Their record had fallen to 9-5. They were coming off consecutive December losses and had dropped three of their last five games.
The Patriots didn’t look like playoff contenders, let alone a Super Bowl team. Playing on Wild-Card Weekend for the first time in a decade seemed likely.
Only, it was then a light turned on. Dominant regular-season victories over the Bills and Jets by a cumulative score of 62-15 followed. The Patriots nabbed the all-important second seed, ensuring a bye. And, now a month after a dismal 17-10 loss to the Steelers, they are headed back to the Super Bowl for a third straight season.
“We’ve found a way to play our best the last four games,” Tom Brady told reporters Tuesday. “Buffalo, Jets, had the bye, played great against the Chargers, played really well [against the Chiefs]. We’re going to need one more great game.”
The turnaround didn’t happen without some much-needed adjustments. The defense emerged after shaky play — it allowed just seven points in the first half of two playoff games — and the running game became more of a focal point of the offense. The Patriots ran for 273 yards against the Bills, 171 against the Jets, 155 against the Chargers and 176 against the Chiefs.
“You play on the road, it’s going to be tough. What travels is running the ball. Playing tough. That’s good in any weather, any condition, any environment, any stadium,” Brady said. “That was a big part of our game.”
It truly began on Dec. 23, in a 24-12 win over the Bills that clinched the Patriots’ 10th straight AFC East crown. The previous week, New England committed 14 accepted penalties in the loss to the Steelers. The week before, it fell on the Dolphins’ miracle 69-yard touchdown on the final play of the game.
But against Buffalo, the Patriots began to find themselves. The defense produced three turnovers and rookie Sony Michel ran for 116 yards and a touchdown.
“Buffalo was like, ‘All right, guys, this is what it takes.’ Playing at home, winning a division championship, was like, ‘Guys, this is championship-level football. This is what we need to do,’ ” safety Devin McCourty said. “And then essentially playing another playoff game the next weekend against the Jets, we rolled with that kind of mentality.”
Super Bowl 53: Rams vs. Patriots betting line and how to watch
And then there were two. The New England Patriots won…
They throttled the Jets, 38-3, the following week, manhandled the Chargers, 41-28, two weeks later in the divisional round of the playofffs then outlasted the Chiefs on Sunday, 37-31.
A lot has been made of their manufactured underdog mentality, some of it mocking sarcasm for a team quarterbacked by a legend like Brady coached by a genius like Bill Belichick. But a month ago, the Patriots were not expected to still be playing now.
“There’s a lot of mentally tough players in that locker room, a lot of physically tough players in that locker room, a lot of guys that just go out and compete and won’t quit, just battle you, no matter what the situation is, and let the chips fall where they may,” Belichick said. “I think that’s a good way to do it.”