Very little that is written or spoken about the New England Patriots surprises me anymore. I've observed just about every opinion possible regarding this team get thrown into the mix, and a subtle thread that weaves itself in and out of almost every conversation regarding this team is that of high expectations.
The Patriots, for better or worse, have earned the respect of being expected to win. When you haven't lost a game in a full calendar year, those things tend to happen. When you win two Super Bowls in a span of three years in the modern landscape of the NFL, these expectations tend to follow.
It's tough to pick against these Patriots, anyway. There is simply too much positivity – from the head coach to the quarterback to the new ground game to the veteran defense – surrounding this team to ever think it could possibly lose the next time it takes the field. Their weaknesses, as few as they may be, can easily be rationalized every time someone steps up to make a big play or the team pulls out yet another close game.
Almost everyone (and you know who you are) on some level expected the New England Patriots to be exactly in the position they are now, with two wins in two games to start the season. Surely, no one would have faulted this team by losing to the Indianapolis Colts in the season-opener at home. But, they expected a win. It would have just as easy to go on the road against the woeful Cardinals last week and lay an egg in the Arizona desert. If you snicker at that concept, just ask Green Bay about their 21-10 home loss to Chicago last week. Yet again, the Patriots came away with a win, just like what was expected.
There's an old adage (how old exactly, I'm not that sure except that I've heard it from my old man) that says to hope for the best, yet expect the worst. I wouldn't go so far as to say either the best or the worst has played out for the Patriots at this point in the young season. But for a team so obviously surrounded by the highest of high expectations, this is right where everyone expected them to be all along. So lets give credit where credit is due.
Of course, all of these expectations regarding the Patriots originate from everywhere but the one place where they matter most – the home locker room inside of Gillette Stadium.
"It doesn't matter," veteran Rodney Harrison concluded when asked about outside expectations. "It doesn't matter what they expect. It's all about what we expect out of ourselves. We're the ones out here working, we're the ones out here busting our tails, and we're the ones here 10 hours a day. It doesn't matter what people think. People are going to pat you on the back when you win, and pat you on the back when you lose, so who cares what other people think."
If you think of those words as rather harsh, you should also view them as rather true. It really doesn't matter what any of us – and yes that includes yours truly – really thinks.
In their fifth season under Belichick, the Patriots have developed the ability to close off their cognizance of the outside world. When it comes to expectations, they're like a boy in a bubble. They can recognize and remain aware of everything outside of the locker room, but are seemingly unaffected by any of it.
"I think what you have to do is acknowledge [expectations] first and foremost, because it's on TV, it's in the newspapers, it's in the locker room when the media comes in and you're asked about it," Tedy Bruschi said. "So you have to talk about it. I think you just acknowledge it, respect it, and realize that it's there. You try not to focus on things you did last year. You move on and realize that we've won two games this year and try to make it three."
It's easy to dismiss the statements made by the Patriots – or any other team for that matter – when they suggest they "take it one game at a time." Before such statements leave the lips of players they appear as football jargon, clichés and made-for-TV sound bytes all rolled into one. It's simply just human nature to want to look ahead.
On this team, though, you get the feeling that Belichick's mantra of focusing only on the next opponent is pumping through the bloodstream of every player. Many of the veterans echo these same sentiments with the understanding you're only as good as your next game.
"Anything can happen in the NFL," veteran Jim Miller said. "I think we've seen almost everything happen. So nothing really surprised anybody. If you don't prepare week-in and week-out it doesn't bode well for you on Sunday. I think we all know that and understand that in this locker room. Again, I think that goes back on Bill [Belichick] and the offensive and defensive coaches pretty much hammering that in our heads. I think for the most part, guys believe it and they understand it and go with it."
This system of dismissing expectations and dealing with the task at hand through preparation and strict focus appears firmly in place for the Patriots. This team has discovered a formula of doing things it's own way. Ironically, it's the exact winning success that this system has produced that leads to the expectations the team must now deal with.
"We've been in such a mode for so long," Bruschi said. "Just going, and I think [coach] Belichick does such a great job of just continuing to harp on it. In the team meetings and practices he's just harping on what we have to do to win that week, and I think he's done a good job of that."
The expectations aren't necessarily a national movement. For every national pundit who puts the heavyweight tag on the Patriots as a likely choice to defend their championship, there's another who says repeating in the NFL is far too difficult. Still, the bright spotlight of Patriots Nation shines directly on this team. Of course, at 2-0, it's much too early to tell exactly what type of Patriots team this is. Some level of expectation is a given, but it's very early.
"We have 14 games left," Harrison said. "What's 2-0? Fourteen games left is a long season. A lot can happen with injuries and ups and downs. We saw what happened to us when we went into Buffalo last year; we got our butts kicked. So we're not concerned about anything else other than winning one ball game."
As long as the Patriots keep winning, the expectations will persist. At this point, I'm not sure how much it really matters. As long as it's one game at a time, they'll be expected to win that one anyway.