FOXBORO -- So the Patriots made the Vikings look absolutely toothless on Sunday.
A team that had only lost to the Rams, Saints, Bears and Bills (combined record, 33-15, thanks to the 4-8 Bills for undermining my point just a little), a team with two of the NFL’s best receivers and its best defense, gave less resistance than the Jets did last week AND got their heads handed to them on the sidelines and on the field.
And were also instructed to stop talking immediately. In more colorful language.
So what now? Do the Vikings suck, too? The Patriots only won because Kirk Cousins is a fraud and Stefon Diggs was hurt and Adam Theilen isn’t really that good anyway? The Minnesota defense was a paper tiger?
Monday, the search will commence for contradictory evidence as to why this win wasn’t nearly as impressive as it looked. But it was actually even more impressive than the scoreboard showed.
Because they reinvented themselves on both sides of the ball and made a good team look inept.
On defense, they felt comfortable enough with their players’ communication to give them a little of the old Bus Stop Defense they used to employ against Drew Bledsoe. Just have everyone mill around the line of scrimmage before the snap, then haul ass to get to their spots and execute.
On offense, they started with a screen/rocket motion scheme that got Minnesota moving side-to-side and worried about who was going where. Josh McDaniels drew it up so that everyone got involved -- no favorites. And when that stopped working after halftime, they tweaked it again, abandoned the screens and beat Minnesota on the outside with Josh Gordon and Gronk down the middle and their running game (23 for 104 as a team after halftime).
We gotta give up the ghost at some point, don’t we?
The Patriots are 9-3, have won eight of their last nine and -- if Sunday was an indication -- are just stretching their fingers as they pull up to the piano to pound out a late-season football concerto.
They may not be as talented, deep or well-constructed as recent editions. Their success may look different than it has and the amount of ingenuity required each week to secure style-free victories may be greater. But they aren’t sliding back to average.
And they aren’t being lapped by a morphing league that leaves Tom Brady looking like a minivan-driving Dad in sandals and black socks.
The Patriots are getting worse more slowly than the rest of the league is getting better.
Take a look around an NFL that supposedly was alleged to have been irrevocably altered after the 54-51 MNF GAME THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING FOREVER!
The suddenly-in-vogue Colts didn’t score a damn point in a loss to Jacksonville, a team which won the September Super Bowl against the Patriots and hadn’t twitched again until Sunday.
The Saints, whose quarterback Drew Brees was on the cover of SI last week with the suggestion we reconsider Drew Brees, lost 13-10 at Dallas.
Rigor mortis has set in on the corpse of the would-be Eagles dynasty. Fun while it lasted, though. The Bears lost to the Giants. They were hard to take seriously anyway.
The Falcons are dead. The Texans seem as surprised as anyone that they’re 9-3. The Steelers are as dependably dysfunctional as they’ve been since 2010.
The Chiefs scraped by Oakland on Sunday and there will be nothing but silence at the dinner table for them for the remainder of the season.
I have nothing bad to say about the 2018 Rams, but they better take a long look at the corpse of the Eagles if they think they’re on the cusp of something very special. The Chargers also seem like a pain in the ass.
And then there’s the Packers. There but for the grace of God, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick goes your Patriots.
Eye-rollin’ Aaron Rodgers was sick of the ever-befuddled Mike McCarthy and McCarthy was sick of snot-nosed Aaron and the divorce went through in record time.
That same interpersonal fatigue exists here in New England as well. We spent the spring and summer documenting it. But nothing interferes with the goddamn football once the goddamn football begins in earnest.
The Patriots being 9-3 and plodding once again toward the No. 1 seed in the AFC has nothing to do with their conference or their division, despite what paint-by-numbers columnists will tell you.
With Brady at quarterback, New England is 51-16 against the NFC. That’s a .761 winning percentage. Not as high as the Patriots' winning percentage in their division (.797). But that .797 isn’t as high as the Patriots' winning percentage when playing teams from the AFC North (.833), the AFC South (.818), the NFC East (.816) or the NFC North (.850).
In the end, both things can be true.
The 2018 Patriots are inferior to recent editions.
But the gap -- which we falsely believe is narrowing based on what allegedly good teams do against other allegedly good teams -- always reappears when those teams play the Patriots.
They aren’t good against the Patriots doesn’t just mean they aren’t as good as we thought they were. It takes the Patriots to bring that truth into the light.
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