For years, you have searched for cracks in the Patriots, for indications the end was near and they would return to a path familiar to most NFL teams. Free agency, the salary cap and revenue sharing insist teams experience patterns of success interrupted by failure. It's all by design.
Every other team takes turns making runs into the postseason before falling back because the math says so. Look no further than Super Bowl winners of recent years other than New England: Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, New York Giants and Green Bay. All five missed the playoffs this season.
It's the cyclical nature of the NFL. Contracts expire, players retire and coaches are replaced for one reason or another. The Steelers have been a success by any measure since 2001. They reached the AFC Championship game six times and won two Super Bowls while also missing the playoffs six times over the same period.
That's how it works.
The Patriots are the exception, defying the math with their brilliant quarterback and genius head coach, winning 14 division titles over the past 15 seasons and five Super Bowls overall. They reached the AFC Championship game a record seventh straight time this season when they dismantled Tennessee, 35-14, on Saturday and are plenty capable of winning another Lombardi Trophy.
New England has swapped out players and coaches along the way, just like every other franchise, while making sure the cornerstones of the franchise, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick remained intact. No other player-coach duo in NFL history has made a greater impact on one franchise than they have on the Pats.
The Patriots have a 489-386-9 record all-time, and their .558 winning percentage is fifth-highest in NFL history. Brady has a 196-55 career record while Belichick is 214-74 with the Patriots. Remove them from the equation, and the Patriots winning percentage plummets to .462, or 24th all-time and one spot behind … Buffalo.
It's astonishing, really, when you think about all that has gone the Patriots' way over the years when examining how much needed to fall into place for the Bills to finish two games above .500 and end its own math-defying 17-year playoff drought. Some examples:
- The phantom fumble Tre'Davious White recovered and returned for a touchdown against Atlanta.
- Von Miller's bogus unsportsmanlike penalty, enabling the Bills to maintain possession and essentially run out the clock against Denver.
- The borderline offensive-pass interference penalty on a two-point conversion that was taken away from the Colts late in regulation before the Bills prevailed in overtime.
- Andy Dalton hitting Tyler Boyd for an improbable fourth-down touchdown to beat the Ravens, clinching a playoff berth for Buffalo on a three-way tiebreaker.
The last time New England missed the postseason was in 2008, when Brady blew out his knee in the opener and Matt Cassel led the Pats to an 11-4 record. The Bills haven't won 11 games in a season since their memorable playoff loss to the Titans after the 1999 season.
New England has won 12 games in eight straight seasons and 12 times overall since Belichick became the coach and Brady the quarterback. The Bills have finished 12-4 or better five times in franchise history. And that says something until you learn every one of the Pats' 12-win seasons came with Brady and Belichick.
None of this is breaking news in Buffalo. The Bills have been on the wrong end of the score 28 times in 31 games against Brady and Belichick. The Bills had nearly everything work in their favor just to reach the playoffs before scoring three measly points in a wild-card loss to Jacksonville.
The point isn't to emphasize the Pats' excellence or the Bills' insignificance over the years but to suggest trends inevitably make a U-turn. The difference with the Patriots is that they managed to drive between the ditches longer than any other franchise in the NFL because they had Belichick behind the wheel and Brady riding shotgun.
At some point, and it could come sooner than later, they'll reach the end of the road and crash like every other teams in the league.
Belichick, three months shy of his 66th birthday, has one year remaining on his contract with the Patriots. Brady continues to beat the odds at age 40. He led the league with 4,577 yards passing and had 32 touchdowns and eight interceptions this season. He remains a franchise quarterback, but for how long?
There were signs late in the season that he wasn't himself. He struggled mightily in a loss to the Dolphins and could have, should have, lost to the Steelers a week later. He played well against Buffalo but completed fewer than half of his passes in the finale against the Jets. No matter how hard they try, nobody outruns Father Time.
The Patriots dismissed a recent ESPN report suggesting there was tension in the organization with Belichick drawing a line between himself and others in Brady's faction, including owner Robert Kraft. Even if people were slow to swallow the entire report, they must concede internal problems exist on some level.
Perhaps there's a crack, finally, although it may not open wide enough to affect the Patriots this season. New England very well could win another Super Bowl this year in spite – or because – of the noise around them. But there are signs of their remarkable run inching toward the end.
Belichick could be on the verge of losing his top assistants. Defensive coordinator Matt Patricia appears headed for Detroit while offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is the favorite to take over in Indianapolis. Linebackers coach Brian Flores also could land a head-coaching gig and leave the organization.
Brady isn't going to play forever, either, and the Pats have no clear plan to replace him after trading away Jimmy Garoppolo. You can't help but wonder if the final year of his contract will be his final year, period. It took longer in New England, but there comes a point in which the best coaches and players reach the end, too.
The math eventually takes over. It always does.