Maybe depression spikes around this time of year not because of the holidays. ≈ People probably are just sick of watching the New England Patriots go to the playoffs again. ≈ The NFL’s most repetitive ritual involves the Patriots heading into another postseason, and here we go again. The Buffalo Bills will finish their season this afternoon against them in Gillette Stadium, but the Patriots will keep playing into January. ≈ Bill Belichick and Tom Brady this year were supposed to succumb to the same righteous forces that make sure vampires turn to cinders in the sunlight, werewolves are stopped dead by silver bullets and zombies crumble to the ground when cracked in the noggin.
The Patriots lost top receiver Wes Welker and awaiting-trial tight end Aaron Hernandez before the season. Injuries wiped out tight end Rob Gronkowski, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, defensive tackles Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
But here come the Patriots anyway, relentless figures emerging from the miasma, barely breaking stride as they step over your team’s smoldering carcass and head back to the playoffs.
“Same old story,” Bills safety Jairus Byrd said, a look of agitated helplessness on his face. “It just gets old.”
The last time another AFC East team finished with more victories than the Patriots, a quarterback named Jay Fiedler guided the Miami Dolphins to the division title. Thurman Thomas was in their backfield.
“It would be nice to see some other people get on top of the division for a change,” Fiedler said this past week. “It looked early on like this year there’d be a shot for one of the other teams to take it.
“Lo and behold, here we are in Week 17, and Tom Brady and Bill Belichick are still on top.”
The year was 2000 when an AFC East team finished with more wins. The Patriots were 5-11. They were the only AFC East team with a losing record.
The Bills went 8-8, the first installment of a 14-year-old playoff drought. Not a single member of that Bills roster is in the NFL anymore.
The NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, Brian Urlacher, has completed a long, Hall of Fame career. The Seattle Seahawks were in the AFC. The Houston Texans didn’t exist. The Pittsburgh Steelers played in Three Rivers Stadium.
Players still wore single-bar facemasks. Memorabilia collectors were on the lookout for Peter Warrick and Chad Pennington rookie cards.
“That’s definitely a long time ago,” Sam Madison said when informed how long the Patriots had been on top. Madison was an All-Pro cornerback for the Dolphins in 2000. “That’s really shocking.
“That’s pretty amazing for a team to dominate a division the way they have in that manner. There’s just so much turnover in the National Football League, you’d think sooner or later one of the other three teams would have built a roster to knock these guys off. It just hasn’t really happened.”
Of the 53 players on Buffalo’s active roster for today’s game, 37 of them hadn’t reached high school the last time another AFC East club finished with more wins than New England.
“As a person who’s played in this division for a majority of my career, it’s frustrating,” said Bills safety Jim Leonhard, a ninth-year veteran who spent three seasons with the New York Jets.
“You’ve got to give them a lot of respect. If you’re doing it year in and year out, you’re obviously doing something right.”
It’s lonely at the top
The Patriots have made winning a habit while drawing the ire of fans not among their faithful.
Brady is despised for his on-field whining and his moated mansion and his Ugg boots and his supermodel wife who calls out receivers for dropping the ball and who gets photographed nursing her baby while getting a manicure and for his injured knee that changed how referees call penalties and for all his trophies.
So what that he’s arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, who might be the only player from New England’s three championship teams to get inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame? He’ll make it in his first year of eligibility, by the way.
As will Belichick, the sullen golem who runs up the score and got caught video-taping opponents’ defensive signals and was stripped of a first-round draft pick and doesn’t always shake the other coach’s hand properly and goes for it on fourth down and is just so arrogant that people can’t stand the sight of his hoodie.
The Patriots had the gall to trademark 19-0 before they went the full, unblemished distance in 2007. The New York Giants upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl.
Madison started at cornerback for those Giants. He conceded jolting the theretofore undefeated Patriots makes his Super Bowl ring sparkle a little more.
“It felt good to make those guys 18-1,” Madison said. “Can you only imagine? To have to deal with the Patriots and their fans? It would have been something else.”
Even so, New England is a contemporary dynasty. Parity has been an irrelevant concept to the organization.
New England seemed vulnerable this year, with so many personnel concerns and the potential for off-field distractions. Both defensive captains were on injured reserve by Oct. 16.
Brady appeared more mortal than ever when the season began. His passer rating was below 75.0 for six of his first eight games. In October, he threw two touchdowns and four interceptions and got sacked 16 times.
“This is that year everybody said, ‘Hey, if we really want to be in contention and have a chance to knock these guys off, this will be the year,’ ” Madison said.
“Once again, Tom Brady, no matter who you put on the football field with him, he’s going to make things happen. They’re still one of the best teams in the NFL, even though they don’t have all their weapons.”
Brady won his 11th division title this year, an NFL record for quarterbacks.
Leonhard said, “Their coach is as smart as they come, and their quarterback is as good as it gets.” But New England’s success is more nuanced than that.
The Patriots have evolved significantly over the years. Their run of success began with a formidable defense and impeccable special teams. But with Brady as the centerpiece they assembled one of the NFL’s most prolific offenses and in 2007 began obliterating records.
For 13 straight seasons, Belichick’s team has posted a winning record. The only others to manage that were Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys (1966 to 1985) and Curly Lambeau’s Green Bay Packers (1934 to 1947).
For 11 straight seasons, Belichick has won at least 10 games. The closest streak belongs to George Seifert with the San Francisco 49ers from 1989 to 1996.
The Patriots won three Super Bowls in a four-year span. They went to two more. They’ve won the AFC East 11 times in the past 13 seasons. The two times they didn’t win the division, they lost on tiebreakers.
The last time the Patriots didn’t go to the playoffs, they won 11 games with backup quarterback Matt Cassel.
“The NFL’s set up for parity, with the salary cap and the draft order and free agency,” Bills center Eric Wood said. “There’s a lot of things that can swing teams from top to bottom.
“For them to be able to have the run that they’ve had is extremely impressive and, obviously, frustrating from our standpoint, considering we’ve been consistently pretty bad for a while.”
The definition of insanity?
For the second time in three years and fourth time since 2003, the Patriots will play the Bills in the regular-season finale.
The Patriots’ success is exponentially irritating to Bills fans. The Bills have defeated the Patriots just twice in their past 26 meetings and are 0-11 at Gillette Stadium.
“This is a team,” Wood said, “we need to start beating.”
The Patriots have punked the Bills every way imaginable since Belichick and Brady joined forces a dozen years ago.
Brady marched down the field to beat the Bills with a field goal on opening day. Gronkowski has annihilated his hometown team on multiple occasions. Leodis McKelvin’s fumble opened the door for Brady to throw two touchdown passes in the final 2:06 and win by a point in 2009. The Patriots outscored the Bills, 94-17, in 2007.
“It’s the ultimate frustration,” Leonhard said. “One, you’re not figuring out the puzzle and how to beat them. And two, they don’t beat you with scheme. They beat you with execution, which is the most frustrating way to lose.
“Every game, you watch the film and you’re just shaking your head.”
The Patriots won the AFC East rather comfortably this year. They enter today three games ahead of the Dolphins.
The Patriots will clinch the AFC’s No. 1 seed, giving them a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout the postseason, if they defeat the Bills and the Denver Broncos lose at the Oakland Raiders.
The Patriots would clinch a first-round playoff bye with a victory or a tie against the Bills, or if the Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts both fail to win.
Such seed-jockeying scenarios have become an annual circumstance for the Patriots more than any other team.
Whether you like it or not.
“As a competitor, you respect what they do,” Byrd said. “That’s what you want to get to and strive for.
“But at the same time, you’re tired of losing to them.”