The Patriots are now just another crab in the AFC bucket.
With Dont'a Hightower joining Julian Edelman in the “done for the season” category, the Patriots are without two players on their “Just Can’t Lose” list.
This means recalculating is in order. It’s going to be a fight.
- Phil Perry: How will Patriots replace Hightower?
- Albert Breer: Hightower's pec muscle was 55 percent torn in March
Success has been such a foregone conclusion for the Patriots that the process is an afterthought. Let other cities worry about whether or not there’ll be playoff football in January. That’s not even been on the table around here. Playing in the Conference Championship -- as the Patriots have done every season since 2011 and 11 times since 2001 -- is a birthright. The only drama is whether the season ends there or in the Super Bowl.
It’s taken half the season for the Patriots offense to adjust to post-Edelman life and in the process, Tom Brady’s been whacked around like a well-hydrated piñata. As for the defense, every issue they’ve had has related to communication and brainpower, not talent. The biggest brain in their front-seven belonged to Hightower. He’s gone now. Before Halloween. It feels like 2017 was born under a bad sign.
Kevin Garnett memorably screamed at the Garden rafters in 2008 that, “Anything’s possible!!!” The same applies to the 2017 Patriots when -- just two months ago -- there appeared to be just one outcome if fate favored them.
Can the Patriots get to Minnesota in February? Yes.
Is it a likelihood as it appeared throughout the offseason? No.
But it’s no more likely for the Chiefs, Raiders, Bills, Raiders to get there either. The whole mess of them are fighting on level ground.
The Patriots still have their advantages, namely Brady, Bill Belichick, two coordinators who’ve been at it for almost a decade and a team that’s shown time and again it can deal with personnel setbacks and adversity.
But it’s not done with a snap of the fingers. There’s a mourning period for the expectations they had. And then there’s the week-to-week process of figuring out how to proceed. Does David Harris get plunked into the middle of the defense? The team has resisted like hell even putting him on the field. Was the ascending play of Kyle Van Noy a by-product of him “getting it” or was it linked to having Hightower next to him, which helped Van Noy think less and react more? Is there an answer on another team’s roster that the Patriots can grab before the trade deadline?
The reality is, just as this defense went from eye-poppingly bad to pretty damn good in one week’s time, there’s about to be some backsliding. You don’t lose a player like Hightower without that happening.
And that’s why -- despite his brittleness -- the Patriots re-signed him in the offseason. He’s an absolutely pivotal player for them, as their last two Super Bowl wins demonstrated. There will be all kinds of cluck-clucking today about whether the Patriots made a mistake in bringing him back or paying him what they did and, while it fills the time, it’s a disingenuous, dishonest conversation starter.
The Patriots brought him back for less than we all forecasted he would make because of the injury history. He was more important to them than he was to the Jets or the Steelers -- his main suitors. What were they supposed to do, nickel-and-dime him even more two months after his strip-sack of Matt Ryan led to the team’s fifth Super Bowl win? Let him go? GTFOOH.
In Belichick’s offseason interview with CNBC’s Suzy Welch he said, “On a personal level, the one thing that I've definitely learned is you've got to count on your most dependable people." It might not be your most talented person, but you count on your most dependable people. There have been times when I've put let's say too much responsibility on people that weren't dependable and they didn't come through. And so whose fault's that? Mine."
As Belichick has also said, you cannot take insurance out on players. They get hurt. Linebackers, tight ends and wide receivers get hurt a lot because they are playing high speed collision positions. So whether it’s Hightower, Gronk, Edelman, Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty or Danny Amendola – the Patriots most dependable non-Brady players – you ride with them.
Does “dependable” mean durable? Or is it a stew of being able to stay healthy and -- when on the field -- do the right thing, make others better and have rare talent? It’s the latter, obviously. And that’s what Hightower does.
There’s nine games left and the Patriots are 5-2. All things considered, they are probably no worse off than any other team in the AFC. It’s just that they aren’t significantly better off as they almost always are.
Welcome to the way the rest of the league lives.