If you were scrolling on your phone during Sunday night’s Dolphins-Patriots game and weren’t paying close attention, you might have felt a distinct pang of nostalgia — or dread, if you aren’t a Pats fan.
New England ran a wild, successful man-in-motion field-goal block that was so innovative, high school and college teams are practicing it right this moment. The Patriots contained Miami’s best offensive threat. The quarterback yanked one of those game-flipping plays out of his helmet, running the fastest play of his career to set up a touchdown. And of course, there was Bill Belichick himself, grumpy as ever even while clad in Santa Claus red, hurling the challenge flag to the ground like a disgusted parent holding a teenager’s laundry.
It was just like the good ol’ days … as long as you didn’t look at the scoreboard.
The Dolphins beat the Patriots 24-17 in Foxborough on Sunday night, a victory that looked much closer than it actually was. The Patriots didn’t find their footing until the fourth quarter. Even when the Patriots closed to within a touchdown, holding the ball in Miami territory, the Dolphins’ win probability never dropped below 75 percent. The Dolphins have now beaten New England in five of their past six meetings, including all five of Tua Tagovailoa’s starts.
The Patriots are 0-2 for the first time since 2001. They’re even with the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals in Cratering for Caleb Williams. Belichick still sports a surly attitude and galaxy-brain football creativity, but there’s not much else left of the glory days in New England.
Mac Jones, for instance, is in his third season with the team, and right now might not rank in even the top half of all NFL quarterbacks. In Tom Brady’s third season as a starter, the Patriots won their second Super Bowl in three years. Yes, sizing up anyone against Tom freaking Brady is a thoroughly unfair comparison, but in New England, it’s the only comparison that matters. Elsewhere on the roster, there’s Pro Bowl linebacker Matthew Judon; All-Pro punt returner Marcus Jones; and familiar faces in a new place, like Ezekiel Elliott and JuJu Smith-Schuster … but not a Gronk, Moss or Edelman to be found.
Brady and Belichick carved a 19-year path unlike anything in NFL history, reaching nine Super Bowls and winning six. Except for 2008, when Brady was injured, and 2002, when they went 9-7, the Patriots won at least 10 games and reached the playoffs every single season.
They spent much of that run beating up on the rest of the AFC East. During the Brady-Belichick era, the Patriots were 25-13 against Miami, 31-9 against the Jets (including playoffs), and a skull-crushing 34-4 against the Bills. Those are numbers that leave scars, and that’s why few outside the Greater Boston metropolitan era are feeling anything but schadenfreude at the Patriots’ stumbles.
But while opposing fans and front offices might want a few pounds of flesh for two decades of humiliation at New England’s hands, to players on the field, the Brady-Belichick dynasty is just a Wikipedia entry. A significant percentage of the league’s current players were still in college when Brady last suited up for the Patriots. Rookies like Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and Bijan Robinson were still in their senior year of high school. To them, the Patriots are now just another uncircled team on the schedule, and that might be the most damning indictment of all.
“Not too much to say after that one, you know,” Belichick said in a downbeat 3-minute, 31-second postgame media conference Sunday evening. “Tough, tough loss, but got to learn from it, and just keep working harder and move on. Really not too much to say.”
The innovations, the scheming, the play-calling that kept New England in the game Sunday night — that was all Belichick.
As long as Belichick stalks the sideline, the Patriots will be capable of surprising opponents by breaking out a play he saw an Iowa high school pull off in 1979. But without the personnel, surprise isn’t sustainable. The Patriots’ aura of invincibility is gone forever … or at least until New England drafts Caleb Williams.
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