We’re about four weeks away from that point in the NFL season where those who refrained from predicting the Patriots’ demise after a slow start can smugly point to this moment and applaud their pragmatism.
Julian Edelman will come back. Teams will stop being able to devote two of their best defensive players to tandem-smashing Rob Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage. The slow-grind offense will open up again. Maybe someone steps up to become a credible deep threat so that Tom Brady can stop hurling double-covered 50-50 balls to Phillip Dorsett.
It will be fine because New England’s nine straight playoff appearances tell us it will probably be fine. The Patriots have started 1-2 twice during the Bill Belichick era, once during their first Super Bowl season in 2001 and again during a ’12 campaign when they lost three times over the first six weeks and then not again until December.
It should also be noted that Belichick doesn’t play as well against recently-defected assistants in new head coaching positions. There were certainly times during Sunday night’s 26–10 Lions victory where Matt Patricia was scuffling on the field to remind his defense to watch out for (insert double moves, or another last-ditch Patriots offensive strategy here).
But a game like this demands something ponderous, because it’s no fun to keep predicting that a team that functions like a well-oiled grandfather clock will continue to tell time. Here goes nothing: The question isn’t whether the Patriots can rebound in 2018, but whether they’ll be able to sustain slow starts like this throughout the remainder of the Brady-Belichick era.
This was an empire built on callousness and tension. Brady’s eternal pluckiness seems to be derived from some misplaced desire to please his master of a head coach; a man who seems to enjoy nothing more than making life consistently difficult for the greatest player in NFL history. He constantly churns the No. 1 receiver position, even if Brady has developed the kind of unconscious relationship with a pass catcher that coaches can only dream of. Even if that guy is Rob Gronkowski. Belichick has written a master class on combatting complacency, even if it seems to border on psychopathy from time to time.
We’re not suggesting that this, right now, is the end, even though similar dynasties across the business, music, art and entertainment worlds have collapsed in far less time when the main propulsion method is a sort of well-placed rage or funneled emotional energy. We’re saying: rewatch Brady on Sunday calmly toss his helmet toward the bench after it became clear the Lions knew everything they were doing. Watch the Patriots just send their offense out at the end of the game to hand the ball off and get the hell out of Detroit. Watch a quarterback low on wideout firepower chuck deep balls to a 5' 10" receiver in critical situations as if to say to his coach and general manager: “Do something about this.” Watch Gronkowski’s face as he addresses trade rumors head-on.
At some point, the whole thing will get old. A 41-year-old with a loving family and bucolic off-field life will tire of spending every Sunday solving a Rubik's Cube at breakneck speed and tire of getting screamed at for the mistakes he commits in the process every Monday. A beat-up 30-year-old tight end will tire of being treated as a replaceable cog by his coach after redefining the position.
Just last week, another book detailing their mutual tiredness was released. The fire always burns out, even if it’s not apparent at the time.
And yet… it would be foolish to gamble against a team that doesn’t have a ton of obvious pitfalls remaining on their schedule. Even if the end is inevitable, who’s to say that this one last time, or two last times, everyone watches tape on Monday and exits the facility with the same intense dissatisfaction that has accompanied most of their defeats since 2000? Isn’t that the beauty of gambling on creative tension in the first place?