Overtime Ireland's Colm Kelly on why New England continue to follow their own rules
We are merely days always from Super Bowl LI and once again the New England Patriots have made it back to the biggest game in the American sports calendar.
With Bill Belichick, one of the greatest head coaches in the league's history, working in tandem with quarterback Tom Brady, they have continued to evolve and be the franchise that every other club in the league attempt to emulate. They have been the model of consistency since the turn of the century with this occasion marking their seventh appearance since 2002. With their continued dominance and quest for perfection, they are certainly not everyone's favourite team, but as the saying goes; "You might not like them, but you have to respect them".
Tom Brady is approaching 40 and while Father Time eventually catches up with everyone, he hasn't got to the veteran signal caller yet in what has been a truly special season. After missing the first four games of the year through suspension following the fallout of Deflategate, he carved up defences for the rest of the season finishing with 3,554-yards, 28 touchdowns and only two interceptions in just 12 games.
His star tight end Rob Gronkowski - who has scored 68 touchdowns in only 88 career games, was placed on injured reserve after back surgery in Week 12. In previous seasons, Brady's performance has dipped without Gronk on the field, but this time around he has continued to deliver, playing some of the best football of his career with his core of wide receivers and running backs picking up the slack. With a win on Sunday, he would become the only quarterback in history of the National Football League to win five Super Bowl rings.
While Tom has continued to play at a exceptional level, it is Belichick who has moulded not only this team, but the entire Patriots franchise into his vision - often referred to as the "Patriots Way". In the salary cap era, Belichick has always managed his roster in the same way - no individual player is more important than the team as a whole.
He doesn't allow the business side of sport become personal and because of this he has never been afraid to move on from players looking for a new improved contract. While many clubs get held to ransom by star players in contract situations, Belichick has never been afraid to let a player leave one year too early than have them contracted for a year after they have declined. In the past, he traded Deion Branch just two years after he won the Super Bowl MVP and prior to this season he did the same with Pro Bowl pass rusher Chandler Jones and moved Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins during this season before the trade deadline.
With Gronkowski's back surgery along with his previous injury history - his list of surgeries reads one ankle, three forearm, one knee and now three on his back, some have suggested he could be the next to fall victim to Belichick's process as he is scheduled to make $24 million over the next three years. In my opinion, Gronk is the greatest tight end in NFL history, but with how his injuries have piled up over the last few years, the potential of the team moving on is something that I could see becoming a reality. Over the years, players have come and gone and the Patriots have continued to be at the pinnacle of the sport, under the guidance of Coach Belichick and the play of Brady, they are arguably the greatest dynasty in sports history.
Two seasons ago, the Patriots clinched the Super Bowl in the most dramatic of circumstances - a goal-line interception from Malcolm Butler with only seconds remaining on the clock. At the time, Butler was an undrafted, mostly unknown rookie backup. It was a huge play, one of the biggest in Super Bowl history but like on the three previous occasions, New England won the Vince Lombardi Trophy, analysts and commentators said the team was lacking star power.
Since then, Butler has become a Pro Bowl corner-back for the Patriots. This franchise makes their own stars. Since Gronkowski went on injured reserve, many talked about the lack of a truly elite pass catcher for Brady. They forget that Julian Edelman has been one of the most consistent wide receivers in the league since 2013. Rookie Malcolm Mitchell has had a nice debut season, while Chris Hogan has been outstanding in recent weeks - he had nine catches for 180 yards and two TD's versus the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Championship game.
They are incredibly versatile on both sides of the ball and can win with numerous different playing styles. This flexibility makes it extremely tough to come up with a game-plan to beat them. The Patriots have won a number of games in 2016 by relying on the running game, using LeGarrette Blount as the work horse with as many as 29 carries and in other games when the game plan was to be more pass happy, he was used as little as 11 times. The running back group has seen a major boost in the playoffs with the return of the dynamic Dion Lewis who missed the first ten weeks of the season due to a knee injury.
Head coach Bill Belichick
Defensively they change their scheme based on opponent. Trey Flowers, Dont’a Hightower, Logan Ryan, Patrick Chung and Devin McCourty are all capable of playing multiple roles against both the pass or the run. They finished the season as the leagues best scoring defence, mostly by clamping down on opposing offences in the redzone and limiting them to field goals.
This Sunday when they take the field at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas, they will need to slow down the seventh-best single-season offence in NFL history, the Atlanta Falcons. It will be fascinating to see how both teams approach the game. This week, Falcons offensive co-coordinator Kyle Shanahan said the Patriots are the best defence they will face this year. No defence has found a way to stop the Falcons on offence this season as they scored at least 30 points in 11 games and topping 40 points on five occasions.
Matt Ryan, the likely NFL MVP - averaged 7.9 yards per attempt this year and Julio Jones along with running backs Devonte Freeman and Tevin Coleman have a chance to win Atlanta their first championship. The key for the Patriots will be limiting big plays to that trio and to hold the highest scoring team in the league to field goals. How do they stop Jones? Unlike most teams who have their number one corner back cover the oppositions star wide receiver, the Patriots often double team the number one pass catcher, which in turn would allow Malcolm Butler to cover the number two option, in this case Mohamed Sanu. A bigger problem could be in man-to-man coverage if Freeman or Coleman match up with linebackers in the passing game which is something I think could be key in this contests outcome.
With two weeks to prepare the perfect game plan, Belichick and defensive co-coordinator Matt Patricia will believe their rosters versatility and flexibility will be enough to beat the Falcons and add to the Patriots legacy with a fifth title since the turn of the century. I certainly will be wide awake as Superbowl LI kicks off this Sunday at 11.30pm GMT and I am anticipating one of the most tactical and exciting match ups of the year as two teams with very differing styles collide. Only one team can take home the biggest prize in the National Football league, will it be the first time for the Falcons or a fifth for the Patriots? Watch with the world on Sunday to find out.....