It’s fun to talk about the Patriots cheating their way to the top. It’s easy to hassle their fans about Spygate and Deflategate and to slam Tom Brady as a diva who gets every call from the referees. But Spygate was only spying against the New York Jets, and the Patriots went 18-1 that year. The Deflategate game was a 45-7 pounding of the Indianapolis Colts. The Patriots are a dominant football team, especially at home, and everyone knows that.
Because New England is always so good, opposing coaches and teams are tense in the build up to games, and this often carries over into the events in the game. Most obviously, the Steelers, the team in the NFL that can best match up with the Patriots talent wise, constantly shoot themselves in the foot and creates drama when they can least afford it. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin complained about hearing the New England radio broadcast in his headset during Week 1 of the 2015 season, but didn’t follow up with the league on the incident in what turned out to be a one touchdown game. Over a year later, in the 2016 AFC Championship game, Todd Haley’s game plan hindered the Pittsburgh offense, and once running back Le’Veon Bell went down injured, they had no chance. In both cases, the coaches could have, and should have, dealt with the respective situations differently, but against New England, they panicked.
This phenomenon extends even to the players. Tight end Jesse James, on his now infamous touchdown-that-was-not, caught the football on the two yard line with no player within two yards of him. He could have easily secured the catch and then lunged for the goal line, but in his rush to make the play, went for it all in one fluid motion, leading to the ball to coming loose and resulting in an incompletion. But it’s not only the Steelers that make baffling decisions against the Patriots.
Look back at the 2015 Championship game against Indianapolis. Chuck Pagano was dreadfully outcoached. You don’t get blown out in a Championship game unless you underestimate the opposing quarterback (*cough* Minnesota *cough*) or you just can’t handle the pressure. Only the latter makes sense to me in this case, since the I doubt Pagano underestimated Tom Brady. Pagano also has a history of weird decisions against the Patriots, so I’m not at all surprised that his team was completely out-coached by the man in the cut off hoodie.
There’s an old adage that when you’re the underdog, you have to take risks. You need to do something unexpected to manage a win, and when a team plays New England, that’s what happens. The New York Giants needed two legendary catches to take down Brady in the Super Bowl. But when you pair this adage with Belichick’s inherent ability to shut down your best player, or source of offense, then you start to overthink things, leading you to make stupid decisions. People panic against the Patriots.
Countless times during the 28-3 Super Bowl comeback, the Atlanta Falcons should have put the game to bed. They even had their own David Tyree-esque catch from Julio Jones, which should have sealed the game, yet it didn’t. Two years prior, Pete Carroll decided to take the ball out of the hands of Marshawn Lynch, the best power back in the league, on the one yard line, instead opting to throw the ball to one of his smaller receivers in the congested middle of the field. Malcolm Butler intercepted the pass and elevated himself from irrelevancy.
Late in the second quarter in the 2018 AFC Championship, Jaguars cornerback A.J. Bouye played brilliant defense on the Patriots’ Brandin Cooks, shepherding him out of bounds, nowhere near Brady’s deep ball. The Jaguars looked poised to go into the locker room at 14-3, or at worst, 14-6, and the Patriots were without the services of Rob Gronkowski for the remainder of the game. But a little touch on the shoulder pads was enough to draw an unnecessary pass interference flag, unravelling Bouye’s hard work. New England scored a touchdown on the next play changing the momentum, and eventually winning the game by four.
That makes Jacksonville’s decision after the touchdown, kneeling out the final 55 seconds of the half, even more baffling. It’s plenty of time to score at least three points for an offense that had already scored 14 points in the half and showed the ability to move the ball, but Jacksonville instead played scared. The Jaguars surely knew the danger of taking unnecessary risks in New England, but I wouldn’t classify trying to score in this situation as a risk. Their play calling in the fourth quarter left much to be desired as well. First, they took essentially no time off the clock while losing a 10 point lead; then in the two minute drill, after making stellar progress working the ball down the field earlier in the drive, they kept the football out of Leonard Fournette’s hands with four timeouts remaining. The Patriots would then force a turnover on downs and win the game.
It’s not an issue of talent against New England anymore. Kansas City showed in Week 1 that these are not the same invincible Patriots they once were. Belichick’s team is vulnerable, and maybe Doug Pedersen will lead his Eagles to victory, choosing the right times to take a risk and when to play it safe. He’ll need to, because New England is an animal that smells fear. They know you’re going to panic, and they’ll punish you when you finally slip up.