Let's fast forward a couple months ...
It's about 10:30 p.m. on Feb. 3 and red, white and blue confetti is being pumped into the air inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Tom Brady is embracing Julian Edelman. Bill Belichick is pointing at friends down below the podium as he hoists the Lombardi Trophy for an amazing sixth time as Patriots coach, and the third time five years — almost matching the three in four years at the start of this dynasty.
On the Internet, the Twittership of the Miserable is spending this euphoric time by going back on the timelines of mediots to find past opinions about how this Patriots team didn't have it, how they were going to come up short, that Super Bowl MVP Sony Michel was overrated, Brady was done, and Belichick had lost his personnel fastball, and throwing it back in everyone's face.
It's truly a glorious time for all involved.
But it sure seems like a long ways off after Sunday's 34-10 loss to the Titans. If the playoff started Sunday, the Patriots (currently at 7-3) would be hosting a wild-card game for the first time since 2009 (there are many schoolchildren in New England who think the first weekend of NFL playoffs are just for the other 31 teams) and would likely need to win twice on the road — where they have not been warriors — in order to just make it to Atlanta. That the Patriots are struggling this time of year is just about unprecedented (from Football Outsiders):
(This past weekend), Tennessee climbed from 22nd to 16th while New England fell from sixth to 11th. This is the first time the Patriots have ranked outside the DVOA top ten during the second half of the season since the 2008 Matt Cassel team. It's the first time that a Tom Brady Patriots team has ranked outside the top ten in the second half of the season since the 2005 Patriots finished the year 12th overall.
So the question remains: How could the Patriots get from this point to celebrating in Atlanta? What did we not see or get wrong about this team heading into Thanksgiving Week (it's even weird to say we have these questions about this team at this time of year)?
Before we start, let me just say for the record that I'm sticking with my preseason prediction of 12-4. As far as the Patriots going to the Super Bowl and meeting the Saints ... I'm going to have to go with matchups/health once we get to the postseason. But I do think the Patriots will grab a bye, which will help immensely.
Speaking of a bye, that's where we start on what we didn't see coming on the Patriots' road to the Super Bowl ...
Patriots got a bye, as the Steelers stumbled (again): Have a very hard time seeing the Patriots winning three straight, including two on the road, to make the Super Bowl. More than ever, New England needs to win as few games as possible to make it to the Super Bowl, and the Patriots badly need that bye week because this team is old, is dealing with injuries and lacking depth (something we worried about before the season). This is certainly within the realm of possibility.
The good news in those FO numbers is the fact the Patriots have the 31st-ranked schedule down the stretch. The three teams in front of them in the AFC playoff race — Kansas City (sixth)/Chargers (third) and Steelers (seventh) — all have much tougher closing stretches. And, obviously, a win over the Steelers on Dec. 16 would give the Patriots the head-to-head edge over the two teams in front of them should they ended up tied (the Steelers' tie should make that moot).
Besides the Patriots game, the Steelers have four away games down the stretch — Jaguars, Broncos, Raiders and Saints. Plus Pittsburgh hosts the Chargers. Does anyone think a Mike Tomlin-led team is not going to blow this down the stretch? Of course they will.
That means the Patriots will likely, by our estimate, host the Steelers, Chargers, Texans or Colts in the divisional round and they'll be favored. Suddenly, they're a Chiefs upset of hosting the AFC Championship ... again.
The Patriots' three losses were just aberrations: Grouped together, the losses to the Jaguars, Lions and Titans are pretty horrific. In all three, the Patriots were largely uncompetitive and that can lead to a lot of assumptions about a possible lack of mental toughness and general preparedness. But taken separately, maybe they weren't so bad.
Jacksonville was, like, a billion degrees, and that was basically the Jaguars' Super Bowl. As for the Lions, well, Matt Patricia knew better than anyone where the bodies were buried on this Patriots team and he used that inside knowledge to expose New England's major flaws. And in both those games, Julian Edelman was on suspension.
As for the Titans game, not having Rob Gronkowski and Shaq Mason, Michel being slow after missing time ... it made the offense look worse because they're so thin.
Force-feeding Josh Gordon was the right thing to do: At the time, it sure didn't make much sense that Gordon was getting 12 targets against the Titans while Chris Hogan went without a catch and Phillip Dorsett has basically been MIA. But now, after seeing the final product, it was absolutely the right thing to do.
The Patriots had to get Gordon ready, so they decided to take their medicine by feeding him the ball. Did it make for some ugly offensive football during the season? Sure it did. New England would have been much better off throwing more to Hogan and playing Dorsett, but those guys were not the difference in the Patriots' postseason victories — Gordon was. That would not have happened if Brady didn't keep throwing to No. 10 in October and November. It all makes sense now.
Sony Michel was a first-rounder, and then some: All those running back-ists couldn't have been more wrong. It turns out Michel was making the line look better instead of the other way around. Sure, it took him a while to stop thinking and just start playing, but he dominated in December and January, and then capped it off with 200 yards rushing in the Super Bowl as the Patriots played ball control against Drew Brees in the Saints to win another title.
Never doubt Belichick.
This team was ... just different: Because of the Patriots' sustained level of excellence, we compare each team to past versions. Yes, we're used to the Patriots playing their best football by now — they've never been this inefficient at this point — but maybe this team is just an outlier. Maybe, because they're so veteran and experienced, the Patriots paced themselves a bit more, so to speak, and were able to just flip a switch when they wanted to. That's not necessarily the Patriot or Belichickian way, but it's not a totally foreign concept in football.
We have seen this team play good defense (Miami, Buffalo) and offense (Kansas City, Miami, Indianapolis) but they haven't put it all together on those sides outside the Dolphins game. But they did it in the final six games, and now no one remembers the first 10 and those three losses. Idiots. I can't believe people pay to read your stuff.
So there you have it. The Patriots are partying in Atlanta, a vocal minority of their fans are burning up their Twitter feeds with glee and the duckboats are getting revved up. We in the media would have seen this coming if we would have taken a step back and looked at the big picture. But we're so consumed with the weekly results in football — because there's only one a week — that we can't see the forest through the trees.
But Belichick and Brady can.
That's No. 6. Time for No. 7. #kisstherings