Is this finally it for the Patriots?
You know … the end?
Is this the closing act to the dynasty as we’ve known it for some two decades because of cracks in the aging foundation?
Does that make the Patriots as vulnerable as ever in these playoffs?
The line of those who hope the answer is “yes’’ on all of the above counts — outside of New England, of course — is a long one. It snakes throughout the New York metropolitan area, up to Buffalo, down to South Florida, back up to Pittsburgh and Baltimore, over to Tennessee, Kansas City, Denver and all the way to the West Coast.
Most football fans in America are massive Los Angeles Chargers fans right now.
That’s because many of those fans believe the 13-4 Chargers, fresh off their convincing wild-card victory over the Ravens, are poised to end the 11-5 Patriots’ playoff run before it begins, in Sunday’s 1 p.m. AFC divisional round at Gillette Stadium.
The last time the Patriots — winners of the AFC East for the 10th consecutive season and 15th in the past 16 — went one-and-done in the playoffs was eight years ago in the 2010 season, when the Jets (yes, the Jets) knocked them off in the divisional round at Foxborough.
Most NFL fans outside of New England, led by the most ardent supporters of the Jets, Dolphins and Bills who have grown sick and tired of the Patriots dominating the AFC East since George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office, respect what New England has done, marvel at the Patriots’ remarkable staying power.
Those same fans, though, cannot wait for the day when the Patriots are coached by someone not named Belichick and quarterbacked by someone not named Brady.
Then, we’ll all be left to wonder, what will it look like up there at Gillette Stadium?
The question is this: Are those pondering whether the Patriots’ prolific playoff run, which includes four trips to the Super Bowl in the past seven years, is nearing its end hastening their potential demise because you want it?
Are you betting with your heart instead of your head?
Much like Tiger Woods in golf, because they’re the Patriots, you question their ability to perform great things at your own peril. More often than not, you’ll get burned.
You might recall the rampant reports during the 2017 season of inner turmoil and a power struggle between coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and owner Robert Kraft over the trading of Brady’s supposed heir apparent, Jimmy Garoppolo. That power struggle was supposed to signal the end for the Patriots. And yet they reached the Super Bowl anyway, losing to the Eagles in a thriller.
Brady is 41 years old and has looked mortal in more games this season than he has in the past. While this number is hardly what you would call egregious, Brady has thrown 11 interceptions this season. In the previous two seasons, he threw a total of 10 picks. The last time he threw nine or more interceptions was in 2014.
One undeniable factor to the Patriots not being as dangerous on offense is the obvious decline of tight end Rob Gronkowki, whose numbers this season — 47 catches for 682 yards and three touchdowns — are pedestrian for an Adonis who’s been unstoppable for so much of his career. Gronkowski’s litany of physical ailments clearly have broken his body down to the point where it’ll be at least a mild surprise if he doesn’t retire after this season (something he reportedly pondered after last season).
Defensively, the Patriots don’t scare a lot of teams, ranked 21st in the NFL in average yards yielded per game.
Their 34-33 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 9 on an inexcusably sloppy desperation touchdown by Miami on the game’s final play that resembled the famous Stanford band kickoff return raised a number of red flags — not only about their defense but about Belichick’s deployment of personnel. Belichick, who’s been the lord of situational football for years, used Gronkowski in the prevent defense when the Dolphins were too far away for a Hail Mary pass attempt and it cost him the game.
“This is not the New England Patriots that we’ve been accustomed to seeing,’’ former Patriots guard Damien Woody said recently on ESPN. “They haven’t been the greatest team situationally. Tom has not been as sharp as he’s been in the past. I think when teams face the New England Patriots, they don’t feel the same mystique that they’ve normally seen from Patriots teams in the past. And I think they are more vulnerable this year.”
Yet the Patriots are 8-0 at home this season and they’ve historically been the toughest out in football playing in the postseason at Gillette Stadium.
Yes, there are cracks in the foundation. But will that matter Sunday?