If you pay close enough attention you’ll find that, just like the rest of the NFL, the Patriots are comprised of a whole bunch of humans. For all the blowouts and ridiculous stats that make them seem like unstoppable aliens at times, there are games – or halves, in the case of this past Sunday night – where they come back down to Earth. It doesn’t happen very often, which is why it’s so shocking when it does, and it’s always a sobering reminder that they can actually be beat on occasion. Otherwise, we’d be talking about a team with six Super Bowl wins instead of three, or at least one title in the past eight years. Yet, as soon as they go on one of their Dream Team-esque runs of dominance, everyone – including me – starts seeing the entire NFL through Patriots-colored sunglasses and it’s impossible imagine them losing.
And then they lose and we all go, “Oh that’s right, this is the NFL. The Packers were unbeaten for 13 weeks last year and then didn’t win a playoff game. The Patriots were 18-0 one year and then lost to a No. 5 seed in the Super Bowl.” We should remember these things when predicting that the championship is all but actually decided in Week 14.
After the Pats crushed the Texans two weeks on Monday night, the whole world was ready to hand them a Lombardi Trophy once again. They were the Vegas favorites to win the Super Bowl. I had discussions with my friends and family about how, all of a sudden, there wasn’t a team in the NFL that the Patriots would be underdogs against, home or away. Before this Sunday night, the Pats could have gone to Lambeau or Atlanta, Denver or Baltimore, Giants Stadium or San Francisco and been favored. A seven-game winning streak and a blowout of the top seed in the AFC will buy you that kind of respect.
But it was such reactionary praise. Nobody took the past into account. The Patriots were 14-2 in 2010 and lost their first playoff game to the Jets. They lost in the Super Bowl in 2007 and 2010.
In all three of those years, the Patriots were favorites to win the Super Bowl because of how well they played to end the season. In 2007, they won every game, so that was understandable. In 2010, they ended the season on an eight-game winning streak and dominated every one of those games except the Packers game and half of the Lions game. They were unstoppable, until they got stopped.
Last year, they reached the Super Bowl largely because of luck, a smoke and mirrors and a missed field goal/dropped touchdown pu-pu platter from the Ravens in the AFC Championship game. Yet, we still had them as the favorites in the Super Bowl.
Nobody took that sort of thing into consideration when declaring the Patriots the best of the best this season. That isn’t to say that they can’t still be the best, but there is a little bit of a pattern here in recent years that nobody seems to remember when they make their “team to beat” predictions.
The Patriots best is better than anybody else’s best. When they are on, it’s more flashy than when any other team is on. If the Patriots play a perfect game, they beat you 59-0. If other teams play a perfect game, they beat you 31-14 or something. When people see those numbers and those scores and that unheard of level of dominance (59-0??? Really???) it inflates the Patriots’ value. That’s why everyone is so shocked when they lose. That’s why people are always left to wonder, “How can a team that crushes other teams so regularly actually lose?”
So with all that in mind, what do we make of Sunday’s 41-34 loss to the 49ers? Does it now mean that the Pats shouldn’t be the favorites in the AFC? Does it mean that the defense is still not good enough for this team to win a Super Bowl? Or should it just serve as a reminder that we shouldn’t simply assume that – because of how their ceiling is – that they’re going to win every game?
I think it’s the last option. I think the Patriots are still good enough to win the Super Bowl and I think they’re still good enough to beat any team they play. I think that when they are feeling good, and not turning the ball over, they’re the best team in the NFL.
But it can’t always be like that. The Patriots can’t play perfectly every single game. Against good teams, it might only take two bad quarters, but that could be enough to sink them, no matter how high their ceiling is. The Patriots went down 31-3 against the 49ers because they lost the turnover battle, they faced a team that is comparable to them (those do exist) and they couldn’t get off the field on third down or cover anybody down the field.
The good news is that this game happened in the regular season and not the playoffs. If this were a playoff game, we’d be having endless discussions about “what went wrong again.” Instead, we can have the “what positives can we take from this?” discussion, which is a hell of a lot more pleasant. And, there are positives.
For one, the Patriots scored 34 points against the top-ranked defense in the NFL, despite turning the ball over four times. They also came back from a 28-point deficit faster than any team reasonably should, and nearly pulled off one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history.
And the defense, after being put in some bad spots by the offense and making a few general bad plays of its own too, played well for a long, long stretch during the third quarter and the first half of the fourth quarter. The only bad thing the defense did came on one play. Kyle Arrington – who was only playing in man coverage on the outside because usual starter Alfonzo Dennard got hurt in the second quarter and didn’t return – made a really, really ****** play. He should have taken a better angle on Michael Crabtree, tackled him, or at least forced him to the sideline. Instead he ran full force at Crabtree, didn’t break down and looked like he had never attempted a tackle in the open field before. Crabtree broke free, and because the Pats were in cover zero (no safety help whatsoever), he easily ran into the end zone.
But that’s it. One bad play defensively in the last 25 minutes or so of game time. The Patriots can live with that. And, because it was Week 15 and not the Super Bowl, so can all the fans. The Patriots played poorly against a very good team and it cost them, but this time there’s still more football to play.
The most important part of the loss is that it most likely cost the Patriots a first round bye. The idea of traveling to Denver in the Divisional Round is a little scary, but really that’s the only thing that’s changed since Sunday.
If we’d all been paying better attention, we would have known that the Patriots had this type of game in them. They always do. No matter how invincible they look, no matter how unbelievably in control and put together they are for five, six, 10-game stretches, they are still a football team completely capable of losing.
It’s just that, over the past half-decade, it’s always happened at the worst possible time. This wasn’t the worst possible time.