This time, it’s different. The cracks in the dynasty again are evident. It is clear, once more, that the end is near, although just how near remains up for debate. But as this season draws to a close, there is nothing controversial or even all that engrossing about what is now jeopardizing the Patriots’ remarkable run of success. They are, perhaps, finally succumbing to the passage of time and the cyclical nature of the NFL.
Brady is 41. Belichick is 66. They can’t dominate forever, no matter how great they are, regardless of how ruthlessly competitive they remain. They have kept the Patriots on top of the sport far, far longer than should be even imaginable in a league that is all about regression to the mean and competitive balance. New stars come along, such as Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City and Deshaun Watson in Houston. Old stars, such as Philip Rivers in L.A., tend to get their turn on the biggest stage if they wait long enough.
So that is the predicament faced by Brady, Belichick and the Patriots, who suddenly appear old and weary at a point in the season when they usually are readying to play their best football. The Patriots are on a two-game losing streak and have fallen, at least temporarily, to the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoff race while a crowded field of top contenders — the Chiefs, Chargers, Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers among them — sees an unusually promising opportunity to keep the Patriots from reaching yet another Super Bowl.
“We’re just obviously not playing well enough to win,” Brady said after the Patriots’ defeat this past Sunday at Pittsburgh. “It can come in a lot of different ways, turnovers and just missed opportunities. I think that’s what it comes down to, too many plays where we got opportunities to do stuff with it and we don’t. It’s football. I wish the outcomes were different, obviously, this week, last week. But we just have to get back to work.”
Brady was the league MVP at age 40. He remains a Pro Bowler at 41, receiving that honor Tuesday amid a season in which he has 24 touchdown passes, nine interceptions and a passer rating of 97.6. So is it even fair to say that there are signs of slippage from the greatest quarterback the sport has ever seen? Those who assess players for a living are reluctant to declare that, even when speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“I’d say he’s still pretty damn great,” a front office executive with one NFL team said in recent weeks.
But less so at 41 than he was as the MVP at 40?
“Let’s just say he’s very slightly less great,” that executive said.
Brady had the football in his hands with the game on the line Sunday in Pittsburgh and couldn’t produce a tying touchdown drive as the Patriots fell, 17-10. The previous Sunday, Belichick prompted rare criticism of his attention to coaching detail when the Patriots had tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field to defend a Hail Mary pass that never came. Gronkowski missed the would-be game-saving tackle as the Patriots were victimized by the Miami Miracle via the Dolphins’ two-lateral gimmickry that gave them a memorable walk-off triumph.
There are other issues, of course. The Patriots are ranked 23rd in the league in total defense, 23rd in pass defense and 14th in scoring defense. They were penalized 14 times against the Steelers and converted only three of 10 third-down opportunities. Wide receivers Julian Edelman and Josh Gordon dropped passes in Pittsburgh, while Gronkowski had only two catches and left room to wonder whether he still can summon his usual excellence from a body so ravaged by injuries over the years. The Patriots’ lone touchdown came on botched coverage by the Steelers.
“Well, look, it’s a bottom-line business,” Belichick said in a conference call with reporters this week. “You want to win every week. If you don’t win, there are things you need to improve in. We’ve lost two games on the last play of the game. It’s not good enough. Hopefully we can do things better and have different results. I think we’re definitely getting better as a team.”
The Patriots play their final two regular season games at home, this Sunday against the Buffalo Bills and a week later against the New York Jets. They presumably will win those games to improve their record to 11-5. They’ll win the AFC East for a 10th straight season. But if they don’t pass the Texans for the AFC’s No. 2 seed, they’ll have to play an opening-round playoff game at home and then, if they win, go on the road for a conference semifinal.
They are 3-5 on the road this season. With Brady and Belichick together, the Patriots are 19-3 at home during the playoffs and 3-4 on the road. But even with those road struggles, no one should count out Brady, Belichick and the Patriots. Not ever, and not this season. Would an AFC semifinal at Houston be daunting? Somewhat. But Belichick has a 10-1 record against the Texans. He’s 5-0 against Texans Coach Bill O’Brien, a former Patriots assistant.
Playing the AFC championship game on the road against the Chiefs or Chargers would be tough. Mahomes and Rivers are prominent in this season’s league MVP conversation. But neither has been to a Super Bowl. Would either one be able to keep Brady from reaching another?
So, yes, the vulnerabilities of the Patriots are on full display right now. But they’re conceding nothing at this point. And they shouldn’t.
“We’re gonna have to just grind it out,” Brady said.
Is there any way to be certain that they won’t?