Pundits have played their version of NFL Powerball every year since it first became apparent in 2001 the New England Patriots intended to dominate the world.
They buy a ticket after every play, drive, quarter or campaign when it appears fission has formed in the team’s foundation. The idea is the Patriots are finally done. Bill Belichick’s hoodie is hopelessly frayed. Tom Brady’s skills have recessed.
Always ends the same way, doesn’t it, torn tickets strewn about the floor. When will they all learn?
And it was that way again in 2018 after the Patriots lost in Detroit on Sept. 24 to drop to 1-2. No one was bold enough to predict their demise in the AFC East, the league’s version of Pop Warner. But it certainly looked as if they couldn’t compete with the AFC’s top echelon. The time had come to step aside.
The Patriots were offended. Exhibit No. 1: Their new motto is #BetAgainstUs. Consider it their extended middle finger.
On Sunday in Kansas City, the rejuvenated Patriots, defending divisional champs, conquerors of the Los Angeles Chargers in the Divisional Round, will try to qualify for another Super Bowl against AFC’s top seed, the Chiefs.
“I just like winning,” said Brady.
It seems so. He already has five Super Bowl rings and 28 playoff career postseason victories.
This time the doubters are depending on Kansas City quarterback Pat Mahomes and his diverse weaponry to administer the one-two punch. And they very well might. When the Chiefs are in synch anything seems possible.
But earlier this season, the Patriots 43-40 win over Kansas City in Week 6 played a big part in the renaissance. The Pats proved they could play the same game, that they were as over the top as the Chiefs were.
And don’t discount something else the Pats have. This will be their eighth straight AFC Championship Game. How better to quantify experience?
Brady is Benjamin Button. The more time passes, the younger he gets. He has taken on – and defeated – virtually everyone who dared to threaten his authority. And on Sunday it will be Mahomes, the nice-enough kid who threw for 50 touchdowns and 5,097 yards and never stops smiling.
If there is a caveat this time around, it’s all five New England losses this season came on the road. They were 3-5 away from Gillette Stadium, more 49ers than all-timers. They averaged 12.2 fewer points and allowed 6.1 more than they did at home.
But an organization doesn’t qualify for the playoffs in 10 straight years or play in eight Super Bowls without pulling off an occasional surprise. A quarterback who has won 24 of 28 in temperatures below 30 degrees against a team with one home playoff win a quarter-century shouldn’t be expected to fail.
And speaking of quarter centuries, that has spanned the time Robert Kraft has owned the Patriots. And during that time they have won 18 AFC East titles and 31 postseason games, five short of the Rooney Family with its record 36 playoff games in 86 years.
Saints-Rams: As It Should Be
After the discussion and dissection of who the best NFC team was this season, nature did what it always seems to do. It figured it out.
The Los Angeles Rams play at New Orleans and for all the bluster the Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears created, there is no greater representation of the class of the conference.
Much like the Brady-Mahomes matchup, this Drew Bress-Jared Goff showdown pits a Hall of Famer against one of finest young quarterbacks in the league. And each has ignited offenses known for their consistency and quick-strike capability.
And exactly like the Patriots-Chiefs, these teams also met, in Week 9 of the season in New Orleans. It was a wild affair, as well. The Saints won 45-35. But it was also memorable for another reason.
Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who had 211 receiving yards in the game, celebrated a touchdown reception by pulling a pre-planted cellphone from the base of the game post and pretended to make a call. The NFL intercepted it and hit Thomas with a big-league fine. That’s why they call the league the No Fun League.
Thomas was not dissuaded. He continued to have fun but in a more socially accepted way. In last week’s win Divisional Round win over the Philadelphia Eagles, he caught 12 passes for 171 yards.
There was a lull in the action for both teams as the season wore down. They both slumped offensively, certainly in comparison to the ease they both moved with before it. But most of those problems seemed solved.
Goff better be able to throw because the Saints have the No. 2 rushing defense, something they hope will keep the Rams’ dynamic halfbacks, Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson, in check. The Rams are 11-0 this season when gaining at least 135 rushing yards. If the Saints stuff them, it will go a long way in getting them to their first Super Bowl since they won the title in 2009.
Of course, the Rams have their own defensive force in tackle Aaron Donald. He was indefatigable this season, manhandling his way to 20 ½ sacks. And after watching how much trouble the Philadelphia Eagles defensive front had last week, Donald might likely make Brees duck more than once or twice.
But perhaps we are overthinking things.
Feeling a negative vibe, a Rams fan figured he could help his team by somehow convincing the NFL to replace Bill Vinovich as head official. In the new world of metrics, Andrew Liptock figured out the Rams were 0-8 in games officiated by Vinovich, including the loss to the Saints earlier this season.
Liptock also discovered that the Rams have been penalized for more yards than their opponent in every game Vinovich has been assigned since 2006. He sought 1,500 signatures and had 1,000 the last we heard.