FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The New England Patriots are not dead.
Losers of two straight with an inefficient offense and holding an 0-3 record against the other AFC division leaders, the Patriots may look to the untrained eye like they’re foundering. Don’t fall for it.
The Chiefs beat the Patriots 23-16 to win the AFC West and keep the Patriots from clinching a berth in the playoffs for at least another week. But this game didn’t feel like a torch-passing game so much as a declaration that New England’s dynasty is still intact for 2019.
Two costly officiating blunders marred this game, but the Patriots weren’t much for sour grapes afterward. Yes, Jerome Boger’s crew screwed up twice on what were likely touchdown-scoring plays, but the six-time world champs still had a play inside the 5-yard line at the end to at least tie the game.
“Those guys went and battled for 60 minutes,” said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, hinting later at “circumstances” around the game that he wouldn’t address further. “It wasn’t always perfect. There were certainly things we could have done better. But we were competitive right down to the final play, and that’ll serve us well going forward.”
Down 23-7 midway through the third quarter, the Patriots offense turned the corner in the second half just like it did last week when getting boatraced by Deshaun Watson’s Texans. Of the Patriots’s five second-half possessions, three saw them get into the red zone.
“I think we’re just trying to figure out what works,” said Tom Brady, who was not nearly as clipped and dour in this post-game press conference as he has been in previous weeks.
Without question the Patriots offense has been and is struggling. Brady’s 63.3 passer rating was his second-lowest of the season, and his offense got booed going into the locker room at halftime. He’s throwing the ball more than he has in four years and finding the least amount of success as he has in the past six years.
But this is not about Tom Brady being washed up. He is not 2015 Peyton Manning or 2019 Philip Rivers. Not even by a long shot. It’s still plausible he makes it to 45 years old. But he’s certainly not playing at as high a level as he was as recently as 2017 when he was the league’s oldest MVP.
This is obviously more about the group around him. He’s trusting Julian Edelman and James White with a third of the Patriots’ scrimmage touches, and there’s not much else. Antonio Brown can’t apologize his way back on this team. Rob Gronkowski can’t come back now even if he wants to due to NFL rules. Gone is the decent-to-good offensive line protection he’s enjoyed in recent years.
Then, of course, there’s the mental aspect. How many more sideline videos do we need to see that turns us all into Tom Brady lip-readers? Brady Face — a show of exasperation as he walks, then jogs off the field following a failed third down — is growing as ubiquitous as Eli Face.
Brady has clearly decided he can’t publicly complain about his lack of weapons, and Sunday night it appeared he’s figured out it’d be better if he didn’t act like this is the worst offense in football history.
The first bad break the Patriots got was when Stephon Gilmore’s fumble recovery was whistled dead as he was running toward the end zone.
“Coach teaches us to keep playing unless the whistle is (blown),” Gilmore said. “That’s what I did and I heard the whistle and I was surprised. You’ve just got to live with it.”
Belichick had to use his second and final challenge to get that play overturned and put the ball back in Brady’s hands. And upon the successful challenge, the Patriots got into the end zone with N’Keal Harry on that drive, but officials ruled Harry out at the 3-yard line.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s … yeah. Doesn’t happen very often. So, it happened,” said Brady, choosing his words carefully. “We still had a chance and wish we could have scored there at the end.”
With 71 seconds left in the game on fourth-and-3 from the Kansas City 5, Brady looked to Edelman in the end zone, but he was covered well by Bashaud Breeland. It gave the Patriots their third loss of the season and the Chiefs the AFC West crown yet again.
The Patriots now have losses to Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City as they enter the home stretch, and this one was the closest of them all. A Week 16 tilt here at Gillette Stadium with the Bills could decide the AFC East, and a loss for the Patriots could send them from first-round bye to a wild card team on the road in January.
The Pats were here last year, losing two to Miami and Pittsburgh in consecutive weeks before finishing 11-5 on the way to Super Bowl LIII. But Brady is quick to caution that just because he and some of his teammates experienced that doesn’t mean this group will respond the same way.
“I don’t want to make any predictions,” Brady said. “I may have certain experiences doing things but this particular team as a whole hasn’t been through different situations. Try to work through them over the course of the season. We have three big games to go and we have to get back to winning football.”
The Patriots offense has its issues, but they’ve still be competitive at the end of these past two games. Don’t bury Brady and this dynasty just yet.