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This Week in Football: Patriots fall and more in a wacky Wild Card round

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In 2018, Tom Brady was the star of a Facebook Watch show called Tom vs. Time, a look into the life of an aging superstar quarterback who just so happens to be considered the greatest to ever play.

The title acknowledges his age and the fact that Father Time always wins. Despite that credo, Brady has played well beyond the expected shelf life of most players, even heavily protected quarterbacks. And, for the most part, as he defied our constructed views of older athletes, he played at a high level and was able to lead his New England Patriots to win after win, to championship after championship.

Not this season, though.

The Patriots are done, upset at home by Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans. At no point in the last two decades was it particularly plausible to guess a team led by a bruising running back, a generally mediocre quarterback and an average defense could go into Foxborough and knock off the greatest coach-quarterback combination of all time.

But this was a different Patriots team than those in years past. The skill players weren’t as good, same for the offensive line. The defense was great, but not great enough to overcome a bevy of offensive shortcomings. The quarterback looked different. Not bad, but different, and certainly not trending upward.

Obviously, all things come to an end someday. That’s just how time works. The Patriots weren’t going to rule the NFL forever and the dynasty would eventually crumble. They all do.

That doesn’t stop the fall of the empire from creating a weird feeling. Weird doesn’t equate to bad, it’s just different.

This is not intended to be one of the “You’ll miss the Patriots,” “Teams like them are good because they unite people in rooting against team” kinds of takes. Those are unilaterally weak opinions, often spurred on by people who make a living bashing them or covering them. But for a whole generation of football fans, the Patriots dominating the NFL is all they know.

If you were born in 2000, you are (approximately) in the midst of the 20th NFL season of your life. The Patriots have won 30% of the Super Bowls in your life and have played for 45% of them. That’s absurd domination. When a pillar like that falls, it feels different.

Again, it’s not a bad thing. The AFC is overflowing with one of the most exciting crops of young quarterbacks in history. Patrick Mahomes already has an MVP award and Lamar Jackson is about to win one. Their respective teams are still alive in the postseason this year. Deshaun Watson has already reached superstardom, too, and guys like Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold still have room to grow but could reach that plateau one day.

The NFC is filled with plenty of stars too, from Russell Wilson in his prime to the grizzled-veteran days for Aaron Rodgers to another group of young passers. There are fun teams across the NFL, with personalities and play styles that will continue to captivate us.

We don’t need the Patriots to do that.

Time finally caught up with Tom. He might keep playing, whether it’s back in New England or with someone else, but it’s clear that the era of unequivocal dominance by the Patriots is over.

AROUND THE LEAGUE

*For one week, we can lay off of Kirk Cousins. His reputation as a bad quarterback in big moments is well-deserved, but he defied all odds and actually outplayed a hall of famer on Sunday. The Superdome isn’t an easy place to play anytime, let alone in the postseason and especially not for notorious chokers. All of those things working against him and Cousins still did enough to help the Vikings win a playoff game. Minnesota doesn’t need him to be Joe Montana reincarnate to stay alive, but it needs him to be mistake-free and smart. That was all it took against New Orleans. He’s still the goofiest quarterback in the league, but the Vikings will live with that if he’s winning games. Kirk Cousins earned respect this week. Maybe not for long, but he has it for now.

*It’s hard to win Super Bowls. That’s hardly breaking news, in-depth analysis or anything of the sort. However, the Patriots poisoned all of our brains to feel otherwise. This Tweet from Bob Sturm hammers home an important point.

Winning championships has always been a standard by which the greatest quarterbacks (and coaches) are judged. Dan Marino, for example, will never be able to live down never winning the big one. At the same time, it’s ludicrous to think it’s normal for teams to win at a rate like the Patriots have for the last two decades. To win even one Super Bowl is a massive accomplishment. It’s one that Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and other greats have achieved and should be applauded for. Don’t mistake that for being satisfied with just one, but any number of titles is a significant number. That’s especially the case when living during the Patriots’ reign of terror. This conversation clearly isn’t going to go away, but as we (potentially) start to turn the page on one era of NFL history, maybe some perspective will start to seep into the discourse.

*Journeyman quarterback has to be the most beloved position in sports. All you need to do to see this theory in action is take a quick look back at the last two weeks. In Week 17 it was Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard-educated and thickly bearded veteran who led the Dolphins to a win over the Patriots (a win which completely changed the complexion of the playoffs). During the Wild Card round it was Josh McCown, making his playoff debut at age 40, playing somewhat unspectacularly but giving the Eagles a fighting change with their backs against the wall against the Seahawks. It’s easy to understand why guys like Fitzpatrick and McCown have such universally high approval ratings. The effort level is always maxed out and the expectations are usually as low as can be for them to actually perform well. One of the reasons we love the NFL, and professional sports in general, is to see the greatest athletes in the world perform at the highest level. But stories of guys who give their all and inspire positivity and confidence, even when they come up short, are a vital part of the game’s ecosystem.

*The Cowboys probably did the best they could. Jerry Jones hired former Packers coach Mike McCarthy on Monday, filling one of the most high-profile jobs in the NFL with the most high-profile coach on the market. If nothing else, the hire just makes sense. Jones wanted someone with head coaching experience and McCarthy is the most prolific of those available (Marvin Lewis doesn’t exactly inspire confidence). He’s allegedly committed himself to a rebranding and reinvention, and if that’s the case then this scenario could work. After all, his body of work with quarterbacks is mostly good and Dak Prescott could ascend to an even higher plane with this hire. Then again, he couldn’t figure out how to use Aaron Jones in Green Bay, and in one season with a new coach Jones led the NFL in touchdowns from scrimmage. The peak is likely high, but the potential floor for this hire could end up depressingly similar to that of the coach who was just canned after a decade of mediocrity.

J.J. WATT DID WHAT THIS WEEK?

J.J. Watt dominated the airwaves and looked (eventually) like his old self this week.

https://twitter.com/thecheckdown/status/1213605048527097856?s=20

It took Watt a while to get going on Saturday, as he had a completely unproductive first half. He came alive in the second half, though, contributing the continued harassment of Bills quarterback Josh Allen. It’s impossible to know for now what kind of impact Watt will have in the divisional round against the Chiefs, although if he’s on a roll it could make things stressful on Patrick Mahomes. It’s remarkable that he was able to play at all this season, though, and the fact that he actually made an impact was one of the most impressive feats of the weekend.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Taysom Hill is the ultimate Swiss Army knife player. That phrase is as cliché as can be and is played out for Hill, but when you consider all he can do (and had to do on Sunday) it still applies. In Sunday’s loss to the Vikings, Hill became the first player to ever have 50 passing yards, 50 rushing yards and 20 receiving yards in a postseason game. Not only that, but he’s just the ninth player to accomplish that at all since 2000. It’s worth noting that the Saints were far better offensively with Hill in the game. He’s not a better quarterback than Drew Brees, but it’s clear that his versatile skill set is vital to New Orleans.

FOOTBALL FOLLIES

Bill Belichick is the master of skirting the rules, using every loophole in the book to get an edge on New England’s opponents. That’s what made it especially impressive that he got a taste of his own medicine against Tennessee.

The Titans exploited a rule that allows you to run extra time off the clock by taking consecutive penalties. Knocking off those extra seconds made a difference, too, since the Patriots didn’t have much time to do anything at the end of the game (then the pick-six happened anyway). This is a vintage Belichick maneuver, so who better to pull it off against him than one of his own former players? What made this, and Belichick’s vulgar reaction above, even funnier is that New England pulled the same stunt earlier this season against the New York Jets.

After years and years of the Patriots pulling off stunts like this, there’s something mesmerizing about watching them get a taste of their own medicine.

WEEKLY TOP 5: DIVISIONAL ROUND X-FACTORS

Earlier this season we looked at some of the most important players for teams making a push for the playoffs. Now, with one round down in the postseason, we’re taking a look at the players who could swing the balance of power among the remaining eight teams.

  1. Derrick Henry – The objective to stop the Titans is simple: Slow down Derrick Henry. The execution is far more difficult. He’s a bruising runner who has been better as the season goes on every year he’s been in the league. If he gets going on the ground then Tennessee can control the clock and pace of any game, which is frustrating for opposing defenses and offenses alike.
  2. Deshaun Watson – Watson is the lifeblood of the Texans. Their numbers with and without Will Fuller indicate that they’re far better with him on the field, but his health and production are wholly untrustworthy. Watson can make magic happen regardless of who’s on the field with him, and he needs to pull off some more wizardry to keep Houston alive again.
  3. Tyrann Mathieu – His case for defensive player of the year will likely come up short, but Mathieu might be the most important defensive player remaining in the playoffs. He calls the shots on Kansas City’s defense and is tasked with tackling in the box, playing coverage and handling other safety duties. With Juan Thornhill out with a torn ACL Mathieu will have to do even more than normal against Houston.
  4. Dalvin Cook – Cook’s role and important is similar to Henry’s above. If Cook is making plays, the Vikings can thrive offensively. Without him, though, it puts a lot more pressure on Kirk Cousins, the receivers and, most importantly, the offensive line. Minnesota needs a healthy and productive Cook to keep up with San Francisco.
  5. Bobby Wagner – The future hall of famer is going to have a huge responsibility stopping the Green Bay running backs in space this Sunday. Aaron Jones is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL and has been excellent in space this year. The Packers will probably try to feed him constantly, so it’s on Wagner to take away Green Bay’s best offensive weapon.

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