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ESPN story implies Patriots dynasty could be on the brink of crumbling

ESPN dropped a major story Friday on the internal strife in the Patriots organization that carries the headline, "For Kraft, Brady and Belichick, is this the beginning of the end?"

Senior staff writer Seth Wickersham wrote that Brady's sideline blowup at offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels during the first half of the Bills game in December gave us one of the first looks at the cracks forming in the Patriots' foundation. The Patriots denied most of the story without providing details, but here is the crux of the piece:

[A]ccording to interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team's inner workings, the three most powerful people in the franchise -- [coach Bill] Belichick, [QB Tom] Brady and owner Robert Kraft -- have had serious disagreements. They differ on Brady's trainer, body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero; over the team's long-term plans at quarterback; over Belichick's bracing coaching style; and most of all, over who will be the last man standing. Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.

The article is detailed and worth taking some time to read in full. It offers several reasons to believe the Patriots' dynasty is on the verge of ending, even though the team is still winning. It implies Brady, 40, is growing tired of Belichick and forced the team to trade backup Jimmy Garappolo, adding reasons while Belichick could walk away, too. Also of note is the fact that both McDaniels and defensive coordinator Matt Patricia are interviewing for other head coaching vacancies.

Here are some selected points from the article, which will be of interest to fans of the Bills – the team Brady has beaten more times than any player has ever beaten a single opponent in NFL history.

Recall also that Belichick reportedly put restrictions on Brady's personal trainer/friend/business partner Alex Guerrero earlier this season, causing "friction" with the quarterback.

Report: Patriots dealing with internal 'friction' after Belichick restricts Brady's personal trainer

• New players reportedly felt conflicted on whether they should receive treatment from Patriots trainers, which Belichick wanted, or with Guerrero at Brady's TB12 Center. Guerrero's methods and advice are reportedly often at odds with those of Patriots trainers. Here's how Wickersham described the thought process of players:

Do we risk alienating the NFL's most powerful coach or risk alienating the NFL's most powerful quarterback? ... New players felt the surest way to earn Brady's trust was to join Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola and others by seeking advice from Guerrero at his TB12 clinic -- and not team doctors, which Belichick preferred.

• Belichick and other Patriots employees reportedly had to "abruptly leave" the 2016 Combine while Brady's agent was negotiating a new deal with Kraft.

• After the Patriots came back to beat the Falcons for Brady's fifth Super Bowl title, "Brady's stature in the organization had grown to the point that he was considered management."

• Belichick reportedly met with Brady in September to discuss Guerrero's role. After ending the meeting without a resolution, Belichick later emailed Guerrero to inform him his access would be restricted; this caused more problems and confusion among Patriots players.

• A Patriots staffer said Brady's injuries this season made him nervous in the pocket, which got Chris Hogan injured.

On a fourth-quarter play against the Los Angeles Chargers, for instance, Brady had a clean pocket and a first read open deep, possibly for a touchdown. But Brady got rid of the ball quickly over the middle to receiver Chris Hogan, who had nowhere to run and was hit hard, injuring his shoulder. He missed all but one game of the rest of the season. "Tom was trying to get it out quick," a Patriots staffer says. "As fragility has increased, nervousness has also increased."

Al Michaels teases Bills: 'Sometimes I think the Patriots have better Buffalo players than Buffalo has'

• Brady reportedly told those around the team that "Belichick's negativity and cynicism have gotten old." Brady also reportedly lamented that no matter how well he has played, Belichick hasn't named him Patriot of the Week this year.

• With Jimmy Garappolo appearing to be a solid backup quarterback, "Belichick began to see Garoppolo as the final piece of his legacy, to walk away in a few years with the Patriots secure at quarterback." But after Garoppolo suffered an injury and set up an appointment at the TB12 Center...

... the door was locked. He knocked; nobody was there. He called TB12 trainers but nobody answered. He couldn't believe it, Garoppolo told the staffers, and that night ended up visiting team trainers instead. Guerrero vehemently denies ever refusing to see any player, and Garoppolo was eventually treated at TB12 -- but it was two weeks after he showed up for his original appointment, and only after a high-ranking Patriots staffer called TB12 to inquire why Garoppolo hadn't been admitted.

• ESPN reported that "The Patriots repeatedly offered Garoppolo four-year contract extensions, in the $17 million to $18 million range annually that would go higher if and when he succeeded Brady," but they were rejected. Garappolo's agent is also Brady's agent. Boston reporters have disputed this report.

• In October, Kraft reportedly told Belichick he must trade Garappolo, in a meeting that lasted several hours. Kraft also made clear Belichick should "once again, find the best quarterback in the draft and develop him." That will be worth watching in April.

• Does that mean Belichick is on the way out?

Belichick, having always subscribed to the philosophy that it's time to go once an owner gets involved in football decisions, left the impression with some friends that the current dynamic was unsustainable.

•  "Kraft, Brady and Belichick were supposed to meet in late December to clear the air, but that never happened."

Those interviewed describe a lingering sadness around the team, as if coaches and staff know that the end might be near.

• After numerous scandals involving the team, and especially after the Patriots' fierce denial of wrongdoing in Deflategate:

Kraft has privately told associates he knew that he went too far in his attacks against the league. "I had to do it for the fans," he has told confidants.

The Bills are playing in their first playoff game this weekend since Brady became the Patriots starter, so fans know better than to get ahead of themselves thinking about the Patriots' demise. But ESPN presents a compelling case. And if the Bills win this weekend in Jacksonville, they'll be headed to Foxborough next weekend, where they can take matters into their own hands.

Now that the Bills made the playoffs, what team has the longest postseason drought?

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