- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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On Feb. 3, 2008, those fans could not envision their 18-0 Patriots losing.
But Eli Manning's pass dropped softly into Burress' hands and the Giants produced an unimaginable 17-14 victory in the Arizona desert. Once seemingly minutes away from being deemed the "greatest team in NFL history," suddenly the Patriots appeared to be a dynasty in decay.
When the Patriots lost to the Cleveland Browns back in Week 9 of this season, it seemed that New England still was seeking that 2007 season's air of invincibility.
Maybe it would surface again in 2012, or more likely 2013. Tom Brady still has a few good seasons left, but the franchise would need the young defense -- the Patriots have six picks in the first three rounds in 2011 -- to mature. Then, it seemed, New England would be able to mount one last run for a fourth Super Bowl title and a fifth AFC championship.
Six weeks after the Pats' loss to the Browns, it seems the future is now. The Green Bay Packers, visiting Gillette Stadium on Sunday, are the next team in the path of the New England steamroller.
In retrospect, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Bill Belichick's Patriots are ahead of schedule. After they humiliated two nine-win teams -- they outscored the New York Jets and Chicago Bears 78-3 in a 90-minute span the past two games -- the question that surfaced three years ago again begs itself:
Can anyone beat these Patriots? Do any challengers have the Kryptonite it will take to foil these super heroes?
'They let other teams screw up for themselves'
"You just have to understand that their mentality is 'don't screw it up.' They let other teams screw up for themselves," said Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown, "and that's how they win. So you have to have that mentality."
"They're making plays in every phase," said Tedy Bruschi, who played in five Super Bowls as a Patriots linebacker, winning three, before joining ESPN as an analyst.
"Right now they look like -- I don't want to say Super Bowl contenders, because they're obviously that. I feel confident they'll be in [conference] championship weekend."
Since losing at Cleveland, the Patriots have won five straight games and are tied with the Atlanta Falcons for the league's best record at 11-2. (The Jets beat the Pats in a Week 2 meeting.) The evolving defense has allowed an average of 17.7 points in that span and the offense has averaged 39.2 points, even though three of those teams -- the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jets and Bears -- have defenses ranked among the top eight. The Patriots have scored 52 touchdowns -- six more than the next-best team, San Diego.
In those five games, Brady has completed 72 percent of his passes for 1,572 yards, 15 touchdowns and zero interceptions. The two-time Super Bowl MVP leads the NFL with the highest passer rating (109.9), the most touchdowns (29) and the lowest interception percentage (0.9).
Trent Dilfer played NFL quarterback for 14 seasons with five teams and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000. In his job as an analyst at ESPN, he has reviewed each of the Patriots' 13 games.
"They've captured magic in a bottle this season," Dilfer said. "They used to come at you with four to six different formations. Now, they have so many variations, one tight end, two tight ends, three tight ends. I just broke down the recent Jets game. In their first 27 regular plays -- I excluded three goal-line plays -- they showed 27 different formations and at least a dozen different personnel groupings.
"This is what those West Coast [offense] teams always wanted: To come at you with a possession passing game, with a lot of personnel groups. The essence of it is that they want to run the same play over and over again -- they just don't want you to know that they're doing it."
One key is keeping Brady off his game -- and off the field.
"I think we got over 200 yards rushing against them [actually 230], and the passing was efficient," Browns left tackle Joe Thomas said. "Defensively, you have to disguise against Tom Brady. If you sit back in zone coverage, he's going to kill you. You have to disguise, play man and blitz him."
On Nov. 7 at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the hosts whipped the Patriots 34-14. Running back Peyton Hillis' 184-yard, 29-carry showing fueled the win; 21 of his totes were between the tackles for 133 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The Browns recorded then-season highs in points, first downs (22), total yards (404) and time of possession (38:08).
In the nearly 22 minutes the Patriots had the ball, Brady completed 19 of 36 passes for 224 yards and two TDs to rookie tight end Aaron Hernandez. However, he was plagued by several dropped passes. Even though Danny Woodhead rushed for a robust 6.0 yards per carry, he had only nine attempts. The Patriots amassed only 68 rushing yards.
"We didn't have the self-inflicted wounds," Cleveland cornerback Brown recalled. "They were having the self-inflicted wounds. They were having negative drives, and they were not communicating and running the correct routes."
The Browns were the third team in this calendar year to successfully figure out the Patriots, if you include the Baltimore Ravens' 33-14 rout in Foxborough, Mass., in the 2009 season's playoffs. Clearly, the Patriots are vulnerable.
But as Ravens learned in a 23-20 overtime loss in Week 6 this season and the Jets discovered in their Week 13 rematch in Gillette Stadium, those flaws are hard to exploit.
Familiarity breeds defeat
All three of those Patriots losses are connected, interestingly, to the Ryan brothers, Rex and Rob. Rex spent a decade with the Ravens before taking the Jets' head-coaching job in 2009. You still can see his fingerprints on Baltimore's defensive schemes.
Seven weeks after Rex's Jets handled the Patriots 28-14 in Week 2, the Browns and Rob, their defensive coordinator, wrecked New England.
There is a consistent pattern to all three games, as you will see.
The 10-6 Patriots played host to the Ravens in a wild-card game Jan. 10. Ordinarily, Brady is the coolest of customers under pressure, but on this day the game plan of Baltimore defensive coordinator Greg Mattison left him appearing bewildered.
The Ravens ramped up the pass rush early, sometimes on the edge and, more often, with up-the-middle pressures. Brady's rhythm was rushed. Then, just as he was finding equilibrium, the Ravens started faking the blitz and dropping into a vanilla zone coverage.
The result: On New England's first four possessions, Brady committed three turnovers (two interceptions, one fumble).
Meanwhile, the Ravens mauled the Patriots on the ground. Running behind a physical offensive line, Ray Rice (22 carries, 159 yards) and Willis McGahee (20 for 62) scored three touchdowns. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco completed only four passes, but it didn't matter; the score was 24-0 in the first quarter.
In Week 2 this season, the Jets beat the Patriots at the Meadowlands with an eerily similar formula.
Perhaps borrowing from the Ravens' scheme, the Jets often showed pressure, then dropped seven, sometimes eight players into the secondary. Brady forced 10 passes in the direction of wide receiver Randy Moss, but the Jets caught just as many (two) as Moss did. Those two interceptions -- by Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool -- and a fumble by Brady proved critical.
Like the Ravens, the Jets took advantage of the Patriots' weak run defense; LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene combined for 26 carries and 128 yards. Mark Sanchez, free to employ play-action, threw three touchdown passes, one to tight end Dustin Keller, who caught seven passes for 115 yards.
Only 40 days ago, it happened again in Cleveland.
Between them, head coach Eric Mangini, offensive coordinator Brad Daboll and special teams coach Brad Seely coached a combined 22 seasons under Belichick in New England. Rob Ryan, who was the Patriots' defensive coordinator for the three years before Belichick arrived in 2000, went to school on New England's losses to the Ravens and Jets. And, because of the bye week, the Browns had two weeks to prepare for the Patriots, who might have been caught looking ahead to their Sunday night game with the Steelers.
Besides Hillis' heroics -- he also scored two touchdowns -- rookie quarterback Colt McCoy was efficient (14-for-19) and converted 7 of 13 third-downs. Once, Brady approached the line of scrimmage and saw linebacker Matt Roth lined up at nose tackle, flanked by two outside linebackers at stand-up defensive end.
Confronted by the Browns' funky UFO defense, Brady called a timeout. And while he didn't throw an interception, he converted only three of 11 third-down plays and missed open receivers several times. Worse, both Rob Gronkowski and Sammy Morris lost fumbles at important junctures.
"Pick any subject you want," said a disgusted Belichick afterward. "It wasn't very good."
How did the Ravens, Jets and Browns beat the Patriots? Let's review:
Harass or confuse Brady into making mistakes
Thus, winning the turnover battle.
Run the ball effectively to limit Patriots possessions.
Score enough points against a middling defense and win.
"That's the magic formula," Bruschi said, laughing. "Easier said than done."
And even then, the formula isn't foolproof.
This season in Week 6, the Ravens seemingly had the host Patriots on the ropes again. They led 20-10 early in the fourth quarter before Brady got in sync with receiver Deion Branch -- newly returned from a stint with the Seattle Seahawks. Branch caught seven short passes after the third period to rally New England to a 23-20 overtime victory.
The secret sauce
The Jets understand the difficulties of beating New England better than anyone.
Seventy-eight days after spanking the Patriots in September, New York was battered 45-3 in a Dec. 6 "Monday Night Football" game that approached absurd. What changed?
The Patriots traded Moss to the Minnesota Vikings and picked up former Pat (and Super Bowl XXXIX MVP) Branch from Seattle. Injured running back Kevin Faulk was replaced with free agent Woodhead, who had been waived by the Jets. Logan Mankins ended his holdout and replaced Dan Connolly at left guard. Receiver Wes Welker, recovering from a catastrophic knee injury, seems to have regained most of his old speed.
With Moss gone, the Patriots rarely go for the deep ball; Brady generally throws safety-first passes and lets his receivers gain yards after the catch. And, New England figured out how to lay defenses bare with a pair of rookie tight ends, Gronkowski and Hernandez.
"Most tight ends," Dilfer said, "are attached to the line to scrimmage. But these guys can play on the perimeter, outside the wide receivers. This creates attractive matchups, yes, but more importantly, it gives away the defense's blitzes and usually tells you if it's man-to-man or zone. It's a huge advantage.
"This creates free offense, gimme plays. Developing gimme plays is the secret sauce in winning with offensive football in this league."
In the rematch with the Jets, Brady made a formation adjustment and saw that nickel back Drew Coleman was covering Welker. Boom! Brady hit Welker with an 18-yard touchdown pass. It didn't matter that the Jets have one of the best cornerbacks in the game -- Darrelle Revis.
As long as Brady has time to find the third-, fourth- or fifth-weakest matchup from the defense's standpoint, the Patriots succeed.
While a number of quarterbacks employ the traditional seven-step drop, Brady goes almost exclusively with three- and five-step drops. The Patriots' schemes and Brady's unnatural assimilation skills allow him to get the ball out quicker -- and that means no matter how good it is, the opposition's pass rush has a hard time reaching Brady.
Truth is, the Patriots' defense is pretty ordinary. Maybe worse.
In terms of yards allowed, New England is ranked 27th overall and 31st against the pass among the league's 32 teams.
On third down, when fortunes are made (and lost), the Patriots have allowed opponents a league-high 48 percent conversion rate. This is one of the league's worst numbers in recent years; five teams are tied for second-highest, with 43 percent. Moreover, opponents have completed 66 percent of their passes against New England's defense, fourth-highest in the NFL.
Belichick's defensive genius, honed as an assistant to New York Giants coach Bill Parcells in 1983-90, is key.
In Belichick's first year as the Browns' head coach in 1991, the Cleveland defense allowed a staggering 164 fewer points than in 1990. When Belichick rejoined Parcells with the Jets in 1997, New York allowed 167 fewer points than in 1996. That's nearly 24 touchdowns (counting extra points).
This brings us to the 2010 Patriots defense, which has improved dramatically as the season has progressed.
Inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, in only his third season, leads the NFL with 148 tackles. Gary Guyton, who plays next to him, is also in his third season and has 46 tackles. The starting secondary is scary young -- at 26, strong safety Brandon Merriweather is the oldest. He's joined by cornerback Kyle Arrington (24), free safety Pat Chung (23) and rookie corner Devin McCourty (23), who has six interceptions. Arrington is the only one who wasn't drafted in either the first or second round.
We don't want Brady to throw the ball to A. We can live with B. If he makes a mistake trying to go from B to C, we'll get home and hit him.
”-- ESPN analyst and former NFL QB Trent Dilfer, on a defense's ideal philosophy against Patriots QB Tom Brady
The Patriots lead the league with a plus-18 turnover ratio.
So, back to our question: How do you beat these Patriots?
Dilfer cites the New Orleans Saints' 38-17 rout of the Patriots in 2009, a milestone on coach Sean Payton's march to the Super Bowl XLIV title.
"[New Orleans defensive coordinator] Gregg Williams forced Brady to go where he wanted him to go. Through blitzing and coverage schemes, you can see their pattern: We don't want Brady to throw the ball to A. We can live with B. If he makes a mistake trying to go from B to C, we'll get home and hit him.
"The whole key is disrupting the starting point. If you can do it, you've thrown off the entire mechanism by which they're successful."
Who are the leading candidates?
The Ravens, of course, and the Steelers can give New England a game at Gillette Stadium. One scout believes that the Kansas City Chiefs might prove a difficult playoff match.
Two potent NFC teams, the Saints and Philadelphia Eagles, seem positioned to give the Patriots the most trouble; they appear to be capable of winning a 35-33 game on a neutral field, say, Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas?
"It's the only thing these young players have left on their check list," Bruschi said.
"Can they win a big regular-season game? Check. Can they come back after a bad loss? Check. Can they win the division? Looks like a check. The last one is, can you win in the playoffs?
"If they can do that consistently, they'll be raising another banner."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. ESPN.com AFC North blogger James Walker also contributed to this feature.