The New England Patriots won their division for the 15th time in the past 17 seasons. They’re one victory from securing the top seed in the AFC playoffs, and that home-field advantage in the postseason would mean they likely are headed to their eighth Super Bowl with Tom Brady at quarterback and Bill Belichick coaching. They could secure Super Bowl triumph No. 6, and Brady likely will add the league MVP award to this season’s haul at age 40.
Ho-hum. Wake us up when it’s over. It all feels so routine at this point. Does anyone even notice anymore?
This Patriots’ season has the feel that it’s not quite all that it could have been. Remember back in training camp, when a run at a 19-0 season seemed possible? The Patriots were coming off that remarkable comeback against the Atlanta Falcons for their fifth Super Bowl title. They added wide receiver Brandin Cooks to their offense and cornerback Stephon Gilmore to their defense, and a perfect season appeared in reach.
What else was left, after all, for Belichick and Brady to accomplish?
“I think it’s a lot easier now for me than it’s ever been,” Brady said in August after a joint practice with the Houston Texans in West Virginia. “I feel like my routine is better than it’s ever been. You know, when you’re younger you don’t know what to do. After 17 years, going into my 18th year, I know what to do. I know how to prepare. I’m never sore. I could practice every day. I could practice twice a day if they’d let us do that. But that’s not the way it goes any more. It’s just fun being out here and competing. That’s what us football players are here for. It’s football season. That’s what football players do: We go compete.”
The pursuit of a perfect season didn’t last past Week 1. The Patriots lost the NFL’s season-opening game at home to the Kansas City Chiefs. Since then, it has been a grind-it-out sort of season, with Belichick and Brady finding ways to make things work.
The defense has been vulnerable. The Patriots are ranked 26th against the rush and 29th against the pass. They’re 29th in total defense, based on yards allowed, and they don’t have an individual pass rusher with more than 6 1/2 sacks. Yet Belichick and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia have found enough answers for the Patriots to be seventh in scoring defense.
Brady has had to play without his security-blanket wide receiver, Julian Edelman, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the preseason. Cooks has been good. But he hasn’t been as good as, say, Randy Moss in 2007, which probably would have had to happen for these Patriots to be as dominant as those nearly perfect Patriots.
The Patriots lack a dominant running back. Yet Brady is the NFL’s likely MVP with 30 touchdown passes, eight interceptions and a 104.2 passer rating. The Patriots still can be next to unstoppable when tight end Rob Gronkowski is healthy and in the lineup, and they lead the league in total offense and are third in scoring.
A win Sunday over the New York Jets gives the Patriots the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Who, exactly, is going to go to Foxborough, Mass., during the AFC playoffs and keep the Patriots from reaching another Super Bowl?
The Jacksonville Jaguars? They’re talented but young, and they still have Blake Bortles at quarterback. The Chiefs? The team that won so convincingly in Foxborough in September endured a 1-6 stretch later in the season. The Pittsburgh Steelers? They couldn’t beat the Patriots in last season’s AFC title game, and they couldn’t beat the Patriots in Pittsburgh this month with the top seed on the line.
“Whatever comes with it, comes with it,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said during a news conference this week. “I think for us the biggest thing is playing well. It’s that time of the year where you don’t want to go out there and just not be prepared, not go and play a good game. I think we talked about it all year of how we need to get better. We need to improve. Each week is about improving. Week 16, your 16th game, you don’t want to be talking about, ‘We came out there and we played bad and we need to improve.’… We’ll still need to improve some things. But it’s got to be small things. We have 15 games under our belt. We want to continue to build on the 16th game and come out here and play and finish off our division.”
No, it hasn’t been a perfect season. But with Belichick, Brady and the Patriots, hasn’t that always been the point? Their greatness has been forged from their imperfection. Belichick was a failure in his first NFL head coaching job in Cleveland. Brady was a sixth-round draft choice. The Patriots were the perpetrators of Spygate and Deflategate, their legacy forever complicated by the never-ending debate over whether they are cheaters or the victims of baseless allegations by jealous competitors.
The most controversial thing they have managed this season is the speculation that Brady and Belichick could be at odds over the role of Brady’s friend, business partner and trainer, Alex Guerrero. That’s tame by the Patriots’ usual standard. Trainer-gate just doesn’t stack up with their other polarizing scandals. Signing James Harrison this week after he was released by the Steelers? That will make for an interesting story line if there’s a postseason rematch. But, again, it doesn’t exactly rise to the level of videotaping opponents’ coaching signals or even under-inflating footballs.
No, these Patriots simply are trudging onward, piling up more victories without inspiring their usual level of love-’em-or-hate-’em passions. Where’s the fiery debate? It’s nowhere to be seen or heard. Not yet, at least. The Patriots, amid this comparative calm, continue to be great during an era of the NFL, with the salary cap and free agency, in which consistent greatness has been all but systematically eliminated.
Love them if you want.
Hate them if you must.
But, whatever you do, appreciate them while they’re still around. Don’t take their ruthless, unwavering excellence for granted. Notice it and savor it, always.
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