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FOXBOROUGH — History has become a traveling companion for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. They’ll be making more road reservations than usual if they want to add a seventh Super Bowl title to their Patriot résumés. To make it to a fourth straight Super Bowl and 10th overall together, they’re going to have to buck past precedent, or their canonized coupling could be headed for the past tense.
During this gridiron Gilded Age, the Brady-Belichick Patriots have advanced to the Roman Numeral Rumble nine times, but they’ve never done it without the benefit of a first-round bye. Never. They don’t do Wild Card Weekend. That’s for the pro football hoi polloi, lesser franchises. The Patriots playing on Wild Card Weekend is like Elton John playing at a piano bar.
But this vulnerable and inscrutable 12-4 team will be tuning up for Wild Card Weekend, opening the playoffs Saturday night with a date against old friend Mike Vrabel and his Tennessee Titans at Gillette Stadium.
Their presence is required in the wild-card round for the first time since 2009 after they blew their chance for their perennial playoff pass to the divisional round, suffering a disheartening defensive collapse in a 27-24 loss to the Miami Dolphins and former Belichick protégé Brian Flores in the regular-season finale in Foxborough Sunday. The bye went bye-bye for a team that finished .500 after an 8-0 start to drop to the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
The Patriots are facing their toughest road to the Super Bowl during their nearly two-decade dynasty, point blank, to borrow a phrase that former Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork was fond of using. If they defeat a physical Titans team, they’ll have to travel to raucous Arrowhead Stadium to face Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs, who never have problems scoring points against the Patriots.
Survive that game, and it’s likely off to Baltimore to face presumptive league MVP Lamar Jackson and the Ravens.
Both the Chiefs and the Ravens defeated the Patriots this season and poked holes in the air of invincibility of New England’s vaunted defense, which set a franchise record for fewest points allowed (225).
“No one feels sorry for the Patriots not getting a first-round bye in the playoffs,” said Patriots safety Devin McCourty. “We talk about it each year; each team has their own journey, and this is our journey to go out there Wild Card Weekend and have an opportunity to continue to play.”
This will be the fourth time during the Belichick-Brady era that the Patriots have started the playoffs on Wild Card Weekend, joining 2005, 2006, and 2009, when Baltimore literally ran them out of their building. Since ’05, they’re 2-4 on the road in the postseason. Both wins — a comeback in San Diego in the ’06 playoffs and last season’s overtime triumph in KC in the AFC title game — required rabbits’ feet.
Barring an upset of Baltimore, the Patriots will have to match their entire road playoff win output over the previous 14 seasons to reach Super Bowl LIV in Miami Feb. 2. That’s a sobering thought with an aging team that doesn’t enjoy a great deal of margin for error, especially on offense, where every point feels like it should come with a certificate of authenticity.
The looming subtext of the Patriots’ arduous road to Super Bowl LIV is that this could be the end of the road for the Belichick-Brady partnership and the NFL’s undying dynasty. The Brady End Game has been lingering over the team all season, as the 42-year-old quarterback played out a contract year for the first time in his 20-year career.
Brady’s contract automatically voids before the first day of the new league year, March 18, 2020, and the Patriots are prohibited from applying the franchise tag to him. He desires to keep playing, but it’s unclear whether Belichick desires to keep him at age 43 or is prepared to make more than a year-to-year commitment to do so.
This entire uneven season has carried an undercurrent of uneasiness. The future is not promised. Win or lose, Saturday could be the last game Brady plays in a Patriots uniform at Gillette Stadium.
This season, Brady flashed his frustrations with and reservations about the offense around him more than any other time in his career. It has been a season-long vote of no confidence in the offense from No. 12.
The Patriots finished 15th in the NFL in total offense, their lowest ranking since 2003 (17th). They’ve been unable to solve the red zone riddle all season long, finishing 26th out of 32 teams in red zone touchdown percentage, turning just 50 percent of their forays inside the 20-yard line into TDs.
Doubting Thomas Edward Patrick Brady is bad business, but he’s probably facing more doubts entering this postseason than at any time since his Cinderella signal-caller turn in 2001 that launched the dynasty. He posted his lowest completion percentage (60.8) since 2013, another season when Belichick saddled him with a raw receiving corps, and tossed 24 touchdown passes, his fewest since the original receiver-less campaign of 2006.
Age, a balky elbow that appears worse than Brady is letting on, and a less-than-stellar supporting cast have hamstrung TBQB. Over the last nine games of the season, Brady completed just 56.8 percent of his passes and generated a passer rating of 82.5. In 2019, the league average completion percentage was 63.5 and the average passer rating was 90.4.
Brady threw a back-breaking pick-6 against the Dolphins, a pass to nowhere. Hopefully, that’s not a harbinger of the Patriots’ playoff path.
Before the Patriots can worry about hitting the road, they have to concern themselves with the Titans, who aren’t the usual first playoff-game fodder for the Patriots. Tennessee went 7-3 after Vrabel, the three-time Super Bowl champion, former Patriots linebacker and founding member of the Patriot Way, switched from Marcus Mariota to Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Tannehill finished the season as the NFL’s highest-rated passer at 117.5.
The Titans boast the NFL’s leading rusher in battering ram Derrick Henry, who paced the NFL with 1,540 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. They also have dynamic rookie wide receiver A.J. Brown, selected 19 picks after the Patriots took N’Keal Harry with the 32d and final pick of the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
Brown led all rookie receivers with 1,051 receiving yards, averaged 20.2 yards per reception, and became the first rookie since Randy Moss in 1998 to generate four touchdown receptions of 50 yards or more.
Perhaps the biggest advantage the Titans have is the cerebral and sardonic Vrabel as coach. He outfoxed his close friend, Brady, and his former coach, Belichick, in the teams’ matchup last season. The Titans won’t be intimidated coming to Fort Foxborough or experience Patriot paranormal activity. Vrabel will debunk and demystify the Patriots Mystique. That’s often half the battle for teams when confronting Brady and Belichick.
“They play hard, they’re disciplined, they’re well-coached. They’re a good football team,” said Belichick, in what amounts to his highest praise.
It also helps that the Titans possess a bevy of ex-Patriots, including general manager Jon Robinson, defensive coordinator Dean Pees, and inside linebackers coach Tyrone McKenzie. They also have former Patriots players Logan Ryan, Dion Lewis, and Cody Hollister on their active roster. Super Bowl XLIX hero Malcolm Butler is also a member of the Titans, but he’s on injured reserve after breaking his wrist.
If you’re looking for a good omen, it’s that Tannehill might still be suffering Patriots PTSD from his Dolphins days. He’s 0-6 all time at Gillette. It’s hard to see the former Miami Mannequin defeating the Patriots in the playoffs on their home turf, but this has been an anomalous season.
The Patriots are facing a difficult road and an uncertain future.
Brady and Belichick have made their names making history together. They can either make more history or be history.