The pressure is off. The competition is less than stiff. And the New England Patriots are in position to shock the world, again.
The Patriots have taken to the underdog role very kindly.
Contrary to public opinion back in September, the Patriots have continued to do what they've done best since Bill Belichick took over.
Even Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter, who said during a pregame ESPN interview, "Who they got on that team beside Tom Brady? It's not like they've got a gang of dogs over there. They have a bunch of all-right guys. You know what I mean?"
If Porter really believes that, shame on him. He doesn't get it.
As for the Patriots winning the Super Bowl?
Obviously, it wouldn't be easy. The Jets are for real. The Tennessee Titans have a championship defense. The Colts have Peyton Manning.
And then, of course, there are the New York Giants, probably the best team in the NFL.
But it says here that it could happen. Everything is in place, despite a few warts (see Patriots secondary), for it to happen.
And here are 10 reasons why:
1. Matt Cassel
Yes, at No. 1. As I noted yesterday, The Matt Cassel Story is almost a Hollywood movie. And we thought the Patriots would have to "protect" Cassel with some simplified offense. Cassel is the best player on the Patriots not named Randy Moss. He is getting better as the pressure grows. He is playing his best in the fourth quarter, a prerequisite for greatness. Two things he is doing that stick out for me: He is not making any mental mistakes and, like Tom Brady, he has learned how to buy time in the pocket by simply moving up two or three steps.
2. Bill Belichick
Here's what we heard after the first game when it was realized Tom Brady would be gone for the year: We will see what kind of coach Bill Belichick really is. Wasn't that the dumbest thing ever said? Where were these people the last seven years? To be honest, this is more Belichick's comfort zone. Doing more with less is his calling card. Out-scheming the competition is the cherry on top of beating them. While Belichick has had some questionable calls over the last two seasons, he has been near perfect recently (he gets a pass for the indecision against the Colts). Every other team in the NFL would have folded by now with their injuries. The Patriots are getting better. Credit Belichick with another great season.
3. The Patriots can run the ball
Lost is the fact that the Patriots can run the ball better than they did the previous two seasons. They survived the loss of their top three running backs and continue to average over four yards per carry, which is nothing short of amazing.
4. The Patriots can stop the run
Despite the old and injured linebacking corps, mixed in with rookie Jerod Mayo, the Patriots rank a respectable 10th overall in rushing yards allowed per game (98.3). Of course, the key here is the physical front three, Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, on the defensive line. Most of the damage has been because of the pass defense.
5. AFC is wide open
As we witnessed on Sunday, when the Jets upended the Titans in Nashville, there are no great teams in the AFC. You could argue that the Jets and Titans are both superior to the Patriots, but neither is a juggernaut. The Titans have problems throwing the ball. The Jets have a quarterback whose history is to make a very bad decision in January.
6. Randy Moss the decoy
Just when you thought that Moss might have lost a step and that he can be covered by one defender, the skeptics were left speechless. Moss will be double-covered the rest of the season.
7. Randy Moss the TD machine
That's right. Moss is so good he gets two "reasons." While Moss might not get the opportunities to catch 10 balls too often the rest of the season, he is officially Cassel's go-to receiver inside the red zone. He is virtually impossible to cover when the Patriots are close to the end zone.showed on Sunday that is his specialty.
8. Jerod Mayo will be better
Let's be honest. The one thing the Patriots don't have on defense is a play-maker. Tedy Bruschi and Mike Vrabel are OK, but they aren't forcing turnovers like in their primes. The leaves us with Mayo. He has five more regular season games to mature from being a rookie to the Patriots' best defender.
9. Under the radar
It really is so much more relaxing to play games at 1 p.m. on a Sunday, when most of the country's eyes are on their own team. Just yesterday we got news that the Patriots-Seahawks game was dropped by NBC Sunday Night Football and moved back to 4 p.m.
How have the Patriots overcome so many injuries to key performers? Discipline. The Patriots have been penalized only 37 times, by far the fewest in the NFL (Seattle is second with 48, Miami is third at 49). The Patriots have to play error-free football to succeed and they are doing it. They have committed 15 turnovers, tied for ninth. Come December and January, the teams that make the fewest mistakes usually win.
E-mail Bill Burt at email@example.com.