Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 22, 2019

Sunset Time In Foxborough

The New England Patriots have clinched the AFC East division title. As news goes, this is not exactly front-page stuff. When the Pats sewed up the division and improved their record to 12-3 by beating the Buffalo Bills 24-17 Saturday evening, it was the eleventh consecutive divisional championship and seventeenth in nineteen seasons for the tandem of head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady. Of course football fans know and either revel in (around New England) or despise (pretty much everywhere else) that the consistent excellence in Foxborough has also produced nine trips to the Super Bowl and six banners hanging at the west end of Gillette Stadium in that same time period. For the Patriots an AFC East championship isn’t an achievement, it’s a baseline.

All of which means one more division title would not be expected to cause raucous celebrations in either downtown Boston by exultant fans or the Patriots locker room by exuberant players. Yet while no such public displays were reported, this championship did result in a decidedly unfamiliar emotion bubbling up in the hearts of New England fans. What was widely felt throughout the region on Saturday when the last-ditch toss into the end zone by Bills quarterback Josh Allen was batted down by the New England secondary was relief.

That the Patriots are tied with the NFC’s 49ers and Saints for the league’s second best record, only one game worse than the AFC-leading Ravens, seems surreal to those who follow the team closely, for there is very little about this version of the team that would lead one to forecast it could negotiate a sixteen game schedule with only three defeats. But if the Pats turn aside the hapless Dolphins next weekend that is exactly what this middling and banged-up roster will have done.

New England has had the benefit of an extremely favorable schedule, as this year’s opponents have included teams from both the NFC East and AFC North. If the NFL were like European soccer leagues in which the worst teams are literally tossed out at the end of the season, banished to a lesser association and replaced by eager teams on the rise, fans might well be talking about the impending first ever relegation of an entire division – that’s how bad the once mighty NFC East has become. As this is written the Cowboys and Eagles are battling, to use the term loosely, to become the sole franchise in the division with a winning record. Though with a week still to go, there’s no guarantee that any of the NFC East’s clubs will finish above water. Were it not for Baltimore, the AFC North would be only marginally better, since that division counts among its members both the one-win Bengals and the NFL’s longest running soap opera in Cleveland.

Against soft opposition like that plus the dregs of its own division, New England ran off eight straight wins to start the season behind a defense that looked impenetrable. In that first half of the schedule the Patriots pitched two shutouts and allowed just barely more than one touchdown’s worth of points per game.

With that kind of play when the other team’s quarterback was on the field, the Patriots didn’t need much from Brady and the offense. Which was a very good thing, because it’s been clear from the start of the season that neither the superstar quarterback nor his supporting cast have very much to give. In fairness to Brady, retired tight end Rob Gronkowski is sorely missed, and the offensive unit has had more than its share of injuries. For most of the season the only reliable target for Tom Terrific has been Super Bowl LIII MVP Julian Edelman, though it’s not as if that has been unknown to opposing defensive coordinators, making it all that more difficult for the two to connect.

But even with allowances for a substandard roster the proverbial elephant in the room for Patriots fans all season long has been the diminished play of their beloved quarterback, who while not terrible has been anything but terrific. Over the last five years Brady’s quarterback rating has averaged 102.5, a number that would be good for a top ten ranking in almost any season. This year it’s sunk to 88.0, which has him in the bottom half of NFL starters. For years Brady has somehow seemed to defy time, the ultimate enemy of every athlete. But now the oft-stated plan of the 42-year-old, who is already the oldest non-kicker in the NFL, to continue to play until he’s 45, seems like either a delusion or a promise of scenes too painful to watch over the next few seasons.

That assortment of weaknesses, obscured for a time by the soft schedule, became plain in Week 9, when the Patriots were steamrolled by the Ravens and their dynamic young signal-caller Lamar Jackson. Baltimore ran up 37 points on the New England defense, which also yielded four touchdowns to Houston and 23 points to Kansas City in Weeks 13 and 14. Those three teams were the toughest opponents on New England’s dance card this season, and the results do not bode well for the Patriots’ chances in the playoffs.

Still there are many voices in the national media who continue to expect the team to rise to a different level once postseason play begins. Perhaps that is exactly what will happen, and Brady and company will make yet another trip to the season’s final game, to be played this time at the home of the Miami Dolphins, meaning that Hard Rock Stadium will at least host one game this season between two real football teams. But in New England fans are less sanguine. Here the largely unspoken but undeniable sense is that in Foxborough, the reign of the quarterback wearing number 12 may finally be nearing its end.

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