The Patriots won’t be going to a fourth straight Super Bowl. They won’t be going to a ninth straight AFC Championship Game. They won’t even appear in the Divisional Round, to which they have advanced in 15 of the last 16 seasons prior to Saturday, either by a win in the Wild Card Round or a first-round bye.
Some combination of stars aligning — like the Dolphins shocking the Patriots and sending them to face their kryptonite, Derrick Henry and the Titans — and the inevitable ravages of age have conspired to make the Patriots as irrelevant to the postseason as they have been at any point during the Belichick-Brady era. And as someone who is accustomed to watching the playoffs without any real rooting interest (AKA, a Lions fan), I must admit: It feels good.
The postseason has been so dominated by the Patriots that it had begun to feel stale. There’s only so much to say about one team that annually finds a way to steal the biggest spotlight. We know that Tom Brady is steady and determined and full of old man cuss. We have given Bill Belichick’s cold, curt demeanor way more credit and attention than it deserves. We’ve run out of ways to praise a team that has been smarter and scrappier than any franchise in history.
Now that the Patriots are out, we know that this year’s story will be different, and that’s a relief.
This isn’t to hate on the Patriots. In fact, even hating on the Patriots has become tiresome. I’ll be happy that we won’t be re-litigating the many reasons why the Patriots aren’t liked — from Deflategate, to the latest Spygate, to an eye-rolling siege mentality, to Brady’s alien personality — none of which are bigger than the fact that they have been really, freakishly good.
Dynasty fatigue is an affliction in every major sport. NBA Finals ratings declined steadily throughout the Warriors’ reign. Last year’s College Football Playoff National Championship that pit Alabama and Clemson for the third time in four years was called a ratings flop. Likewise, “Patriots fatigue” was cited as a major factor in last year’s poor Super Bowl ratings (it didn’t help that the game itself was so listless).
With the Patriots out of the way, other storylines — new teams and players — will have more room to breathe. And this feels like a postseason for exciting young athletes, especially in the AFC. Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes are staking themselves as the next generation’s answer to the Brady/Manning/Roethlisberger hegemony over the conference.
A year off might do some good for the Patriots, too. After a difficult end to the season, they’ll finally be able to claim that they’ve been disrespected and not sound delusional. They can come back with or without Brady and embark on a legitimate revenge tour. They can refocus their intense attention to detail through a new lens that they haven’t yet worn out.
That’s cold consolation to Pats fans, but they should have faith that this could all be fun. Someone else will win the Super Bowl this year, perhaps Jackson and the Ravens, and set roots for a potential new dynasty. How thrilling would it be to see a beaten-down and aging Patriots team bounce back and rip them right up?
This is an exciting time in the NFL, that pre-dawn feeling just before the next phase of playmakers settles in. In due time, what’s new will feel old and exhausting and rote. Right now, we don’t know what the story will be. The NFL playoffs haven’t felt like this in a long time, and who knows how long it will last. Someone else could come along and dominate just like the Patriots have for two decades.
For now, we know nothing, and we should embrace that while we can.