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What’s in the Patriots’ “secret sauce”?

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Bill Belichick has led New England to seven Super Bowl appearances in 17 seasons. What is it the Patriots do better than the Bengals and every other NFL team?

AFC Championship - New England Patriots v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Based on how the 1990s played out for the Cincinnati Bengals, their loyal fan base has felt a bit spoiled with six playoff appearances in the past eight seasons. While the team has failed in each postseason try, often in epically-depressing ways, the club has provided a much better product than in year’s past.

Still, whether we’re talking about the Bengals or almost any other NFL team, the New England Patriots seem to have the professional football system down to a science. Even with a handful of instances where they have pushed the league rulebook to the limit, no one can deny their seven Super Bowl appearances and 14 postseason berths in Bill Belichick’s 17 seasons as the Patriots’ head coach.

As they get set to take on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI, one of the NFL’s longest-standing dynasties has come to the forefront of discussion. While Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady are polarizing figures, they have figured out a formula that consistently has them frustrating every other NFL team.

There is so much talk of “The Patriot Way” and the mystique that draws both youngsters and veterans to the team in an effort to win a championship. Whether it’s in their gathering of discarded veterans from around the league or scavenging draft picks from other teams with their aging stars they developed from within Gillette Stadium, they seem to always create a roster that is the envy of almost any professional sports franchise.

Savvy moves with veterans:

Belichick isn’t a guy who wears his heart on his sleeve and doesn’t publicly gush about his players until after they’ve retired. He and the Patriots’ brain trust has mastered the art of getting the most out of players and then leveraging them for draft collateral. Richard Seymour, Vince Wilfork, Deion Branch and many others are some of the stars that are examples of this practice.

Additionally, they have grabbed veterans who still have a few good years left at a bargain. Randy Moss was disenchanted in his stint with the Raiders, and was shipped to New England in exchange for a fourth round pick. Moss gave the Patriots three seasons with 3,765 receiving yards and 47 touchdowns.

In terms of things that hit close to The Queen City’s heart, New England took low-risk chances on trades for both Chad Johnson and Corey Dillon. The former was a total fizzle-out, but Dillon gave the Patriots three solid seasons, including a 1,635-yard, 12 touchdown 2004 campaign, where they ended up hoisting the Lombardi Trophy.

Is it a system fit, a higher level of accountability or other factors that have led to their insanely-productive usage of players who seem to be at the sunset of their careers?

A revolving door of temporarily useful players:

Part of the genius of Belichick and the Patriots is grabbing relatively unknown players who are clawing for a roster spot, getting a handful of great performances out of them and then let other teams overpay for them once their contract expires. Danny Woodhead, while having a couple of decent seasons with the Chargers is one example, while so many others are in the same vein.

Perhaps the best example of this is former New England running back, Jonas Gray. After playing in just eight games in 2014, including a massive 201-yard, four-touchdown performance, Gray never caught on to any team over the past two seasons. The Gray sample size is but a microcosm of how the Patriots conduct their football business.

If the Gray example doesn’t work for you, perhaps the examples of Jamie Collins and Chandler Jones will. The versatile players were arguably New England’s best defenders, but because of negotiation stalemates, some perceived disgruntled behavior and both being in contract years, New England found suitors and made moves without skipping a beat in 2016.

Lessons for the Bengals to learn:

Believe it or not, Cincinnati fans should be a little bit flattered with New England’s current M.O. Aside from Belichick’s long-standing respect for Paul Brown, he obviously believes that the Bengals know how to cultivate talent, as evidenced by his trades for former Bengals stars and his pursuit of other free agents they let loose, such as Artrell Hawkins and Deltha O’Neal.

One lesson is to lessen the emotional ties to some players who just aren’t pulling their on-field weight anymore. The Brown family definitely plays favorites and the double-edged sword that is undying loyalty permeates through the organization, which has caused them to hang on to some dead weight over the years.

After a 6-9-1 season in 2016, which is a record Belichick hasn’t seen with the Patriots since his first year with the club back in 2000, Cincinnati needs both an infusion of precocious youth and wise free agent moves. There are some players currently under contract who can be replaced for the betterment of the team, even though they are locker room leaders.

When it comes to outside free agent moves and other practices most teams readily employ, the Bengals are one of the most conservative franchises in the NFL. New England walks that fine line of a healthy balance of wacky aggressiveness and wise restraint, making them one of the league’s most well-run franchises.

What’s odd in all of this is that the Patriots actually haven’t been that great in the early rounds of the NFL Draft. They usually miss out on certain impact guys because of their constant maneuvering in various rounds, but their perennial draft positioning at the end of rounds also allows them to get creative.

Cincinnati has been lauded for their work in April’s festivities, but the past couple of classes need to start yielding better results. Additionally, if the Bengals want to get to the level of the Patriots (while keeping the status quo), they need to get better at finding niche players and knowing when to cut ties.