There’s no question about it—despite the 17–10 Week 15 loss in Pittsburgh, New England still going to win the AFC East. The bigger question right now is who are the Patriots? For the first time in a long time, I don’t know the answer to that question.
It seems that every year for the better part of this decade, New England has had a desultory stretch early in the season in which pundits definitively claim it to be The End. Sometimes Tom Brady has looked over the hill (or been suspended), or Rob Gronkowski has seemed uninterested (or been injured), or the defense has been out of sorts. But eventually, by no later than midseason, it all comes together and they look like one of the best, if not the best, team in the league again. In other words, they look like the Patriots.
But with just two games remaining this season, the team just doesn’t really look like the Patriots right now.
For the last two decades, when Pittsburgh and New England played, we knew what we would get—two Super Bowl-contending teams playing smart, disciplined, good football. That’s not what we got on Sunday, especially with the AFC East division up for grabs for the Patriots. It was a close game, sure; a back-and-forth game with a nail-biting ending, yes; Brady throwing for 279 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, yes. But it was not a game that leaves either fan base optimistic about their team’s chances going forward this season.
The Patriots had opportunity after opportunity to win the game. When they got the ball back with just over two minutes left, down a touchdown, you’d think that it would be all but assumed that Brady would march them down the field and send the game to overtime. But this time it didn’t feel assumed; it didn’t even feel likely.
Sure there was a big strike to Julian Edelman that gave the team a glimmer of hope. But a false start sent them moving the wrong direction, and a holding penalty in the red zone derailed all momentum. The drive, and the game, ended with Brady throwing three straight incompletions, none of which were particularly close to completions.
It was that way all day for the Patriots. They had 14—14!—penalties in the game, with eight—eight!—coming before the snap. By my count, New England had four drops on the day—a couple coming at critical junctures. And most egregiously of all, on the Patriots second to last drive of the game, down only four points and in the red zone, Brady threw a desperation floater off of one-leg that was intercepted. It was a mistake that a rookie QB makes, not Tom Brady. (This all comes a week after New England lost to Miami on a last-second hook-and-ladder play—a game in which Brady took a sack to the end the first half, leaving points on the board. I ask again: Who are the Patriots?)
Sure, there was the absolutely beautiful punt coverage in the second quarter—as Belichick-ian a play as could be dreamed up. And by no means am I writing the Patriots off for this season just yet. I will never be shocked if Brady and Belichick engineer a late-season run. But now, after this game, I’d certainly be surprised.
That’s why I picked them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in our preseason predictions—and why I picked them to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl when we revisited our choices in November. As I wrote at the beginning of the year: “I’ll stop picking the Patriots when Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are no longer there—it’s as simple as that.”
It was a day of self-inflicted errors for New England. Any other year, that would be uncharacteristic for the Patriots, called an aberration. But this year, it sort of seems like just more of the same.
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