In the general scheme of the NFL, nothing matters more than whether a particular game is chalked up in the W column or the L column. It's trite and rudimentary, sure, but it's the trite and rudimentary truth. Potential and expectations lie, but the standings do not.
The fella surveying the scene in the above photo will take a frustrating win over a loss that comes with encouraging signs every single time. Which is why Bill Belichick's postgame mood after the Patriots' 23-16 win over the allegedly hapless Jacksonville Jaguars was better than his string of monosyllabic snorts after the 41-34 loss to the Niners a week ago.
The Patriots began Sunday with 10 wins and a shot at a first-round bye. They end it with 11 wins and -- in part thanks to the Texans' loss to the Minnesota Petersons -- a still-reasonable shot at that first-round bye.
They won. Exhale. They did what they needed to do. This was no sequel to the bizarre, late loss to the lousy Miami Dolphins in 2004. Only the Red Sox celebrate eight-year anniversaries.
Playing the Jaguars, who entered with a 2-12 record and an apparently unjust reputation for going through the motions, was a situation that should not have required an escape. But when one was necessary, the Patriots pulled off their Houdini routine, with Patrick Chung intercepting Chad Henne's pass on the game's final play. It was the maligned Chung's second interception of the afternoon, one more indicator that this game didn't follow any ordinary game plan.
So now that we've reminded and reestablished, in way too many words, that a win is a win is a win, feel free to join along in the brief hunt for context and the briefer but necessary airing of grievances.
First, context. Or more precisely, the utter lack thereof at the moment. It's pretty much impossible to get a read on the Patriots' Super Bowl chances at the moment, because there has been wild fluctuation in their play, as well as the play of some of their chief competitors.
After their 42-14 dismantling of the Texans two weeks ago, there was a giddiness that has been familiar this time of year during this decade-plus run. They were rolling, and anyone east of Denver who watched them that Monday night had to believe they were the heavy favorite in the AFC. They looked like world-beaters, potential champions. If you're particularly optimistic, probable champions.
But six days later on the same field, they were late arrivals against the powerful Niners, falling behind 31-3 before scoring 28 points in fewer than 15 minutes to tie a game they would eventually lose. Cue the Belichick snorts, dim the giddiness.
Sunday's ugly win did little to offer a gauge on the likelihood of winning that fourth Super Bowl at the same place they won their first. Frankly, after watching the Texans lose to the Vikings, the Ravens drive a stake through the Giants, the Broncos continue to breeze through their cushy schedule with a victory over the Browns, and the Seahawks' ferocious dismantling of the Niners, it's a fool's errand to try to project anything week-to-week in this league right now. The trends are as scattered as a Jets quarterback's passes.
Which is where the grievances -- one primary grievance, really -- come in to play. There's no doubt in my mind that the Patriots can win the Super Bowl this year; I've believed for a while and still believe that they will win the AFC, bye or no bye, and wouldn't a showdown/rematch with Pete Carroll's Seahawks or the Niners be something?
But man, they have to do a better job of preventing Tom Brady from being spindled and mutilated. It's one thing to succumb to the Niners' pass rush a couple of times. That's going to happen. But Sunday, Brady was sacked three times and hit -- often belted -- nine more by the Jaguars. He's lucky he was in good enough condition to rip into his teammates for their lack of effort and execution before the media was permitted in the locker room after the game.
The Patriots are dealing with more than the usual array of late-season injuries -- Aaron Hernandez's inconsistency is in part due to his physical state, Brandon Spikes and Alfonzo Dennard stayed behind with Rob Gronkowski Sunday, and Aqib Talib probably should have too, given that he was limping around like Fred Sanford. But continuing to put Brady in danger endangers everything, and there will be plenty of concern about the condition of his right hand after he bounced it off Jason Babin's helmet while throwing a pass.
It's at the point where after the latest vicious hit, you hold your breath until he gets up. Thank goodness he did, every time, ultimately delivering the win, and so the Patriots and their fans could exhale yesterday when all was said and done. A bye is still in play. It could have been worse.
The Dolphins are next up, the final regular season matchup before the games that determine legacies and reputations begin.
I don't know about you, but a win by any means or margin -- and no more bruises for Brady and his most essential teammates -- sound like reasonable requests to me.
About Touching All The Bases
Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.