FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots empire is collapsing. Again.
Don’t you see it? The signs are all there.
Tom Brady is a cranky 42-year-old, fed up with whippersnapper teammates half his age who repeatedly fail to grasp the ingenious intricacies of his passes. Moody, downcast and wincing from an aching elbow and toe, Brady looks as if he wants to retire with Gisele Bündchen to the $9 million, 12-bath mansion the couple reportedly bought last month in backcountry Greenwich, Connecticut.
Or, he could do the unthinkable as a free agent next spring and sign to play elsewhere.
There’s a wound that would fester in Boston. Why not just declare that the colonists lost at Bunker Hill? Oh, wait, they did.
Speaking of losses, the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots have two in their last four games, and the usual gang of haters have lined up to point out that New England’s 8-0 start to the season was accomplished against NFL patsies: Giants, Jets, Redskins, Dolphins, et al.
In eastern Massachusetts, even the locals are wondering why the Patriots offense has appeared overmatched and inexperienced against stout recent competition like the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans.
At the same time, a Patriots defense once deemed invincible suddenly seems vulnerable. So much so that Bill Belichick, the unit’s mastermind and the greatest defensive coach in the history of pro football, admitted to a crack in the armor. A day after his team’s defeat in Houston on Sunday night, Belichick conceded the Texans had outwitted the Patriots on occasion: “They had us on a couple of scheme things.”
Then there’s the 6-foot-6, 265-pound hole in the Patriots psyche, the retired Rob Gronkowski.
Brady, whose team ranks in the middle of the league in third-down efficiency, misses Gronk. The Patriots’ troubled running game, 21st in the league, misses Gronk’s blocking. The masses in the Gillette Stadium stands, though raucous as ever, miss Gronk because he embodied the everyday fan.
Who else can they rally behind? Their longtime kicker, Stephen Gostkowski?
No, Gostkowski is out for the season with an injury. In fact, as of Thursday night, the Patriots had no kicker on their roster at all. They have tried and cut three replacements for Gostkowski. Punter Jake Bailey would be the only kicker in uniform, and he last attempted a field goal in high school.
You see what I mean about the empire crumbling?
It could soon get much worse. On Sunday, the upstart, gifted Kansas City Chiefs will come to Foxborough ready to avenge their AFC championship game loss at home 11 months ago. A defeat against the Chiefs could significantly accelerate the Patriots’ spiral. A loss in Houston on Sunday already knocked the team from its perch as the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. Falling against the Chiefs could cost the Patriots the second seed and a first-round bye. The Patriots’ remaining schedule includes the feeble Cincinnati Bengals and Miami Dolphins, but there’s also a Dec. 21 date with the thriving Buffalo Bills.
It’s not inconceivable that the Patriots will end up with the AFC’s fifth seed.
OK, time for a deep breath, especially for those who would welcome the Patriots’ downfall as the greatest holiday present of all time.
First, we’ve been through this so many times before. The Patriots’ demise was predicted in 2008, when they missed the playoffs for the first time in six years. It was also considered just around the corner in 2009, and then in 2013 (with a 7-3 record in late November). They were supposed to be toppling from their pedestal in 2016 and last year, too, when they surrendered the top playoff seed with back-to-back defeats in mid-December.
But everyone was wrong. Since 2008, the Patriots have doubled their Super Bowl victories from three to six, including championships in three of the last five seasons. So perhaps we need to backpedal on the decaying dynasty talk.
Or as Devin McCourty, New England’s brilliant defensive back since 2010, said at his locker after practice Thursday: “All anybody wants to talk about is the end. We’re in a business where nobody cares when you do well. But that’s meaningless to us as players. We have our own standards and expectations.”
A salient point. When the Patriots were 8-0 in October, did the football world, including writers, overrate them? Maybe, but the New England players had no role in that. Maybe the Patriots aren’t the least bit surprised their record is 10-2 after tough tests in Baltimore and Houston that turned out to be losses. They’re still tied for the best record in the NFL.
“We all know that at this time of the year, things get more intense around here,” New England wide receiver Phillip Dorsett said Wednesday when asked about the palpable worry in the voices on Boston-area sports talk radio this week. “That’s not our mentality. We focus on continuing to improve. That’s how you finish strong.”
If that sounds like a cliché, consider the Patriots’ extraordinary record at the close of recent seasons, and not just in the postseason. Since 2010, New England is 36-9 in December and January regular-season games and 20-3 at home, where the Patriots have not lost a December game since 2015.
In the end, you almost have to wonder if football fans in the 44 states outside New England really do want the Patriots’ reign to crumble. What would the rest of the country do without the Patriots to hate? Whom would the rest of the NFL measure itself against?
Some day Brady won’t be so annoyingly skilled and accomplished, and Belichick won’t be the smartest coach on any football field — with a smirk that proves he knows it.
Some day, but maybe not this season. There’s still two months of high-stakes games to go. Don’t be surprised when the Patriots are at least in the thick of it.