The NFL hasn’t had a back-to-back Super Bowl winner since the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots.
Unless the Patriots clean up their act, that drought will continue.
For the first time in Bill Belichick’s 16 years as head coach, New England heads into the playoffs having lost four of their final six regular-season games. While a 10-0 start lifted the club to a first-round bye, the Patriots don’t have the feel of a juggernaut like in prior championship years.
Here are five reasons why the Patriots may fall short in their quest for a fifth Lombardi Trophy:
New England’s attack has long centered around quarterback Tom Brady’s passing prowess. The Patriots also can compensate for weaknesses in the running game through short, high-percentage throws. But the diversity that helped spur the 2014 Patriots to the Super Bowl hasn’t been there so far this season with the punishing LeGarrette Blount and versatile Dion Lewis landing on injured reserve. New England finished the regular season averaging 87.8 yards a game on 23.9 attempts. By comparison, the 2014 Patriots rushed an average of 27.4 times a game for 107.9 yards. New England signed Steven Jackson last month as a power back, but the early returns from the 12-year veteran (50 yards and one touchdown on 21 carries) weren’t promising. The ability to run clock and secure a lead late in the game (i.e. the "four-minute offense") is often critical to whether a team wins in the playoffs. These Patriots may not have that juice.
Not having the No. 1 seed
The Patriots squandered the chance to claim home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by losing to Miami, 20-10, in Week 17. That opened the door for Denver to grab the AFC’s top spot with its 27-20 win over San Diego. New England, which is the No. 2 seed, has played on the road only once in the postseason since the 2007 season. The trip didn’t go well with a road loss to — you guessed it — the Broncos in the 2014 AFC title game. The Patriots will be headed back to Denver if both squads win this weekend. The Broncos have won five of their past six home matchups against New England dating back to the 2005 campaign. That included Denver’s 30-24 overtime win in Week 12 of the 2015 regular season.
Jan 19, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (18) and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) shake hands after the 2013 AFC championship playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
The Chiefs won’t lack swagger heading into Gillette Stadium. Kansas City is on an 11-game winning streak after last Saturday’s 30-0 pounding of Houston in a first-round playoff matchup. Most of the key members on Kansas City’s roster also were part of a 41-14 blowout of the Patriots in Week 4 of the 2014 season. The Chiefs field one of the NFL’s strongest defenses with a Justin Houston-led front that may be able to harass Brady. Like the Patriots with Rob Gronkowski, Kansas City’s offense also features its own impact player at tight end in Travis Kelce. He is coming off an eight-catch, 128-yard showing against the Texans. One caveat that could provide a huge boost for New England is the strong possibility that Jeremy Maclin, who is the Chiefs’ top wide receiver, won’t be able to play because of a high ankle sprain.
There is good news for New England on this front as four key starters — wide receiver Julian Edelman (foot), left tackle Sebastian Vollmer (ankle), defensive end Chandler Jones (abdomen) and linebacker Dont’a Hightower (knee) — should be available against Kansas City. Brady also will play despite hurting his ankle in the season-finale against Miami. The Patriots, though, must hope there isn’t much rust or an elevated chance of re-injury because of their importance to the team’s success.
Mental and physical exhaustion
Belichick canceled last Friday’s practice to take players bowling, which was a nice break for a team that has undergone more of a grind than any other since 2011 with 11 postseason games in the past four years. Besides the wear-and-tear of those extra contests, there is added pressure that comes with being the defending NFL champions even with the excellent job done by the Patriots in minimizing outside distractions like the "Deflategate" scandal. How much of a toll all this has taken — if at all — will be apparent down the final stretch of what has become a rollercoaster season in Foxboro.