FOXBOROUGH — Hades has frozen over. Swine are accumulating frequent flier miles. LeBron James is getting called for traveling. All Supreme Court decisions are unanimous. And the Patriots are not the prohibitive favorites in the AFC anymore. Well, one of those unimaginable things rings true right now.
You can’t call the Patriots the favorite in the AFC anymore, not after they lost games to elite quarterbacks Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, and Patrick Mahomes and to fellow AFC contenders the Baltimore Ravens, the Houston Texans, and the Kansas City Chiefs. After an 8-0 start, the Patriots entered the most meaningful and meaty part of their schedule, a six-week, five-game stretch of real teams and real quarterbacks. They finished that stretch sub .500 at 2-3 with an offense that is significantly substandard.
Sunday’s officiating-aided 23-16 loss to the Chiefs at Gillette Stadium knocked the Patriots from the top perch in the AFC and rendered them 0-3 against fellow AFC division leaders/winners. With back-to-back losses to Watson and Mahomes, they’re now staring up at the 11-2 Ravens in the standings. I hear Baltimore is lovely in late January.
The disheartening defeat highlighted the tight-rope the Sons of Foxborough have to walk to wins. The defense did its job, limiting Andy Reid’s rocket-fueled offense to 23 points, 6 below Kansas City’s season average. Mahomes (26 of 40 for 283 yards with a touchdown and an interception) had just 57 yards passing in the second half after he guided KC to a 20-7 halftime lead. It was still too much for an overmatched and underwhelming offense that was robbed of a touchdown by shoddy officiating, but also lacks the punch or precision necessary to carry its end of the Belichickian bargain.
Some of the Kansas City players’ equipment arrived late to Gillette Stadium because of a cargo unloading snafu. Tom Brady is still waiting for the Patriots’ offensive equipment to arrive this season. This doesn’t look like an offense equipped to win a suddenly competitive AFC.
We can lament the officiating calls that negated a pair of touchdowns — a fumble return at the end of the third quarter and a N’Keal Harry touchdown reception early in the fourth that was a mind-boggling bad out-of-bounds call. That ineptitude clearly cost the Patriots, but so did their own on offense. They suffered from the same issues they have all season, the ones that render the Patriots part of the pack in the AFC instead of sitting on their usual pedestal.
The Patriots finished 1 for 3 in the red zone, failing to punch it in in three tries from the 3-yard line after the Harry ruling and seeing their final drive end at the Chiefs’ 5. They can’t convert on third down, posting an abysmal 2 of 12 conversion rate. The epitome of the Patriots’ offense was back-to-back plays on a second-quarter drive that netted no points. Jakobi Meyers dropped a pass on third and 7. Brady then overthrew Julian Edelman when Bill Belichick — chasing points or fearing Nick Folk — made the curious decision to go for it on fourth and 7 from the KC 27 with his team down, 17-7.
New England couldn’t establish the run against a Kansas City defense that ranked 30th in the NFL in run defense. Sony Michel had five carries for 8 yards in the first half and then went into witness protection. Brady has gone from seething frustration to reluctant resignation after registering his fourth consecutive game completing fewer than 56 percent of his passes playing inside the quarterback cage Belichick has constructed for him. Forget the past shootouts between these teams, Brady had just 106 yards after three quarters and finished 19 of 36 for 169 yards with a touchdown and a cringe-worthy interception that led to Kansas City’s second touchdown.
The Patriots scored on the opening drive on the strength of a pair of third-down pass interference penalties against the Chiefs and a flea-flicker. Brady took a pitch from James White and hit a wide-open Edelman for a 37-yard score. In hindsight, this was an omen and not a favorable one. This offense is beyond limited. It’s crippled.
If it’s not a trick play or a short field created by a blocked punt or a defensive turnover, the vast green acreage the Patriots used to consume at will seems like an insurmountable trek across a trail of tears.
“You just have to find a way to get things going and help the defense and the special teams out,” said White.
Josh McDaniels spun the dial of formations and pulled out two trick passes.
On offense, the Patriots used 12 (one back and two tight ends) personnel and hurry-up. They dusted off the old Rob Gronkowski-Aaron Hernandez strategy where they went hurry-up with two tight ends and challenged teams by changing formations without changing personnel. The problem is it’s less effective without a Gronk or Hernandez-level matchup nightmare and with Matt LaCosse as one of the tight ends. McDaniels also rolled out sets with two backs and three wide receivers and one back and four wide receivers.
For all the mental gymnastics McDaniels engaged in, his offense could only muster 16 points. I know, I know, Harry was robbed of a touchdown. Belichick was unable to challenge because a few plays earlier he was forced to waste his final coach’s challenge after the officials botched a Travis Kelce fumble, not only ruling him down, but blowing the play dead as Stephon Gilmore sailed to paydirt and a TD that could have pulled the Patriots within 23-20 at the end of the third.
Now you know how the rest of the NFL feels when miraculously and mystifyingly calls go in favor of the Patriots. Touchdowns that evaporate like steam from a kettle. It’s not right. It’s not fair, but the sun has smiled on the Patriots dynasty more times than not. And a vintage Patriots offense would have shrugged off the injustices.
“It’s obviously a tough pill to swallow because obviously we feel like we had some plays out there that were negated by the officiating crew, and it’s just tough because that’s a really good team,” said safety Duron Harmon. “Obviously, those plays and those touchdowns that we thought we had we obviously could have used against a really good team like that.
“You can’t take nothing away from Kansas City. They did a good job of creating the lead and being able to play from ahead. We felt like we had a chance to win. This one is tough. This is probably one of the toughest losses I’ve had.”
This loss shows just how narrow the path to playoff victory is for the Patriots. The defense managed to keep this contest in the 20s. That’s all you could ask, especially after KC built a 23-7 third-quarter lead.
“We’ve just got to do a better job of just playing a little better in the first half,” said Harmon. “It was just a couple of plays, the long touchdown between me and [Jonathan Jones]. It happens. It’s a good football team. You’re not going to go out and limit them to 10 points. It is what it is . . . You’ve just got to make it tough, and we did a good job of that in the second half.”
It’s a strange day in the NFL. The Patriots are offensively deficient. They’re the ones getting jobbed and robbed. They don’t have the inside track for home field.
Wonders never cease, but the Patriots better hope their inability to match up with the best teams in the AFC does.
Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.