Royal tradition announces the passing of a monarch by saying “the King is dead,” and follows that immediately with the promise, “long live the King.”
It’s a way of honoring an institution over the individual, of believing the trunk of a tree will stand even when the branches wilt.
The Patriots have been a two-decade institution in the AFC East division, so much so that even when they didn’t win a Super Bowl, when someone else dethroned the six-time champion kings, they were tabbed as favorites the following year. It was a sign of enduring respect for what they’d accomplished, for their unprecedented 11 straight division titles from 2009-19 and 17of 19 since 2001, for their record run of 17 straight seasons with at least 10 wins, for a streak of making the playoffs that went back to 2008.
But in the true tradition of 2020, where nothing is the same and everything is different, a new New England reality sets in.
The King is dead. And this time, he’s really dead.
While the Patriots head into an offseason that can be billed as nothing short of an overhaul, starting from the quarterback out, the contenders to the throne are coming from every direction. Look up to the north and see the Bills, or down to the south and see the Dolphins, and you see two teams ready to take the throne from New England’s hands.
Sunday was Miami’s turn, with its rookie quarterback and its bold head coach, handing the coach’s old boss a 22-12 loss that officially ended the Patriots’ flickering postseason dream, reducing them to a postgame conversation centered around playing for pride and fighting to the finish. What an unfamiliar place it is, truer for no one more than veteran cornerback Devin McCourty, who hadn’t just made the playoffs in every one of his previous 10 seasons in New England, but won the division every year, too.
“We got to keep fighting because that’s what you want to be as a man,” McCourty said Sunday. “We’ve got a lot of stand-up guys in this locker room. It’s not normal around here but we’re not doing something that’s never been done in the NFL. Every year some teams don’t make the playoffs. I think as a team, as an individual, you’ve got to keep playing because you can’t take this for granted.”
He’s not wrong. And no one in Miami or Buffalo should assume the Patriots will never get in their way again. Brian Flores and Tua Tagovailoa don’t have the Dolphins in the playoffs yet; that’s only because the Bills already clinched the guaranteed spot with their victory last Thursday night. And with young quarterback Josh Allen, enjoying his best season to date, and solid coach Sean McDermott, who coaches a team to be as tough as any in the league, Buffalo, like Miami, is ascending.
The mood is just different around those teams than it is with the Pats, a sense that things are only revving up around there, while they are winding down around here. With exciting young quarterbacks and imaginative young coaches, the Bills and Dolphins are changing the conversation with their changing of the guard.
Their horizons are bright, even brighter against a cloudy backdrop in New England, where Cam Newton wasn’t quite the Tom Brady successor he dreamed of being this season and Bill Belichick wasn’t quite the roster magician he hoped to be. Even the hapless Jets can entertain big dreams, with their ineptitude putting them in contention to land the jewel of the draft, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence. If he joins the division too, the Patriots could find themselves looking up the standings for years to come.
“Obviously, it’s frustrating,” Newton said. “But I don’t want to just dwell on what’s obvious. This whole season has kind of been the tale of coming just a tad bit short.”
The season isn’t over yet, and as strange as it might feel, the Pats head into two final games as potential spoilers, a Monday night contest against the Bills that could derail their momentum and a final game against the Jets that could affect their draft position.
“That’s all we got left,” McCourty said. “We’ll get a chance next week to play a team that’s riding high, has wrapped up the division, and it’ll be ‘how can we spoil their season, spoil what they have going?’ The next week, we’ll try to get a win against the Jets. It’s no moral victory, just how can we win these last two games.”
They couldn’t get it going Sunday, not with a run defense that was shredded and an offense that was powered by Nick Folk and his four field goals. Here came Miami, out-Patrioting the Patriots, running the ball down their throats, overcoming their own mistakes, making the right adjustments. Never mind a first-quarter interception in the end zone or a last-second missed field goal before halftime. Never mind a successful fake punt called back by penalty or a scoop and score erased by a step out of bounds. The Dolphins scored touchdowns on three of their first four second-half possessions and coasted to the finish.
They dethroned the king, and this time, he might really stay down.