These are strange, unfamiliar times around Foxborough. Players have been reporting to work all week. Coaches are feverishly planning for an upcoming game. Fans are ordering their tickets and setting up tailgate parties. All of it for a football weekend that for the past decade has been an unofficial holiday in New England.
The Patriots, in the wake of an unthinkable home loss to the Dolphins, are part of Wild Card Weekend.
To which the rest of the NFL says, “Welcome to the real world.”
Or at least to our world. In most NFL cities, this is the football norm, where division titles are actually shared among the teams in the division, where qualifying for Wild Card Weekend can be so unexpected as to launch a playoff party, where conference championships are rare and exceptional parties. And Super Bowls? They’re the most elusive of all, chased and coveted as once-in-a-lifetime journeys dusted by magic and wrapped in fantasy.
What the Patriots have been doing for 10 years now is not normal, bypassing the wild-card round and getting an extra week off, regularly hosting the divisional round and almost always hosting the AFC Championship game as well, paving a hometown road to the Super Bowl that has left a league full of franchises in the dust. What they’ve done across that span should never be overlooked or taken for granted, not as they advanced to the last three Super Bowls (winning two), not as they won their 11th consecutive AFC East title.
But this year we know is different, with the warning signs that popped up all season morphing into a brick wall this past Sunday. Tom Brady was outplayed by Ryan Fitzpatrick, Bill Belichick was outcoached by Brian Flores, and a roster of little-known and going-nowhere Dolphins played with more grit and heart than the star-studded home team.
The upshot is that the Patriots lost the No. 2 AFC seed to the Chiefs and now host the surging Titans Saturday night, and as anyone paying attention these past few days knows, the Belichick-Brady Patriots have never won a Super Bowl by starting out as a wild card.
Of course it can be done, with a hot streak at the right time. Ask the 2010 Packers, the most recent ones to do it, or the 2007 Giants, the most hated (at least by Patriots fans) ones to pull it off. Both of those teams found the right formula of underdog moxie and overdog confidence to ride a wave of wins, to silence the oddsmakers and doubters. The mind-set starts long before the playoffs do.
“I think you can’t look at it as being a wild-card team,” said Chris Snee, the former Boston College star who helped anchor that Giants’ offensive line, in a phone interview Tuesday. “I felt like the teams we had, we were battle-tested. Our minds were battle-tested, tough. We didn’t feel like any adverse situation would create any issues for us.
“You have to go into it thinking that three or four plays decide a game, and you have to be the more prepared team, and decide that those three or four plays would go your way.”
They didn’t go New England’s way Sunday, which left a locker room full of players saying words they hadn’t said in years, doing their best to turn a negative into a positive, and relish the opportunity still in front of them rather than lament the opportunity lost behind them.
“Why not?” two-way dynamo Elandon Roberts said. “It’s an accomplishment. You’ve got guys that are packing up and going home. It is still a great accomplishment.
“You come into the season working for the playoffs. Of course you don’t want a loss going into it, but at the same time you have to respect it because there are teams week in and week out that come out to beat you.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to make the playoffs in this league.”
Yes, it is. Ask those Giants, who have been an embarrassment since their second of two Super Bowl wins against the Patriots following the 2011 season. They have but one measly wild-card loss to show for the eight years since then, losing in Green Bay three years ago.
Meanwhile, the Patriots just kept on winning, earning a bye and at least one home game each season. They do have the home-field advantage Saturday, but they have the disadvantage of facing one of those wild-card teams that is on a roll. The Titans are the quintessential “team you don’t want to face in the playoffs,” coming alive as the season hits its most crucial point.
“When we knew we’d have to go on the road, it wasn’t an issue; we felt we could beat anyone,” Snee said. “A couple teams stand out this year as being those battle-tested, tough-mind-set teams, one being Tennessee, for sure.”
Yet for all the strangeness in New England, there is a familiarity too. This team knows how to win.
“No, they haven’t been in a wild-card round in a long time, but they’re battle-tested too,” Snee said. “Those three or four plays that decide a game, they’re going to be prepared to handle those. That’s always been the thing with the Patriots.”
It just hasn’t been needed in a very long time. But it is now, reintroducing the Patriots to life on the other side of the football world, the one that exists in most NFL cities.