Now Patriots fans remember what it’s like to be everyone else. Consider it your semi-annual reminder of what it’s like to endure the frustrations of a poor and aggravating performance by your favorite football team. Of all of the Patriots’ remarkable achievements during this historically successful, decade-and-a-half-and-counting Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, here’s a secondary one we don’t often consider: Very rarely do they have a Sunday in which they just plain stink.
Sunday, they stunk. It’s jarring when it happens. But it happens. Just a hell of a lot less often here than it does in every other NFL city/region. The Patriots’ 35-28 loss to the Eagles Sunday — in which the special teams allowed touchdowns, Brady threw an interception that was returned 99 yards for another score, and Belichick decided to allow Nate Ebner to show off his rugby skills for no apparent reason — was the kind of what-the-hell-was-that? clunker that comes once around every few seasons or so.
I can think of only a few like it over the past 15 seasons. Last year’s 41-14 loss to the Chiefs in Week 4, a staggering outcome that dropped the Patriots to 2-2 and caused a lot of us to write many things that would be regrettable come February. (I’d suggest your neighborhood sports radio caterwauler also said regrettable things, except that sports radio hosts rarely regret anything said on the air that doesn’t end in termination.)
What else? There was a Week 9 loss during the 2010 season to the Browns. Peyton Hillis morphed into Jim Brown for the day, running for 188 yards and two touchdowns, and Cleveland won 34-14. In Week 14 in 2006, the Patriots were shut down and shut out by the Dolphins, losing 21-0. Miami stunned ’em two years earlier, too, that time in Week 15. The Patriots led by 11 with 3:59 left, but A.J. Feeley worked his special brand of magic, and Miami stole a 29-28 victory.
Like I said, there aren’t many of them.
That loss 11 years ago is the one in the archives that reminds me most of the debacle we witnessed Sunday. It should be noted that the loss to Feeley and the Fish meant absolutely nothing. The Patriots closed the regular season with wins over the Jets and Niners to finish 14-2. They won their third Super Bowl in four seasons a few weeks later.
That’s about it. That’s my way of suggesting — pleading, even — that we shouldn’t put too much stock in Sunday’s performance. It feels lousy, sure. They’ve lost two in a row and blown 14-point leads in both defeats. There’s not much that’s more aggravating than some schadenfreude-hungry keyboard truth-teller wagging a finger and telling us that injuries were not a factor. Injuries were a factor. Brandon LaFell suddenly has worse hands than Irving Fryar before Super Bowl XX, Scott Chandler has the catch radius of the Tin Man, and James White …, well he’s actually showing something. But Brady’s most reliable healthy receiver, Danny Amendola, is a guy who had all of 200 receiving yards a season ago. I never figured they’d miss Aaron Dobson, but here we are. I wouldn’t even mind seeing Chris Harper get another shot.
The Patriots are bruised, and that’s a reason why they were beaten. It is not, however, the only reason, far from it. The offensive line played like a five-man tribute to Eugene Chung, and they damn well had better get it together for Brady’s sake. But the weird reality is that the most reliable Patriots made costly mistakes Sunday. Brady’s interception, returned 99 yards for a score by Malcolm Jenkins, was inexcusable. And some of the coaching decisions — the timing of the Ebner drop kick, the indecision on whether to try to score before the end of the first half, the Ernie Zampese-like abandonment of any semblance of a running game with a two-touchdown lead — were befuddling. It’s like Belichick allowed Chip Kelly to call the Patriots’ plays too.
The Belichick haters had better slake their thirst for blood and comeuppance now, because he’s not due to have another day like Sunday until, oh, 2020 or so. If there’s anyone in the history of professional football who deserves the benefit of the doubt for a clunker performance, isn’t it him? And for all of the complaints about the Patriots getting “cute,’’ a reminder is probably required that a) doing so has aided a lot of victories over the years, including the AFC Championship Game against the Ravens last season, and B) “cute’’ plays did work as recently as Sunday, or did everyone forget that Brady had more receiving yards than LaFell? Creativity ain’t hubris if it works. It works more than enough and in bigger moments than a Week 13 loss to the Eagles.
The loss also stands as a reminder of how silly it is to seriously discuss the possibility of an undefeated season before December kicks off. The Patriots are now beaten, twice, and yet a quarter of the regular-season schedule still remains. But we also need to remind ourselves that one loss — even two, and in a row — isn’t worth more than a cursory concern.
The Patriots haven’t been themselves lately. That is true. That’s partially due to uncharacteristic lapses by people who rarely get a detail wrong on game day, let alone make a glaring mistake. It’s also partly due to attrition, and that’s the blessing here. Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman will be back. So too will Donta’ Hightower. Jamie Collins is back. Two weeks ago, the Patriots were considered the beat team in football. You know why? Because, with apologies to the Panthers, they were. Provided the line doesn’t put Brady in traction before Gronk returns, they’ll deserve such consideration again.
This Sunday, Patriots fans saw how the other half — hell, how the other 31 — lives. It’s a reminder to appreciate what we’ve had for a decade and a half. But, don’t worry, we’re not going to have to get used to it any time soon.