Pats a shadow of selves, more wild-card week Snap Judgments
Bill Belichick and Tom Brady will keep New England in good shape for a long time
The Belichick and Patriot mystique went up in smoke after their loss to the Ravens
It's been a great playoff weekend so far for four young NFL running backs
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Musings, observations and the occasional insight after taking in three-fourths of the NFL wild-card playoff weekend and preparing to write a separate story after attending the fourth game ...
I'm not going to proclaim the dynasty is dead and start writing the obit. I'm not going to give into the sweeping overstatement, made for dramatic effect. As long as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are still around, the New England Patriots should remain both relevant and relatively successful.
But it's not knee-jerk in the least to admit that these are not the same old Patriots. As the new decade opens, it's obvious that the NFL's team of the just-past decade is no longer the outfit that has inspired awe, admiration and a good bit of fear for most of the past 10 years.
Nothing ever underscored that fact quite like the 33-14 destruction of the Patriots that Baltimore delivered on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. Don't let the score fool you. It wasn't really that close.
As the Ravens' always loquacious linebacker Terrell Suggs said after the game: "We gave them a humbling ass whupping today.''
That they did, and in so many ways this was the kind of loss that we've never seen from New England. Entering the game, Belichick and Brady had never lost a home playoff game together, going 8-0. Make that 8-1.
Before Sunday, Belichick had never gone one-and-done in the playoffs as a head coach, dating to his first trip to the postseason with Cleveland in 1994. That streak spanned seven playoff appearances between 1994-2007, but that's done too, now.
The aura that for so long surrounded the Patriots is gone. They won the AFC East and made their way back to the playoffs this season, but in reality they looked like just an average team most of the time. No signature wins. No sustained burst of dominance. All the vulnerabilities that showed up on that Monday night against Buffalo in Week 1 were still pretty much in evidence Sunday against Baltimore.
The Ravens jumped on the Patriots early, and never let them breathe at any point thereafter. That's what New England used to do to other teams, season after season. But now the Patriots have it done to them. And they don't always fight back or do anything about it. They got bullied by Baltimore, just as the Saints, Broncos and Jets bullied them earlier this season. And we're just not used to seeing that from a New England team.
In truth, since that shocking Super Bowl loss to the Giants about 23 months ago, little has gone right for New England. There was Brady's stunning knee injury in the 2008 opener, finding a way to somehow miss the playoffs despite an 11-5 record that season, and this year's tougher-than-expected weekly grind to 10-6. And now this, a quick playoff exit by a team that seemed to be bounced out of the postseason almost before it had even begun, with New England being run over for 234 yards of Ravens rushing in the process.
As long as Belichick and Brady return, the Patriots aren't finished as a playoff contender. But their days of owning the Super Bowl and running roughshod in the postseason are long over, and they aren't scaring anyone these days when they break the huddle. These aren't the Patriots we remember. These aren't the Patriots the rest of the NFL has put on a pedestal. But these are the Patriots as they currently exist: Good, but far from great, and flawed in any number of ways.
This is going to take some getting used to.
As it turns out, it wasn't really about missing Wes Welker for New England. It was about missing Randy Moss. Five catches for 48 yards in the biggest game of the season just isn't going to cut it for the Patriots passing game.
Can't remember ever seeing Tom Brady look so inaccurate. It was Brady's first three-interception game since the 2007 AFC title game against San Diego, and it could have been worse for Brady. Coincidentally, that three-pick showing against the Chargers was in New England's most recent playoff win. Brady also lost a fumble to complete his four-turnover day.
What a playoff weekend it has been so far for young NFL running backs. With Baltimore's Ray Rice hammering away at the Patriots for 159 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, the Ravens offense could get away with quarterback Joe Flacco going 4 of 10 for 34 yards and an interception.
The Jets got 135 yards and a 39-yard touchdown run out of rookie Shonn Greene in their 24-14 win at Cincinnati, and Dallas was led by second-year man Felix Jones (148 yards rushing on 16 carries, with a 73-yard scoring burst) in its 34-14 rout of Philadelphia. In a losing cause, Cincy's Cedric Benson went for 169 yards and a 47-yard touchdown run against the Jets.
San Diego didn't play this weekend, but you could argue the Chargers were one of the big winners on Sunday. The Ravens beating New England sends the No. 5-seeded Jets to San Diego next Sunday, rather than the Patriots, who have been the Chargers' playoff nemesis in recent years.
I have a hard time believing that San Diego would have struggled to beat this year's Patriots, but in past years, the Chargers had New England in their heads. San Diego lost in the playoffs to New England in both 2006's divisional round and 2007's AFC title game.
Then again, given the roll the Jets are on, maybe Baltimore did San Diego no favors after all.
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