FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Predicting the demise of the New England Patriots is a long-running parlor game that leaves no winners, only regret and fools. The onset of doom, for them, ends with trophies and parades, with Bill Belichick cracking his annual half-smile and Tom Brady somehow looking younger. Declaring the end of the Patriots is both pointless venture and folly.
But we also don’t know what the end will look like, so we might not be able to identify it even when it happens in front of our eyes. What if the end looks like an impotent offense surrendering amid the strange sound of Gillette Stadium boos at halftime? What if it looks like Brady engulfed in the pocket and fuming on the sideline days after his father openly speculated in the local newspaper about his son’s future? What if looks like undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers running wide open across the middle and allowing a pinpoint pass to slip through his fingers? What if it looks like Brady sitting on his backside, a final pass having fluttered to the turf, as the visiting sideline erupts?
What if the end looks like Sunday evening?
The Patriots still hold a bye in the AFC playoffs, and they may yet win their seventh Super Bowl two months from now. If they do, they will think back to the first half of Sunday’s 23-16 defeat and marvel at how they ever sailed so far ashore. In a rematch of last year’s AFC championship game, the Kansas City Chiefs snapped the Patriots’ 21-game home winning streak, playoffs included, and disabused anyone of the notion that the Patriots are presently a championship-caliber outfit.
The Patriots rebounded in the second half, and Brady threw a pass into the end zone with 1:06 left that could have given the Patriots a chance to tie or take the lead. If not for untimely officiating misadventures, New England may well have won. Then again, had the Chiefs not combusted in the second half, allowing a punt to be blocked and losing one of their two fumbles, it may not have been close.
The Patriots began the season 8-0, with a defense that drew comparisons to history’s best. They are 2-3 since, the two wins nail-biters against sub-.500 NFC East foes. Against the Buffalo Bills, Baltimore Ravens, Houston Texans and Chiefs – likely to be four of their five fellow AFC playoff teams – the Patriots have averaged 18.5 points while losing three times.
The losses came to Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, which screams symbolism. They represent the future of the conference Brady has ruled for two decades. Brady is 42 and showing frustration with the degraded roster around him.
On Sunday night, Brady stood at a lectern with his right arm mummified. (“I just got hit right on the elbow,” he said. “It’s fine.”) A reporter asked whether this Patriots team could solve its offensive woes, whether he could figure out the problem as he has so many times before.
“I don’t want to make any predictions,” Brady said. “We come in with a plan to get better every week and try to get better every game. Each game takes on a little different feel, and the situations are a little different. It’s a different team every year, too. I may have certain experience doing things, but this particular team as a whole hasn’t been through certain situations.”
Just last year, the Patriots lost consecutive December games to the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers before ripping off five straight victories, a streak that ended with confetti in Atlanta.
But those Patriots found an answer to what ailed them. They became a power running machine on offense, boosted by an excellent offensive line and the blocking of fullback James Develin and tight end Rob Gronkowski, whose receiving ability, albeit diminished, prevented defenses from fully committing to loading up against the run.
But Develin is injured, Gronkowski is retired, and their supposed reinforcements – Josh Gordon, Antonio Brown, Demaryius Thomas – are strewn across the landscape. These Patriots appear incapable, despite Belichick’s brilliance and Brady’s craft, of conjuring a backup plan.
“If you go back and watch the film, most of their successful plays were all gadget plays,” Chiefs defensive end Alex Okafor said.
Okafor offered the assessment not as a taunt but as an objective evaluation. On Sunday night, the Patriots got 72 yards – 26% of their total – on a flea flicker and a halfback pass. They scored their two touchdowns on the flea flicker and a jet sweep.
“Those are good momentum plays,” Brady said. “I wish we could have made a few more of the other ones, too.”
On their first drive, the Patriots showed a clear intention to run the ball. Those attempts, primarily with 2018 first-round draft pick Sony Michel, failed. Two pass interference calls and Brady’s 37-yard touchdown pass to Julian Edelman after a flea flicker gave New England an instant 7-0 lead.
Flags and flea flickers are not a formula. The Patriots tried to find one in the way a house guest tries to find a light switch at midnight. They used tempo. They tried two tight ends. They tried feeding Edelman. They tried using him as a decoy when he was double-teamed. They tried short passes to running backs. Nothing worked. The Chiefs hounded Brady and blanketed receivers. The Patriots’ final six drives of the first half looked like this: punt, blocked field goal, interception, turnover on downs, three and out, then end of half after the Patriots declined to use their timeouts and instead sought shelter in the locker room.
“At the end of the day, any team that has to run gadgets to beat you, it shows what type of team they are,” Kansas City defensive end Frank Clark said.
What type of team are the Patriots, then? Flawed, certainly. But also in line for the No. 2 seed and helmed by two of the greatest figures in league history.
“Whenever you got [Brady], whenever you got Belichick, whenever you got the logo on their helmet, you know they’re going to come with it,” Okafor said. “Every team better watch out and respect that.”
Still, an unfamiliar queasiness hovers. Speculation thickened this week in New England about Brady’s future. The Patriots host two more games in the regular season, and many started wondering with increasing disquiet whether they will be among the final appearances Brady makes as a Patriot at Gillette Stadium.
Brady is not under contract past this year, he sold his Brookline, Massachusetts, home in the summer, and throwing to heavily covered, unproven receivers all year has created a sense of glumness around him. Does Belichick want to re-sign a 43-year-old quarterback? Would Brady prefer to play with better weapons for a less dour boss? Could Robert Kraft stomach watching Brady leave?
Opinions and analysis roiled Boston airwaves in the wake of the Patriots’ miserable offensive showing in Houston. Joining the uneasy din this week was the voice of the quarterback’s father, who referenced Joe Montana ending his career with the Chiefs.
“It’s hard for me to envision him playing somewhere else,” Brady Sr. told the Boston Herald. “He wants to play. But ultimately, it’s Bill’s decision. Nobody really knows. Bill doesn’t tip his hand. There’s just been insinuations here and there.”
On Sunday night, Brady walked down a corridor in the bowels of Gillette Stadium. He ran into former Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who now fills the position for the Chiefs. “You guys did good,” Brady said, patting Daly on the chest.
Brady ducked into a food room and later emerged to find his family. As he headed toward the exit, wife Gisele Bündchen, the supermodel, leaned over and pecked his cheek. Brady headed out of the stadium, secure in what he has done, facing foreign uncertainty about what comes next.