The Patriots are not, to paraphrase an old football coach, who I thought they were.
Turns out they’re a little bit better than that now, and may well prove to be much better than that on the journey through the winter toward Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII.
I suspect this season is shaping up to be a mea culpa for me. Allow me to explain.
Entering the season, I figured that the Patriots — coming off a jarringly melodramatic offseason following a tough loss in Super Bowl LII to an Eagles team that delivered a well-timed spectacular night — would overcome their frustrations to again emerge as the favorite in the AFC.
Being back on the field and winning football games (you know, being back in that familiar comfort zone) would provide the necessary remedy to silence the noise and cure the nonsense.
It started fine, with a 7-point win over the Texans in the opener. They lost to the Jaguars, which was acceptable; Jacksonville, a team that if it had any poise might have beaten the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last year, looked at it a revenge game.
But when the Patriots went out in Week 3 and got thumped by Matt Patricia’s Lions, 26-10, they started looking familiar in all the wrong ways.
It reminded me of one of those Patriots teams from this era that is still very good but has obvious flaws — quality depth on offense, a lack of speed on defense — and fails to secure home-field advantage or a bye in the playoffs before coming up a step or two short of the ultimate goal.
They looked headed toward what would be a fulfilling season for most franchises but a disappointing one by their heightened standards.
That’s my roundabout way of acknowledging that when it comes to Patriots protocol (and too many other things in life, frankly), I am a blockhead who never learns.
The Patriots under Bill Belichick have long made a happy habit of being a better team late in the season than they are at the beginning. I know this. I have seen it since the days when Brady was handing off to Antowain Smith and throwing third-and-6 slant passes to Troy Brown for 7 yards.
This is who they are, still. I don’t know why I thought they were something else after all these years. Maybe it was the noise. Or maybe it’s because Brady is 41. But it’s still the same.
The Patriots have won six in a row now, including an affirming 43-40 shootout over the potent Chiefs in Week 6 and Sunday’s 31-17 victory over the Aaron Rodgers-led Packers. The victory over Green Bay, in which Stephon Gilmore, Trey Flowers, and the rest of defense looked as cohesive and capable as they have all season, was one that clearly meant a lot to Belichick, who was upbeat and practically chatty during his postgame press conference.
“I’m proud of the way the guys came back after a tough game in Buffalo on Monday night and really competed all week to prepare and be ready to go tonight,” said Belichick, calling the Packers a really good football team.
“Just kept battling, kept fighting. Like I said, I’m really proud of the way the guys hung in there and just competed tonight and that’s really what it took. It’s good to be 7-2.”
That 7-2 mark has the Patriots in the second spot in the AFC, trailing the 8-1 Chiefs. Kansas City leads the AFC in net points (plus-101) while the Patriots are second (plus-68). The Chargers are third in the standings (and fourth at plus-40), which tells you two things: At 6-2, they are flying under the radar, and there isn’t much to worry about in the AFC.
The Jaguars (3-5) have imploded, and the Steelers (5-2-1) are never a threat no matter how their regular season goes. The Titans (4-4) are intriguing but probably not ready for the bright lights yet. The Texans (6-3) have never been ready for prime time.
This is about the Patriots and the Chiefs, and the Patriots own the tiebreaker. (This Chiefs season is shaping up to be a referendum on whether Alex Smith or Andy Reid was more responsible for their annual letdown.)
Man, is it easy to take six-game winning streaks for granted around here. I remember being jacked and pumped when Pete Carroll’s Patriots took a 6-2 record into the bye week in 1999. They finished 8-8. Thank goodness, as it turns out, because they replaced him with a pretty decent coach the next year.
Then again, long winning streaks aren’t just commonplace. They also tend to light a path to the Super Bowl. Last season, the Patriots won eight in a row and 11 of 12, starting with a tense Week 5 win over the Buccaneers. In 2016, the Patriots were 7-2 after a loss to the Seahawks. They then won their final 10 games, including the Super Bowl. In 2014, the Patriots started 2-2, getting shredded by the Chiefs in Week 4, then tore off seven straight wins beginning with the famous we’re-on-to-Cincinnati game.
This Patriots team looks capable of similar achievements. I didn’t see it early this year, but I sure do now. The defense has risen to 11th in the league in points allowed per game (22.2). The offense has more variables than usual (Rob Gronkowski’s health, Sony Michel’s durability, Josh Gordon’s reliability) but most of the answers have been affirmative so far. Julian Edelman looks like his pre-injury self, James White is a godsend, and Cordarelle Patterson’s apparent position switch has been a blast to watch.
This is a really good team, and one that is getting better. It’s not so much about who they are or who we thought they were. It’s more about what they do.
When the Patriots are a true Super Bowl contender, they traditionally improve as the season goes on, and there will be stretches where they don’t lose for weeks at a time. It’s happening now, and I should have seen it coming. But hey, I guess it is nice to be surprised once in a while, even if the surprise is born of an edamame-brained failure to heed history.