With the Patriots watching this Super Bowl, has there been a changing of the guard in the AFC?

With the Patriots watching this Super Bowl, has there been a changing of the guard in the AFC?

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.

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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.

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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.”

Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers reveals his goal entering 2020 NFL season

Patriots WR Jakobi Meyers reveals his goal entering 2020 NFL season

The New England Patriots need a young wide receiver to step and play at a higher level in 2020, and one of the best candidates is Jakobi Meyers.

Meyers went undrafted in 2019 out of North Carolina State and performed well enough in training camp and the preseason to earn a spot on the Patriots' 53-man roster. 

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What is Meyers hoping to accomplish in his second pro season?

"Mentally, I want to be levels ahead of where I was last year," Meyers told writer Paul Perillo. "Understanding not only what we're doing but also why we're doing it. Earning trust to make the right play. I want to build on last year. It was a nice stepping stone, but I want to keep building and growing."

Meyers knows his job is not guaranteed, and he's very motivated to prove to the Patriots that he again deserves a roster spot.

"I feel like I will be a lot further ahead," Meyers said. "I didn't know if I'd even make the team or what role I might have or where I'd be playing. I still have chip on my shoulder, like will I even be here? I'm staying ready for my name to be called. I need to make sure I give them a reason to keep me around."

For Meyers to take the next step he must be more consistent.

The 23-year-old wideout had consecutive games with multiple receptions only twice as a rookie, and he tallied only one catch in five of the 11 games he played. Overall, Meyers totaled 26 receptions for 359 yards and zero touchdowns in 2019.

One reason to be confident in Meyers' ability to make a stronger impact in the Patriots offense next season is Jarrett Stidham. The 2019 fourth-round draft pick likely will be the team's starting quarterback following Tom Brady's departure in free agency, and he and Meyers had a good chemistry during the preseason. Of course, it's important not to take too much away from preseason action, but these two players built a strong rapport last August

Injuries to veteran wide receivers Julian Edelman and Mohamed Sanu played a large part in the Patriots' offensive struggles over the second half of the 2019 season. If Edelman and Sanu come back healthy, and a young wideout such as Meyers or N'Keal Harry make a sophomore leap, New England's offense has a chance to be surprisingly good in 2020.

McCourty twins put Drew Brees on blast after Saints QB's protest comments


McCourty twins put Drew Brees on blast after Saints QB's protest comments

Drew Brees' first public comments in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis last week have drawn a strong reaction from players across the NFL, including members of the New England Patriots.

The New Orleans Saints quarterback did an interview with Yahoo! Finance that was posted Wednesday, and when asked about players kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality and racial injustice in America, Brees made it clear he's not in favor of that gesture.

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“I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country," Brees told Yahoo!. "Let me just tell you what I see or what I feel when the national anthem is played and when I look at the flag of the United States. I envision my two grandfathers, who fought for this country during World War II, one in the Army and one in the Marine Corps. Both risking their lives to protect our country and to try to make our country and this world a better place. So every time I stand with my hand over my heart looking at that flag and singing the national anthem, that’s what I think about. ..."

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 was the first NFL player to protest by kneeling during the national anthem, and many other players have done so since.

The official Twitter account of Patriots defensive backs Devin and Jason McCourty posted a tweet in response to Brees' remarks, calling them "a disgrace."

The McCourty twins weren't the only athletes reacting to Brees' comments on social media. Many others did, too, including two of Brees' wide receiver teammates, Michael Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.