Commentary

Where's the buzz over the Patriots?

If not for Tom Brady's shoulder, it seems, no one would talk about this 12-3 team at all

Originally Published: December 30, 2011
By Ashley Fox | ESPN.com

Getting injury information out of Camp Belichick is like trying to unearth government secrets in North Korea. So when news started trickling out that Tom Brady's left shoulder kept him out of practice on Wednesday and part of Thursday, and that he might even have had an X-ray to make sure there was no structural damage, Twitter almost flew off its axis.

Not Tom Brady.

For a team that is 12-3 and one win from claiming home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, New England has been flying under the radar this season. The Patriots are the best team in the AFC, with a quarterback on the verge of joining Drew Brees and passing Dan Marino's gold standard of 5,084 passing yards in a season, yet there seems to be no buzz about this team. There are more questions about it than happy answers.

Can the defense make a stop? If Bill Belichick is such a defensive genius, why do the Patriots rank dead last in total yards and passing yards allowed? What happened to the secondary, in particular Devin McCourty? And oh my goodness, what if Logan Mankins and Matt Light aren't back for the playoffs? A makeshift offensive line can't keep Brady upright in the playoffs, can it?

[+] EnlargeTom Brady
AP Photo/Charles KrupaWord that Tom Brady might have a problem with his shoulder put the Patriots in the news in a way their record has not.
Winning sometimes breeds complacency. Boston fans certainly have had their share of winning in the past decade. They have been treated to at least one championship from each of the city's four professional sports teams, the Holy Grail for fans in cities with an NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB team. The Patriots gave Boston three championships and a fourth Super Bowl appearance and a perfect regular season.

So maybe it's just that 13-3 plus a No. 1 seed doesn't do much for Boston fans anymore. Maybe there's no buzz because the Patriots haven't won a playoff game since beating San Diego in the 2007 AFC Championship Game. That win set up the ultimate disappointment of losing to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl when the Patriots were trying to win their 19th game of the season.

Maybe the memory of Baltimore 33, New England 14 at Gillette Stadium in the wild-card round two seasons ago or of Jets 28, Patriots 21, also at Gillette Stadium, in the divisional round last season is too fresh. Playing at home didn't mean much on either of those days, when New England was stung by inferior opponents who then lost the next week.

These are not your Patriots of the dynasty years, when New England won three Super Bowls in four years. They don't have that dog on defense, a player who raises his game, gets the team fired up, makes game-changing plays and refuses to accept a bend-but-don't-break mentality. You know that player. He is Ray Lewis in Baltimore, James Harrison in Pittsburgh.

Those Patriots were prolific on offense, but those defenses were pretty good, too. Ty Law, Rodney Harrison, Mike Vrabel, Tedy Bruschi, Richard Seymour and Willie McGinest would not have allowed the missed assignments and bad tackling that has doomed this New England D.

So maybe Boston fans just need to see a stout defensive performance in a game that really matters. Or maybe they won't be impressed by anything short of a fourth Super Bowl for Belichick and Brady.

It certainly could happen. Green Bay and New Orleans are similarly built, relying on potent offenses to take pressure off their defenses by simply putting a bunch of points on the board. They are the top three passing offenses in the league, and New Orleans leads the league with 457.1 total yards. New England is second (424.5) and Green Bay fifth (395.5).

Although the Saints, Packers and Patriots rank at or near the bottom in total yards allowed on defense, they rank 12th, 14th and 15th in points allowed per game, a much more important statistic. Green Bay gives up 21.2 points per game, New England 21.4 and New Orleans 21.5.

New England needs only to beat Buffalo on Sunday to clinch the No. 1 overall seed. It would be valuable to have, especially considering the Patriots' main competition in the AFC, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, have been alarmingly bad on the road at times this season.

Although the Ravens are 8-0 at home, they are 3-4 on the road, with losses at Tennessee, Jacksonville, Seattle and San Diego -- probably not a playoff team among them. Pittsburgh is 7-1 at home and 4-3 on the road, with tough losses at Baltimore, Houston and San Francisco, all playoff bound.

New England is 6-1 at home, but Belichick is still waiting for his team to put together a full four quarters of football.

"We've had our moments," he said Wednesday. "We've had some good starts. We've had some good finishes. We've had some good middle of the games. I think right now we're still working toward trying to play well for 60 minutes."

Maybe they will in the playoffs, but only if Brady and his shoulder are OK. The Patriots insisted on Thursday that Brady is fine. He was on the Wednesday injury report as a non-injury related absence. ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that he missed all but the start of practice Thursday.

That generated buzz. For a team that set the modern-day standard for excellence just a few years back, it was the first in a while.

Ashley Fox is an NFL columnist. Follow her on Twitter: @AshleyMFox.

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