Sports

“Is This the End of the Patriots?” a Weary Nation Asks, Knowing the Answer

Why would familiar problems stop New England this year?

Tom Brady sits on the field.
Tom Brady in Sunday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The New England Patriots appear to be stuck in a time loop. As they did last season, the team has lost back-to-back games in December. As has happened in many recent campaigns, strawberry-repellent quarterback Tom Brady looks his age. And, improbably, head coach Bill Belichick is again trying to move on to Cincinnati after a crushing loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Oh, and the Patriots were caught filming an opponent’s sideline. Again!

During a presser Monday, Bengals head coach Zac Taylor confirmed that the league was investigating a Patriots employee who was found videotaping the Cincinnati sideline during this past Sunday’s Bengals-Browns game in Cleveland. The Bengals are the Patriots’ next opponent.

ESPN’s Dianna Russini reported a few more details, including that the person with the camera asked if he could delete the footage and make it all go away.

On Monday night, the Patriots released a statement explaining that the production crew was at the game to profile an advance scout for the team’s web series Do Your Job. The Browns were aware of the plan, but the Bengals were not. The statement admitted that the production crew “inappropriately filmed the field from the press box” and “unknowingly violated a league policy.” The team accepted “full responsibility” for its actions but insisted that the footage wouldn’t have been used for anything other than the web series.

Surely everyone will take this explanation at face value and not look into it further. Certainly there is no history of Patriots employees disguising themselves as a production crew in order to film signals.

If the Patriots are stuck in a time loop, then we can know with certainty what discipline the league will impose. Spygate resulted in a $500,000 fine for Belichick and a $250,000 fine for the Patriots along with a forfeited first-round draft pick. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell does something different this time around, then there isn’t a wrinkle in space-time, and the Patriots’ perpetual success is based on organizational competence rather than some kind of cosmic joke. Preposterous.

To be fair, there is some reason to wonder whether the Patriots are breaking new ground this season. Consider that it was New England, and not its opponents, that was screwed by the refs in Sunday’s 23–16 loss. The Patriots were down 10 to the Chiefs at the start of the fourth quarter when Brady appeared to throw a touchdown pass to N’Keal Harry. The officials ruled that the rookie receiver had stepped out of bounds before reaching the end zone, even though the video replay showed he definitively scored. Belichick couldn’t challenge the play, as he had thrown both of his red flags on the previous possession. During that Chiefs drive, Belichick challenged a first-down ruling, which was upheld, as well as a call that Travis Kelce was down by contact before dropping the ball, which was overturned and ruled a fumble.* That play had its own stickiness: Had the officials not blown the whistle, Pats corner Stephon Gilmore had a decent shot at taking the recovery to the house.

Head referee Jerome Boger provided a diplomatic and useless explanation about the missed touchdown call after the game:

The Patriots couldn’t force a second look at Harry’s touchdown catch, because only scoring plays are automatically reviewed. So, they took three shots at a goal-to-go situation, settled for a field goal, and didn’t score again for the rest of the game. Was anyone who wasn’t a Pats fan all that outraged by this injustice?

Probably not, but the team wouldn’t have been in that position to begin with had Brady not played like Blaine Gabbert.

All of the ageless wonder’s worst tendencies were on display on Sunday. Brady was skittish, moody, and relied on short passes to the only two receiving options he trusts: Julian Edelman and James White. (Rob Gronkowski is gone, off somewhere elbow-dropping a beer keg in front of an agitated, sweaty crowd at a 3LAU concert.) The two pass catchers had a combined 19 targets while no other receiver had more than four. Brady was 19 of 36 for an atrocious 169 passing yards; basic math tells us he averaged 4.7 yards per attempt. The only time he wasn’t dreadful while throwing deep was on a 33-yard, flea-flicker play to Edelman for his only touchdown of the game. But an NFL offense can’t try a flea-flicker on every drive. Well, it could, and that’d be fun to watch, although it likely wouldn’t work.

The Patriots’ final game-tying attempt encapsulated the offense’s meager state. New England faced a fourth-and-3 situation with 1:14 left. The ball ended up going to Edelman, Brady’s favorite target. Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers was briefly wide open, but as ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky suggested, Brady preferred to throw to his most reliable receiver rather than the younger player who’d already dropped two passes in the game. I question the intelligence of relying on a generously listed 5-foot-10 receiver to use his height against Bashaud Breeland, a cornerback who’s a couple of inches taller, but hey, I don’t call plays. Breeland played the ball perfectly, but Brady never had time to look elsewhere anyway. The Chiefs were closing in on him as he released the pass.

The Patriots will now have a tough time getting home-field advantage in the playoffs after losing two straight—in December! They don’t do that very often, except for when they did that last season, missed out on home-field advantage, then won the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, even though Brady played like a stiff for most of the game.

The videotaping scandal and poor offense are not anomalous challenges to be overcome, and they’re too familiar to this team to signal the End of the Dynasty. So everyone who hates them should savor this week, because by the time Week 17 wraps up, none of the Patriots’ recent struggles may matter. Based on past seasons, is there any reason to believe they would? Belichick proved last February that he can compensate for an ancient quarterback’s weaknesses by winning ugly with a formidable defense—and maybe, once more this year, by filming his opponents’ sidelines. Whether through rule-bending or through launching the NFL and its observers into some football-based Russian Doll universe, this reality will keep repeating itself until Belichick and Brady are no longer New England Patriots, and maybe it won’t even stop then. The sun rises. Natasha Lyonne dies. The Patriots get to the Super Bowl.

Correction, Dec. 11, 2019: This post originally misstated that Bill Belichick challenged an incomplete pass to Travis Kelce. Belichick challenged a call that Kelce was down by contact before dropping the football.