No one dares says the Patriots are done ... publicly anyway

Dan WetzelColumnist

In 2014, the New England Patriots lost a game 41-14 … and won the Super Bowl. In 2016, they lost Rob Gronkowski to a season-ending injury … and won the Super Bowl. In 2018, they managed just 209 total yards in a loss to the lowly Detroit Lions … and won the Super Bowl.

So no one really wants to say anything now. No one wants to declare the Pats dead and buried, no matter how anemic they have looked on offense the last month. 

We’ve seen this act before — there simply isn’t anyone better at figuring things out on the fly, be it in game or week to week, than Bill Belichick and Tom Brady.

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“They have the greatest head coach in the modern era and the greatest quarterback in the modern era, so I think there’s a good chance we’ll see them again,” Kansas City Chiefs CEO Clark Hunt told reporters after a 23-16 victory in Foxborough on Sunday. “We’ll give them the respect they deserve.”

Out loud, yes. From an owner, of course. Same with coaches, media and even most players. 

Yet of all New England’s struggles, the one that may prove fatal is that what gets said in public may no longer be what is uttered, let alone believed, in private. At least among confident opposing players. 

“We’ll be seeing them in the playoffs,” K.C. defensive end Frank Clark told the Boston Globe’s Ben Volin on Sunday. “Hopefully we do. I want to see them again.”

Clark is an outspoken guy spouting off after a big win. He may wind up regretting those words. But that is also the kind of bravado that rarely, if ever, has been heard when it comes to New England. 

Tom Brady after getting sacked during the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)
Tom Brady after getting sacked during the first quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs. (Matt Stone/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald)

It also may truthfully reflect the Chiefs’ thinking. And it may be shared by Baltimore and Houston, the two other AFC leading teams that beat New England across the past six weeks of the season. 

“They don’t have a tackle that can block us,” Clark said. “Speed, power, whatever we were throwing at them, they couldn’t handle.”

Clark wasn’t wrong. The Patriots offensive line can’t block. Brady is under assault when he drops back and doesn’t look all that great when he actually has time. The running game is almost non-existent. On the rare occasion wide receivers get open, they tend to drop passes. 

For New England, there isn’t just one problem to fix. That doesn’t mean it can’t get fixed, but currently the Patriots look like a golfer trying to fix an errant swing in the middle of a round. 

There is clearly blood in the AFC water.

It’s a stark contrast to years past, when New England entered January with the ability to intimidate opponents before they even got off the bus. Once games started, especially in Foxborough, fear appeared to play a role in self-destructions and poor performances. 

How many supposedly hot young quarterbacks (Andrew Luck, Marcus Mariota, Tim Tebow) have melted in the dark, winter cold of Gillette? 

Due to the sheer length of the Belichick-Brady run (dating back to the 2001 season), almost every player in the league grew up watching them win and win and win. The psychological effect is profound. So many fourth-quarter rallies. So many victories. At times opposing players have said they felt like extras in a movie they had already seen. The ending felt inevitable. 

“You’ve got to play a damn near perfect game against them,” then-Jacksonville safety Jarrod Wilson said after New England erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit to win the 2018 AFC championship game.

Well, you don’t anymore. At least not right now. 

Was that mindset an advantage for New England? Probably. Yet does it linger when the projected No. 1, No. 3 and No. 4 seed in the AFC, and thus the most likely Patriots playoff opponents, just beat them, mostly pretty handily. 

The flipside is that New England may get to embrace the rare underdog, no-one-believes-in-us role. It’s also possible that revenge games against the Ravens, Texans or Chiefs will result in someone overlooking New England. 

That kind of seems unlikely. 

These are still the Patriots. They get everyone’s best shot. 

New England has reached four of the past five Super Bowls, winning three. They also own titles from the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons. For nearly two decades they’ve run the conference, appearing in 13 of the past 18 AFC title games, including eight consecutive.

They can still get back there this postseason, and can even retool the roster and return to bully status next. Even now, despite all the struggles, the Patriots are still 10-3, with the inside track on a playoff bye. On Sunday, they were at the goal line at game’s end, capable of beating a good Chiefs team.

Nearly every potential opponent will mention all of that going forward. They’ll “give them the respect they deserve.”

Whether they actually believe it, and whether that matters, is another story.

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