NEW ORLEANS – So I have a complaint.
Be forewarned: It’s a whiny one informed by years of unchecked Patriots Privilege in which folks don’t wonder whether the local 53 might make the playoffs, only whether or not they will win the Super Bowl.
This is not what I thought we signed up for in the offseason. Where is the relentless, merciless, march through the opposition that I saw on the brochure?
I distinctly remember being told each opponent would wind up like a bug on a windshield and the Patriots would roll on, impervious. This doesn’t feel historic.
PATRIOTS 36, SAINTS 20
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Not even after Sunday’s 36-20 road win over the Saints when 40-year-old Tom Brady (he’s 40, you know) threw for 447 and three touchdowns. You expect to walk away from the stadium smug and cackling after a game like that, saying, “Damn, this team is tough to beat. Exactly what we thought. This race for perfection thing is good for business.”
Instead? They’re 1-1 and even though they smacked that astronaut in the Superdome, the steady stream of players filing in and out of the Big Blue Tent gives pause about where things are headed.
The arc of the 2017 Patriots has changed from unbeatable to resourceful underdogs forced to survive on dwindling supplies. Already gutted by the season-long injury to Julian Edelman, the weeks-long MCL sprain for Dont'a Hightower, the absence of emotional leader and special teams ace Matt Slater, the concussion for Danny Amendola and the retirement of Rob Ninkovich, on Sunday against the Saints Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead, Phillip Dorsett and Eric Rowe all got hurt. And Chris Hogan was intermittently limping around like he had a nail in his foot.
Gronk’s injury was reported as a groin. He was bug-eyed and urgent-looking on the bench while talking to medical staff. That’ll happen when your groin hurts. But he wasn’t limping. And they weren’t asking him to do anything groiny. And the play on which he was hurt reminded me of the play he got hurt on last year in New York when he had to have season-ending back surgery. So you inevitably wait for the other shoe to drop.
That’s football life with Gronk, knowing that, with him and injuries, it’s a “when” not an “if.” (Which must suck even more for him because he likes playing, is fun to watch and has done enough rehab to last eight lifetimes.)
Even if whatever’s ailing Gronk and Hogan turns out to be minor, the problem is, the Patriots are two games in. Whatever you hurt in September isn’t going to not hurt in November unless you let the thing fully heal. And there’s no real way the Patriots can do that with those two, not with everyone else they’ve lost.
That this team is going to be less “shock and awe” and more “snap and ow” takes some getting used to.
Which brings us to the game itself. This was a win the Patriots themselves took a lot of pride in, beginning at the top with Bill Belichick, who indicated he and his coaches hammered the team and themselves since the season-opening loss to the Chiefs.
Brady, who hasn’t softened at all on what he thought was a half-assed effort against the Chiefs, kept banging the drum on Sunday when asked if the Saints game was better.
“All the veterans had a chance to say the things they wanted to say to their different groups,” said Brady. “Whether it was their own unit, or offense or defense, the whole team. The NFL’s tough, man. Every game’s tough, every quarter’s tough, every play’s tough. You can’t take anything for granted and in order to win you gotta go out there and compete as hard as you can every play.”
He added: “There’s a level of critiquing you do if you lose that you don’t really do if you win. Our coaches were all over us all week. They want us to get it right and they want us to get it right now.”
There was plenty of room for improvement. Even as the offense rolled up 555 yards, there were some defensive breakdowns on the back end that – while not as egregious as Week 1 – were a little surprising.
But nobody was complaining about the effort.
“The feeling after [the Chiefs game], the not finishing, the style of play [wasn’t] what we expect,” said Devin McCourty. “Guys that have been here are accustomed to how we play – playing the whole game and finishing. We won a lot of games coming back. That (performance against the Chiefs) irked a lot of guys. Guys passed it on and everyone got the message."
Interestingly, left tackle Nate Solder, the kindest, gentlest, easy-smilingest, 6-foot-8, 320-pound men you will ever meet, wasn’t ready to come back with a full verdict yet.
“It was a step in the right direction,” Solder said. “We gotta play a lot better still. We had a different level of urgency. But that has to continue for us to be any good.”
Was it daunting to see the parade of teammates disappearing into the Big Blue Tent?
“Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter who’s over there,” Solder replied.
But it does. He knows it. They all know it.
They aren’t on the road to the coronation we thought they’d be on. This is going to be hard.