December 24, 2013

Underdog Patriots still may have their day

The team that has entered the past dozen seasons as favorites to win the division has become an underdog. That's why this is shaping up to be a fun January to cheer for the Pats.

By Tom Caron

Everyone loves an underdog. They’re just hard to come by for New England fans.

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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady directs his teammates before running a play in the first half of Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens. The Patriots routed the Ravens, 41-7.

The Associated Press

The past 12 years have been an embarrassment of riches for fans of the four major Boston pro teams. Three Super Bowl titles, three World Series championships, a Stanley Cup and an NBA title have made us the envy of sports towns around the country.

It’s also made us a little spoiled. More often than not, our teams enter the season with championship expectations. Anything short of that is a disappointment.

That’s what made the 2013 Red Sox run so memorable. We never saw it coming. After losing 93 games in 2012 we were hoping the team might win more than 85 games and vie for a wild card spot.

Instead the Sox won 97 games and ran straight to the duck boats.

It’s also why this is shaping up to be a fun January to cheer for the New England Patriots.

This Sunday they’ll finish off the regular season at home against the Buffalo Bills. They’ve already clinched the AFC East thanks to a thorough beatdown of the defending champion Ravens in Baltimore Sunday.

The 41-7 win over a team that has become a playoff rival was more than just the fifth straight AFC East division title for New England; it was a reminder that this team might just have a chance to represent the AFC in frigid New Jersey on Super Bowl Sunday.

(Or Super Bowl Monday if it’s too snowy on Feb 2. Or Super Bowl Saturday if it looks like that weather might trail into Monday. That’s what you get for having the Big Game in the Big City metropolitan area. The Big Northern City. But I digress.)

This is a season that started with the arrest of Aaron Hernandez. It’s a season that has been played primarily without the other key tight end, Rob Gronkowski. A season that has seen the New England defense line up for most of the time without Vince Wilfork or Jerod Mayo.

Every team has injuries, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a team that has had more injuries to more significant players than New England.

They have battled on, often needing a miraculous ending to nail down a win.

They staged memorable comebacks against the Saints, Dolphins, Broncos and Browns. They have commanded our attention by their ability to wear a team down and deliver the knockout blow when hope seemed lost.

In other words, the team that has entered the past dozen seasons as favorites to win the division has become an underdog. A team we love to cheer for, a team that you dare not turn away from even when they trail by two touchdowns in the waning minutes.

“I couldn’t be prouder of this football team,” said Bill Belichick after Sunday’s win in Baltimore, a gushing compliment from a stoic head coach.

Neither could we. The playoffs are right around the corner. The “they can’t win without Gronk” storyline has been brushed aside. The Pats are rolling and can beat any team in the conference.

A Super Bowl matchup against an NFC team might be a different story. Whoever survives the AFC playoffs will surely be an underdog in the championship game.

Sounds good to me. I like having an underdog to root for once in awhile.

Tom Caron is studio host for Red Sox broadcasts on the New England Sports Network. His column appears in the Press Herald on Tuesdays.

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