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.