Patriots dynasty, you impressed me. Your dominance spanned two decades in the most competitive era in NFL history. The scores, records and highlights are a testament to greatness, and from your reign legends were made. But even you, New England, though you may be one of the best sports dynasties of all-time, nothing lasts forever. It was a good run.
Saturday’s underwhelming performance in a Wild Card round upset to Tennessee, a team that is a virtual footnote in the National Football League landscape (and employed a former Patriot as head coach), marked the end of a remarkable era. In a season you kicked off with aspirations for a second consecutive Lombardi Trophy and fourth title in seven years, you looked unbeatable, but were doomed by the physical decline of Tom Brady and an offense that couldn’t support a legendary defense. You lost to Miami, at home, in December. But even the significance of these losses, and the joyous cheers of your demise, hint at just what type of team you were.
Six Super Bowl wins. Nine Super Bowl appearances. 13 AFC Championship appearances. 17 straight seasons with double-digit wins. A 16-0 regular season record in 2007, with single-season records shattered by Brady and receiver Randy Moss. A 25-point comeback in Super Bowl LI. Hall of Famers on both sides of the ball. And while other teams put up big stats that would make fantasy football enthusiasts drool in the regular season, you made your mark in the playoffs, against the best competition. You became as integral a part of the Super Bowl tradition as the chips and dip. It’s a run that has never been rivaled, and with the salary cap era, it may never be matched again.
In the scope of NFL history, you mattered. After pulling off a monumental upset in Super Bowl XXXVI against “The Greatest Show on Turf” with second-year backup Tom Brady at the helm, you launched into an unprecedented 18-year run. That night, you also shed your underdog label, and the team with the patriotic name soon became America’s Villain.
No team has ever played the role so well. Your presence in the Super Bowl gave a compelling reason for even the most casual of football fans to care. You were so dominant year after year that the other 31 fanbases united in their shared loathing of the Evil Empire, the Yankees of the NFL. Every time you lost was an occasion for nationwide celebration, whether in the Super Bowl in the biggest upset of all-time or a divisional matchup against Miami. You cheated, you bent the rules, but most of all, we hated you because you won.
For the greater part of two decades, you had a target on their back. And neither Father Time nor the other 31 NFL teams could prove worthy opponents. The NFL set you up to fail, and you rarely did.
In the annals of the NFL, you will be number one. You weren’t the first to win three Super Bowls in five years, but then you repeated that feat ten years later with the same quarterback. You created a system that was greater than any player (outside of the irreplaceable quarterback) and built “The Patriot Way.” You made Boston, a team accustomed to annual titles from the Celtics, Bruins and Red Sox, care about football. The words “dominance” and “longevity” couldn’t describe a sports team better.
But it’s over now.
Your 43-year-old quarterback is too old to lead game-winning drives or wow with his arm. Your coach has seen his sport revolutionized and passed by a generation of transcendent talents and innovative schemes. Your offense is a shell of its former self, and your defense can’t carry the team. You lost to Miami and Tennessee at home. Your dominance is in the past. I doubt that you’ll ever reach those same lofty heights.
It’s not like anyone has counted you out before.