Accept reality; Patriots are no longer Super Bowl contenders

Alan Greenwood

With four days of quiet reflection, we have reached a conclusion on the New England Patriots’ status as a Super Bowl contender:

They aren’t.

If it’s your turn to host a Super Bowl party expect only immediate family and very close friends. One bag of chips, one bowl of salsa and one case of beer will suffice.

On the morning after the water-cooler conversation will revert to reviews of the commercials. There is always hope that there will be one matching the hilarity of Terry Tate, Office Linebacker.

This is New England’s year to fade into the background by mid-January. It will not have been a bad season, just a fairly forgettable one.

Since 2001 the closest the Pats have come to floating along in the NFL pack’s midsection was 2008, when Tom Brady was injured in the first quarter of the first game. With Matt Cassel at the helm they did manage 11 wins, but missed the playoffs. They’ll win 11 games this season, too, and take the AFC East crown, which is akin to standing alone atop an anthill.

There are some fans furiously whistling past the proverbial graveyard. The Patriots lost in Miami because the Dolphins got lucky on a fluky touchdown pass-catch-lateral-walk off. They should have won Sunday in Pittsburgh but the Steelers got lucky on a red-zone interception, depriving the Pats a score that could have definitively altered the game’s course.

Memo to the blindly faithful: Open your eyes to reality.

Fourteen penalties? That used to be a half-season’s quota.

Ten points? In years gone by the Patriots routinely put up 10 points before the tailgating grills had cooled.

The Pats’ defense has actually shown flashes of adequacy, which in any other season would have been more than enough to guide them on a Super Bowl run. It is startling to see the offense become so deficient that the defense’s margin for error is the shadow of a sliver.

Having found a bunker from which to toss this rhetorical hand grenade, it says here that Tom Brady’s end has begun. Those preparing to violently react to that observation should pause and consider it.

Brady is still a good NFL quarterback; even very good is worth considering. But there is a line between very good and great.

As 41-year-old quarterbacks go, Brady is great. But measuring his performance against the NFL’s entire pool of QBs, he is no longer a lock to carry the Patriots on an extended playoff run.

Would Brady at his peak have frittered away a sure chance for points as he did at the end of the first half at Miami? Would he have forgotten that the Pats had no time outs remaining when he took a sack?

Would he have succumbed to the Steelers’ pass rush and float that off-balance lollipop interception, squandering a sure chance for points?

Greatness fades for professional athletes, particular once age 40 is in the rear-view mirror, even for the Greatest of All Time.

It certainly should not be considered insulting to suggest that Brady now needs more help then ever in fueling a high-powered offense.

There are plenty of other reasons for the Pats’ tumble off the elite pedestal now occupied by New Orleans, Los Angeles’ Rams/Chargers tandem and Kansas City. But doling out specifics (that is, the blame) for why the Patriots are where they can come later.

The first step is simply recognizing that they aren’t as good as we’d like to believe the are.

Alan Greenwood can be reached at 594-1248, agreenwood @nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_ AlanG.