NFL Week 16 Storylines: Patriots dynasty might have one last gasp

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, left, hugs coach Bill Belichick. (AP/David J. Phillip)

It took until Wednesday morning this week for me to realize there wasn’t a Thursday Night Football game. It will be missed.

Heading into Week 17, it’s probably quite fair the NFL doesn’t want to give a competitive balance or imbalance to a team playing its second-last game on barely three days rest, and have a team play its final, possibly all-important game on 10 days rest. We will survive, somehow, and we have a fantastic Saturday-evening AFC matchup with the Chargers and Ravens and loads of playoff implications.

Let’s get going with some takeaways with just two weeks left:

It’s coming to the end in New England

I’ve been completely steadfast in not being “that guy” who has leaped to suggest the Patriots dynasty is either at a conclusion, or closing in on one, but let’s face some reality here. I do think this is the final season in which the New England Patriots will be installed as pre-season favourites to make the Super Bowl out of the AFC, and unless some shocking roster depth and youth is found in Foxborough, I believe it’s Brady’s only chance to make his ninth Super Bowl as a starter. He’ll be 42 at the beginning of next season, and that’s less important, amazingly, than the lack of elite talent he lines up with, and now no Josh Gordon for the foreseeable future. Eight offensive linemen are headed to the Pro Bowl from the AFC, none are Patriots. Ten other skill-position players were selected, and none are Patriots. It’s Brady, alone, and he probably didn’t deserve it ahead of the snubbed Andrew Luck.

You can credit Bill Belichick for a lot of things, and if it wasn’t his call to trade Jimmy Garoppolo and he lost a power struggle against the Kraft/Brady team, that’s fine, but this roster can’t succeed unless Brady is utterly incredible week in and week out, and that’s a big ask this January. You don’t want to play the Patriots, but if you do have to, you’re more confident than at any point in the last several seasons.

It’s a legacy-enhancing playoffs for both Brees and Rivers

Drew Brees is 39 and Philip Rivers is 37. If we’re suggesting this is Brady’s last best chance to go to the Super Bowl, we can’t not say the same for Brees attempting to get to his second, and Rivers to finally get to his first. At the end of this year, Brees and Rivers will have played 33 combined seasons, albeit a couple where they were on the same roster, and as of now, they have a combined 11 playoff wins (Brees has seven, Rivers four) and it certainly feels like they should have more.

So now’s the time. It’s hard to imagine this is Rivers’ most complete team when he got to play in his prime with two other mega-stars in LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates, and after three 7-9 seasons, Brees found himself back in the post-season tournament last year. Though we remember the crazy play that won it for the Vikings as a horrifying defensive miscalculation for New Orleans, Brees threw two interceptions in that game, and has thrown five picks in his last five playoff games. His last appearance in an NFC title game was nine seasons ago. They both need results next month, Brees to be considered an all-time top-eight quarterback, and Rivers to ensure there’s not a debate about his Hall of Fame candidacy.

A very good AFC team will miss the playoffs

Yeah, we sure wouldn’t have said this last season. In fact, some were questioning the playoff-worthiness of half the AFC field last year when the Bills and Jaguars each ended long droughts, and the 9-7 Titans made it after losing three of their last four. This season, two teams among the Titans, Ravens, Steelers, and Colts have to miss. My guess is the Titans and Ravens fall short, but Lamar Jackson is already proving me wrong; playing significantly in his rookie season, and being effective running the ball, essentially, as often as he’s throwing it. His only defeat was the OT loss at Arrowhead Stadium, and the Ravens win that game if not for the miraculous fourth-and-long completion by eventual league MVP (yes, obviously!) Patrick Mahomes. But the power balance seems to land back with the AFC now, and it’s a year where if eight AFC teams qualified, you couldn’t argue the worthiness of any of them.

The 2018 quarterback class has been better than advertised

It is way, way too early to compare 2018 to 1983, the famous draft where John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly eventually become Hall of Famers with a combined 10 Super Bowl appearances, and there would have been many more had they not all been in the AFC their entire careers. Also in that first round were Tony Eason and Todd Blackledge, and they were serviceable starters for brief pockets of time, in addition to a very good Jets quarterback in Ken O’Brien.

That said, let’s say this about Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, and Jackson: they have all shown they can play. There are zero busts out of the five, and that generally can’t be said 15 weeks into a rookie season. Even compared to Jared Goff’s rookie year with the Rams, there have been more bright spots. Mayfield is making his cocky and brash nature work for him, and he’s very accurate. Allen’s legs were clearly vastly underrated coming out of college, and though Darnold and Rosen are working with very little talent around them, they almost certainly will be quarterbacking their teams to better seasons next year, and certainly we will see Darnold-Allen Jets-Bills games for at least several years to come. They’re all going to be fun to watch, and hopefully rivalries are developed, especially given that four of the five are in the AFC, not totally unlike that class of 1983.

That’s that — a great weekend of games lay ahead, with 14 of 16 having playoff implications. That won’t be the case in Week 17.

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