By Dan Zeigarnik

Does anyone remember how Patriots fans were taking a victory lap when they found out that they had to face the Jets in the playoffs last year?

New England was 14-2, clearly the best team in the AFC despite its bad defense, and had recently defeated the Jets by 42 points. The 2010 Patriots resemble this year’s Packers, not just because of their great offense, great record, and inability to stop their opponents, but because their fans have already mentally booked reservations for the Super Bowl. However, would anyone be surprised after the fact that like last year’s Jets, the Giants will come in and upset the Packers with a disruptive defense? The Giants have a history of this, as anyone who remembers the Week 17 barnburner against the undefeated Patriots that the Giants lost, only to get the last laugh a short month later. As a fan who has been burned the last couple of years by high expectations, I have appreciated the nervous tension that this year’s Patriots have provided.

This was the collective mood of Patriots nation for a good part of the season, but unfortunately there has been remarkable mood swing. Last week, everyone was petrified of the playoffs, because the team had a terrible month of December despite winning all of its games. The running joke was that they were the worst best-team ever.

Just looking back at the 5 games in December, the games that were supposed to be cakewalks and not prepare the Patriots for the grueling expedition that is the NFL playoffs, makes one wonder where all the newfound exuberance came from:

  • For starters, Patriots miraculously played only 2 teams with a winning record all year: Giants and Steelers and lost both of them. That’s right, just 2 games against teams with an above .500 record! For contrast Baltimore is 6-0 against playoff teams. The Patriots also have a 1-2 record against playoff teams this year, losing to the aforementioned Pittsburg and New York while defeating Denver which was 8-8.
  • The Patriots, in a pathetic display of mediocrity almost lost a game to the lowly Colts when they just installed a new starting quarterback, Dan Orlovsky.
  • They followed the game up with an embarrassing squeaker against the Redskins in which Rex Grossman looked like an All-Pro and had Washington inside the Patriots 10 with a chance to tie the game with seconds left in the 4th quarter, before he threw an interception to Jerod Mayo.
  • The next three games against Denver, Miami and Buffalo, saw New England give up big leads early, and only be saved by their opponent’s turnover riddled implosions.

This anemic performance in the month of December has squared perfectly with the criticism that the team has been unable to shed in the past couple of years. Yes, the team is an offensive juggernaut and when they are on a roll its hard to stop Welker, Gronk, and Hernandez. However, their defense is as porous as the Mexican border. They are 31st in pass defense and their vaunted bend-but-don’t-break defense is ranked 23rd in Red Zone defense, letting teams score touchdowns 55% of the time.

Despite all these issues, the team still won 13 games and finished first, but last week fans were incredibly nervous of New England’s ability to make it far in the playoffs, and that’s a good thing. The Boston area’s sense of sports entitlement is nauseating and actually takes away from the enjoyment one gets from rooting on their team. What’s the point of watching the whole season if all you care about is if they win the Super Bowl or not? There was a sense of uncertainty about whether the Patriots of could make it out of the Divisional round, and that’s great. Sports are supposed to have a high level of unpredictability, otherwise why tune in.

Now that the Tebow train is riding into town, everyone assumes that the Patriots will trounce them. Could this happen? Sure and it would be amazing, but I don’t see the reason for such a mood swing. How quickly people have forgotten the lessons from year’s past or even last month’s. Denver ran all over the Patriots until McGahee got injured. Then they proceeded to turn the ball over three times. Without these favorable proverbial bounces of the ball, the game could have turned out much differently.

So let’s hope for a Patriots trouncing of Denver, but to expect it and not take your devilishly-hot streaking opponent seriously is to fail to learn the lessons of history, and we all know what happens to them….