The Patriots’ 20-year run of dominance may never be matched, but the ahead-of-schedule Dolphins have confirmed a new day has indeed arrived in the AFC East
Ding-dong, the Pats are dead! The Pats are dead, the Pats are dead. Ding-dong, the wicked Pats are deaaad!
OK, maybe the official end of the New England Patriots’ remarkable dynasty wasn’t quite so dramatic, but for a brief moment Sunday, anyone observing football for the past 19 years had to wonder if there was a sliver of Belichickian magic left. The Patriots marched to the locker room at the half up 6-0 over the Miami Dolphins thanks to a cocktail of clunky play by the hosts and sheer luck. A Cam Newton fumble, recovered by Xavien Howard and returned for 86 yards and a score that was reversed because it had touched a Dolphins defender. A 52-yard field goal missed by Dolphins kicker Jason Saunders. Would the Pats somehow pull off this elimination game with Newton channelling his 2015 self and all the bounces going Bill Belichick’s way? Not exactly.
Things reverted to their newfound trajectories after half-time. The Dolphins gashed the Pats’ hapless defensive line for 250 total rushing yards, led by the one-two punch of Salvon Ahmed and Matt Breida. Miami were mistake-free across the board in the second half while New England’s offensive woes continued. Newton threw for over 200 yards but the offense failed to cross the goal line for the second straight game.
In the end, the Dolphins rolled to a relatively easy 22-12 win that not only knocked the Patriots out of the postseason for the first time since 2008 but ensured their first losing season in two decades.
The 9-5 Dolphins, on the other hand, cemented a winning campaign and control of their own destiny for a playoff spot with remaining games against the Raiders and Bills (who may be resting their starters). What Miami have done this season is simply remarkable. Most teams in year two of a massive overhaul aren’t eyeing the postseason. They’re simply testing out their pieces and waiting for the offseason to load up more through the draft and free agency. Thanks to acquiring Houston’s first-round pick in exchange for Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills, the Dolphins are poised for another top-10, maybe top-five pick, despite their 2020 success. But they may well make a playoff run before then, thanks to general manager Chris Grier knocking it out of the park by the addition of players like Emmanuel Ogbah, Byron Jones and Austin Jackson, plus disciplined, savvy coaching by Brian Flores. Flores’s boldest move this year has paid off when he switched from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Tua Tagovailoa in October when the team was 3-3. The Dolphins have gone 6-2 since and are one the NFL’s most intriguing teams.
So are the newly minted AFC East champion Buffalo Bills, who are helmed by a legit MVP candidate in Josh Allen, a ferocious defense and a rabid fanbase that despite Covid will go to all lengths to show their support.
The Patriots’ remarkable 20-year dynasty may never be replicated and will forever be admired or despised depending on your perspective. But its official end is a sigh of relief for the rest of the league and certainly the AFC East. Imagine being a 27-year-old who became a Bills or Dolphins fan as a teenager. Those poor souls have had to start every season of their entire fandom knowing their team would play second fiddle to the Pats. (The Jets saga is its own horrid situation.)
Let’s be honest, even if you’re the rare NFL fan without an opinion of the Brady-Belichick era, their success became stifling. They won the AFC East in a mind-numbing 16 of the past 17 years. The only time they didn’t win was 2008 when Tom Brady tore his ACL in the season opener. Their record that year? 11-5. Incredibly, they’ve represented the AFC in half the Super Bowls in the last decade.
Their domination was historic but also, dare I say, a little dull for a six-time Super Bowl champion. Brady’s rise from sixth-round pick to all-time great is a wonderful story, but how many more times did we need to see the famous shot of a pudgy Brady at the 2000 NFL combine or hear about his avocado ice cream? Then there’s Belichick. His mumbling, non-answers became their own sport for a while. But then it just became annoying to have to probe a coach who intentionally wasn’t going to relay any information or oomph.
Thank you for your service to football, Patriots. Now it’s time to delve into Sean McDermott and Flores and see what happens when the Jets land Trevor Lawrence, because the AFC is no longer yours to monopolize.
Stat of the week
1-13. The Jets. The New York Jets. The Adam Gase-coached Jets shocked the Rams and won an actual NFL game. The Jets took their 32nd-ranked offense to Los Angeles and beat the Rams’ No 1-ranked defense, 23-20. A simply stunning outcome. The Jets defense stole the show, stymieing Jared Goff and Robert Woods while Sam Darnold made his case to be the franchise’s quarterback moving forward. Turns out he might be by default, because the Jets win means the 1-13 Jags have moved in the top draft spot, giving them inside track on Clemson star Trevor Lawrence. Should they finish with the same record, the Jags would win the tiebreaker based on strength of schedule.
A now-familiar name in this category, Josh Allen shined again on Saturday in a 48-19 whooping of Denver on the road. Allen showcased a flawless combination of masterful throws, smart decision-making and unstoppable physicality. All told, Allen passed for 359 yards and accounted for four touchdowns, two of which were on the ground. More importantly, the Bills clinched the AFC East.
Allen is now the second player to throw for 30 touchdowns and run for eight or more in a single season. The first was Cam Newton in 2015. Newton won the MVP that season and despite some decent company for this year’s MVP award, Allen is making a very strong case to be the conversation.
Quote of the week
“How in the world can you trade DeAndre Hopkins?” – Aqib Talib, Fox broadcast of Eagles-Cardinals
Seriously. Every week Hopkins makes Texans fans want to cry. This week’s 169 receiving yards and a score in the Cardinals’ win over resurgent Philadelphia came with its share of beautiful catches that only Hopkins can make. This isn’t Jerry Rice in his twilight years; this is a receiver in his prime who can single-handedly change the trajectory of a team as he’s doing in Arizona. Kyler Murray is an incredible talent but the addition of Hopkins has fast-forwarded his status among quarterbacks. Meanwhile, the ube-talented Deshaun Watson is having to slum away his prime in Houston with virtually no weapons.
Video of the week
There are elite running backs. Then there is Derreck Henry, a superhero disguised as a human being. Henry put on another clinic in a 46-25 win over the Detroit Lions, racking up his seemingly predestined collection of offense: 147 yards and a touchdown in his fifth 100-yard effort in six games. But it was a second-quarter stiff-arm of Lions CB Alex Myres like he was a fly that was particularly jaw-dropping. A masterclass stiff-armer, this was only Henry’s most recent victim … but may have been the most soul-crushing yet.
Elsewhere around the league
• The Falcons taking a 17-0 lead at the half is never a comfort against any team, and especially against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers. Lo and behold, the Falcons choked in usual fashion in what was truly a tale of two halves. Matt Ryan diced the Bucs’ secondary in first half while Tampa struggled to generate any offensive momentum. Then Brady injected his TB12 magic potion and the Bucs were like a new offense after the intermission. Brady passed for 188 yards and three scores in the third quarter alone while the Falcons’ coverage collapsed.
• ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Carson Wentz is unhappy with his benching and will want to exit Philadelphia if Jalen Hurts remains the starter. Well, it might be see you later for Mr Wentz after Hurts put on an absolute show in an enthralling 33-26 loss to the Cardinals. Hurts’s 401 total yards and four touchdowns against fellow ex-Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray came with its share of highlight-reel plays, like this one and this one. The rookie showed poise and resiliency throughout. Doug Pederson did the thing that head coaches often do in these situations and said he’d name his Week 16 starter later in the week, but it’s clearly Hurts from here on out. Assuming the Eagles can’t unload Wentz’s massive $126m salary in the offseason, look for the pair to compete for the starting role in training camp next year.
• The game most considered this week’s blockbuster lived up to the hype. The Chiefs topped the Saints 32-29 in a potential Super Bowl matchup. Drew Brees returned and took a while to get on track; an absent Michael Thomas didn’t help matters. The Chiefs’ powerhouse offense stumbled a bit against the Saints’ top-flight and very smart defense. But nobody puts Patrick Mahomes in a corner (except maybe the Raiders) and the Chiefs’ offense with its bevy of stars was able to do just enough to eke it out. With remaining games against the Falcons and Chargers and the Steelers sputtering, Kansas City’s path to the No 1 overall seed in the AFC is fairly clear.
• Dez Bryant apparently didn’t quit football this year after being removed from pregame warmup following a positive Covid test a couple of weeks ago. Bryant caught his first touchdown pass in three years as part of Baltimore’s 40-14 annihilation of Jacksonville. Said Bryant after the game: “I had to hold back the tears. That love is real, and I’m not joking when I say that. These guys here – they are one hundred, they are amazing. Phenomenal people. Win, lose or draw, there’s love in my heart for Baltimore forever.”