When the ball hit the ground, everything zoomed into focus. Suddenly, there were no more excuses. There was nothing left to say. No sane or logical way to defend what had become of this Patriots team.
There were still two minutes left when Devin McCourty coughed up that kickoff, but at the same time there were only two minutes left. And in those previous 58 minutes, the Patriots had inspired one of the NFLs worst offenses and turned them into a juggernaut. The Jets came to Foxboro looking like the Little Giants, but trotted out for that decisive drive feeling like the West Canaan Coyotes. Mark Sanchez might as well have been Joe Namath; Joe McKnight could have been Curtis Martin; Jeremy Kerley was Wayne Chrebet.
On second thought, maybe those comparisons are just a little exaggerated but in the moment it was real. In that moment, there was no stopping the Jets. They'd either score a touchdown, or milk the clock and kick a game-winning field. Either way, it was over.
Rex Ryans post-game press conference was already running through your head. The arrogant laughter; the giddy hop in his step. We knew we could come in here and kick their ass, hed say, with a glimmer unseen since his wifes last pedicure, and thats exactly what we did! First place, baby!
Antonio Cromartie wouldve had something to say, too. Same goes for Bart Scott. Darrelle Revis would have chimed in from rehab. The rest of the league would have loved it.
God, it was going to sting; like a Brandon Spikes helmet to the skull. But in reality, the Jets were only part of the pain. They were the tip of an icicle that was about to be driven through our eye sockets, John McClane-style. Sure, theyd dance on the 50-yard line, throw a party in the press, and really stick it to the Pats for the following 24 hours. But once the Jets storyline subsided, the big picture would be so much worse.
In that instant Lex Hilliards hit, McCourtys fumble, Antonio Allens recovery the Patriots were 3-4 for the first time since 2002. But while that previous ugly start had come on the heels of the most inspiring season in franchise history, with 25-year-old Tom Brady and 50-year-old Bill Belichick still easing into their respective primes, in 2012, 3-4 marked a disaster. It would come on the heels of New Englands seventh straight championship-less season, another missed opportunity on the games biggest stage, another paralyzing sucker punch to all those fans who still refuse to believe that this era will pass without one more title. One more parade. Something to calm the nightmares of the collapse in Indy, David Tyrees catch, Wes Welkers drop.
Truth is, as the pain of McCourtys fumble set in throughout Patriots Nation, it wasnt even about the Jets. It wasnt about one loss. Instead, it was about the very foundation of this franchise. It was about a 3-4 record with a 35-year-old Tom Brady, a 60-year-old Bill Belichick and a shaky supporting cast. It was about facing a reality that weve feared for years; that we know is inevitable but will never be prepared for. It was about those questions. Those serious expletive questions of NFL mortality, and what will someday lie ahead for the New England Patriots.
Can Tom Brady still carry the load?
Is Belichick still one of the best coaches in the game?
Of course, its impossible to ask those question without feeling like a jerk; without feeling disrespectful, ungrateful and unworthy of everything that Brady and Belichick have done for this city. Not to mention, weve counted them out before. Like last year, after the Pats lost back-to-back games to the Steelers and Giants, even some of the most respected and level-headed voices in the Patriots press box were wondering if the game had finally passed Belichick by; if Brady could still do it on his own. It was only natural. And naturally, the coach and his quarterback responded by once again rising to the top of the AFC and came within one Brady-to-a-wide-open-Welker connection of that elusive fourth ring.
They proved us all wrong.
Well, kind of.
Despite the improbability of their run to a fifth Super Bowl appearance in 11 years, the fact remains that they blew it last February. In New England at least as long as Brady and Belichick are around its not enough to make the Super Bowl. You have to win, and in each of their last two trips, the Patriots were in a position to do that, before crumbling down the stretch. We don't have to rehash the details, but between Super Bowls XLII and XLVI, and the 2006 AFC Championship, we all know that the Pats left three titles on the table. They choked. And while that doesnt all fall on Brady and Belichick, we cant give them proper credit for the three Super Bowls wins, without hitting them with considerable blame for the three losses.
Theyre the legends. Theyre the Hall of Famers. Theyre the ones who are responsible for lifting the masses the football mortals and making sure the team reaches its full potential. They're also our heroes. We want them to be perfect. And for that, it's not always easy to see their faults for what they are, and admit that neither has been as good as they need to be. But the evidence goes beyond those three big losses.
As Jackie MacMullan noted in her column this morning, in the first seven years of his career, Brady was 39-10 in games decided by seven points or fewer. Since 2009, hes 13-12 in games that close, and 1-5 in games decided by less than a field goal.
We can't run away from that.
We can't ignore how increasingly uncomfortable Brady looks in the pocket at times, and some of the decisions he's made. For instance, the intentional grounding against the Seahawks or the pass that should have been intercepted yesterday by Cromartie. There was also the play in Buffalo when he started ducking away from imaginary pass rushers. Going back to last year's playoffs, there was the interception on that unnecessary bomb to Matthew Slater in the AFC Championship, there was the intentional grounding in the Super Bowl and, of course, the infamous pass to Welker which, while certainly catchable, could have been more catchable. Listen, I'm not saying Brady has to be perfect, he was never perfect, but when the game was on the line, he was always pretty close. Lately, that hasn't necessarily been the case.
We also can't ignore the continued failures of Bill Belichick's secondary or the fact that he was out-coached by Pete Carroll two weeks ago. Belichick would be the first person to tell you that a team's failure to execute in crunch time is a product of poor coaching, and the Pats' record in close games indicates that the coaching isn't there. Now that may not be all Belichick. He has a staff of guys who are supposed to support him on that. But then again, who hires that staff? Is he just not bringing in the right people? Has he lost the ability to do that? And seriously, what the hell is going on with that secondary?
Anyway, this is where we were last night at about 7 o'clock, just as Devin McCourty fumbled the kickoff and sent the Patriots season into a tail spin. Or so we thought. And in the midst of all that anger and confusion, our biggest fear was exposed. Our biggest fear, not only for this season, but every season until this era comes to an end: The fear that Brady and Belichick are no longer good enough. It's something that will linger around this team until they prove otherwise. A product of the fact that it's been quite a while since they were good enough, and that with every passing year it gets harder to keep pace.
But back to yesterday's game, and the fact that, just as we were ready to count out the Pats, and throw Brady and Belichick to the wolves . . . they came through. The defense made stops (with a little help from Stephen Hill) on that post-fumble possession and then in overtime. When Brady got the ball on that game-tying drive in regulation, he was absolutely possessed. You literally could not have asked for him to do any more andor do it any better than he did. That was vintage Brady. Confident, decisive. There was a zip on his ball that hadn't been there all game. In overtime, he wasn't perfect but wasted no time getting New England into good field position. He was integral in the Pats stealing this win. Granted, it was one that had been stolen from them initially and thanks in large part to Brady but like we said, the good stuff that happens at the end will always over shadow the early struggles. Again, that's why no one remembers that Brady was only 16-27 for 145 yards in Super Bowl XXXVI. It's all about that last drive. As it was on Sunday. You can complain all you want about how they got there, but in the NFL, in the division, and especially within a rivalry like PatsJets a win is a win. The Pats got it. Brady and Belichick got it. That's the biggest take away.
But obviously, it's not the only one. We know things aren't perfect right now for the Pats. So far from it. We know that there's still so much work to be done. But guess what? It's Week 7. You look around the AFC today, and there's one team Houston that's not in need of some serious work before the playoffs get underway. And when it comes to Houston . . . there's still so much to prove. Matt Schaub's still never started a playoff game. They still need to find away to keep all their big guns healthy. In other words, the AFC's still up for grabs.
And much like we learned down the stretch yesterday at Gillette, you'd be crazy to count out the defending conference champs and the two guys still leading the charge.