After Sunday’s Pro Bowl the 2016 season will have but one game left to be played; Super Bowl 51 and the annual rite of passage into NFL immortality. We know it’s contestants — the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons — and the path has been long, arduous and fraught with adversity.
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New England Patriots
For the Patriots the 2016 season began negatively before it even started, with Deflategate, the neverending saga Commissioner, Roger Goodell, refused to let die. The multi-year pissing contest about proper air pressure in footballs, mercifully ended with Tom Brady accepting a four-game suspension. The trade of edge player Chandler Jones in March proved to be a shrewd move as it led to being able to fortify the offensive line.
Starting the season without its field general may have been designed to be a massive handicap to the Patriots, while opening up competition in the AFC East, but it barely slowed them down. Relying on the next man up, New England’s backup quarterbacks more than held down the fort in Brady’s absence.
Jimmy Garoppolo made quite the stir, completing 43 of 63 pass attempts for 502 yards and four touchdowns, with a sizzling 113.3 quarterback rating in his limited action and actually bested Brady’s 112.2 quarterback rating. Garoppolo looked sharp and precise with his game management skills, until eventually suffering an injury in week two; enter third string quarterback and 91st overall pick in the 2016 NFl Draft, Jacoby Brissett.
Brissett saw three games of action and did what was expected of him. He posted a 2-1 record with a quarterback rating of 83.9, going without an interception and added 16 rushing attempts for 83 yards and one touchdown. His lack of turnovers led to the Patriots navigating through Brady’s suspension with a 3-1 record.
Week five brought about the return of Brady from exile and a tsunami-like wrath from the scorned icon. Cleveland was the first team to stand in the path of the future first-ballot hall of famer. The Browns did not fare well as Brady was laser sharp and tossed a pair of scores to tight end Martellus Bennett, along with 271 passing yards in the first half alone. He would throw another touchdown to Bennett in the third quarter to open up a 30-7 lead. Brady would finish 28 of 40 passing, for 406 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Next, Brady and the Patriots cruised through Cincinnati and then pulled out a close win in Pittsburgh the following week. Week nine saw tight end, Rob Gronkowski, catch his 69th regular season touchdown, breaking Stanley Morgan’s franchise record of 68, in a 41-25 blowout of the Buffalo Bills.
It’s always a dogfight when battling Seattle’s Legion of Boom and the heroics of Russell Wilson, as week 10 was just that. In this game Deshawn Shead would end the Patriot’s bid to tie the longstanding 1960 Cleveland Browns NFL record of nine straight games without an interception. The Legion of Boom has a longstanding history of being a thorn in Brady’s side, and held the elite signal caller without a touchdown pass in this one. The Seahawks served Brady and the Patriots the bitter taste of defeat. Disliking the flavor, Brady would not lose again.
Week 12 against the New York Jets proved disastrous for the Patriots as despite the win, it saw Gronkowski take another injury to his back. This time it would serve to end his season, with surgery required to repair a herniated disc, making the 2016 draft day trade for Martellus Bennett with the Bears look like even more of a wise decision.
Entering the postseason, the Texans would prove up to the challenge as they gave the Patriots a game for the first half of the Divisional Round. Defensive coordinator, Romeo Crennel, gave his former colleague, Josh McDaniels, fits with Houston’s top ranked defense. This would be a game of a tale of two halves, with the Texans’ offense becoming the team’s achilles’ heel as it could not hold up to its end of the bargain. Coming out of the break, the Patriots buried them in the second half, outscoring Houston, 17-3 and winning the game, 34-16, sending them to the AFC Championship Game, for an NFL record sixth straight year.
Championship weekend brought about a week seven rematch with the Steelers. Brady was in full-on football God mode early as the Patriots would come out in full offensive force, putting up 10 points on their first two drives to open the game. Pittsburgh would suffer a catastrophic injury to Le’Veon Bell and never recovered. Without Bell to carry the load, the Steelers’ offense was inept and at a loss for answers against the crushing Patriots’ Defense. Prevailing 36-17, the Patriots punched their ticket to the big dance for the second time in three years and their third in six.