The Patriot Way Is Sneaking Up Again
By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports columnist
It is not easy to build a long playoff streak in the modern National Football League, where upheaval is permanent and excellence brings not only joy but also, often, unsustainable expense.
At this time then, it is worth acknowledging and applauding the greatest postseason stretch in the history of the league – just as it is about to come to an end.
Or, wait a minute, is it?
The New England Patriots have been ever-present in the “second season” for the past 11 years, a run that would have been 17 had a quirky campaign (which saw Tom Brady go down with a torn ACL in Week 1) not resulted in them missing out with an 11-5 record in 2008. The next best active participation set belongs to the Kansas City Chiefs, now at six after they clinched last weekend.
Yet while the vastly-different, 2020 version of New England is currently on the outside looking in following plenty of flux and the departure of Brady, reports of their demise – and the streak’s – have proven to be hasty.
Going into Thursday’s clash with the Los Angeles Rams (8:20 p.m. ET on FOX), the Patriots, who have won four of their last five games, are coming off a 45-0 routing of the Los Angeles Chargers, and have a path to the postseason that is entirely feasible.
This isn’t a prediction but more a warning for those who have gleefully looked forward to Bill Belichick and his team having a quiet January for once.
Don’t start celebrating. At least not just yet.
“We are starting to find our identity, who we are and how we are going to have to win,” special teams captain Matthew Slater told reporters. “As a team, when you understand that, you can operate and move with purpose. It has just been a process. Maybe it took a little longer, but I still believe in the culture we have here – and that’s very sustainable if you do it in the right way.”
Belichick doesn’t give much away at the best of times and he’s got a mask covering his face now, so the tells are even fewer. Even so, there are clear signs he is beginning to feel good.
He should. The NFL’s playoff permutations and formula, with tiebreakers and such, can be complex – but there is no way to cheat the system. You have to win, and from the moment they got stuck in a 2-5 hole early in the campaign, the Patriots needed to win a lot, which is what they’ve found ways to do.
“It was just the kick in the pants they needed,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Jim McBride. “When Nick Folk sent his 51-yard field goal soaring through the humid Meadowlands air in the late-night hours of Nov. 7 to secure a 30-27 win over the Jets … it also started something – an unlikely playoff push.”
This isn’t 2004 or 2016, this version of Cam Newton isn’t Brady, Damien Harris and Damiere Byrd are somewhat unheralded leaders in rushing and receiving, and the Patriots are functional rather than dominant. But writing off a Belichick team seemed like risky business once the spring personnel shift happened and it remains so now.
Remember the narrative that positioned Brady’s fast start in Tampa Bay and the Patriots’ early woes as proof it was the QB, not the coach, who was the bigger factor in all that New England triumph? Okay, well the Patriots are now 6-6, while Brady’s Bucs are 7-5.
We are not long removed from when Belichick listed a raft of things his team was not doing well – basically everything – yet now, somehow, the playoffs are on the team’s mind, if not explicitly stated.
“We understand what position we are in,” Newton said. “Everything is pretty much in front of us. If we keep … going on, we’ll be in good graces.”
According to FOX Bet, the Patriots are listed at +400 odds to reach the postseason. They are five-point underdogs heading into Thursday’s clash with the Rams. Five Thirty Eight gives them a 13 percent chance to play more than 16 games.
What that means is that the Patriots need some significant assistance from elsewhere, but the kind of results they require do not stretch the realms of reality too severely. This weekend, for example – if they can win on Thursday - a totally conceivable combination would be enough for Five Thirty Eight to situate New England as the seventh most likely team to reach the postseason in the AFC, with seven teams set to qualify for the first time.
The required combo would be this: Miami losing to Kansas City, Baltimore losing to 9-3 Cleveland and Las Vegas losing to the AFC South-chasing Indianapolis Colts.
Of course, such things are not assured and the immediate hurdle is one of the most difficult, with the Rams being among the best teams in the league save for a pair of inexplicable meltdowns against the depleted San Francisco 49ers.
Short weeks on the road are no joke, but some factors are starting to break right and the Patriots long ago ceased feeling like everything was trending against them. The memory of the Chargers result has led to a buoyant mood and Belichick has waxed excitedly (okay, kind of excitedly) about the benefit of being able to stay in California, remain at the same hotel, and focus without distraction.
“Those are good things,” Belichick said. Thanks, Bill.
The Patriots aren’t coming, heck, they’ve always been here, haven’t they – for about two decades now? They might be on borrowed time and they certainly have no margin for error, but the primary and pressing requirement is simply to do something with which Belichick is more familiar than perhaps anyone.