WASHINGTON — These aren’t your father’s (or big brother’s) New England Patriots.
What happened Sunday in Pittsburgh just doesn’t happen to 5-time Super Bowl winners Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. The former was out-coached by Mike Tomlin, something that’s rarely happened in their rather one-sided rivalry. And Brady missed numerous big throws, most notably the mind-boggling red zone interception to D.C.-native Joe Haden in the second half that changed the complexion of the game for a Patriots team that looks old, slow and ordinary.
Add it all up, and the Patriots didn’t just lose to a struggling opponent they’d beaten five straight times over the last seven years, they lost whatever was left of their mystique. The 9-5 Pats are in the midst of their first December losing streak in 16 years, which ends their amazing streak of eight straight seasons with 12 or more wins, and more importantly, means they no longer control their bid for a first-round postseason bye.
We’ve seen the Patriots struggle before, but this is different. It’s easy to proclaim them on the way down after an early-season blowout loss in prime time. But a 3-5 record on the road in which the Pats have averaged just 16.6 points per game in the five losses (including three 10-point efforts) is a season-long trend — and if you’ve been paying attention to Brady this season, you’d see he’s been in a pretty steady decline all year.
Brady’s 97.6 QB rating this season isn’t just middle-of-the-road, it’s his worst in four years. He’s one of the very worst QBs in the league against the blitz, and his red zone numbers are also down; his 14 red zone touchdowns are light years from Patrick Mahomes’ league-leading 33, and Brady’s red zone completion percentage (51) is worse than the likes of C.J. Beathard, Joe Flacco and Sam Darnold.
Sure, Brady’s had some trouble with his best targets — Rob Gronkowski has been injured much of the year and has only two red zone catches this year, while Julian Edelman has also been hobbled after missing the season’s first four games due to suspension — but this is the G.O.A.T. we’re talking about here. He’s dealt with this before and prevailed.
But Father Time is undefeated and still champ. Brady is 41-years-old, and no matter what he’s eating or how legit his workout routine is, his decline is not only inevitable — it’s overdue. He’s already defied athletic convention by playing as well as he did in his age-40 season to lead his team to Super Bowl LII. Brady’s definitely slowing down, and his inevitable demise could come abruptly and without warning.
Take Brady’s longtime rival, Peyton Manning. In 2014, he looked like the record-setting MVP he was the previous season — until he suddenly didn’t. He had a December to forget before his Denver Broncos’ quick playoff exit, and he struggled so mightily in 2015 that even Manning himself couldn’t deny he was done.
But Manning had a ton of help in Denver, so the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 anyway. Conversely, Brady’s not getting much help at this critical juncture in his career. The Patriots’ run game is ranked in the middle of the pack (15th) and the usually-stout New England defense ranks just 23rd in yardage and tied with the Redskins for 13th in scoring. The Patriots’ 26 sacks this season ranks fourth-worst in the league, and were it not for a respectable 22 take-aways, this defense would be a full-on liability.
Even Belichick has been questionable this season. Last week, he inexplicably had Gronk as the last line of defense in what turned out to be the Dolphins’ game-winning, walk-off touchdown. We’re still waiting to hear why Malcolm Butler was benched in the Super Bowl loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.
Given Belichick’s age and tenure — the 66-year-old coach is wrapping up his 19th season in New England — perhaps it’s time to turn to some younger blood. Every coach’s message grows stale eventually, no matter how successful the run. I know that’s borderline heresy considering “The Patriot Way” has been beyond reproach for nearly two decades, but last offseason was full of questions about Butler and even former Patriots taking shots at the organization — something previously unfathomable.
Josh McDaniel has turned down head coaching opportunities elsewhere (including the messy way he left the Colts at the alter last offseason), which probably means there’s a wink-nod agreement for him to take over whenever Belichick calls it quits. He’s probably a good bridge from old to new, and more than capable of coexisting with Brady until the Patriots find their QB of the future — which for the franchise’s sake, needs to be identified by 2020 if they want a seamless transition.
Don’t get me wrong: New England hosts perennial AFC East bottom feeders (the Bills and Jets) in its final two games, so it’s likely the Patriots will finish 11-5 to win their unprecedented 10th straight division title. Hell, they might even be good enough to extend that streak to 11 in a row if the other AFC East teams fail to capitalize on their growing promise next year.
But the warning signs are in place for the Patriots, and the days of championship contention in New England are over. It’s just a matter of whether they can identify the new faces of “The Patriot Way” before the franchise fades to irrelevancy.