FOXBORO – The New England Patriots’ defining trait over 20 seasons is still there. It’s part of their DNA, it’s baked-in goodness. Their resilience.
It’s because of that resilience that they had a hand on an onside kick with time winding down last week in Houston with a chance to recover and win a game they had no business being close in. It’s because of that resilience that Tom Brady was throwing to Julian Edelman for a would-be game-winning touchdown with 1:11 left on a fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City Chiefs' 5-yard line.
The same resilience we saw in Denver at the end of the 2015 AFC Championship Game, the final gasps of Super Bowl XLII, the Hail Mary at the gun in Super Bowl XLVI, the Malcolm Butler pick in Super Bowl XLIX, the bounce-back from consecutive losses last year in December as they rolled off five straight wins to hoist another Lombardi Trophy.
It’s still there and it’s what will define this season no matter where it leads, how it ends and what happens after. The refusal to tap out.
And that’s why there was no grave-dancing from the Chiefs after they knocked off the Patriots at home, 23-16.
If you’re Kansas City, deep down, you’re feeling like it shouldn’t have been that close.
A blocked punt to set up one Patriots touchdown which came on a jet sweep to little-used running back Brandon Bolden?
Two third-down pass interference calls and a flea-flicker to allow the Patriots first score?
A 17-yard Tom Brady scramble on a fourth-down to put them in position to throw for the end zone at the end of a drive when a 35-yard halfback pass from James White got the Patriots going?
A 24-yard pass interference on another third down to put the Patriots in the red zone early in the fourth? A little toss to N’Keal Harry – just the second play of the game Harry was on the field for -- to get them inside the 5-yard line? Even though Harry should have been credited with a touchdown and the Patriots had to settle for a field goal instead of the seven, the Chiefs still have to shake their collective heads and wonder how it got to that.
But you don’t let a disrespectful word slip from your Chiefs lips because you’ve seen the resilience up close in crushing fashion over the last 14 months and you know better.
Because even when the Patriots look dead, you’re wary they may just be sleeping.
“They play the game the right way I think is the biggest thing,” said Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. “If they’re not clicking on offense or they’re not clicking on defense, they’re not clicking on special teams, the other unit picks them up. And so for me, when you have a team that plays the game the right way, that finds ways to win games even if they’re not supposed to win them, you know that they’re going to be there in the end in the playoffs.
"And so for us, we understand that. We understand that they’re still sitting at the two or three or whatever seed it is, and we understand that we’re going to have to come out every single week and then when we get to the playoffs, we’ll probably have to play them or another great team in this AFC to try to get to the Super Bowl.”
Best to talk like you expect to see them again and give them nothing to fuel their voracious appetite for disrespect, presumed or actual. Because it’s the impossible-to-measure intangibles -- football intelligence, situational genius and resourcefulness -- that make them so dangerous even when they are fighting with one offense tied behind their back.
And that’s what they’re attempting.
The Patriots conjured 16 points Sunday. Gadget plays are great when they are jump-starting an offense. Not so great when they are the offense. Brady looks more and more like the courtroom sketch from his Deflategate days every week.
The Patriots struggled to another tough day with the ball. They went 2-for-12 on third down and 1-for-3 in the red zone. Brady went 19-for-36 for 169 yards with three completions to wide receivers not named Julian Edelman and took three sacks while absorbing another thrashing. It reminded me of the quote loosely attributed to Captain Bligh: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
Even though the refs hosed them out of the Harry touchdown (and never should have whistled the ball dead after Devin McCourty’s strip of Travis Kelce), they immediately wound up going backwards from first-and-goal at the 3. A touchdown from there should have been a formality. It wasn’t. It cost them four points and those would have come in handy when they needed seven to tie the game in the final minutes.
But the Patriots should be able to score a touchdown from there the same way the Chiefs should have been able to stop the Patriots on their overtime drive in last year’s AFC Championship Game or the Oakland Raiders should have been able to come up with a stop in the Snow Bowl after the Tuck Rule intervened. The chance was RIGHT. THERE.
The desperate lengths they have to go to in order to gain yards and score points continues to be both a source of amazement and concern. They’ve lost three of their past five. Their highest point total came last week against Houston (22) and 13 of those came in the final four minutes when they trailed 28-9. Their lone touchdown against Philly was an Edelman touchdown pass. Their lone touchdown against Dallas was set up by an interception at the Cowboys' 12. Sunday’s touchdowns came on a flea-flicker and the short-field Bolden jet sweep.
“At the end of the day, any team that has to run gadgets to beat you, it shows what type of team they are, you know what I mean?” said Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark. “At the end of the day, we played them straight up. It wasn’t no gadgets. Play hard. You know with football, if you’re Tom Brady, you know what defense we in, you know what’s coming at you. And they couldn’t stop it. Period.”
OK, so maybe not all the Chiefs were overtly respectful. But Clark’s not wrong, either. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels will get another round of second-guessing this week but he’s trying everything to find something, anything to work consistently. There’s nothing there except Edelman.
“That’s what it’s gonna take to finish the season,” said McCourty. “Whatever we are right now, it is what it is. Tonight sucked because I felt we played well enough to win.”
No buckling after consecutive losses to AFC contenders?
“It can’t get any worse than last year losing to Miami with seven seconds left then going down to Pittsburgh and losing that game,” McCourty countered. “This team’s resilient. Nothing fazes us. We know what we have here. A lot of guys who know how to win, a lot of guys that have won and we lean on that to lead us and just continue to try and execute. We can’t predict the future but if we keep playing we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Bill Belichick has been playing the resiliency card since he took the 2001 Patriots to see Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure during training camp.
With losses to the Chiefs, Texans and Ravens over their past five games, he knows now is not the time to lament what his team doesn’t have. Better to trumpet what it does. Resiliency.
“I’m really proud of the way our team competed tonight,” Belichick said. “Those guys went and battled for 60 minutes. It wasn’t always perfect, there were certainly things we could have done better, but we were competitive right down to the final play and that’ll serve us well going forward.”
How far will that take them? We’ll find out.
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