“Is this the end for Patriots dynasty?” asked the Boston Globe in mid-December, when the Patriots had — unthinkably — lost to the Steelers, falling to a truly embarrassing record for the storied team.
They were 9-5.
For New England fans being 9-5 must have felt akin to what being 5-9 feels like for fans of the rest of the NFL, if the subsequent hand-wringing about the state of the team is any indication. “Let’s face it, it doesn’t appear to be the Patriots’ year,” another Globe writer insisted around the same time.
And yet, once again, it is the Patriots’ year, because it’s always the Patriots’ year.
In the sense that they finished with fewer than 12 wins for the first time since 2009, it was a down season for the team. They had 11.
The Patriots won their woeful division for the 16th time in 18 years. The first-round playoff bye week was hardly even in question, as the last time they played in a wild card game was during the 2009 playoffs — the longest such streak in NFL history. Next Sunday will mark their eighth AFC Championship appearance in a row, extending their lead on that NFL record as well. Since 2001, they’ve appeared in the Super Bowl eight times. And as anyone who’s ever come within tweeting distance of a Boston sports fan knows, the team came out of five of those seasons with rings on their fingers. Tom Brady has famously sported all five at once, and somehow they still aren’t his most obnoxious accessory.
As the team heads into the AFC championship on the back of a 41-year-old Brady — who despite a slight decline in his performance, seems entirely ready to lead his crew of scrappy, gritty, lunch-pail guys to another title game — it seems only right to acknowledge, once again, that the franchise has reached a tier of consistency that even haters can’t deny. Maybe it’s because, as Brady posited recently, he has a brain that is “wired for contact” and has “become callous to some of the hits.” Certainly an immunity to concussions has to be among the ultimate football intangibles.
Whatever the reason — and skeptics have plenty of theories — the fact remains that TB12, Bill Belichick and the gang have done something nearly unprecedented, and certainly unmatched in contemporary sports. Alabama just lost college football’s national championship. The reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors look disarmingly beatable, despite their gaudy roster. Even UConn, whose two-decade-long stint on top of women’s college basketball has inspired detractors to say it’s bad for the sport, just lost its first regular season game since 2014.
So we are left with the New England Patriots, whose trip to the AFC Championship feels as mundane and inescapable as death and taxes; the former, of course, seems increasingly elusive to Tom, who is currently a couple scores up in his duel with Time. Their upstart opponents, the Kansas City Chiefs, are confronted with a task that can only really be compared with staring down the Death Star; all of the NFL, really, is Sisyphus to the Pats’ nearly immovable boulder.
Inevitability is even considered something of a team virtue: according to Belichick, the only sign in the New England Patriots locker room is from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (which… is normal): “Every battle is won before it is fought.”
The Chiefs, though, might benefit from the wisdom of a more contemporary philosopher, whose mantra — a paean to overcoming the odds, to roaring back when you’ve already been counted out — helped fuel the Philadelphia Eagles to their Super Bowl victory: “Hold up, wait a minute — y’all thought I was finished?”