Tom Brady’s default response whenever a key New England Patriots player is lost to injury goes something like this: “No one feels sorry for the Patriots.”
And he’s right — except for their fans of course.
But in light of all New England’s roster has been through the past 11 months, pity isn’t the appropriate emotion. It should be awe.
Despite losing literally half their starting offense from a year ago, the Patriots haven’t flinched. They’re 10-3 and again on the doorstep of another AFC East title.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
With a win Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots would clinch their 11th division title in 13 years. Since 2001, they’ve finished no worse than tied for first in the AFC East, and the two times in that span they’ve missed the postseason were due to tiebreakers.
“They are very consistent,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “If you examine them over a long period of time, they’ve done the best job in football if I’m not mistaken [in] the turnover margin. I think that gives them a chance to win a lot of football games. They are very well-coached. They have good players, and it’s been a good formula for them.”
And they’re remarkably resilient.
Of the 11 players who started on offense for New England in last year’s divisional round playoff game, no more than five will play Sunday in Miami.
Four are on the offensive line.
Aaron Hernandez is in jail. Wes Welker is in Denver. And Rob Gronkowski is back on the surgeon’s table after sustaining yet another catastrophic injury last week.
Defense has had slightly more continuity, but defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo are both out for the season.
And yet, they keep winning. The offense is top 10 in scoring, total yards and passing. The defense has allowed the 10th-fewest points in football. And the Patriots, like clockwork, are near the top of the league in turnover margin (plus 6).
“I look around this league and even here in this locker room, guys go down and guys step up at a moment’s notice,” Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake said. “I was out for a while and we had guys step up and still played at a high level. I wouldn’t think they’re built much differently. I’m sure guys are going to step in and adjust to whatever they have to do.”
WEIGHT OF INJURIES
That next-man-up stuff is great coach-speak, but plenty other teams have crumbled under the weight of injuries. An example: The Colts, who have looked like a different (and far inferior) team since wide receiver Reggie Wayne got hurt.
So how have the Patriots been so dominant for so long that only eight current Dolphins have beaten New England while wearing aqua and orange?
Well, having Brady masks a lot of holes, for sure. He’s a three-time Super Bowl champion, a first-ballot Hall of Famer and director of five fourth-quarter comebacks this season alone.
But there’s more to it, said New England cornerback Aqib Talib.
“It’s just work; the preparation makes up for a lot of stuff,” Talib said. “Guys have to step in and learn their stuff at a fast rate. They have to hop right in and learn it. It’s up to the guys around them to help them out.”
Asked if he has ever played for a coach as detail-oriented as Bill Belichick, Talib responded: “Never. Never. We are so detailed around here and it definitely pays off. I’ve never played for a coach like that.”
What makes the Patriots’ prolonged success all the more impressive is they’ve had just one Top 10 draft pick since 2001. But Belichick has proven that quantity is often better than quality when it comes to selecting college players.
A FEW DRAFT MISSES
New England, like most teams, has had some absolute stinkers in the early rounds. Cornerback Ras-I Dowling (2011 second round) and linebacker Jermaine Cunningham (2010 second round) are the most noticeable. And yet, no fewer than six players drafted by Patriots since 2010 in the first three rounds will start Sunday.
The Patriots have been able to survive more than a few misses because they routinely trade back and draft in bulk. They’ve had a remarkable 18 picks in the top three rounds in the past four years.
Plus, they’ve had some success in free agency, too. Danny Amendola has been a threat when healthy.
“I think every week is a challenge for us,” Belichick said. “[We’ve] asked our players to respond to those challenges. I think for the most part they’ve done a good job of stepping up and being ready to go and compete. It hasn’t always worked out exactly the way we wanted it to, but we’ve been competitive in every game, in every situation and had our chances. I credit the players for that.”
• Center Mike Pouncey’s trip to Boston was apparently a quick one. He would have practiced Thursday had the team held one, according to the Dolphins’ injury report. Meaning: He’s back from his appearance before a Massachusetts grand jury in connection with the Hernandez investigation.