Heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale with the Dolphins, the Patriots do have a scenario in which they would end up with the No. 1 playoff seed in the AFC.
All it requires is this: A win over the Dolphins, of course. Oh, and Bills loss or tie to the 4-12 Jets … a Chiefs loss to the 7-9 Broncos … and a Titans loss to the 4-12 Texans.
Now, you know we’ve seen the improbable become reality many times over the past 20-plus years of watching the Patriots.
The Tuck Rule. Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception. The comeback from 28-3.
Let’s just say that having all of those requisite upsets happen this weekend so the Patriots end up with the top seed would be more stunning than the aforementioned magical plot twists.
So, yeah, it’s pretty safe to say the Patriots will be playing on wild-card weekend for the fifth time since Bill Belichick arrived in 2000. The results have been, uh, not great, especially considering the Patriots’ high standard of success. The Patriots are just 2-2 on wild card weekend in the Belichick era.
In 2005, they smoked the Jaguars, 28-3, with Willie McGinest collecting a record 4.5 sacks.
In 2006, they pulled away from the Jets, 37-16, with Tom Brady throwing three touchdown passes.
In 2009, the Ravens’ Ray Rice went 83 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage in a 33-14 Baltimore win that was even uglier than the score.
And in 2019, the Brady era came to an ignominious end when Logan Ryan intercepted his final throw as a Patriot and returned it for a touchdown in the Titans’ 20-13 win.
Nope, the Patriots’ experiences with playing on wild-card weekend in the Belichick years aren’t exactly inspiring – the deepest run they made in any of those four seasons was the 2006 AFC Championship Game loss to the Colts. If only that game had ended at halftime … if only Deion Branch hadn’t been traded …
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. As it turns out, the Patriots have had some strange stuff happen – some self-inflicted – in their regular-season finales before playing on wild card weekend.
The Patriots habitually speak highly of any potential opponent, but in 2005, the tell regarding how they really felt could be found during their last regular-season game against the Dolphins. The Patriots lost, 28-26, when backup quarterback Matt Cassel missed Bam Childress on a 2-point conversion that would have tied the game.
The Patriots were not disappointed by this: They clearly preferred to lose and play the Jaguars in the first round rather than win and face a talented Steelers team. There were actually good vibes all around after that game because of a certain play: That was the day Doug Flutie became the first player since 1941 to convert a dropkick. Flutie was giddy after pulling it off, hugging Belichick, who looked rather happy himself.
It’s kind of too bad the Patriots don’t have a 40-something backup quarterback on the roster right now. (Brian Hoyer has seemingly been around forever, but he’s just a kid of 36.) Flutie isn’t the only quarterback to get a chance at a special moment in the final regular-season game before they must begin thinking about their wild-card weekend matchup.
During a 40-23 rout of the Titans to close out the 2006 regular season (naturally, leaving a Jeff Fisher-coached team at 8-8), 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde came in and attempted three passes with one goal in mind: to become the first quarterback in NFL history to throw a touchdown pass in 20 straight seasons. He accomplished the mission with a 6-yard strike to Troy Brown with 1 minute 45 seconds to play. “I wanted to give it to him,” said Belichick. “I think he deserves that.”
The Patriots’ other two finales before playing on wild-card weekend during the Belichick years were considerably less fun than the first two. In 2009, Wes Welker – who was at the peak of his slot-receiver powers that season, with a league-leading 123 catches for 1,348 yards – ripped up his knee on the dilapidated mini-golf-course turf of Reliant Stadium and was lost for the playoffs. That game is part of rookie Julian Edelman’s origin story – he had 10 catches for 103 yards as Welker’s understudy – but the Patriots looked like a demoralized team the next weekend in getting stampeded by the Ravens.
As for 2019, the regular-season finale stood as a lost opportunity, a case of failing to take care of a fairly simple order of business. The Patriots would have secured a first-round bye with a win, but Ryan Fitzpatrick found Mike Gesicki for a 5-yard touchdown with 23 seconds left, and the Dolphins prevailed, 27-24. The Chiefs slid into the No. 2 slot and earned the bye, while the Patriots unwittingly positioned themselves for one final game with Brady as their quarterback.
It should be mentioned, pre-Belichick, the Patriots played on wild-card weekend five times – in 1982, ‘85, ‘94 (when Belichick’s Browns beat Bill Parcells’s second Patriots team), ‘97, and ‘98. That ‘85 game was a classic. Robert Weathers broke off a game-clinching 42-yard touchdown run on fourth down in a 34-23 win over the Bengals.
Some fans – especially those involved – might remember that as the day five people were injured when, after carrying the goalposts out of the stadium in celebration, one of the posts came in contact with a power line on Rt. 1. Haven’t seen goalposts on Rt. 1 since, so I think the lesson was learned there.
Most fans will remember the win as a catalyst for one of the most improbable playoff runs in NFL history. The ‘85 Patriots won three straight games on the road – against the Jets, Raiders, and Dolphins – to reach Super Bowl XX, where the Bears were somewhat better.
But like Weathers’s scamper in the regular-season finale, it remains a memorable run.
Perhaps these Patriots will begin laying the groundwork for another one this weekend.