Patriots showing signs of decline, but who in AFC can slam shut their Super Bowl window?

The latest itineration of the “New England Patriots Dynasty is dead” chatter has a measure of merit.

First, there’s the fact that eventually these predictions have to come true. It’s like when media outlets prematurely report on a celebrity death only to have the family come out and note the person is actually alive at the hospital. The reporter is still secure in the knowledge that they’ll eventually be proven correct.

Second, well, have you seen these guys? The defense isn’t great. The offense isn’t great. Tom Brady has blown games in consecutive weeks with disastrous clock management at the end of the first half in Miami and a horror show fourth quarter red-zone interception against Pittsburgh.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Brady said Sunday.

It also almost never happens.

Tom Brady and the Patriots are still in the hunt for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)
Tom Brady and the Patriots are still in the hunt for a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. (Getty Images)

Then there are penalties, special teams failures and everything else.

“Obviously, we aren’t playing well enough to win, and it comes in a lot of different ways, turnovers and just missed opportunities,” Brady said.

Yet gleefully burying the Patriots remains foolish, and not merely because we’ve been down this road too many times – after all New England reached two Super Bowls, winning two of them, since Trent Dilfer declared “they’re not good anymore” in 2014. And Dilfer was neither the first nor the last to say such a thing.

New England is 9-5 and closes with Buffalo and the New York Jets. If it blows those games, then panic can break out in Boston. It’s far more likely they finish 11-5 and win the AFC East for the 273rd consecutive season.

Houston has to travel to a suddenly resurgent Philadelphia team this week and close with Jacksonville. If the Texans lose either, the Pats are the No. 2 seed in the AFC and have a first-week playoff bye and homefield in the divisional round, and maybe beyond.

If not, they are the No. 3 seed.

The bye is clearly preferable, if only to give more time to get Rob Gronkowski as healthy as possible and allow Patriots athletic trainers to build an even sturdier elbow contraption to protect him.

That said, who and what in the AFC is so terrifying that New England can’t scratch out two or three victories, including outside of Foxborough?

Kansas City and Patrick Mahomes have been brilliant. He’s still a first-year starting quarterback, and there is a burial ground in Bill Belichick’s backyard full of young star quarterbacks of Januarys past. The Chiefs had to cut their star running back. Oh, and New England beat them in October. And while Arrowhead Stadium is an incredible environment, Kansas City lost at home in each of the past two playoffs.

The Los Angeles Chargers look like the best team in the conference right now, but if they wind up with the No. 1 seed then the road to the Super Bowl runs through a 25,000-seat soccer stadium. New England shows up there for the AFC championship game and it might be two-thirds full of Patriots fans. It’s possible Brady might prefer a game in warm weather.

The Saints in the Superdome it isn’t.

Houston? Sure, looking good. New England, though, beat the Texans this year too, and Belichick is 5-0 against former offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.

Pittsburgh? The Steelers won Sunday but it required a terrible New England effort and the postseason game wouldn’t be in Pennsylvania.

Really any of the above could make it to Atlanta and it wouldn’t be a shock.

Bill Belichick after Sunday’s loss to the Steelers told media, “Penalties and the red [zone] area were pretty much the difference in the game.” (Getty Images)
Bill Belichick after Sunday’s loss to the Steelers told media, “Penalties and the red [zone] area were pretty much the difference in the game.” (Getty Images)

What about possible wild-card opponents should the Pats wind up with the No. 3 seed? Tennessee, Indianapolis or Baltimore are all capable of beating New England – everyone is capable, after all. The Titans already did it this year, while the Pats beat the Colts. None of those teams are juggernauts. Lamar Jackson has five career starts at quarterback entering this week.

New England has lost five games in the regular season for the first time since 2009. By that standard, the Patriots aren’t the Patriots. That’s mainly because of an improbable loss in Miami and puzzling no-shows against Jacksonville and Detroit back in September.

This is not a vintage Patriots team. At least not yet. There is no question about that. They are fraying at the seams. Brady is making mistakes he almost never makes.

And, no, the chance of reaching a fourth Super Bowl in five years isn’t great – because it’s never great. Making one Super Bowl is hard enough. The Super Bowl loser hasn’t returned the following season to the big game since 1994, the last season of the Bills’ run of near glory. Last year’s winner, Philadelphia, may not even make the playoffs.

So, sure, New England may be done. Someone is going to have to beat them though. In the AFC at least, where the bracket is as wide open its been in a long time, declaring anyone dead and buried isn’t particularly wise.

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