After strange offseason, Pats back where they belong
FOXBOROUGH, MASS. — Another Super Bowl title, followed by a summer of "Deflategate."
The aborted suspension of quarterback Tom Brady that turned into a 10-game, season-opening winning streak.
And then, most unusual of all, stumbling into the playoffs with a 2-4 record after Thanksgiving.
"But here we are," New England Patriots defensive lineman Rob Ninkovich said this week as the defending champions, after all of their problems on the field and off it, enjoyed their sixth straight postseason bye. "I've been in the postseason every year I've been here."
Even after a most unusual season, New England easily won the AFC East — its 12th division title in 13 seasons — and earned a first-round bye. The Patriots will play at home on Jan. 16 against Cincinnati, Houston or Kansas City; they have not played in the wild-card round since 2009, the year Ninkovich arrived in Foxborough.
"It's just being tough and believing in each other and really just sticking together," he said as he used the bye week to rest up from a late-season shin injury that is not expected to keep him out of the game. "That's the way it is every year."
For the Patriots, it certainly seems that way.
The year started with another Super Bowl run and a last-minute interception that made a hero of rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler as it turned the Patriots into four-time champions. But the euphoria was soon smothered by the scandal that came to be known as "Deflategate" and the possibility that Brady, a newly minted three-time Super Bowl MVP, would be suspended for the first four games of the season.
When his punishment was overturned by a federal judge on the eve of the regular season, the Patriots seemed to revel in their role as the NFL's outcasts. As they steamrolled their way to a 10-0 record, there was even talk of another perfect season — perhaps capped by another NFL title like the one that eluded them after they went 16-0 in 2007.
Then the injuries began to mount.
The loss of offensive linemen like Nate Solder and Ryan Wendell have hindered the team's ability to protect Brady. Injuries to receivers Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola — tight end Rob Gronkowski also missed one game — have taken away Brady's favorite targets. Running back Dion Lewis was replaced by LeGarrette Blount, who was replaced by Steven Jackson.
And that's just the offense.
In all, the Patriots have put 17 players on the NFL's various long-term injury lists; they have lost players for a combined total of 201 games, according to the website mangameslost.com — the most in the league. Some, like Edelman, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and defensive lineman Sebastian Vollmer, are working their way back.
"Football season is a challenge in a lot of ways for a lot of people," Brady said when asked about the tumultuous season. "I think I'm always up for the challenge."
Here's a new challenge for the Patriots: While finishing strong has been a hallmark of the team since Bill Belichick arrived — they are 54-10 since 2001 in December, eight wins better than the next-best team — they lost four of their last six games. This is the first year since '02 that they have lost twice in a single December.
"It's obviously been disappointing to not finish the season as strong as we would have liked," said special teamer Matthew Slater. "But I think that we're still confident in who we are as a football team."
And feared by opponents, too.
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