How Will We Know When the Patriots’ Dynasty Has Ended?

Plenty of things could point to The End of the Patriots—Tom Brady could leave New England, Josh McDaniels could leave New England, the Patriots could put up a losing record next season. But we’ve never seen a team this dominant before, so we probably won’t realize that it's all over until it’s long over.
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Halfway through the first quarter of the Patriots-Titans wild-card game, my friend, a fellow New Englander, chugged two Guinnesses back-to-back. We were in a nondescript Manhattan bar, surrounded by sad Bills fans and hopeful Titans supporters, just two longtime Patriots fans lashed to the smokestacks of their ship. Many people across the country believed that ship is sinking, including my friend. He looked at the two empty glasses on the table and said, “I need to slow down, this is only the first quarter of the end of my life.”

The End (capital T, capital E) of the Patriots Dynasty is terrifying to New England fans and thrilling to everyone else, which is seemingly the rest of America. But if you take rooting interests away, the concept is fascinating: There’s never been a team so consistently dominant for such a long time, so no one knows exactly what to look for to see when something like this will fall apart. Saturday’s playoff elimination made a compelling case for the argument that these are the final moments: The Patriots lost on a Tom Brady pick-six with fifteen seconds left on the clock.

Tom Brady

But hasn’t The End been looming since 2009, when the Ravens beat the Pats in the AFC wild-card game and people said Brady had lost his touch after spending the previous season out with a torn ACL? Or when New England lost the Super Bowl to the Giants in 2012, five years after the first loss to Eli Manning that ruined New England’s perfect season? Or when the Eagles beat the Patriots two years ago with Nick Foles, a backup quarterback turned Super Bowl MVP?

This year, of course, is different. Tom Brady is the grandfatherly age of 42 and will be a free agent for the first time in 20 years come March. He’s close with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is interviewing for numerous head coaching jobs. It is certainly the beginning of The End, unless Brady figures out a way to play for another decade by turning his bones to steel, massaging his left toe for exactly twenty minutes a day during the full moon and taking shots of turmeric water.

But unless The End is clearly defined, how are we supposed to know when it has occurred? I understand the impulse to declare that something is over. Sports, like everything else, cling to narratives. Talking heads and fans want to understand events as satisfying stories, and stories have endings. But is The End when Brady leaves Foxboro? Is it when he retires? Is it when McDaniels leaves? Is it when the team no longer appears in Super Bowls for a few years under Belichick? Does it just mean entering an era when a 12-4 season isn’t a failure?

If the ending to Saturday’s game was a shock, the loss itself wasn’t. Tennessee’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who only got the starting job in October, had the third best passer completion percentage in the league heading into the playoffs. Brady sat low in the rankings, at 29 out of 32, with an abysmal completion percentage of 60.5. He battled several nagging injuries this season and was saddled with an unusually unreliable corp of wide receivers—not to mention Rob Gronkowski, his preferred target, retired after the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl last year.

The Week 17 loss to the Dolphins at home—when Miami’s Brian Flores, an apple from Bill Belichick’s coaching tree, defeated his old boss—felt like the tip of the iceberg. The trend continued on Saturday night when Titans coach Mike Vrabel—one of Belichick’s former players—used Belichick-like tactics to exploit loopholes in the NFL rulebook and run down the clock with five minutes left in the fourth quarter. The tweets and headlines popped up as soon as the game ended: This is The End.

If you think everything is over if Brady never wears a Patriots uniform again or McDaniels takes (and sticks with) a different job, then sure, this might be it. McDaniels very well could, but I doubt Brady leaves the team. I may soon look like an idiot for writing this, but it’s hard to believe that owner Robert Kraft would let the Prince of New England abdicate his throne when there’s no obvious successor. Would the Patriots let another team sign the revered veteran when they could probably make something work with a few more wide receivers and a good tight end? Maybe the money Brady asks for won’t be worth it, given his terrible stats this season. But unless there’s suddenly a promising young quarterback to build around, why not take another year with the tried and true? Belichick went 11-5 with backup QB Matt Cassel after Brady messed up his knee in 2008, because Belichick can turn straw into gold. While Brady might not be as shiny as he once was, he certainly isn’t straw.

Perhaps Belichick wants to prove he can win with a different passer in New England. Yet given Brady’s pride and focus, it’s hard to picture the quarterback walking away from his Patriots legacy on a pick six. Brady plays best with a chip on his shoulder, and declarations that “it’s over” would provide the best motivation since the Pats drafted him‚just a schlubby kid out of Michigan—in the sixth round. And even if he does leave, Belichick might be able to continue the dynasty without him.

No matter how you define the ending, there are too many variables at play to clearly foresee it. The Patriots’ most reliable characteristic over the past twenty years has been their ability to bounce back when it appears impossible. Given New England’s history—and the fact that they were winning championships as recently as 2019—they could sit up in their coffin next year like the Undertaker arriving at WrestleMania to pile-drive the rest of the league into the ground. If I were a betting woman (which I’m not, because I’m bad at math and don’t know how to use gambling apps) I’d put money on Brady playing at least one more season in New England. It could go poorly. The End may be a sad, garbage time-y finale to a brilliant career. Or, in true Patriots fashion, it could go miraculously well.

Perhaps I am just another delusional New England fan playing a violin on the teak deck as water pours into the portholes. But I’m hoping for buoyancy. No one will know The End has come until it has happened and the ship is sitting on the ocean floor, so let’s wait to find out how big this iceberg truly is before we chug the rest of the beers.*

*Unless Belichick retires tomorrow, in which case I will drink every Guinness in Manhattan and pretend I never wrote this column.

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