FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They're back. Ski masks in hand, hatchets gripped, mercy gene removed. The Patriots are back to destroy, plunder, choke out.
"I don't know if there's a defense that can stop that offense the way it's playing right now," Denver's Champ Bailey told me, speaking of the Patriots.
Bailey would know. He witnessed the Patriots' 45-10 rout in the AFC divisional playoffs first-hand.
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The ruthless Patriots are back. And they don't care about balance. About running the ball. Defense? Pfffft. They don't need it. They embrace the one dimension and it works for them. They throw the ball. Throw the ball. Then throw it again. The Patriots are now so back in their element, so deliciously cocky, they had their star quarterback punt the football in a playoff game.
When asked if the New England Patriots were the most dangerous team in football right now, Vincent Wilfork said: "I don't know. I do think we're the most motivated."
"This franchise isn't used to one and out," he said.
And that's it. That. Is. It.
"You lose a few playoff games it sits on your mind for quite awhile," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said.
The Patriots are the most dangerous team left in the playoffs not solely because of Brady and that formidable offense but because they've been motivated by two years of not advancing deep into the postseason. They're like the cinematic monster the audience believes was killed by the nuke but comes back years later hungrier and nastier.
As a result, the Patriots have the easiest road to a Super Bowl in the Bill Belichick era. Maybe the easiest road for any potential Super Bowl champion in many years. They beat an inept Denver team. Despite the great deficiencies of the New England defense, the Ravens likely won't be able to score enough points to stay with Brady.
This is a different New England animal than during recent playoff runs. Brady on Saturday became the first player in postseason history to throw for five touchdowns in a half. Message sent.
The only team that can keep scoring pace with New England is Green Bay and the Packers are, you know, in the NFC. So for the moment the AFC belongs to the Patriots.
Again, it's not only the firepower. It's the motivational aspect. You can sense it inside the New England locker room -- a place where there is always motivation from something. This time it's failure, a sentiment rarely experienced by this franchise -- though recently their cup runneth over with coming up short.
The Patriots lost in their opening playoff game to the Jets last season and did the same vs. the Ravens in January 2010. Brady's memory is long. Like all greats, he tends to focus on the failures instead of the winning because failure serves as the better propellant.
There is almost a sense of anger running through the Patriots now. Anger over their quick playoff eliminations the past two seasons and perhaps anger over general media and fan chatter that the Patriots can't win with their defense.
"This defense has a lot of pride," Wilfork said.
The Patriots often act like as if they don't hear outside talk but we all know that isn't the case. They hear and see everything. Sometimes they laugh at it, sometimes they use it. (The documentary The Brady Six, about Brady's rise from sixth-round pick to champion, is the best illustration of how Brady has historically used the power of doubters to fuel him.)
None of this guarantees a Patriots win and another trip to the Super Bowl. Yet this is perhaps the most confident and motivated Patriots team I've seen. Even more than the New England team that went into the Super Bowl undefeated against the Giants and lost.
Even Brady, already uber-confident, is playing on another level. Brady wasn't forgotten while Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees annihilated record books during the regular season, but he did become parenthetical. All the while Brady was mastering his new tight end-centric offense. Brady entered the Broncos game tied for fifth all-time with 30 career postseason touchdowns. Those six scores broke that tie with Terry Bradshaw and he passed Kurt Warner and Dan Marino. He now trails only Brett Favre (44) and Joe Montana (45). The way Brady and the offense are playing he might pass them, too.
Because the Patriots are back to once again being themselves, the most ruthless team in football.