It’s coming. Maybe not this year, maybe not next. But one day, the Patriots will miss the playoffs. One day, the Patriots will post a losing record. One day, Tom Brady will shuffle off into his career sunset, one day Bill Belichick will grump on his couch rather than at a Super Bowl.
The Patriots’ day of reckoning is coming, and when it arrives, will you celebrate? Will you mourn? Will you sigh with relief that finally someone else might get a chance to win a damn Lombardi once in awhile?
We got our first look Sunday at how Patriots fans will handle irrelevancy, and the answer is: not well. At the end of a sloppy, aimless first half in which the Patriots looked pretty much like every other football team that plays the Patriots, the Foxborough faithful booed the team into the tunnel.
Now, it’s easy to criticize these fans as being spoiled, pampered babies who haven’t had to deal with real adversity since the turn of the millennium. It’s also the right thing to do. No team in NFL history has dominated the competitive landscape the way the Patriots have, and no fanbase has enjoyed more security than New England. For 19 straight seasons, they’ve rolled into the regular season knowing that the Brady-Belichick alliance and a compliant AFC East mean Patriots fans could plan on the playoffs, year after year, decade after decade.
I say this without malice: good for Patriots fans! Really! Life as a sports fan is tough — every year, you have about a three percent chance, mathematically speaking, of seeing your team win a championship. So if you know the table tilts in your direction, hey, that’s your good fortune.
But that also means that Patriots fans get, and deserve, absolutely no goodwill from the rest of NFL fandom. Yes, the Patriots got jobbed in the deflategate “scandal,” and yes, referees botched away at least 14 points’ worth of New England touchdowns on Sunday. Still. Six Super Bowl trophies ought to tide you over for a bit, New England fans, and if not, you’re on your own.
Look around, and there are signs of cracks in the foundation. The New England offense is a shadow of its once-astonishing peak. Former teammates are calling out Tom Brady. New England has effectively lost any chance at a No. 1 seed this postseason.
Where does the Patriots’ impending demise leave the rest of us? What will we do in an NFL where we can’t Sharpie the Patriots into the AFC championship every year? Somehow, I think we’ll muddle through, but we’re going to see ripple effects across the league:
Belichick, post-Brady: This is the most fascinating scenario. Brady’s on-field skills are going to diminish — have already diminished, some would argue — much faster than Belichick’s coaching acumen. Should Belichick stay on after Brady’s departure — and there’s no indication they’re going to Thelma-and-Louise their way out of the league together — will he be as successful without Touchdown Tom? Will Brady decide to take his chances with another organization? Which leads to the next fascinating little conundrum …
Patriots fans vs. Brady fans: It’s getting tougher to believe that the Brady-Belichick partnership is going to end amicably. So what happens if Brady pulls a Joe Montana and wraps his still-viable career with another team (Carolina? Miami?) while Belichick is still grousing along the New England sideline? Will Pats fans dare wear another team’s jersey into Foxborough, or will Brady be dead to them once he’s gone? All of this is going to be a real headache for the Patriots’ most mercurial and annoying fans …
Bandwagoners: As the Cowboys have proven, you don’t need to win the Super Bowl, make the playoffs, or even have a winning record to keep your bandwagon rolling right along. Granted, the Cowboys are the exception to every rule of bandwagoning fandom — they’re still gaining fans even a quarter-century after their last Super Bowl win — but it’s not inconceivable to think that we’ll be seeing Brady No. 12 jerseys for the next decade or so. Still unresolved: how that will translate to …
Patriots on TV: Along with the Cowboys, the Patriots are a phenomenal TV draw, and together they’re responsible for all of the 10 highest-rated regular-season broadcasts on TV. They’re undeniably fascinating to watch, both because of their exceptional level of skill and because of the (infrequent) possibility they’ll screw up and lose a big game. The Cowboys, Giants and Eagles still draw big numbers; will a 4-8 Patriots team that’s a double-digit underdog to the Chiefs do the same? And hey, speaking of the Chiefs…
Rise of the rivals: New England has lacked a true, long-term rival for most of its domination. Sure, Eli Manning has gotten the best of the Patriots twice, and both Peyton Manning and the Steelers have had their moments in the sun. But they’ve all wilted, faded or retired while the Patriots have rolled on … until now. The other three division leaders in the AFC — the Ravens, Chiefs and Texans — have all beaten the Patriots this year. The Patriots look mortal and vulnerable, and three hungry teams have already taken bites out of their hide.
We can look to the fall of other dynasties for clues to the Patriots’ next few years. The post-Showtime Lakers managed to return to the mountaintop with an entirely new cast on the court and the sideline. The post-Jordan Bulls descended into irrelevancy that persists to today. Tiger Woods managed to work his way back to the peak after a lost decade. The Warriors look lost and hopeless. The key, of course, is not to live in the past and cruise on old glories. Can the Patriots manage that feat where so many other dynasties have crumbled?
Look, we know enough not to doubt New England this year. This team thrives on turning assumptions and proclamations of doom inside out. But one day, they’ll fall short; one day, they’ll fall and they won’t get back up. Will you miss them when they’re gone?
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