Commentary

The takeaway from the 2021 Patriots? You couldn’t have asked for more.

Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, the 2021 Patriots season was a success if only because it suggested a stability of the franchise.

Bill Belichick got the Patriots back to the postseason after just one year. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

Before we go any further, we should probably take this opportunity to gauge our satisfaction.

For if you had been told back in August, that this Patriots team, led by a rookie quarterback, would not only make the 2021 NFL playoffs, but would spend a brief portion of the season as the AFC’s top seed, you would have been thrilled.

Forget about this upcoming weekend for a moment. There will be plenty of time before then to exhaust the narrative of whether or not Bill Belichick will trust Mac Jones in Buffalo Saturday night. You’ll have every opportunity to envisage what sort of dementia Bills Mafia has in store for playoff tailgate action in the parking lots of Highmark Stadium. You’ll even have one more week to fantasize about the Buccaneers-Patriots Super Bowl that’s not likely to materialize.

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Before the potential disappointment of watching the New England Patriots’ 2021 season come to an end with a wild card showdown in western New York, it’s a good opportunity to take a moment and acknowledge how promising this rebound season was in Foxborough.

One year after Cam Newton’s incompetency, empty stands, and its former lover winning yet another Super Bowl, New England has earned a spot that many had set as the team’s goal before the season began. After spending $163 million in free agency, a decision-making process that many opined spoke to Belichick’s desperation to keep afloat, frankly, anything but a playoff berth would have been a disappointment, even with a 23-year-old Opie playing field general.

This wasn’t only a reset season in terms of the Patriots’ competitive nature, but also in the minds of the fans, who had to re-learn aspiration over the annual expectation that defined them over the last two decades. The script that Tom Brady helped write with Belichick is old and tattered, a non-legible plan of action that lives only in memory. The blank slate of 2021 held promise, but little else.

So, yes, you should be happy with this season, a 10-7 campaign that came with assurances that the Patriots have made the right moves — in both free agency and the draft — to become a legitimate contender rather than fall into the purgatory that inflicts so many other dynasties. Despite some midseason hysteria that suggested the Patriots were Super Bowl contenders, the reality is that they are probably closer to the mistake-laden team that went 1-3 to end the season rather than the one that whipped off seven straight wins in the heart of the season.

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Can you trust them to fix those mistakes by the time the AFC East champion Bills are waiting? No. But should it matter in terms of how we classify and remember 2021?

On the whole, the 2021 Patriots season was a success if only because it suggested a stability of the franchise. A second-straight season in purgatory would have delivered serious questions needing to be addressed in the front office of One Patriot Place, all this while the nutritionist and his shady trainer kept rubbing your noses in it. But New England’s resurgence, above all, probably allowed us a lesson that most of us didn’t really need about the effectiveness of Belichick’s tenure as captain of the ship.

With the pressure of the Brady aura weighing down on him, Belichick managed to play head architect in a year when the team drafted a quarterback in the discussion for NFL Rookie of the Year. That’s in addition to burly back Rhamondre Stevenson and defensive darling Christian Barmore. He opened up the Krafts’ wallet and spent more in free agency than any NFL general manager before him. The results were mixed; Hunter Henry, Kendrick Bourne, and Matthew Judon wound up significant contributors. Jonnu Smith had flashes through inconsistency (though here’s a feeling that Josh McDaniels has some postseason plans for the tight end starting Saturday). Nelson Agholor wore the uniform well. I guess.

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Belichick might wind up NFL Coach of the Year. Not bad for a guy who some suggested was watching the game pass him by only three months ago.

No, the Patriots aren’t likely to win the Super Bowl. They probably won’t get past the Bills, and even if they do manage to find a way to beat them a second time in Buffalo — albeit in a less-breezy environment than last time — the Chiefs or Titans probably hold the stop sign a week later. It will be a disappointment when they lose, but it doesn’t put a damper on what the team managed to accomplish.

The season was a success, no matter what takes place Saturday. There was a lot to like about the Patriots, with plenty of growing pains mixed in. But also remember where this team was a year ago, still lost in the Brady transition and uncertain what the future held. Getting back to the playoffs back then seemed a massive hurdle to make in only one season.

Your expectations may have changed since training camp, when a postseason berth was the objective. But that doesn’t mean your appreciation has to. No matter what occurs in Buffalo.

Being pleased with a wild card berth is a strange place to be, especially after years of scoffing at fan bases that were all jazzed up to watch their teams get sacrificed in the first round. The Patriots are a playoff underdog, a phrase not often heard in these parts during this millennium.

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This is the new reality. The Patriots as a long shot.

But it sure beats the reality that immediately preceded it.

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