What the Patriots’ Wild-Card Loss Really Means

Even before Saturday’s game, New England was showing signs of having been passed by.

USA Today / Reuters

Even before Saturday’s AFC wild-card game against the Tennessee Titans, a sense of finality clung to the New England Patriots. The week prior, in the last game of the regular season, they had lost to the woeful Miami Dolphins, a result that dropped them out of the AFC’s top two seeds and kept them from an opening-round playoff bye for the first time in a decade. In the days before the Titans game, outlets local and national wondered whether this might be Tom Brady’s last appearance in his home stadium; his contract expires at season’s end. Whatever the team’s mystique, most everyone agreed that the dominant NFL franchise of this century no longer held the title, and FiveThirtyEight’s playoff projections gave them only a 3 percent chance of winning the Super Bowl. Tony Romo, the CBS broadcaster calling the game, noted the fans’ nervousness. “This could really be it,” he said. “The crowd knows it.”

Some three hours later, the Titans had beaten the Patriots, 20–13. The Tennessee defense had knocked New England back from the goal line in the first half, and the towering running back Derrick Henry finished with 204 yards and a touchdown. Obituaries were written not just for a season, but also for an almost two-decade-long era, stretching back to the first Super Bowl win for Brady and the Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, in 2002. Asked after Saturday’s game about the possibility of retiring or playing for another team, Brady said, “Who knows what the future holds?”

Fans outside New England are unlikely to mourn; there may be no more shared sentiment in American sports than a hatred for the Patriots. But if an era really is coming to a close—analysts have been premature before—that ending means more than the ushering-off of a villain. The NFL that the Patriots lorded over for almost 20 years seemed, in retrospect, designed for dreariness, filled with statue-still pocket passers who wanted to be Brady and cranky disciplinarians who wanted to be Belichick. The NFL that seems poised to flick New England aside, however, is stocked with ingenuity and idiosyncrasy in all directions. Pro football has broadened; this feels like the end not only of the Patriots’ dominance, but also of any team’s.

That it was the Titans who beat the Patriots is ill-fitting, in some ways; their coach, Mike Vrabel, was himself a New England linebacker during the dynasty’s early years. More narrative-rich outcomes lurked. If the Patriots had beaten the Titans, they would have gone to Kansas City to play the Chiefs in the divisional round. In the reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs have a quarterback who can throw without looking, or with his left hand, or in mid-air, or 80 yards. In Andy Reid, they have a coach as committed to shooting the moon as Belichick is to limiting mistakes. The Chiefs came within a coin flip of eliminating the Patriots from last year’s playoffs and beat them 23–16 earlier this year; they would have been favored to finish the job.

Had the Patriots advanced further, they likely would have met the top-seeded Baltimore Ravens, and the soon-to-be MVP Lamar Jackson, in the AFC championship game. Back in November, the Ravens gave the first hint that things might be changing, knocking off then-undefeated New England 37–20, with Jackson accounting for three touchdowns (two rushing, one throwing—a characteristic assortment) and more than a few defenders’ jellied knees. As surely as the Patriots have been the team of the century, Jackson’s Ravens have been the team of the season.

Other possible dynasty-enders waited in the wings: the Houston Texans, with their own improbably gifted quarterback in Deshaun Watson; the San Francisco 49ers, with the former Brady backup Jimmy Garoppolo under center; the old Super Bowl–nemesis Seattle Seahawks, now reconfigured around Russell Wilson. But more interesting than the number of viable challengers—entering the playoffs, ESPN.com’s NFL guru, Bill Barnwell, counted five teams more impressive than the Patriots—is the spectrum of styles they represent. The Ravens set rushing records and the Chiefs break passing marks. The Niners wear teams down; the Seahawks pull rabbits out of hats.

If such variation made another Super Bowl for the stodgy Patriots hard to imagine this season, it also makes the emergence of another standard-bearing franchise unlikely. The last generation of football was marked by differences of quality; New England did what everyone wanted to do better than anyone else did it. Today’s NFL is marked by differences of type. The rivalries are easy to foresee: Mahomes versus Jackson, Seattle versus San Francisco, ground games versus aerial attacks. The outcomes, for the first time in a long while, are impossible to predict.

Time can soften fans’ grudges, and there’s an argument waiting to be made that the success of Brady and Belichick itself led to this new flowering of creative football—that their perfection of one style necessitated others. For now, though, the playoffs will be a celebration at the end of what in many ways has been a celebratory year in the NFL. Back in the preseason, the Ravens coach, John Harbaugh, spoke of his team’s decision to move away from the traditional approach practiced so well by New England and toward a system tailored to Jackson. His words proved prescient beyond Baltimore. “What’s the next era going to be?” Harbaugh asked. “Well, we’re about to find out.”