Sometimes, the team that captures a fan's heart isn't the one with the most wins or the team that travels the deepest into the playoffs. If it was, one would have to assume that my favorite Patriots team would be chosen from the teams that rode the Duck Boats in 2001, 2004, or 2007.
One could even go so far as to predict that my "equipo favorito" would be the 1985 squad that traveled to the Super Bowl as the AFC Wild Card selection, only to become the chew toy of the Refrigerator and the '85 Bears, or the 1996 squad that stumbled against Brett Favre, Desmond Howard, and the Green Bay Packers.
Those who know me would find it quite apropos that the team that stole my heart was the squad that exhibited the most heart, the team that showed the most chutzpah (my only Yiddish expression), and the squad who had the heel of the opponent on their collective gullets and kicked out just short of being pinned.
There has perhaps never been a team that had more to prove to the naysayers than the Brady-less 2008 Patriots squad. After the loss of their heart and soul, it would have been easy for this dog to curl up in a ball and lick its collective wound, but it chose to bark and bite instead.
The Patriots were forced to endure without starters Brady, Laurence Maroney, Rodney Harrison, and Adalius Thomas. This would have hamstringed many teams on both sides of the ball, but the Patriots used it as motivation to come together as a team and rise above it.
In order for a team to rise above adversity as they did, the characters must make a choice. The leaders of the team had to make an unconscious decision to refuse to be mediocre and to raise their personal bar to a higher level.
Bill Belichick—Head Coach
There is no better coach in the game when it comes to getting his team to play with a chip on their shoulder. The loss of Brady represented one huge gouge, and Belichick responded to the challenge.
One Patriots GM said, "This is now a good time to see the greatness of Belichick. The team will answer the bell.
"You can talk all you want about Brady, and he obviously is legendary and will be in the Hall of Fame, but so will Belichick. You can say: How important is a Hall of Fame coach? Just as important as a Hall of Fame quarterback."
From the postgame press conference after game one, right to the very end of the season, coach Bill got his team ready to play with Matt Cassel at the helm. In the week following the loss of Brady, there was ample talk about signing Dante Culpepper, Vinny Testaverde, or Chris Simms, but Belichick put all his faith in Cassel and was rewarded handsomely.
All the critics doubted Cassel's ability, as he hadn't started a game since high school. He used this as motivation from the moment Belichick handed him the ball right to his very last game as a Patriot. Tell me I can't, and I'll show you why I can.
From somewhat wide-eyed and slow footed the first few games to two time AFC Player of the Week, Cassel threw for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns and only 11 interceptions. He ended with a QB rating of 89.4 and twice threw for over 400 yards in a game.
As if that wasn't enough to silence the critics, Cassel also played through the loss of his father and played much of the season without his No. 1 rusher, Laurence Maroney.
Sammy Morris—Running Back
Morris has never really shown the consistency to become much more than a situational back. With the loss of Maroney and Lamont Jordan to injuries, Morris was the primary back in a runner-by-committee system. Morris responded well.
When he wasn't stiff-arming opponents, he was bowling them over en route to his most productive year in nine professional seasons. Morris achieved personal bests in rushing attempts (156), yards (727), yards per carry (4.7), and touchdowns (seven) and provided the Patriots with the ability to keep the chains moving.
Morris was most valuable when crossing into enemy territory, where he averaged 6.2 yards per rush between the opponents 49- and 20-yard lines.
Kevin Faulk—Running Back
Faulk has always run with a vengeance as an all-purpose version of the Little Engine That Could. Faulk amassed over 1,200 all-purpose yards after missing the first game of the season due to a one-game suspension for possession of marijuana.
Faulk was more of the change-of-pace back behind Morris, Jordan, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, and Heath Evans, but seemed to have the referees moving the chains every time he touched the ball. He was part of the Patriot's running back committee that amassed more rushing yards than any Pats team since 1985.
Individually, he set a single-season career high in 486 receiving yards on 58 catches, as well as setting a single-season career high for touchdowns scored with six.
Wes Welker—Wide Receiver
There may not be another player in football, short of Brady himself, who plays with more of a sense of proving the critics wrong than Welker.
The All-Pro receiver wasn't drafted out of Texas Tech. He signed a free agent contract in 2004 with the Chargers and was waived after the first game. After three moderately successful seasons with the Dolphins, he has turned himself into a Pro Bowler.
He caught 112 balls for 1,175 yards with Brady at the helm in 2007 and had nearly identical stats with Cassel last season (111 catches for 1165 yards). There may be no receiver more fearless in going over the middle, a trick that led to his near beheading against the Steelers.
Welker set an NFL record in 2008 with 11 consecutive games with six or more catches. Of course, Welker also returns punts at nearly a 10-yard per attempt clip.
Randy Moss—Wide Receiver
Moss has long been known as one of the league's leaders in receptions, but rarely has his name been synonymous with being a "team leader".
He teamed up with Brady in 2007 and established a single-season NFL record with 23 touchdown catches to go with 98 catches for 1,493 yards. He dipped last year with Cassel at the controls but still caught 69 passes and scored 11 touchdowns, while going over 1,000 yards (1008) in receiving for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
With Brady's leadership absent, Moss became far more receptive to speaking about the offense.
The new face of the Patriots defense won Defensive Rookie of the Year honors and became the first Patriot to do so since Mike Haynes.
Mayo, drafted in the first round out of Tennessee, amassed 128 tackles, 100 of them solo tackles, and established himself as a ferocious hitter in the middle of the Patriots 3-4 defense.
Mayo had a season high of 20 tackles in a 34-31 loss to the New York Jets in November, but right from the start of the season, he made his presence known as the future of the Patriots defense.
Belichick put Meriweather in the remedial program in his rookie year after drafting him in the first round out of Miami in the 2007 draft. Meriweather appeared in all 16 games as a rookie, but he only made 27 tackles.
This past year, Meriweather established himself as the heir apparent to Rodney Harrison with 83 tackles, four interceptions, and two sacks. He seemed to be everywhere on the field and established himself as the fierce hitter he was while at Miami.
Maybe it's just me, but after taking over for fan-favorite Adam Vinatieri over three seasons ago, Gostkowski has had to prove himself to me every time he sets up to make a field goal.
After doing so 40 times last year and hitting 36 of them, one would hope that he has escaped from Automatic Adam's omnipotent shadow.
Gostkowski not only hit 90 percent of his field goals (a single-season career high), but was a perfect 40-for-40 in extra point attempts and is now 157 of 158 in his career.
He was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his career in 2008, while his 148 points set a new Patriots record for points in a season since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Vinatieri was the previous record holder with 141 points in 2004.
The 2009 Patriots will have even more to prove. The return of Brady and the additions of Shawn Springs, Joey Galloway, Greg Lewis, and others will provide ample opportunities for the new squad to win over my affections.