It’s not like the New England Patriots haven’t been here before. They twice lost Super Bowls in agonizing fashion to the New York Giants. They have had to bid farewell to key assistant coaches, and they have watched Coach Bill Belichick make unsentimental decisions about players. And always, the presence of Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady was enough for them to come back for more.
And, of course, that very well could be the case again. Theirs remains, even with Sunday night’s loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a compelling Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis, probably the greatest dynasty the NFL has seen. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has vowed to do all that he can to hold things together for as long as possible. Belichick, Brady and the reconstituted team around them could be back among the league’s top contenders next season, attempting to make yet another run at Super Bowl glory.
But in the immediate aftermath of Sunday’s defeat, there also was room to wonder if things could be different this time. With Belichick about to turn 66 and Brady going on 41, with tight end Rob Gronkowski talking Sunday night about pondering his football future, with all the speculation about internal strife this season, with defensive coordinator Matt Patricia and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels moving on, with Belichick being questioned for his benching of cornerback Malcolm Butler on Sunday – is there any chance that the Patriots’ last, best chance for a sixth Super Bowl triumph with Belichick and Brady slipped from their grasp in the frigid Bold North?
That remains to be seen. There is much to play out in the coming days, weeks and months. But it was clear even before this Super Bowl that the end of the Patriots’ dynastic run, at least with this group of principal characters, was near. Just how near was up for debate. It still is.
“No one is going to feel sorry for us,” Brady said Sunday night in Minneapolis. “We’ll evaluate like we always do. I’m sure everyone is pretty tired after a long year. That’s football.”
Brady reiterated late Sunday that he plans to play next season, saying: “I expect to be back. It’s 15 minutes after the game ended, so I would like to process this. I don’t see why I wouldn’t be back.”
The Patriots cannot afford for Brady to walk away now, not after they sent backup and would-be successor Jimmy Garoppolo to San Francisco in a trade-deadline deal this season. Brady has given no indication that he’s about to retire, and there has been no indication that his play is about to deteriorate. He became the oldest player to win the NFL’s MVP award Saturday night and he added to his legend Sunday by shredding the Philadelphia defense for 505 passing yards, a Super Bowl record.
“He’s great,” wide receiver Danny Amendola said. “He’s the greatest.”
When the greatness stopped for Brady’s virtually career-long rival, Peyton Manning, it ceased abruptly, not gradually. Manning went from a 39-touchdown, 15-interception season for the Denver Broncos in 2014 at age 38 to a nine-touchdown, 17-interception season in 2015 at 39. He was taken to a second career Super Bowl victory by a dominant Denver defense, then retired.
Brady’s body at 40 has not been ravaged by injuries as Manning’s was at 39. Perhaps Brady’s diet and exercise methods really can keep him playing at this otherworldly level for another few seasons. As of Sunday night, he continued to look very much like the greatest quarterback ever still at the height of his powers.
There was speculation as late as Sunday about the possibility of Brady and Belichick retiring, and about McDaniels remaining with the Patriots instead of becoming the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, which was finally announced Tuesday on the Colts’ Twitter account. Patricia’s move to Detroit as the Lions’ head coach became official on Monday.
Gronkowski added his own name to the list of potential retirees when he said after the game: “I’m definitely going to look at my future, for sure. I’m going to sit down in the next couple of weeks and see where I’m at.”
Gronkowski turns 29 in May. He’s had a series of injuries, including in the AFC championship game when he suffered a concussion and had to enter the league’s protocol before being cleared to play Sunday. Losing Gronkowski to early retirement would put a major dent in the Patriots’ near-term hopes for another Super Bowl push.
Butler, once a Super Bowl hero for his game-saving interception against the Seattle Seahawks, didn’t play a single defensive snap Sunday and almost certainly has played his final game with the Patriots. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency in March. Belichick has not detailed the reasons for the benching, and some analysts have maintained it may have cost the Patriots the game.
The Patriots play these days for Super Bowl victories and that’s pretty much it; seasons that end without such a triumph go down as missed opportunities. If the dynasty is to continue, it now must run on the fuel of Sunday’s disappointment.
Subscribe to The Spokesman-Review's sports newsletter
Get the day's top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.