We forget this now, but the Patriots of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady went a decade between Super Bowl wins. They lost twice to the Giants in excruciating fashion, though the agony was limited to New England. Everybody else was delighted. On the way to becoming the greatest NFL team ever, the Patriots became the most despised NFL team ever.
Belichick was too smug, Brady too pretty. Plus, there was the widespread belief - buttressed by NFL fines/suspensions - that they were cheaters. (Heck, they're facing another league sanction for improper taping as we speak.) They were the guys we loved to hate, and in the immediate wake of Deflate Gate it seemed the Pats, to our glee, were about to lose another Super Bowl and recede into the mire of mediocrity.
They trailed Seattle 24-10 after three quarters on Feb. 1, 2015. At that moment, no team had overridden a double-digit second-half deficit in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks entered as defending champ. For the first time since Belichick and Brady sprang their upset of the Rams in February 2002 to get this dynastic thing started, the Patriots were Super underdogs. They were outplayed for three quarters. Then, with a giddy nation basking in schadenfreude, those rascals up and won.
If Seattle - in its final game with Dan Quinn as defensive coordinator - holds that lead, would the Patriots, who would then have gone 10 years without winning it all, have done something different? Might they have begun the phasing-out of Brady, who'd turn 38 before the next season commenced, with an eye toward promoting then-heir apparent Jimmy Garoppolo?
We'll never know. Brady drove the Pats to two touchdowns against DQ's defense, studded with future Hall of Famers. The go-ahead score was caught by Julian Edelman, who might well have been playing with a concussion, with 2:02 remaining.
Russell Wilson threw long for Jermaine Kearse. The ball was deflected by cornerback Malcolm Butler. Kearse tipped the ball to himself. That improbable grab recalled David Tyree's helmet catch and Mario Manningham's sideline snag, jaw-dropping receptions that undid the Patriots twice against the Giants on this stage. Soon the Seahawks faced second-and-goal at the 1 to win the Super Bowl. They might have handed the ball the irresistible Marshawn Lynch. Instead Wilson threw over the middle for Ricardo Lockette. Butler jumped the route and intercepted.
Had the Seahawks scored and won, they'd surely have been the NFL's team of the decade. As it was, the Patriots were handed a second wind. They would win three Super Bowls in five years. If not for the comeback from 10 down, would the even-more-epic fightback from 28-3, also involving Quinn, have happened two years later?
The Patriots won again last February, beating the Rams 13-3 in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The score alone should have told us something. These were no longer Peak Pats, and soon Rob Gronkowski, their second-best player, would retire at 29. They began this season 8-0 with their defense being hailed as one of history's best, but those eight victories were fool's gold. Only one was achieved against an opponent that finished above .500.
The schedule toughened in the second half. They lost to Baltimore 37-22. (So much for that mighty defense, huh?) They lost consecutive games to Kansas City and Houston. Even when they won, the offense was doing little. They beat Philadelphia 17-10, Dallas 13-9. The Antonio Brown experiment had long since fizzled. Adding Mohamed Sanu availed them little. The greatest quarterback ever finished 19th in passer rating, 27th in yards per pass.
A stupefying home loss to the 4-11 Dolphins on the season's final Sunday thrust the Patriots into the wild card round for the first time since 2010. That was a huge deal: The Patriots of B&B had never reached a Super Bowl without getting a bye and then starting at home. (The first postseason victory of B&B came on a snowy Saturday night in Foxborough against Oakland. You know, the Tuck Rule Game.)
They were drawn against a not-bad Tennessee team, albeit one with the Miami castoff Ryan Tannehill as its quarterback, and they started OK. They led 10-7 and faced first-and-goal. Sony Michel was stopped on third down. The field goal made it 13-7, a lead quickly overridden. Those would be these Patriots' final points.
Brady's team took the ball five times in the second half. It made four first downs. It ran one play beyond midfield, that from the Tennessee 47. They punted four times. Brady's last pass glanced off Sanu and was gathered in by the Titans' Logan Ryan, who returned it for a touchdown.
The Patriots lost 20-13, undone by a team coached by Mike Vrabel, the linebacker who'd caught touchdown passes from Brady in the second and third Super victories of the B&B era. And wasn't it hilarious to watch Vrabel burn off 1:46 of fourth-quarter time by using intentional penalties, as Belichick had done earlier this season?
We've proclaimed the dynasty at its end wrongly enough to know that B&B can never be fully discounted. That said, Brady has never been 42. All you need do to chart his decline is rewatch the fourth quarter and overtime against the Falcons. His throws aren't as precise. He's shakier in the pocket. (It happens to all quarterbacks, even the bravest of the breed. You can only absorb so many hits before the body begins to flinch.)
He has said he wants to play until he's 45, which seems unlikely. Also unlikely, according to Brady after the Tennessee loss, is him retiring just yet. He's a free agent for the first time, but there's next to no chance he'll wind up elsewhere. Even if the Patriots suspect - and how could they not? - that they won't win another Super Bowl with this Brady, they can't let him leave. Some things just aren't done. (Besides, that erstwhile heir apparent now works for San Francisco, the NFC's No. 1 seed.)
Belichick will turn 68 in May. Don Shula coached his last NFL game at 66, Tom Landry at 64, Chuck Noll at 59, Bill Walsh at 57. Will Belichick want to start again post-Brady? Knowing him, maybe. But maybe not. He's an entity unto himself. The Patriots never even announce how many years his contract covers.
This seems certain, though: It's unthinkable that the world's grumpiest man would sit still for a farewell tour. He'll just show up one day with a piece of paper saying, a la his legendary Jets exit, that says: "I resign as HC of the NEP."
And that, someday soon, will be that. The NFL's greatest team will be without the NFL's greatest coach and greatest quarterback, and we'll have to find somebody else to despise. We can never say an era is over until, duh, it is, but darned if that loss to Tennessee on a foggy Saturday night didn't seem the end of something.
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