Patriots

The Patriots are who we hoped they weren't

The Patriots are who we hoped they weren't

They are who we hoped they weren’t.

After last week’s self-immolation in South Florida, you figured that this was a perfect time for the 2018 Patriots to prove they were part of the lineage.

A winter Sunday evening in Pittsburgh.

How many statements have the Patriots made in the past two decades on that chewed-up field in front of hate-filled fans? The 2001 AFC Championship, the 2004 AFC Championship, the 2010, 2016 and 2017 regular seasons games.

All the times the Patriots walked onto that field and proved over three hours that they were smarter, more disciplined, better constructed, immune to the frenzied towel-waving, poised and tougher than Pittsburgh. Proved that there was something in their DNA strands the Steelers didn’t have.

Only this time, not only did the Steelers play like the Steelers … the Patriots did too.

The traits of the past have skipped this generation. The resemblance this team has to the 2013-to-2017 teams ends with the uniforms.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

The Patriots lost 17-10. Their only touchdown came when three Steelers decided to cover Josh Gordon and none decided to cover Chris Hogan.

The Patriots committed 14 penalties. You can quibble with a couple (the pass interference on Jonathan Jones being a prime one) but the unforced pre-snap penalties they committed are a by-product of not being all there mentally. At least that’s what we’ve always said when other teams do that.

They allowed the Steelers -- owners of the 28th rushing offense in the 32-team league with a couple of spare-part running backs -- to run for 168 yards on 22 running back carries. That came a week after the Dolphins ran for 189 on New England on 21 carries. Which was a week after the Vikings ran for 95 yards on 13 carries.

Aside from Trey Flowers, it’s expansion-level talent in their front-seven. And the Patriots secondary – while smart and capable in coverage – are not what they were even a year ago in run-support.

They either can’t defend the run, as in, they aren’t physically capable; or they won’t stop the run, as in, they don’t have the belly for it. I’m not sure which would be worse.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

One of the saddest exchanges of the game when the Patriots executed an amazing punt-downing at the Steelers 1 in the first half. It went Jonathan Jones to Rex Burkhead, through the legs of Matthew Slater and into the hands of Ramon Humber. The Steelers had to take over at their 1.

Three plays later – one of them a 12-yard run by Stevan Ridley, who I figured would be working in a vape shop by now – the Steelers were at the Patriots 46.

Silver-lining seekers may point to the fact Antonio Brown and Juju Smith-Schuster didn’t ruin the Patriots day. Or that Pittsburgh scored merely a field goal over the final 42 minutes.

The Steelers lost to the Raaaaaaiiiiiddddderrrrrrs last week. Pittsburgh got to the Patriots 4-yard line in the third quarter and somehow came away without points. Ben Roethlisberger threw two picks. They aren’t that good either.

But really, the most distressing aspect of all of it isn’t the run defense or the penalties. It’s Tom Brady.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

He’s played fine/good/OK for most of the season. He can very easily perform the physical tasks of playing NFL quarterback at a level that will win games.

It feels like heresy but that’s the facts. Playing “good” is such an amazing comedown from where’s he’s been since 2014 when he strung together four seasons that cemented his legend as the best to ever play his position.

He’s disconcerted by the buzzing pass rush.

His fundamentals sometimes come undone when there’s no threat at all.

Roll back the final play of the game and watch how he bails out to his left and curls away from presumed contact.

Look at the throw last week in the second half to Cordarelle Patterson that sailed toward the cheerleaders. Or the rushed throw to Chris Hogan against Miami. Or the decision to throw to the end zone on third-and-15 during the final drive with what looked like the Steelers holiday party surrounding Gronk when James White was pretty much alone on the left side and ready to pick up a few to set up fourth-and-manageable with the clock running.

What Brady’s 2018 performance underscores is just how necessary his round-the-clock, round-the-calendar, drag-everyone-with-him-to-the-mountains, football-is-life approach really was to ensuring he was without peer.

Because without that, he’s got a lot of peers this year.

STEELERS 17, PATRIOTS 10

So do the Patriots. They are 9-6 since the Super Bowl. They went 3-5 on the road this season. They scored 10 points in Detroit, 10 points in Tennessee and now 10 in Pittsburgh. It took a garbage-time touchdown against Jacksonville to get them to 20 points.  

When everything’s right, they can be a handful. Ask Minnesota. Or the Chiefs. But when it isn’t going right, they don’t have the (select one: talent, toughness, maturity, confidence, good sense, will) to change it.

They have five losses right now, the most they’ve had since the Nadir of ’09. In some ways, this team is like that one, it just has a better collective personality. This one, like that one, was born under a bad sign with a fractious offseason leading into a less-than-focused regular season.

But there was still a sense this year that they’d come to their senses.

A glass of water to the face like they took last week in Miami should have done the trick. The hated Steelers across from them on Sunday should have brought them fully awake.

It didn’t. And we’re left to conclude that what they’ve shown us is what they are.

Fine. OK. Good. A lot like a lot of teams. But nothing like they’ve been.

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Tom Brady laughs off Patriots injury report designation: 'I'm feeling really good'

Tom Brady laughs off Patriots injury report designation: 'I'm feeling really good'

The New England Patriots' Thursday injury report raised some eyebrows as Tom Brady was downgraded to limited in practice. But per usual, the injury designation doesn't seem to be a cause for concern.

In fact, Brady couldn't help but laugh when asked about being listed with elbow and toe ailments. During his Thursday night appearance on Westwood One with Jim Gray, Brady assured Patriots fans he'll be good to go vs. the Kansas City Chiefs.

“That might be the first time my toe’s been on the injury report,” Brady said. “So, you know us Patriots. We’re pretty diligent about listing everything. So, I guess you have to make mention of my toe now, as well.”

As for the elbow issue, Brady dealt with it during last week's game in Houston and is ready to do the same at Gillette Stadium on Sunday.

“Isn’t there some HIPAA violation or something like that when I start talking about all of my injuries?” Brady joked. “I’m doing pretty good. I’m doing pretty good. At this time of the year, I’ll take it. I’ll take anything if I’m still able to go out there and feel like I can play my best. I’m feeling really good, really positive about this weekend.”

Kickoff for the much-anticipated Patriots-Chiefs matchup is set for 4:25 p.m., and it sounds like Brady's more than ready for the AFC Championship Game rematch.

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Patriots Talk Podcast: A detailed look at why Tom Brady's time in NE is winding down

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Patriots Talk Podcast: A detailed look at why Tom Brady's time in NE is winding down

For 19 seasons, Tom Brady has been the unquestioned starter at quarterback for the New England Patriots. And for 19 years, he has started every game that he has been healthy for.

But ahead of the 2020 offseason, Brady's status with the organization remains as questionable as ever.

For the first time in his career, the 42-year-old Brady will be set to hit unrestricted free agency. He agreed to a restructured contract with the team this offseason, but it only gave him a pay raise this season and guaranteed that the team couldn't slap him with the franchise tag.

While Brady could return to the Patriots, it's possible that he could choose to go elsewhere if the team doesn't commit to him financially or surround him with better weaponry.

On the latest episode of the Patriots Talk Podcast, Tom E. Curran and Phil Perry discussed the possibility of Brady leaving. And as Curran pointed out, that topic hasn't been broached with much seriousness despite the fact that free agency is closer than some may realize.

We're talking about a seismic occurrence in the arc of the dynasty that is basically 90 days away. They could come to some kind of conclusion and rectify it and he might finish his career here, but it doesn't smell that way.

It's important to note that nothing is set in stone, and the Brady-Patriots relationship has endured for two decades for a reason. Despite some strain in the relationship at times, things have always been smoothed over. 

That said, there are some quarterback-needy teams that could attempt to lure Brady away from New England in an attempt to put their team over the top. Curran and Perry identified a few different options on the podcast, one of which was the Los Angeles Chargers.

Hear more from Curran and Perry on the latest episode of "The Patriots Talk Podcast," which drops every Tuesday and Thursday as a part of the NBC Sports Boston podcast network.

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