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.