MIAMI – Is it finally morning in the AFC?
After a 20-year nightmare starring the New England Patriots, is it safe for the other 15 teams in the conference to creep close and look down at the Patriots lying still on the ground?
For the first time in four years, the New England Patriots aren’t in the Super Bowl. For the first time in nine years, they weren’t just a win away.
They lost five of their final nine games in 2019. They got waxed by the Titans in the Wild Card Round. Tom Brady’s got an expiring contract. They’ve lost a squadron of coaches over the past three years. They lost five times to non-playoff teams in 2018 before grinding out another Lombardi. Their defense is graying. Their offense is understaffed.
So, how does the rest of the conference react to seeing the Patriots flat on their back? Do they stand motionless and stare? Do they pick up a stick and nudge them? Put the toe of a boot in their ribs and see if they moan? Dead? Sleeping?
Is it safe to talk about a succession plan at the top of the AFC?
“That’s a trap question,” sniffed Chiefs defensive end Terrell Suggs on Monday night. “As long as their coach is their coach and their quarterback is their quarterback, you’re gonna have a problem in the AFC.”
As much as anyone, Suggs – the former Raven – understands how fast the Patriots can shoot a hand up through fresh soil and grab the ankle of anyone who buried them prematurely.
Nobody – least of all the Chiefs – wants to pour one out for New England.
“Oh, I don’t think that,” was the response of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo when asked if there was a changing of the guard at the top of the AFC. “No. As long as Coach Belichick and Tom Brady are there, I don’t see anything ending. I got too much respect for them. Nobody’s told me that Tom’s not gonna be there or Bill’s not gonna be there so I think the Patriots are still pretty good. I think they’re somebody we should worry about.”
“Changing of the guard?” asked Chiefs general manager Brett Veach. “I can’t speak for everybody else but there’s so many good teams and it’s so hard to get here. With the Patriots, what they’ve done, it’s hard to imagine that will be duplicated. We’re just trying to get one and that hasn’t happened in 50 years. I’m just looking at it year by year and I know that, after this game, every team will be locked and loaded and coming for us.”
That’s how it’s been for the Patriots since 2001. In a league designed to ensure parity that will bring good teams back to the pack, five-year runs of success are epochs. For two decades, they’ve been King Kong hanging off the Empire State swatting back real or imagined attacks from the Broncos, Steelers, Ravens, Colts, Titans, Jets and a few others. And that’s not even mentioning the once-a-decade pilfering of first-round picks by the league itself.
The respect for what the Patriots accomplished takes that into account.
“You have to say the job the Kraft family has done over the past 20 years has been incredible,” said Chiefs owner Clark Hunt. “To make as many Super Bowls, win as many Super Bowls, it’s unprecedented in the modern era of the National Football League and really in the history of the National Football League.
“I don’t want to say there’s been a change of guard because I know how good a coach Bill Belichick is,” Hunt added. “I know what a great quarterback Tom Brady is, although I know there’s some question as to whether he’ll be back next year. But I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the playoffs next year.”
Hunt was pretty talked out when I got to him at the end of Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday so I give him a break on saying he “wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the playoffs next year” when the real surprise would be if the Patriots were NOT in the playoffs. They’ve only missed the postseason twice since 2001. One of those years was without Tom Brady.
Of course, 2020 could be without Tom Brady as well. And that’s the caveat attached to all of this. If the Patriots are going to stay where they’ve been, adequately replacing the greatest quarterback of all time is kinda important.
I brought this question of quarterback unsettledness to Scott Pioli, architect alongside Belichick of the 2000-07 Patriots before going on to work as an executive with the Chiefs and Falcons.
“Whenever Tommy chooses to leave or whatever happens or who’s the next quarterback, again, we’re speculating on things we have NO IDEA about,” Pioli said with exasperation. “We don’t know when and if Tommy’s leaving. We don’t know when and if Bill’s leaving and then we don’t know who’s the next quarterback. We’re speculating on things we don’t even know about.”
Fixing his attention on the teams that could crowd the Patriots out of the AFC’s upper tier, Pioli said, “Once you have a roster – there are teams that look like they are lining up to be good – what happens when they have injuries and problems? Everyone talks about who’s going to win the Super Bowl in August and September, by the time the season ends the complexion of a team and roster is totally different.”
That roster management – in-season and out – is such an established strength of Belichick’s that the notion he won’t keep on keeping on is waved away as nonsense.
“Nobody does it better than Bill,” said Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. “He’s proven it over and over so they’ll be back. So all the people in New England, relax. You got a great coach and they’ll be back strong next year. It's great competition for us. We love playing them. We’ve won some, we’ve lost some but it’s great for the National Football League.”
It truly has been. The Patriots are the ultimate foil. Every team’s white whale. Every fanbase’s villain. That’s one thing you realize in what may be the autumn of the Patriots dominance.
With the standards of excellence they’ve set on the field and sidelines, the evolutions they’ve forced as teams reinvent themselves to conquer them, the incredible drama they’ve provided in the most-watched games and the news and controversy they’ve generated, it’s all been unbelievable for business.
But now, it looks like they’re slippi…
“No,” said Pioli, raising his palm so I couldn’t finish. “No, they’re not. I am interrupting you because you think that, I don’t think that. I don’t think it’s a changing of the guard. Too early. Everyone’s been wanting this to happen, dying for this to happen, they want it so bad that they’re trying to will it. I don’t believe that it is.
“That doesn’t mean other teams aren’t gonna be good, but that doesn’t mean the Patriots are not going to be good also. The Patriots are not dead.”