The Patriots don’t do participation trophies. That has been drilled into our heads over the last two decades when the playoffs were a fait accompli barring a catastrophe (Tom Brady’s knee injury in the 2008 season opener). The regular season was merely the prologue to the only season that mattered — the postseason.
But Brady is gone. So are the Super Bowl-or-bust expectations for the Patriots as they take to the playoffs without him for the first time in the Bill Belichick era. As the Patriots ready for their rubber match with the Buffalo Bills Saturday night in frigid Orchard Park, N.Y., it’s time to put this season in the appropriate satellite-view perspective.
No matter what happens against the Bills, declare this Patriots season a bona fide success. It’s all gridiron gravy from here. The Patriots are ahead of schedule in their post-Brady reset and have returned to NFL relevance. They’ve already checked off the two most important items on their to-do list: They found a viable quarterback in rookie Mac Jones, and they’ve returned to the postseason.
Even if the Patriots are still looking up at the Bills in the AFC East standings, things are looking up for the organization.
Do you know how many franchises would kill for the quick reboot Belichick has initiated? Teams wander through the team-building wilderness for years before they find their way back to the postseason. It took Belichick one losing season, a $175 million free-agency spending spree, and his first-ever first-round-pick quarterback. Voila! Here we are.
Now, that doesn’t mean the Patriots get a free pass against a beatable Bills team. The result will still be rightly dissected and reviewed like the Zapruder film. They will still be held to account for their performance or lack thereof, especially after the reality check that followed their seven-game win streak and brief stay atop the AFC standings — losses in three of their final four regular-season games.
The winning streak and the level of defensive dominance fueling it now look like pigskin pyrite, better known as football fool’s gold. But you should feel much better about the overall direction of the local football team than you did at this time last year as they were licking their wounds from their first losing campaign since 2000 and facing an uncertain future under center.
There are 18 other franchises and fan bases with their noses pressed against the playoff glass that would gladly trade places with the Patriots.
“All we wanted was a ticket to the dance,” Matt Judon said. “We got that. We’re in the playoffs. Now, we got to go make it happen. So, that’s what we got to do. I love it. It’s win or go home. As an athlete, as a competitor, there’s nothing better than that.”
Saturday marks a new era at the edifice formerly known as New Era Field. For the first time during Belichick’s tenure, the Patriots enter the playoffs as a wild-card entry. For the first time, they’ll start a rookie quarterback. For the first time in a long time, losing the game doesn’t render the entire season a failure.
Welcome to New England’s New Age.
Jones is the biggest reason for optimism for the long term, but he is the Patriots’ largest liability in this game by virtue of his rookie status. Mac is the first rookie QB to lead his team to the postseason since Dak Prescott in 2016.
A sobering stat, courtesy of the Patriots game notes, is that since the 1970 merger, rookie QBs who started at least 10 games sport an 8-17 playoff record. The last one to win a playoff contest was Russell Wilson in the 2012 season.
The challenge for the Patriots in this game is to recreate what they did in their first meeting with the Bills — render being on the wrong side of the Quarterback Gap inconsequential to the final result.
If the Patriots are going to win a second time this season on Buffalo’s home turf, Jones is going to have to do more than throw three passes as he did Dec. 6.
He’s going to have to play better than he did in the home loss Dec. 26, when he logged his lowest completion percentage of the season (43.8 percent) and threw a pair of interceptions against the Bills, who finished with the top defense in the NFL in yards, points, and passing yards per game.
“No matter what happens, he’s going to stay the same,” wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said of his quarterback. “I think that’s what I see. The same guy we’ve been seeing, and he’s ready wholeheartedly.”
If the Patriots see the same Josh Allen they saw last time, it’s game over. That guy dominated the Patriots and was The Difference, throwing for 314 yards and three touchdowns while rushing 12 times for 64 yards and four first downs
The Bills became the first team ever with zero punts against a Belichick-coached team.
In his last three games against the Patriots, one of which was the windswept New England win Dec. 6 when Mother Nature was the Patriots’ best defender, Allen is 2-1 with eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He has run the ball 22 times for 138 yards and eight first downs.
After leading the Bills to the AFC title game last season, Allen has playoff street cred. The rocket-armed passer has thrown five touchdowns vs. one interception in five postseason games while rushing 34 times for 237 yards (6.98 per carry) and a score with one fumble.
Still, Allen has earned his reputation for cowboy quarterbacking and making plays for both teams. He’s always a turnover away from turning the tide.
The Patriots have a puncher’s chance. They match up well because they can exploit Buffalo’s run defense and have a stingy pass defense that ranked second in the NFL, albeit one that could be missing starting cornerback Jalen Mills and safety Kyle Dugger.
It’s always fun for the Patriots to torment the Bills and Bills Mafia, but if their season ends Saturday instead, there is no shame.
Progress has been made. A new Foxborough foundation has been poured.
No NFL franchise can win the way they did forever. The Patriots have come a long way back.
Now, they’re experiencing how the rest of the NFL measures success as mere mortals.