- We'd be talking about Tom Brady and the Patriots a lot differently this offseason if not for Dee Ford's offsides penalty in the AFC title game. And that shows that it's OK not to treat the Super Bowl result as the end-all, be-all to the season.
Tom Brady and the Patriots are the best ever at what they do. Six championships and nine Super Bowl appearances in 18 years is simply staggering, and the franchise deserves to be celebrated for its accomplishments—both this month and last decade—in the wake of its 13–3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII.
But even after the Patriots’ first Super Bowl win by a double-digit margin, their memorable three-game dash through the playoffs still offers a reminder that no sport exposes the razor-thin margins on which legacies hang quite like the NFL.
The football world will spend this offseason remembering Brady at his best, and the lasting images of his 2018 season will be his performance down the stretch at Kansas City, the contrived underdog branding, the “We’re still here!” chants at Gillette and whatever similar catchphrase hatches from the parade on Tuesday.
But (cold water alert!) we also know that the Patriots’ playoff run would have been stopped in its tracks in the AFC Conference Championship Game two Sundays ago had Dee Ford’s offsides penalty not wiped out what would have been a game-ending interception.
That’s not to take anything away from Brady or the Patriots, but it’s simply a reminder of what’s obvious to sports fans by now: small things can make such big differences. I wrote a column I consider my opus last summer about championships and the way we talk about them, and we know that big moments often hinge on infinite little ones along the way. And it’s fair to say Ford’s offsides penalty is another one of those moments that, let’s face it, just about every champion has at some point on its journey. But this one swings not just the 2018 season, but the legacies of the greatest coach, quarterback and team we have seen in the Super Bowl era, and the way we will always talk about Old Tom Brady.
Many people spent the entire season talking about Brady being over the hill and foretelling the end of the Patriots’ dynasty. The Super Bowl champs, and every rabid Boston fan, would now like to have those same people eating crow for the next seven months until meaningful games kick off again. (And likely for much longer than that.)
But there’s a parallel universe where Ford doesn’t line up in the neutral zone, and then we’re spending an entire offseason thinking about New England failing to lock up home-field advantage, and an aging Brady losing on the road in the playoffs. “Which moment is the precise end of the Patriots’ dynasty?” pundits would ask. Maybe it would already be behind us.
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In our present day universe, Brady went 30-for-46 with 348 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions against the Chiefs, and drew praise for rallying his team on a comeback drive and an overtime touchdown drive thanks to clutch third-down throws and a preternatural ability to find holes in a defense. But five completions and 85 yards of his final total came after the pivotal penalty. Had the interception stood, his final stat line of 25-for-37 with 263 yards, one touchdown and his first three-interception game since a September 2011 loss to Buffalo would still be lingering in the air. Suddenly Brady would be facing the same interview questions about when he’ll retire, but maybe not answering in quite so cheery a tone.
In some ways, the lesson is just—as crazy as it may sound on its face—that maybe we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions from close games.
One of my favorite pieces of analysis from the 2018 season came from NFL.com’s Gregg Rosenthal, after a slew of close games in Week 7. He wrote about the sway that randomness holds over each game, and how he didn’t feel markedly different about a quarter of the teams in the league simply because they won or lost by a score on that particular day.
He has a point. And that’s why the Chiefs, not the Patriots or the Rams, are already installed as favorites to win the Super Bowl next season. Frankly, it’s why the Patriots were No. 1 in the MMQB Power Rankings—ahead of the Eagles—going into Week 1 this season.
There were a few teams that separated themselves as the best in the NFL this year, one of them won the Super Bowl and now we move on with narratives fleshed out accordingly.
The people who spent months saying that Tom Brady is the greatest ever, and he always comes up clutch, and the Patriots will figure this thing out when they get to the playoffs … well they were right. The people who said Brady isn’t as good as he used to be … well they were probably right too. He isn’t. The extra couple of drives he got in the Kansas City game help—both by padding his stat totals and showing us what he is still capable of—but he was not that player as consistently in 2018 as he was in previous years. And that’s fine. No 41-year-old QB ever has been.
But both can be right.
We are going to spend the offseason talking about the unstoppable Patriots, and Brady’s sixth ring—and deservedly so—but it is also fair to note how close we were to spending our summers pointing to the signs of his decline.
There are a lot of players and teams who are good enough to win the Super Bowl, but never do. Often they fall short for reasons outside of their control or aided by breaks so slight you almost feel guilty. Games and seasons and careers can swing on a blown call, a coin toss or a doinked field goal.
Had the Rams, Chiefs or Saints won the championship, it wouldn’t have done much to change the way we thought about their seasons, or the 2018 NFL season in general. Those would have been perfectly rational conclusions to this season’s 267-game drama. And thanks to the wonders of confirmation bias, we likely would have mined through their seasons for the moments they truly became champions. Each team had them.
When the Rams beat the Chiefs in that wild 54–51 Monday night affair, they announced to the league they were the team to beat in this new era of high-flying offenses…
When the Saints toppled the undefeated Rams in Week 9, they forever put the disappointment of last season’s Minneapolis Miracle behind them…
You can imagine each of those essays in their respective Sports Illustrated championship commemorative issues. Each of them could have easily been true, and none would have stunned us like Nick Foles’s performance in last year’s NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl, or the Giants’ stifling of the undefeated Patriots 10 years before that.
Yet they aren’t the final chapter of the 2018 NFL season’s story. The whole book remains the same up to the ending, which by virtue of being written after Super Bowl LIII is all about Brady finding his familiar magic thanks to his rapport with Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, a rejuvenated running game behind rookie Sony Michel, and Bill Belichick writing one more all-time defensive game plan.
Many people enjoy the NFL playoffs specifically because they feel it helps us determine which teams were the best. But it’s also possible to acknowledge that several teams were very good and simply to find joy in watching how it all unfolds. The 2018 season treated us to an exciting group of co-favorites, who squared off against each other multiple times in some cases, in a collection of games that fell within the margin for error that hangs between luck and skill, breaks and talent, providence and performance.
In some ways we should remember not to draw too big of a conclusion from the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory, but of course we will anyway and the nuance surrounding each of their six titles will fade a little more with each passing year.
In other ways, knowing this about the NFL makes the Patriots’ six championships in 18 years even more impressive. There are years they got breaks, there are years they succumbed to them, and six times they have been doused with confetti on the biggest stage, having overcome not just their opponents, but the chaos and randomness that pulls strings like a puppeteer over our NFL universe.
And no matter who the foes were or how the oblong football bounced, each of those seasons ended the same way: With everyone talking about how great the Patriots are.