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NFL parity comes for every team, and it has arrived for the Patriots

Do you think NFL teams still get a little nervous, a little wide-eyed, whenever the Patriots come to town for a regular-season matchup? Do you think visiting squads still get a little nauseous whenever they arrive at Gillette Stadium for a game?

If that Patriots mystique was still around heading into 2023, it was likely stomped out after a 1-4 start to the season. Included in those losses were a 38-3 loss to the Cowboys in Dallas in Week 4 (the worst defeat of Bill Belichick’s head coaching career); and a 34-0 loss to the Saints at Gillette Stadium in Week 5 (the worst home defeat of Belichick’s head coaching career).

New England has produced 55 points and allowed 131 during its 1-4 start.

If you look at the Patriots’ roster… to quote former Red Sox color analyst Dennis Eckersley, “It’s a hodgepodge of nothingness.” Other than quarterback Mac Jones, New England’s most notable skill-position player is running back Ezekiel Elliot, who is currently a backup with 159 rushing yards on the season. As for the defense, linebacker Matthew Judon has been a perennial star and is having a decent year so far, but he’s clearly not enough to lift up the entire unit. If you go by yardage, New England has the eighth-best defense in the NFL. If you go by points allowed per game (26.2), it’s 25th. Yes, some of that is on the offense–Jones has thrown three pick-sixes through five games–but these last two blowouts may be evidence that the defense is just waiting to implode.

The Patriots wouldn’t be the first former dynasty to finally reach its day of reckoning.

The Packers were the team of the 1960s, winning five NFL Championships–including the first two Super Bowls. But other than winning a division title in 1972, Green Bay spent the 1970s as an NFL afterthought, often acting as fodder for Walter Payton and the Purple People Eaters. The Steelers were the team of the ’70s, winning a record four Lombardi trophies. But they just kind of slogged along during the first half of the 1980s before mostly falling off a cliff by the latter part of the decade. The 49ers were the standard for NFL success for roughly two decades, as they won five Super Bowls from 1981 and 1994 and were still strong contenders through the early 2000s. But San Francisco was one of the worst teams in football by the end of the ’00s.

I remember a game involving the Steelers and Patriots in 1986 that was played at old Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Ironically enough, New England came to town and routed the Steelers by a score of 34-0. The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 1-6 en route to a 6-10 campaign–the worst season for head coach Chuck Noll since he went 1-13 in 1969.

The Steelers topped that futility by finishing 5-11 in 1988. There was a rebound year in 1989 when Pittsburgh made the playoffs and actually won a wildcard game. Noll was named the Maxwell Club NFL Coach of the Year for turning his team around in ’89, but it was basically his last hurrah. The Steelers hovered around .500 the next two years and missed the postseason each time. Noll retired following the 1991 regular season.

If the Patriots miss the postseason this year (and they damn sure look like they will), it will be the third time in the four seasons since Tom Brady left to sign with the Buccaneers.

Does this mean Brady was the sole reason for Belichick’s success? No more than Terry Bradshaw was the sole reason for Noll’s success in the ’70s. No more than Bart Starr was the sole reason for Vince Lombardi’s success in the ’60s.

No legendary head coach ever had sustained championship success without a good-to-great quarterback. But, much like the Packers, Steelers and 49ers, the Patriots also had a good and deep team, from coaching all the way down to the bench players.

You draft well. You develop those draft picks. You stay innovative.

That’s how you win multiple titles and become a dynasty.

New England hasn’t drafted well as of late. It certainly hasn’t developed the players it has drafted. As for free agency–a new layer to modern football? That’s been mostly a bust. When it comes to staying innovative and ahead of the NFL curve? Nope.

The Patriots were the standard for many years, but the NFL is built for parity. New England may have kept parity at bay longer than most dynasties, but it was only a matter of time before it came knocking at the front gate of Gillette Stadium.

It looks like that time has arrived.


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