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Beware, Patriots Nation…the end is near

Saturday, January 11, 2014


You’d think during a precipitous fall from grace you’d hit a few branches of the humble tree on the way down.

Not in this town.

Keeping alive the yearly tradition that began more than a decade ago when Adam Vinatieri split the uprights in New Orleans, the Monday morning confidence of playoff week has given way to the usual Saturday afternoon arrogance as the New England Patriots prepare for tonight’s postseason opener against the Indianapolis Colts.

Card-carrying members of Patriots Nation, which apparently includes local scribes and talking heads paid handsomely for their objectivity – some who’ve made a small fortune being wrong most of their lives – are already discussing who they’d rather face next weekend in the AFC championship, as if the Colts are some divisional-round reincarnation of Jack Del Rio’s Jaguars or Tim Tebow’s Denver Broncos.

The nine seasons that have followed since New England’s last Super Bowl title have obviously taught us nothing. Not even watching the air of invincibility dissipate before our very eyes in 2007 at the hands of a young Eli Manning has lifted the stench of arrogance stretching from Bangor to Boston.

This is by no means a knock on the Patriots. It’s incredibly difficult to win in the NFL on a yearly basis. In the age of parity, where the league prides itself on its annual playoff diversity, the Patriots winning three titles in a five-year stretch at the height of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era is a remarkable feat reserved for only a select few franchises fortunate enough to enjoy such success.

The problem is that once-indomitable cloak of playoff greatness is down to a few scant threads, namely Belichick and Brady, who will be the only remaining personnel from the Super Bowl era on the field tonight when the Patriots face the Colts.

Through all the trends, rule changes, rule removals, and the influx of such promising new talent in the NFL, the Patriots have remained a rare constant, and yet each season a few layers of the old dynasty peel off into the ocean, revealing a team incapable of duplicating the success we all took for granted. New players have tried their hand at rekindling the magic, some of whom have been bigger, stronger and more athletically gifted than their predecessors, but none of them have been able to match the amazing camaraderie of the dynasty era, proving, again, how hard it is to win a Super Bowl in this league no matter how unbeatable you look – and are – at times.

What we’re left with this year is a soulless, unidentifiable team whose hallmark is the fact it survived a rash of injuries to several key players to win 12 games in a highly-competitive conference. It’s a been-there, done-that story in Foxboro that’s been rehashed more than global warming.

The Colts are anything but cookie-cutter. After winning 11 games during the regular season – three against the 49ers, Broncos and Seahawks, all of whom are still alive in the playoff race – Indianapolis and its electrifying quarterback Andrew Luck became the story of this young postseason when it rallied from a 28-point second-half deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs on Wild Card Weekend.

And now they come to Foxboro, for some reason a place still held in mythological regard as this postseason enigma for opposing teams despite the fact the Patriots are just 3-3 in their last six home playoff games, including last year’s loss to the Baltimore Ravens in the conference championship.

The Colts have Luck, a playmaker unlike any of the young quarterbacks remaining in the Super Bowl chase; overshadowed wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, who stretched Kansas City’s defense for 224 yards last weekend; veteran defensive end Robert Mathis, their playmaker on the other side of the ball; and head coach Chuck Pagano, a leukemia survivor who coached the same Ravens team that nearly beat the Patriots at Foxboro in the AFC championship three years ago.

A deep roster, 1 through 53, is the tried-and-true formula for regular-season success in the NFL, but in the single-elimination playoff format it may only take three or four players to survive and advance, and if you match Indianapolis’ top five playmakers with New England’s top five (minus the injured Vince Wilfork and Rob Gronkowski), the undermanned Patriots don’t stack up. And, no, Belichick doesn’t count; he hasn’t caught a pass since Glen Campbell went platinum.

You want intangibles? Luck has them, too. Including last week’s epic comeback, highlighted by the heads-up play of the year in which he recovered a teammate’s fumble at the goal line and dove head-first over the pile for a critical touchdown, Luck is damn near unbeatable in close games with a lifetime record of 18-2 in games decided by seven points or less. Comparatively speaking, three of New England’s four losses this year ended on an interception by Brady – two in the end zone on what would’ve been the game-winning touchdown. The other ended in overtime on a field goal against the Jets. What Luck did continuously throughout the second half of last week’s comeback by buying time in the pocket and scrambling to make big plays – and, to a greater extent, what Colin Kaepernick did to rally the 49ers past Green Bay – are not tools in Brady’s arsenal, not at the age of 36 for a weathered quarterback who was never that mobile to begin with. This, more than anything, is what makes the Patriots as vulnerable as ever.

Any stone cast at Teflon Tom almost instantaneously digresses into a “Kiss our rings!” swordfight at the public urinal of sports information, but the cold, hard reality is Brady and the Patriots have veered off the Hollywood path in recent years and become mere playoff mortals since their last title in 2004. The last nine years mirror the post-9/11 Yankees fumbling through the sad decline of the Joe Torre dynasty with teams good enough to be in the conversation, but not nearly good enough to be the toast of the town. Brady began his postseason career with 10 consecutive wins, but is just 7-7 over his last 14, a reflection on the lack of talent docking at these shores in recent years and a reminder as to just how hard it is to win a Super Bowl at the rate at which the Patriots did a decade ago.

The point in all this is we should know better than to dismiss anyone, regardless of their inexperience, as a threat to pull the plug on New England’s fading dynasty. This team no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt that’ll it be there when it’s all said and done, or that it’ll win the big one because it always finds a way. Those days are gone, and it’s a long, hard fall from the top.


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