I’m not sure if we’re supposed to take it as a potential sign of things to come or a reminder to appreciate the extraordinary times we’ve had following the local professional football team for the last 20 years. Probably both, I suppose.
But shoot . . . watching the divisional round play on without the Patriots this past weekend — the first time since 2009 that they haven’t been a feared participant — was just plain weird, wasn’t it?
The Patriots have had a first-round bye nine times during the Tom Brady/Bill Belichick era, including nine consecutive seasons previous to this one. The divisional playoff round — the NFL’s elite eight — is where they’re usually starting their playoff journey. To be eliminated before that round even began made watching the weekend’s games disconcerting, as if the Patriots were some sort of football ghost limb, still there in our minds and emotions but absent in all reality.
That’s not a suggestion that they deserved to be there. All four of the remaining AFC teams that played Saturday and Sunday — the Titans, Ravens, Texans, and Chiefs — defeated the Patriots this season. The only team among those four I believe the Patriots would have defeated in this round would be the Texans, who beat the Patriots, 28-22, in Week 13.
The Texans let a 24-0 lead evaporate so fast against Kansas City that the Atlanta Falcons’ performance in Super Bowl LI looked comparatively resistant. Good heavens, Bill O’Brien does not deserve Deshaun Watson.
I do believe there was some value for Patriots fans in watching the AFC playoff slate. You can learn from watching your conquerors play on, and while we have no idea what the Patriots will do to alter and hopefully enhance their roster in the offseason, we should have a little more clarity now on what they should do.
Priority No. 1 to me remains retaining Tom Brady. That might not have been the clear conclusion to come to while watching the various games, with the versatility and athleticism of Watson, Patrick Mahomes, and Lamar Jackson (even on a poorly timed off-day) reminding us that the NFL finally no longer demands its quarterbacks fit a prototype. This is the most interesting era at quarterback I can recall, and some of these guys do make Brady look like a relic — heck, the Titans defense made him look like a relic.
But even entering his age 43 season, he has much to offer. His arm is strong enough. His knowledge base must be greater at this point than that of any quarterback that has ever played. He’s certainly going to be motivated. And with the return of Josh McDaniels — a very good coordinator with whom Brady is beyond copacetic — there’s something to be said for giving it one more go with perhaps the greatest coach/coordinator pairing in NFL history.
McDaniels too often gets blamed for the execution failures of his players, such as on the pivotal goal-line stand against the Titans when he chose to run three times in a row. Sure, he makes mistakes — handing off to Elandon Roberts at a different point in that game was too cute by half — but there isn’t an offensive coordinator in the league who could have turned the Patriots into anything resembling the Air Coryell Chargers. He’s good at his job, and there is plenty of evidence of this on championship DVDs through the years.
I’m still waiting to hear what the plausible alternative to Brady is. I saw it aggregated somewhere Monday that Peter King had written about what the Patriots might have to give up for Andy Dalton. You mean besides their dignity? If you’re talking yourself into Dalton over Brady, you need to recalibrate everything, my friend. He wouldn’t even be the best redheaded quarterback in the AFC East, and the other guy admits to seeing ghosts during games.
Teddy Bridgewater? Are we sure he’s good? Philip Rivers? Get out of here. Eli Manning? How could you suggest such a thing? I’d rather sign his brother (not Peyton, Cooper). Hey, how about Tony Romo? Maybe the Patriots can outbid CBS and ESPN for this offseason’s most coveted broadcasting free agent.
Jarrett Stidham? Listen, the kid apparently is getting high marks behind the scenes. That’s good. He’s not Ryan Mallett. But the learning curve is steep for the fourth-rounder.
When Brady took over for the injured Drew Bledsoe in Week 2 in 2001, it was immediately — and I mean immediately — clear that he did all the small things well, such as controlling the pace of the game and throwing the screen pass and so many things the big-armed Bledsoe never mastered since he could just sling it. Stidham still struggles with some of the small things. Give him another year of gestation, maybe two.
Another major takeaway from the weekend’s games — and one that was increasingly noticeable during the regular season — was the comparative speed of teams such as the Chiefs, Ravens, and even the Titans compared with the Patriots. Especially at receiver.
It would be unfair to suggest that N’Keal Harry is going to be the Chad Jackson of his time, but you couldn’t be a Patriots fan this weekend and not wonder whether this season might have been a little different had Belichick selected A.J. Brown or Deebo Samuel or D.K. Metcalf instead of Harry. Maybe they would have struggled in the Patriots offense too. But they sure looked much more ready for prime time than Harry did in his rookie year. It’s imperative that the Patriots add an element of speed to the offense this offseason.
But the biggest takeaway from the divisional round? This harsh truth: The teams that were there deserved it. And the Patriots were right where they were supposed to be this weekend. On the couch watching better teams play on, or recovering from jumping on the hood of a car in Beverly Hills.