There was a time not too long ago when uncertainty didn’t exist in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Everything in our beloved football world was a sure thing. Tom Brady was our quarterback. Bill Belichick was our head coach. Rob Gronkowski was the best tight end in football, and he was ours. No matter what the rest of the team looked like, the New England Patriots were all but guaranteed to win 12 or 13 games, win the AFC East with ease, get a first-round bye, and play in the AFC Championship Game — and oftentimes, the Super Bowl as well.
But the 2019 season was a re-introduction to a world where things aren’t quite so crystal clear. Despite the team’s deceiving 12-4 record, this season for the Patriots was more confusing than the plot of “The Rise of Skywalker.” There were some highs, as always, but there were also some serious lows. And this time around, it seems like the low points of the season have greatly outweighed the high points.
As we try to grow accustomed to living in “bizarre-o” world following New England’s loss to the Tennessee Titans at home in the wild card round, let’s take a look back at some of the things that happened this season, and try to get some closure after a disappointing ending.
The brief, yet dramatic, saga of Antonio Brown
If it wasn’t for superstar wide receiver Antonio Brown still acting like a drama queen on social media, this would feel like it was ages ago.
Remember how excited, yet nervous, we were when it was first announced that the Patriots were signing Brown, the ultra-talented diva who alienated himself from the Steelers and Raiders? It seemed as if we might get to see the second coming of the Tom Brady-Randy Moss tandem that electrified the NFL in 2007.
But not so much. Brown played just one game for New England, a 43-0 drudging of the Dolphins in Miami in which he caught a touchdown and then dove into the stands. Amid the accusations of sexual assault and various other things, the Patriots then released Brown and moved on — which was the right decision. It was over in the blink of an eye.
Brown never even played at Gillette Stadium in a Pats uniform. He will forever be nothing more than a minor footnote in New England football history.
Slowing down drastically in the second half
Make no mistake about it: the Patriots benefitted from a fairly soft schedule in the first half of the season. It was easy to overlook. We were caught up with watching the Patriots win games, and winning big, despite the fact that many people wrote off their offense following the retirement of Gronkowski.
It turns out, they had reason to do so. Once the Patriots reached the second half and were playing good teams — such as Baltimore, Kansas City, Houston — the offense sputtered like we’ve never seen before. They simply struggled to score, getting to the point where it was excruciating just to watch a game on TV. Even when they tried to inject some life into the unit by trading for former Bengals and Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu, it didn’t work.
New England fell to all of the previously-mentioned teams. They barely squeaked out wins against the Eagles and Cowboys, two teams that struggled to maintain first place in the NFL’s worst division.
The Patriots even lost to the Dolphins at home in the season finale when they could’ve secured a first-round bye. Considering that Miami showed signs of possibly going 0-16 a few weeks into the season, this loss had to be one of the all-time lows in the Brady-Belichick era.
Fans were quick to point out that if the team had put a better offense around Brady, it would’ve been a completely different season. That might be partially true, but you can’t ignore the fact that as recently as three or four years ago, Brady was very capable of carrying a subpar offense to extraordinary heights. Few quarterbacks have the ability to do that, and he did it as well as anyone.
But he couldn’t do it this year, and it’s likely because age is starting to finally catch up to him. That’s not a knock on Brady at all. He’s about to be 43 years old. He’s most certainly allowed to lose a step or two. The fact of the matter is that Brady is most likely past the point of being able to carry a team to the Super Bowl without a stellar cast around him, especially given the emergence of young talent around the AFC (Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes etc.).
He’s still the greatest of all time. This is just part of the game.
Playing, and losing, on Wild Card Weekend for the first time in 10 years
I got home from work late Saturday night, having watched the Pats-Titans game at the office, and it started to sink in that it was only the first weekend of January and New England’s season was already finished. The last time our season ended this early was in January 2010, when the Pats stunk it up at home against the Ravens and allowed Ray Rice to run them down.
It was de ja vu all over again on Saturday night, only this time it was Derrick Henry and the Titans who expelled them from the playoffs on wild card weekend. The Titans were a team the Patriots should’ve beaten at home, but they were a team that deserved to win because, for much of the season and on Saturday night, they just played better football than the Patriots.
Even despite Henry rushing for 182 yards and a touchdown (I’m convinced Robert Kraft could have had a brick wall built on the 50-yard line and he still would have ran through it), the Patriots shot themselves in the foot when they had a first-and-goal at the one-yard line late in the second quarter. Sony Michel, whom I’m officially nicknaming “Stuffed” after his disheartening lack of production this year, got stuffed behind the line of scrimmage twice and the Pats couldn’t get it in for six.
It was an impressive goal-line stand by Tennessee, but it was the No. 1 thing that killed the Pats in this game. If they scored a touchdown there, I believe they would’ve won.
Still trailing just 14-13 in the final seconds of the fourth quarter, the game ended after a Brady pass was tipped into the hands of former Patriot Logan Ryan, who returned it for a pick six in front of a stunned-silent Gillette Stadium. As a Pats fan, it was brutal to watch. But to be honest, I couldn’t think of a more ironic, eerie, and appropriate ending to this weirdo season.
Congrats to the Titans and their fans (I happen to work with one). They deserve to enjoy and celebrate this win. They will have their work cut out for them in Baltimore on Saturday, but Tennessee has made an incredible run to this point, and I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing it continue.
Where does Brady stand?
For the first time ever, I have literally no idea what to expect when it comes to No. 12.
He might be back in Patriot blue next season. He might be relaxing at home with his supermodel wife, enjoying the beauty of retirement. He might be playing quarterback for the Chargers, or the Bears, or some other team that would love to have his services.
I literally don’t know. And I don’t think Brady himself knows, or Belichick, or Kraft. At this moment, the entire situation is completely up in the air.
All I can say is this: regardless of what Brady decides to do next in his life, there should be no ill feelings from Patriots fans whatsoever. Brady doesn’t owe any of us a damn thing. He’s given us more in the last 20 years than any of us deserve to have in a lifetime of watching football and following a team.
Six Super Bowl rings. Nine Super Bowl appearances. A boatload of AFC East titles and so many unforgettable memories. The best quarterback to ever play the game. We’ll never see anything like it again.
If Brady decides to hang it up once and for all, or if he decides to take his talents to another team, he should have the full blessing of every single Pats fan who has been lucky enough to root for him for all these years.
And now, we officially head into an offseason of complete and total uncertainty. When the Patriots take the field for training camp in August, who knows what the team will look like?
We might see Brady and company back to try and make one more run at the Lombardi Trophy. Or, we might see the first Patriots team of the post-Brady era. There is no way to even come close to predicting how this offseason will play out.
I had hoped that writing this column would help myself, and those reading it, find a little bit of closure after the disappointing end to this season. But honestly, I’m not sure there is any closure to be found.
As Pats fans, all we can do now is enjoy the rest of the playoffs, watch some stress-free football, and look forward to the 2020 season … whatever it may bring.