Reports of a rift between New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady may have some validity to them, but in advancing to Super Bowl LII one thing is abundantly clear: Once again, a potentially major distraction has failed to bring down the Patriots, at least in the short term.
“Our focus has always been on going out and trying to execute and play football and control the things we can control,” New England special teams captain Matthew Slater said last week. “Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of things said, written or done about players and about the team. That’s out of our control and our focus has always been to go out and just play football.”
“I haven’t heard anyone talk about that,” lineman Ted Karras said in the locker room last week of the reported tension. “I don’t really know much about that to be honest with you.”
Win or lose to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, there’s no reason to think this is the end of an improbable 17-year run featuring Belichick on the sidelines and Brady under center. That “opening” Belichick reportedly saw to becoming head coach of the New York Giants has been filled by former Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur.
If there’s one lesson that’s been learned from the first three episodes of “Tom vs. Time” on Facebook Watch, it’s that Brady means every word that he says when it comes to playing until he’s (at least) 45.
“When I see myself out there, I feel like man, I still do this and I do it better than I’ve ever done it. So why should I stop?” Brady says in the trailer for his series.
Whether Jimmy Garoppolo – through his presence to begin with or from the fallout of his trade in October – was the source of friction between the three key figures in Foxboro, he’s in San Francisco now. Assuming the 49ers wisely sign him to a handsome extension before he hits free agency in March, nothing is going to change that.
Brady is, once again, both the present and the future at quarterback. He’s currently under contract through the end of the 2019 season. Terms of Belichick’s deal are less clear, both in term and in dollar amount, but he did say earlier this month that he “absolutely” plans on coaching the Patriots in 2018.
“They both want to win,” Slater said, adding that there’s been no change in Brady and Belichick’s relationship that he’s noticed since joining the team in 2008. “They both work hard. They both put the team first. They both do their job.”
Let’s assume that both Brady and Belichick are back with the team next fall, perhaps prepping for their third Thursday night home opener in the last four seasons. While there are numerous key players set to hit the free agent market in March – Danny Amendola, Dion Lewis, Nate Solder and Malcolm Butler chief among them – think about the players set to return for the Patriots after missing part or all of 2017 due to injury: Julian Edelman, Dont’a Hightower, Malcolm Mitchell, Marcus Cannon and Shea McClellin. Throw in 2017 draft picks Derek Rivers and Antonio Garcia, each of whom was drafted in the third round last spring, and there’s a boatload of talent ready to join a team that will finish no worse than Super Bowl runner-up.
Assuming health can be dangerous, but even if there’s an ever-so-slight drop in Brady’s performance at 41 years old, which team from the AFC – particularly AFC East – is ready to challenge the throne? What other head coach-quarterback pairings are there that gives Patriots fans even the slightest of pause?
The Buffalo Bills? It was a cool story, them getting to the playoffs and all after an 18-year absence, but once there they managed to score only three points and are in all likelihood moving on from quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
The New York Jets or Miami Dolphins? The Jets are on their way up from rock bottom but they still have no quarterback. The Dolphins should be one-and-done with Jay Cutler under center and get Ryan Tannehill back from an ACL tear, but how much of an upgrade is that, really?
Around the conference, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens still have name-brand recognition…and that’s about it. The Steelers haven’t beaten the Patriots since 2011, losing five straight. The Ravens have missed the playoffs three straight seasons and for all the yap about how head coach John Harbaugh and quarterback Joe Flacco aren’t afraid of coming into Foxboro…they last won here a half-decade ago.
Maybe the Denver Broncos figure it out at quarterback before it’s too late for that defense. Maybe Patrick Mahomes II is the real deal for the Kansas City Chiefs. Maybe any one of the four teams in the surprisingly-deep AFC South can string it together just long enough to put a scare into the Patriots.
Maybe, all you have to do is play the odds. Since 2003, only four quarterbacks have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl: Brady, Peyton Manning, Ben Roethlisberger and Joe Flacco. Manning has been out of the league for two years, Flacco is no longer an elite quarterback (was he ever?) and Roethlisberger’s Steelers seem destined to continue wasting opportunity after opportunity despite talented rosters under head coach Mike Tomlin.
“For 17 years, the Patriots have withstood everything the NFL and opponents could throw their way, knowing that if they were united, nobody could touch them,” ESPN’s Seth Wickersham wrote earlier this month. “Now they're threatening to come undone the only way possible: from within.”
That last line – from within – hits the nail on the head.
There is no team ready to full-on challenge New England for supremacy in AFC. So long as Brady and Belichick stay true to their word, the Patriots will be the team to beat in the AFC in 2018.