Something suddenly feels off, though putting a finger on just what it might be could prove more of a hardship than it’s ultimately worth.
We’ve been here before, of course. “The Patriots hate their coach’’ and “The New England Patriots just aren’t good anymore,’’ just to mention a couple of infamous phrases predicting an imminent doom that never arrived. For nearly every time the window seemingly descends only a notch, Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, more often than not, shove it back open.
Bravado, though, can tend to overlook issues at the helm. And the Patriots have plenty.
What happened on Sunday in Miami was just plain bizarre, a 20-10 loss to the Dolphins that had Patriots fans scratching their heads over Belichick and Josh McDaniels’ gameplan for the day, and then crossing their fingers that Brady’s right ankle will see some marked improvement before New England’s first playoff game on Jan. 16.
The Patriots quarterback was injured on a hit from Ndamukong Suh in the second quarter that further exacerbated any question as to why he was out on the field in the first place. If the Patriots clearly had no intention of being competitive in this game from the start, why were Rob Gronkowski and Danny Amendola out there taking the same beating? So much for Miami not showing up in its season finale. Rock on, Dan Campbell.
Brady joins the list of walking wounded, but professes that he’ll be OK in time to host the Cincinnati Bengals/Houston Texans/Kansas City Chiefs in 12 days. The Patriots also figure to have Julian Edelman back in the fold. They finished the regular season 3-4 since losing him to a broken foot in November’s win over the New York Giants. With Edelman in the lineup, Brady threw 23 touchdowns and only two interceptions. Without him, 13 touchdowns, five interceptions.
Is that more indicative of just how valuable the wide receiver is to Brady or how dysfunctional the team around him can prove to be in his absence? The Patriots have managed to put up 30 points only once in that entire timeframe, a 33-16 win over the hapless Tennessee Titans. Once again the offensive line is in shambles (Marcus Cannon may get a little locker room visit after Brady re-watches the Suh hit again), and the running game is suspect, despite some flashes from Steven Jackson on Sunday. Though one could argue that the ugliness in Miami was some grasp at getting the ground game going. So…what, Jimmy Garoppolo can’t hand off these days?
Nobody has any explanation for what we witnessed Sunday, the Patriots looking decidedly un-Patriot-like. Now, taken in the context of one game, you toss it aside and chalk it up as one of those regular-season losses that can happen in Miami, where the Patriots tend to win about as much as Ziggy at the poker table.
But when you add it up with last weekend’s convoluted overtime gaffe…the blundering special teams play in the loss to the Philadelphia Eagles…the strange play-calling at the outset of the Denver game…well, just what the hell is going on?
It was only last year that everybody left the Patriots for dead after their blowout loss in Kansas City, and while nobody is quite doing that now, not for a 12-4 team that heads into the NFL playoffs with the No. 2 seed, this recent string of games sort of delivers the same feeling. The Patriots right now, the same Patriots that began the season 10-0 and on a Middle Finger Tour directed straight at NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s offices, have an identity crisis. Maybe it’s as simple to rectify as getting Edelman back.
Belichick’s uncharacteristic nature (How much do we read into him removing the headset in the waning minutes on Sunday?) these past few weeks speaks to something though, doesn’t it? Either he’s playing around with scenarios that might help him later this month, or he’s run out of suitable personnel to lead the team the way on a Super Bowl run. Excuse-making can create a lot of different delusions of grandeur — i.e., Belichick kicked off in overtime to keep the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the playoffs (oops), Belichick threw the game on Sunday in order to avoid Pittsburgh (got that one), but opened the door for a trip to Denver in the AFC title game, complete with the “biggest story heading into the postseason’’ (credit, Jim Nantz), the so-so return of Peyton Manning.
Meanwhile, everyone is sleeping on the streaking Chiefs (10 in a row) and the talented, yet playoff-deficient Bengals. And the way the Patriots have played the last month, has to give you at least some pause that maybe this postseason isn’t going to go the way we all assumed when the Patriots were still conjuring memories of 2007.
“We just have to play well in two weeks from now,’’ Brady said before limping off the postgame podium on Sunday. “That’s all that really matters. It’s going to be one game and we have to play well and that is what our whole season will come down to. Nothing over the last six weeks is going to matter. Nothing over the last 16 weeks is going to matter. What’s going to matter is how well we play in two weeks, that’s what is going to matter, so we have to try to play as well as we can.’’
Appearances are meaningless, but the Patriots don’t look like they’re having much fun these days.
But are we watching a repeat of 2014, when the team’s resilience was a cornerstone of their success, or are we harkening back to 2009, when Belichick’s team collapsed in a heap of flaws?
Something just doesn’t feel right, and with the worst timing possibly imaginable.
Photos from the Patriots’ loss in Miami