So the New England Patriots’ dynasty didn’t come crumbling down Sunday, after all. Was anyone actually convinced that it would?
The Patriots crushed the Dolphins, 38-7, at Gillette Stadium to signal a return to normalcy. They evened their record at 2-2 and now are only a game back of Miami, which fell to 3-1, in the division that New England has won in nine straight and 14 of the last 15 seasons.
The bigger issue is whether the Patriots are now set up to do what they have done four other times during their run of sustained excellence: turn a start of 2-2 or worse into a Super Bowl appearance. The offense functioned far better Sunday, and Brady suddenly could have some improved options at wide receiver. Josh Gordon made his Patriots debut Sunday, and Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension for a violation of the NFL’s policy on banned performance-enhancing substances has expired.
The competitive portion of this game ended very early. The Patriots led 24-0 after a first half in which Brady threw for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He had completions to six different receivers. Wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson had a 55-yard touchdown catch and run. Rookie running back Sony Michel contributed 80 first-half rushing yards.
The Patriots stretched their lead to 38-0 in the fourth quarter and Brady finished with 274 yards and three touchdowns in a 23-for-35 passing day. He did throw two interceptions, but that mattered little. Michel ran for 112 yards. The defense more than did its part. This was the version of the Patriots that everyone expected entering the season, with Brady still playing at or near a league-MVP level and the team around him looking competent enough for yet another Super Bowl run to appear within reach.
The problem has been the lack of pass-catching threats to complement tight end Rob Gronkowski, who has been double-teamed by opposing defenses with great regularity. The Patriots traded Brandin Cooks to the Los Angeles Rams in the offseason and lost fellow wideout Danny Amendola to the Dolphins in free agency. They added and discarded one wide receiver after another before the season in their search for solutions.
The trade for Gordon underscores the desperation of the situation. It’s not that the Patriots are taking much of a risk in terms of what they gave up to the Cleveland Browns for the talented but troubled wideout. If things don’t work out with Gordon, the Patriots can release him with very little lost in that regard. But if that happens, they might be out of options. They need things to work out with Gordon, not because of what they surrendered to get him but because he represents the final hope of having a game-breaking wide receiver on the roster this season.
Gordon had two catches for 32 yards Sunday as he works to return from a hamstring injury, assimilate into the offense and prove that he can be reliable both on and off the field. If Gordon somehow can become a solid citizen and a dependable player in New England, the Patriots can be right back in the top-contender mix in the AFC. When Edelman returns, Brady will have enough at his disposal to keep opponents from giving all their defensive attention to Gronkowski.
No one should dispute that the end to the Patriots’ dynasty is in sight. Brady is 41. Belichick is 66. The accounts of the strain on their relationship have accumulated to the point where it’s next to impossible to believe that there are no problems there whatsoever. Everything could fall apart after this season. If it doesn’t happen then, it can’t be too long after that. The Patriots already have defied the norms of the “Not For Long” league for what is, by NFL standards, an eternity.
But before it ends, there just might be a few more triumphant moments in store. There might even be another Super Bowl to be played. The Patriots showed emphatically that they’re not ready for all of it to end quite yet, not on a September Sunday in Foxborough with a would-be AFC East challenger on hand.