job this year,” he said.
Abel expects today’s game to be a close one that will be decided by a field goal and “could go either way.” How well Brady performs on the first three plays he has the ball will be a good indicator of whether it’s an “on” or “off game” for New England’s star quarterback.
“And we shouldn’t feel bad if they lose, because they did an awesome job despite what they had,” Abel said.
“Actually, we should feel proud of them. I’m surprised they have gotten this far. If they win, this will be the most exciting season in Pats history,” he said.