Another NFL season, another year in which the Patriots are poised to make a run at the Lombardi Trophy. Tom Brady is 42 years old and you would assume that his NFL career is nearing its end, but you can go ahead and bet against him at your own peril.
It’s been nearly two decades since Brady and Bill Belichick first took the football world by storm with their dramatic, unlikely Super Bowl victory over the (then) St. Louis Rams, and New England duo is still considered to be among the league’s best. They’ve remained one of the league’s most dominant and fearful teams since that first title, and it’s thoroughly unclear when that run is going to come to an end.
Though Patriots’ dynasty is still seemingly going strong, it hasn’t always seemed like it was destined to go this deep. There have been plenty of instances over the years that doubters have claimed the Patriots’ days as top dogs are numbered. However, as it turns out, the rumors of their imminent demise were greatly exaggerated.
Let’s look back on some times when New England’s reign was allegedly on life support.
Tom Brady’s ACL injury, 2008
After their perfect season was spoiled with a stunning Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants in the year prior, the Patriots were looking to rebound with another run at the Lombardi. Unfortunately, their chances of doing so took a massive blow when reigning NFL MVP Tom Brady suffered a torn ACL and MCL in the season opener against the Chiefs.
When Brady went down clutching his knee following a low hit from blitzing safety Bernard Pollard, it didn’t necessarily look like an immediate death to the Patriots’ dynasty. However, it wasn’t an incredibly devastating turn of events that opened up the level of parity in the AFC. Not only did Brady’s injury open up questions into whether the Patriots could or would survive without him, but also whether the QB would ever be the same following the major injury.
But even with first-year starter Matt Cassel filling in for Brady the rest of the way, the Patriots had a pretty damn good year — even if they didn’t make the playoffs. New England won 11 games under Cassel that year, including their final four of the season, but lost out on a sixth straight division title due to a tiebreaker with the 11-5 Dolphins, who went on to lose in the first round of the playoffs.
Questions still lingered about whether Brady would make a full recovery and get back to MVP form, but the ’08 Patriots managed to prove they weren’t hopeless without their star quarterback.
Second straight Super Bowl loss to Giants, 2012
Not many people questioned the merits of the Patriots’ reign immediately after their loss to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Yes, it was shocking and, yes, it proved that Tom Brady could be beat on the game’s biggest stage, but it was also their only loss of the season and it required a brutal dropped interception from Asante Samuel and an absolute miracle catch from David Tyree to make it possible. They probably should have won that game, so it wasn’t exactly “end of days” in New England.
However, the second ring lost at the hands of the Giants — this one in Super Bowl XLVI — ushered in a bit more doubt. It was no longer one flukey Super Bowl loss for the Patriots’ dynasty — it was a 3-2 title record under Brady and solid, legitimate proof that they were capable of being outclassed on the biggest stage, albeit with the help of one very unfortunate Wes Welker drop.
It seemed that, at this point, people began to question if you could even still classify the Patriots’ run as a “dynasty.” Sure, they’d won plenty of games and division titles, but they’d nearly lost as many Super Bowls as they’d won and it had been nearly a decade since their last title. Even if they got back to the Super Bowl, the collective confidence in their ability to win another had begun to wane.
From the Boston Globe‘s Eric Wilbur:
The legend is dead, the prince has turned back into a frog, and…well, use whatever other cliché you want.
What an embarrassment for the Patriots organization and Bob Kraft. So now the Giants have taken Lombardi from you twice, and you haven’t looked this bad in a playoff game since…well, two weeks ago against the Ravens. Maybe that moment will actually hit you as you’re whittling down water slides in South America looking like Prince Valiant this spring. The Patriots haven’t won a title in seven years, but even worse, they’re now turning into the Buffalo Bills, with the Giants being their Cowboy daddy. That’s not easy to swallow in a region where New York is regarded as highly as the menu at Beacon Hill Pub.
It’s safe to say that Buffalo Bills comparison did not age well.
Monday Night Football blowout loss to Chiefs, 2014
One of the most brutal and embarrassing regular season losses during the Patriots’ reign came on a national stage in 2014 when they were thoroughly whapped by the Chiefs at Arrowhead on Monday Night Football.
After two Super Bowl losses, people were already questioning whether Brady and Belichick had another championship in them, then the 2014 campaign got underway and that debate heated up as New England struggled out of the gate.
Not only did New England drop the season opener against Miami, but three weeks later they ventured into Kansas City and got their doors blown off by the Chiefs, losing 41-14.
Basically every aspect of the Patriots’ gameplan fell apart during that disastrous showing. Brady looked downright bad, going 14-for-23 and throwing for 159 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. He was eventually replaced by Jimmy Garoppolo, who actually looked pretty good — going 6 for 7 and throwing for 70 yards and a touchdown with no turnovers.
Things went so poorly that, after the game, Belichick was asked if he’d consider a quarterback change heading into the following week.
The loss cast doubt on Brady and opened up questions about not only whether the Patriots were still contenders, but if they were even good.
From Bleacher Report‘s Ty Schalter:
[The Patriots’] failure was so complete, so embarrassing, that it’s hard to see any way they’ll win more games than they lose—let alone collect their usual division title or represent the AFC in the Super Bowl again.
Belichick stuck with Brady and, as it turns out, the Patriots did win more games than they lost that season. They ripped off seven straight victories and won 10 of their remaining 12 games following the loss to the Chiefs. They not only collected their usual division title but they also secured a first-round bye and did, in fact, represent the AFC in the Super Bowl again. They also won that Super Bowl, beating the Seahawks in a thriller.
Halftime of Super Bowl LI, 2017
After an absolutely disastrous two-and-a-half quarters of football, the Patriots trailed the Falcons 28-3 in Super Bowl LI. Barring an absolute miracle comeback over the final 22ish minutes of play, New England was heading for another loss on the biggest stage. And, for the first time in their title game history, there was going to be no doubt about who the better team was.
The Patriots had snapped their “drought” and won a fourth Super Bowl against the Seahawks a few years prior, but a loss against Atlanta would have proven it wasn’t just the Giants who were capable of snatching the Lombardi Trophy out of Brady and Belichick’s hands. The duo was going to fall to 4-3 in Super Bowls together, and that record is a whole lot less sexy than 5-2. Their legacy was going to take a hit.
Except…well, it didn’t.
Instead, they got to add “the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history” to their resumé, which is a nice little bonus for the legacy meter. Rather than having to face questions about their mortality, the duo reminded everyone…yet again…why it’s a reckless endeavor to count the Patriots out when their pulse isn’t completely absent.
The alleged power struggle, 2018
If you thought their fifth Super Bowl title would quiet the talk of the Patriots’ demise for at least a few years, well…you probably should have known better. Less than a year after their stunning comeback against the Falcons, the end of the Patriots’ dynasty was supposedly drawing near thanks to an alleged internal power struggle between Brady, Belichick, and Robert Kraft.
According to a bombshell report from ESPN’s Seth Wickersham, the trio of Patriots figureheads were at odds after a number of issues — most notably over the involvement of Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero, within the organization, as well as the handling of the Jimmy Garoppolo trade. Their working relationship and the culture in New England was apparently deteriorating and it was questioned whether or not they could all keep working together and find continued success.
From Wickersham’s piece:
According to interviews with more than a dozen New England staffers, executives, players and league sources with knowledge of the team’s inner workings, the three most powerful people in the franchise — Belichick, Brady and owner Robert Kraft — have had serious disagreements. They differ on Brady’s trainer, body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero; over the team’s long-term plans at quarterback; over Belichick’s bracing coaching style; and most of all, over who will be the last man standing. Those interviewed describe a palpable sense in the building that this might be the last year together for this group.
Despite the alleged falling out, the Patriots once again found themselves back in the Super Bowl for a second straight year, though this time they came out on the losing end, falling to the Philadelphia Eagles in a shootout.
Perhaps the disappointing end to the season — much of which can be blamed on Belichick’s refusal to play cornerback Malcolm Butler — and the reported power struggle would force a divorce and end of an era in New England?
Yeah, not so much. Brady, Belichick, and Kraft downplayed the alleged rift and headed into another season looking primed to continue their run.
The alleged power struggle, 2018
Lo and behold, the Patriots power trio not only managed to co-exist in 2018-2019, they also made the Super Bowl for the third season in a row. This time, they ended up back on top of the football world with a defensive battle against the Rams.
But that championship run didn’t come without its doubts, either. The Patriots had some rather significant low points during the regular season — including ugly losses to the Jaguars and Lions to start the year, a blowout loss in Tennessee and a gut-wrenching last-second choke against Miami (below).
Their inconsistencies and bitter disappointments, as well as a dip in Brady’s numbers, cast some doubt on the Patriots’ ability to separate themselves from the rest of the AFC. Even if their top dogs were getting along well enough, were they still elite?
The Chiefs, powered by emerging superstar and eventual league MVP Patrick Mahomes, rose to the top of the AFC and were favorites to end the Patriots’ Super Bowl streak. The Chargers and Steelers also looked like legitimate threats in the way of the AFC crown, especially if New England couldn’t secure a first-round bye. On the other side, the Saints and Rams both looked like potential Super Bowl opponents worth fearing.
Even for cocky Patriots fans, the road to another Super Bowl title looked really tough.
And yet, they were able to power their way past the Chargers, outlast the Chiefs, and suffocate the Rams en route to yet another Lombardi Trophy — a sixth for Brady, Belichick & co.
Come on, you know we’re not done here.