Something’s wrong with the New England Patriots. Heard that one before?
This time, it’s for real, a legitimate cause for panic from their fans and glee from their legion of haters. Sound familiar?
After watching the Pats lose the past two weeks, critics have pounced with a ferocity that has seemingly reached epic proportions.
Media types have pumped up the volume on talk that Tom Brady has lost more than a little something from his Hall-of-Fame-bound game. One pointed out this week that Brady no longer has the power in his 41-year-old legs to drive the ball with the force necessary to consistently beat tight coverage.
Rob Gronkowski has been described as a “shell of himself,” too stiff from the punishment his body has taken to shake free and make those difference-making catches that once were so routine. His gait was even compared to that of the Frankenstein monster.
Swirling in the background is incessant discussion that began months ago about in-fighting between Brady and Bill Belichick, and Belichick and team owner Robert Kraft, about the failed efforts to have a strong succession plan at quarterback and to trade Gronkowski when there was presumably more value than he currently has.
It’s the sort of thing that makes you wonder whether the Buffalo Bills just might be catching the Patriots at the right time with Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium.
Could the Bills, 5-9 and out of postseason contention, actually be in a good position to do a little spoiling as the 9-5 Patriots try to wrap up their 10th AFC East championship in a row? Is it possible for the Bills to at least put a tiny tremble in the balance of power in a division that has forever had one top dog and three scraggly mutts always scrounging for whatever crumbs they can find?
Oddsmakers certainly don’t think so; they’ve made New England a two-touchdown favorite.
You also aren’t hearing anything from the Bills that even comes close to a suggestion they believe there’s a golden opportunity available for the taking. Asked Wednesday what he sees when he watches video of those supposedly tailspinning Patriots, Sean McDermott dryly responded: “They’re the team that’s won multiple Super Bowls.”
That isn’t stopping the narrative that the end is finally in sight for one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties, that the whole thing is ready to come crashing down as soon as the end of this season.
Even after New England’s 25-6 Monday Night Football victory Oct. 29 at New Era Field, there was a sense that the Patriots had won mostly in spite of themselves. The common take was that the Bills’ defense did more than a respectable job by allowing the Pats to hold only a 9-3 halftime lead preventing Brady from throwing a touchdown pass.
If you want the real kingpins of the AFC, look to the Kansas City Chiefs and the Los Angeles Chargers, each of whom is 11-3 and already assured of a postseason berth. Listening to the various talking heads, they’re what the Patriots used to be.
“I’m not buying any of it,” defensive end Eddie Yarbrough said. “They’re an elite team, they’re an elite group. And it’s funny that the sky’s falling, but they’re (one win away from being) in the playoffs and they lost two games in a row. OK. But what’s their overall record and what's their track record when they finally do get into the playoffs? The proof’s in the pudding, so you can’t buy into whatever the media’s trying to put out there.”
“I respect greatness from the way that they’ve had the hold on the division,” McDermott said. “A lot of that was before we got here, but I certainly respect that. Going against them at different spots that I’ve been over the years, they do things the right way. They’ve been to where we’re trying to get to and the habits that they’ve developed over however many years Coach (Belichick) has been there now, those are the things we’re trying to build. Until you beat them, they deserve all the credit that they’ve gotten.”
Still, it’s fair to say the Patriots looked very un-Patriot-like in giving up a last-second, double-lateral miracle to lose at Miami two weeks ago and couldn’t find a way to win with the ball at the end of the game at Pittsburgh against a Steeler team on a three-game losing streak.
Brady threw for 358 yards and three touchdowns against the Dolphins, yet it was Ryan Tannehill, who also threw for three TDs, who was able to walk away victorious. The Patriots were deep in Steeler territory, but Brady failed to connect on three straight passes two his two best targets — Gronk and Julian Edelman — before turning the ball over on downs.
“Yeah, I mean, you see some of those things,” linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said of the questions raised about Brady’s diminishing leg-drive and Gronkowski’s labored movement. “But Tom is still putting the ball on the money in a lot of cases. It has really come down to a lack of execution, I think, on their part. You see some more dropped balls that you’re not accustomed to seeing, especially on third downs. They even had a couple in our game, (and our reaction was) like, ‘Oh, oh, thank God they dropped that!’
“But they can clean all that stuff up.”
Belichick puts no stock in the notion the Patriots should feel good about having enough players with experience overcoming even larger challenges than the team faces in rebounding back-to-back losses. “This year’s unlike any other year,” he said during a conference call this week with media covering the Bills. “It’s 2018, so the challenges we have are the challenges that we have and we’ll see how we do with them. That’s why we’ll play the last two regular-season games and find out.”
One way Sunday’s rematch is significantly different from the Oct. 29 encounter is that Josh Allen will quarterback the Bills. Derek Anderson was behind center in the previous game because Allen was out with an elbow injury.
The dynamic playmaking Allen has shown at times could work in the Bills’ favor. Buffalo’s defense ranks second in the NFL, although it is missing arguably its best player in injured linebacker Matt Milano.
"The quarterback is a big difference," Belichick said. "That’s a big difference right there. But the receivers, no [Kelvin] Benjamin. Foster has emerged. They’re much different. The other guys have continued to play well – Zay Jones, McKenzie, Clay, Ivory, McCoy. Croom’s come along. The tight ends have made some plays for them so he seems to get more involved.
"They’re a game-plan team. They do things differently from week to week, but they’ve gotten production from a lot of different players."
Expecting the Bills to ignore whatever the Patriots have done to make themselves look vulnerable the past two weeks is probably unrealistic. But Alexander cautions that the Pats’ ability to dominate, something that they’ve done numerous times in the Brady-Belichick era, should never be overlooked.
“We can’t go in the mindset of expecting them not to play to the Patriot level that we’re all accustomed to,” Alexander said. “Because you walk in there like that, it's going to be 40-0 before we realize what has happened to us. You have to go in there expecting that you're going to get their best. And that's how we approach, really, every single week — that you're going to get the best, not the worst or what you saw last week.
“Obviously, you try to capitalize on maybe some of the mistakes and things that maybe you can attack, but you don’t expect it to be just not up to their standard.”
Which doesn't necessarily mean it will be.