The New England Patriots lost their chance at a perfect season in dizzying fashion Sunday night, blowing a two-touchdown lead to the Denver Broncos in the fourth quarter, losing tight end Rob Gronkowski to a knee injury and surrendering a 48-yard touchdown run in overtime.
Their march to 16-0 hit a road block and careened off a cliff, and there are some who argue the loss will help the Patriots. The pressure from winning their first 18 games in 2007, the thinking goes, is what cost them the Super Bowl. That's nonsense. Sunday night's loss helped the Patriots in no way, shape or form.
Forget history and check the standings. The Patriots are now only one game up on both the Broncos — who now own the all-important head-to-head tiebreaker with New England — and Bengals for the first seed in the AFC playoff race. Injuries have decimated the Patriots, and the final five weeks of the season, with a win over Denver, could have been used to nurse Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola and so many others back to health, or at least ease in replacements with lowered stakes. Being up two games with five weeks to play would have allowed the Patriots to coast. Leading by just one game, the Patriots now must grind down the stretch.
Coach Bill Belichick may not have changed his approach either way. In 2007, the Patriots never rested starters nor relaxed the accelerator as they went undefeated in the regular season. At the end of the 2009 season, the Patriots had already clinched their playoff position by Week 17, and yet Belichick played his starters and Wes Welker suffered a horrific, season-ending injury.
But at least a victory Sunday night, in a game they had in hand, would have given the Patriots a choice about how to manage their depleted roster. Their season morphed from coronation, a historic endeavor, into a serious fight for playoff position. Under Belichick, the Patriots have gone 13-3 at home in the postseason and 3-3 on the road. Their place in the Super Bowl has been assumed for two months. Not anymore.
The schedule in some ways helps the Patriots. The Bengals and Broncos meet at Denver in Week 16, and so one of them is guaranteed to lose. The Patriots should have two easy wins with home games left against the Eagles and Titans. It's not all cake. They also play at the Texans, who have won four in a row behind a ferocious defense, at the Jets and at Miami. If the Patriots lose just once, the Broncos would have to beat the Chargers (twice), Raiders, Steelers and Bengals to steal home-field advantage.
The Patriots will have to navigate part of their schedule with their receiving corps in tatters, possibly including Gronkowski. Early indications suggested that Gronkowski did not suffer a major injury when Broncos safety Darian Stewart drilled him in the knees.
The play illustrated the risks of relying on Gronkowski. What makes him great encourages catastrophe. Gronkowski's size and speed leaves pitiable defensive backs tasked with tackling him little recourse but to dive at his legs in order to topple him. Almost every reception Gronkowski makes is equally thrilling and terrifying. He might be the best tight end of all time, but every time he touches the ball invites a potential threat to his knees.
Gronkowski's vulnerability is another reason why the Patriots needed to win Sunday night. They could have rested Gronkowski, or at least designed a game plan that would limit his risk. If Gronkowski is healthy enough to play, the Patriots now need to deploy him as usual.
The Patriots are still in enviable position, atop the AFC with just one loss. They should still be considered favorites to reach the Super Bowl. But their road just became much more difficult. Any suggestion that losing will help them in the long run is just silly. — Washington Post