It’s tempting to say the Patriots can’t hang with the NFL’s best. But they already have
I thought about this quite a bit Tuesday morning, and ultimately it was easy to arrive at the conclusion: The Rams-Chiefs fireworks display on “Monday Night Football” was the most entertaining regular-season game I’ve ever seen.
The only disappointment in the Rams’ 54-51 win was that it didn’t go to overtime. I think I said “wow!” during that game even more than ESPN wood-carved analyst Jason Witten, and “wow!” is his go-to exclamation for anything even mildly exciting. We’ll know he’s progressing as an analyst when he starts mixing in a “whoa!” every once in a while.
Here’s an honorable mention of regular-season games that I considered as potentially the best I’d seen until Monday night: the Patriots’ 38-35 victory over the Giants in the 2007 regular-season finale to go 16-0; their 35-34 loss to the Colts — the fourth-and-2 game — during Week 10 of the ill-fated 2009 season; and aesthetically, pretty much every 4 p.m. Chargers-Raiders game from 1979-81 on NBC, which brought that high-voltage San Diego offense and impossible California sunshine into those miserable childhood winters.
Even though the Patriots were on their bye, this weekend of football convinced me of what I want to see during the conference championship games come Jan. 20: Chiefs at Patriots for the AFC title, and Rams at Saints (who dropped 48 points on the defending Super Bowl champion Eagles Sunday) for the NFL crown.
I mean, who among diehard football fans who just want to see the most compelling matchups wouldn’t want that? OK, so Steelers fans wouldn’t want that. Pittsburgh, courtesy of a Jacksonville meltdown Sunday, owns the second spot behind the Chiefs and ahead of the Patriots in the AFC standings at the moment, and seems to believe that this is the year it can beat the Patriots when it matters. I’m not buying it even if the host Steelers beat the Patriots in Week 15, but at the least they must be monitored for now.
But Saints, Rams, Chiefs, and Patriots as the final four?
Wish it and so it shall be . . . maybe.
I could see how the last impression we had of the Patriots — a 34-10 loss to the Titans that wasn’t just disappointing but downright boring — might make it seem as though they don’t belong in the company of the Rams and Chiefs, who combined for more than 1,000 yards of total offense, 105 points, 56 first downs, and 14 touchdowns Monday night.
Both of those teams — and the electrifying Saints, too — are so prolific that they make the turn-of-the-century Greatest Show on Turf Rams look like they should have been wearing leather helmets and running their offense through an anvil-headed fullback.
But I do wonder whether our last impression of the Patriots is leading us toward selling them short. After all, Monday night’s game should have looked at least somewhat familiar. Remember Patriots-Chiefs, Week 6?
The Chiefs certainly do — it was their only loss of the season until Monday night, a 43-40 Patriots victory during which there were two lead changes in the fourth quarter, a 75-yard Tyreek Hill touchdown to tie the score at 40 (he had a 73-yarder Monday), and a winning field goal from the Patriots’ Stephen Gostkowski that was set up by a 39-yard Rob Gronkowski catch.
It might be tempting to say that the Patriots can’t compete with what we saw Monday night. But the reality is that they already have.
Sure, they have been uneven enough that it’s impossible to predict what they will be going forward. They already have as many losses as they did last year and more than in 2016, when they were 14-2. They have two proven tough opponents remaining on the schedule — the Steelers and the Vikings — but their other four games are against AFC East competition (two with the Jets, at Miami, and home against Buffalo).
The Steelers’ schedule is tougher — they play at New Orleans, plus have the Chargers and Patriots at home, and they could well lose at Denver this week. (Not that Denver is any good, but losing there seems like something the Steelers would do.)
The Patriots hold the tiebreaker with the Chiefs, who are on their bye this week. Kansas City then faces a schedule that includes home games vs. the Chargers and Ravens (the league’s top scoring defense) and a road matchup at Seattle, plus two games with the Raiders.
It’s still possible for the Patriots to seize the top seed, and a top-two spot seems imperative to get to where they want to go. We’re still figuring out who they are this year and whether the best is to come, but it’s worthwhile to remember that they’ve already had some satisfying moments so far, including against one of those teams that looked so extraordinary Monday night.
More Patriots coverage:
■ Jim McBride: Thoughts and observations on the Patriots through 10 games
■ Dan Shaughnessy: This is a year the Patriots need a first-round bye more than ever