I cannot be the only person who watched the final minutes of the Ravens-Chargers game on Sunday with a gnawing, growing feeling of dread.
It wasn’t because I had any strong feelings toward the Ravens or Chargers specifically, or any particular dislike of either. No, it was because, as Baltimore, after being utterly somnambulant for the first 50 minutes, was now scrambling around and still alive, I kept having the same thought: good God, the Patriots are going to go to the Super Bowl again.
I say I cannot be the only person who watched the game this way with some confidence, because after thinking I was the only one torturing myself, I have since heard from several who said the same thing. With Baltimore and rookie quarterback Lamar Jackson looking hopeless for most of that game, it looked like a strong Chargers team would be travelling to Foxboro this weekend for a date with New England. This was good: no one, outside of Pats fans, wants to see them advance again. The former San Diegos would at least have a good shot at knocking them off. A miracle Baltimore comeback, though, would have been a disaster. It had been obvious through the first three quarters of that game that a smart team had figured out how to stop the Ravens’ run-heavy offence; Bill Belichick would do the exact same thing and he wouldn’t be dumb enough, like the Chargers, to let the Ravens hang around at the end.
The Patriots would have been a lock to return to the AFC Championship. And then, Belichick versus Andy Reid and the Chiefs at Arrowhead? Or Belichick versus Frank Reich in Foxboro? Neither scenario is the least bit pleasing.
Both scenarios remain, of course, entirely possible. Which is why we, as a society, owe it to ourselves to root for the Chargers this Sunday. These are fractured times, with polarized electorates, and fights over walls and pipelines and the future of our planet and many other weighty things. But surely this is something we can all rally around, if even just for about three hours on a weekend afternoon: please, Los Angeles Chargers, do this for us.
I’m not sure why, exactly, the prospect of another deep New England run seems quite so unappealing. Sure, there is the fact that the Patriots have been to one million Super Bowls (approximately) in an era when it is supposed to be very hard to be consistently good. But this has been the case for a long time now.
Hovering around in the background all season have been the Pats, the super villain that won’t die
And yes, I admit to holding a couple of personal grudges here. I’m a lapsed Buffalo Bills fan, but the scars from all the beatings over the years remain. And in terms of furious press-box rewrites, few experiences have been as unpleasant as Super Bowl LI, when I had a very nice column about the Atlanta win pretty much completed by halftime before the Patriots ruined what should have been a comfortable second-half experience.
But it is more than that. This has felt at times like a watershed NFL season, where the league that constantly scores public-relations own goals suddenly found itself with an offensive explosion keyed by young stars like Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff. The Monday night shootout between those two in November was great fun, the best game in years, and there was no one named Brady or Manning anywhere near it. We have, for a long time now, wondered how the NFL would transition from the old-warrior era of Brady and the Mannings and Big Ben, and now here were these young guys flinging it all over the place. Football!
And yet, hovering around in the background all season have been the Pats, the super villain that won’t die even though it has been blown up and dropped off a cliff and buried under a collapsed skyscraper. Even with all the changing-of-the-guard stuff happening, there was 41-year-old Brady, allegedly feuding with his coach but still throwing to a collection of small receivers and an increasingly creaky Rob Gronkowski, who now lumbers around like an elephant that has been hit with a tranquilizer dart but will still haul in the desperation pass on third-and-18 with two defenders hanging off him. Every time it looked like New England had lost enough games to ensure that it would not have a first-round bye in the playoffs, one of the Texans, Chiefs or Chargers would throw up on themselves to bring the Pats back in line for a top-two seed.
And now, here we are. Nothing about this Patriots season suggests that they should get through the next two weeks to make their third straight Super Bowl and ninth in the Belichick era. The defence has been soft, Brady appears human, in the sense that he actually ages over time, and he has a collection of iffy weapons. When the Pats traded for Josh Gordon, it was easy to imagine a guy who had barely played since 2013 stepping in to become Brady’s key big-game target, the receiver who would go for 175 yards and two TDs as Reid was staring at his play card in confusion in the AFC title game. But even that didn’t work out, Belichick turning to his old bag of tricks and this time coming up empty.
Is it a sign that this is finally it? Is the most remarkable dynasty in sports about to be finished off by the ravages of time, and also the salary cap?
I imagine most anyone who watches football would like to think so, but I’m not quite ready to believe it.