The Patriots are going to have to play well and beat a worthy team if they hope to advance in the Super Bowl Tournament this weekend.
What a concept.
Patriots fans aren’t quite sure how to live with this. For some time now, New England’s path to the Super Bowl has been paved with flukes, great fortune, and frightened opponents ready to be sent home. A soft parade of Texans and Colts would come to Gillette Stadium, wet themselves at the sight of the Hoodie, and slink out of town without resistance. Occasionally the Ravens would put up a fight, but there was always a Tuck Rule or a Cundiff waiting to happen.
The Patriots would put themselves in position to win, then wait for the other guys to self-destruct.
They all fall down.
It feels different this year. The Patriots have dutifully signed up for the playoffs with their usual first-round bye and second-round home game (thank you, Buffalo, Miami, and New York), but this year it feels that in order to go to the Super Bowl, they are actually going to have to (gulp) . . . earn it. Imagine.
This year, the Tomato Cans have not toppled in the correct order. Everything has not gone New England’s way. A berth in Super Bowl 50 is going to have to be won by beating another good team in the playoffs. This time, it won’t be enough to stand back and watch the other guys set themselves on fire.
Wild Card Saturday was not New England’s friend. The debacle in Cincinnati (a sad commentary on today’s NFL, this game reminded me of the concert/riot at the Altamont Raceway when Hells Angels were hired to protect the Rolling Stones) delivers Kansas City to Gillette instead of the Bengals. The talented Bengals — coached by Marvin “Just Call Me Jerry” Lewis — would have been perfect stooges for Belichick. Hoodie would have hounded young A.J. McCarron, and the Patriots would have been happy to let the out-of-control Bengals shoot off their own toes.
But no. The Bengals coughed up the worst playoff loss in NFL history, which means the Patriots are getting the Chiefs, a serious, hot team reeking of respectability.
The Chiefs have won 11 in a row. They smoked the fraudulent Texans, 30-0, Saturday. Kansas City’s quarterback, Alex Smith, though unsensational, is less likely to spit up on himself than Andy Dalton, McCarron, Brandon Weeden, or Brian Hoyer. Smith was quarterback when the Chiefs routed the Patriots, 41-14, at Arrowhead Stadium 16 months ago. KC coach Andy Reid is a mere 1-4 against Belichick, but as coach of the Eagles, he gave the Hoodie a good game in Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, and last season he orchestrated the rout of New England.
The Patriots got one of their standard breaks Saturday when Smith’s favorite target, Jeremy Maclin, suffered an ankle injury, but that’s nothing compared with the traditional litany of helpful events that routinely pave New England’s path to the championship.
There’s more regarding this new degree of difficulty. The Patriots’ half-buttocks effort in the regular-season finale in Miami stripped them of the No. 1 seed, and events in the dreaded Cincinnati-Pittsburgh game make it “more likely than not” that the AFC Championship game is going to be played in Denver.
Kansas City would have had a chance to win at Mile High. But how do you like sixth-seeded Pittsburgh’s chances with Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder) unable to raise his right hand and Antonio Brown dealing with a concussion? To get to Super Bowl 50, the Patriots are almost certainly going to have to win in Denver, where Brady is 0-2 in the playoffs and 2-6 lifetime.
The Patriots lost their final two games and four of the last six. There’s a prevailing thought that the return of Julian Edelman is going to solve all of the Patriots’ late-season woes. Perhaps.
Back when the Patriots were 10-0, we all felt they were destined to play in Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara. That was before their offense was drained of much weaponry. New England scored fewer than 24 points per game over the second half of the regular season.
This is a season unlike most Patriot seasons. They are not playing their best football at the end of the year. And in a year in which the conference is weak, they face legitimate threats that we did not think would be there.
This is how things played out back in the days when the Patriots were really good. When the Patriots were winning the Super Bowl three times in four seasons, they twice went to Pittsburgh to win the AFC Championship. And they always knew they had to get past the once-fearsome Colts with young MVP quarterback Peyton Manning. The Patriots and their fans wanted to beat the best. Home or away. It did not matter.
Somewhere along the line, perhaps owing to arrogance and self-congratulation, the cruise-ship mentality took hold with the Patriots and their fans. Instead of making it about beating the best, it became about exploiting the easiest and somehow getting to the Super Bowl without having to strain themselves.
Not this year. The Tomato Cans have been sent home. The Patriots are going to have to earn their ticket to Santa Clara.
It’s more challenging. More fun. And of course, more risky.Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@Dan_Shaughnessy.