Sports

Blasberg ’18: Four weeks without Tom Brady

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, October 7, 2016

One last title change and one last update before the greatest quarterback of this generation returns to the field.

I’m glad the Patriots lost to the Buffalo Bills last week. I’m glad they were humiliated by a bad team at home. The Patriots needed to be humbled. The indicator of a good team, in any sport, is the way it responds to defeat.

Historically, the Patriots have a tendency to take potentially demoralizing losses and turn them into positives. Every season the Patriots have won the Super Bowl, they lost one defining game during the regular season that served as a turning point.

Going back 15 years, the 2001 Patriots lost their second game of the season and saw Tom Brady first take leadership of the team after Drew Bledsoe was injured. After that loss, the tenor of the season shifted. The team started proving its grit and opportunistic savvy on the field, which materialized in a blowout win over the mighty Indianapolis Colts the week after Bledsoe’s injury. For the rest of the season, Brady rolled with the momentum and confidence the victory against the Colts created.

In the Patriots’ second Super Bowl season, their defining loss came on opening day in Buffalo, where they were shut out 31-0. The Patriots released fan and player favorite Lawyer Milloy just five days prior to this game, and he was promptly picked up by the opposing Bills. Milloy proceeded to mercilessly thrash his former team in a game that left everyone questioning the judgment of Head Coach Bill Belichick. But the team came together after the loss and played with a chip on its shoulder for the rest of the season, winning 14 of the remaining 15 regular season games. They met up with the Bills at home for the season finale and returned the favor, handing them a 31-0 beatdown and getting the last laugh as the Bills fell from playoff contention and the Patriots went on to win their second Super Bowl.

In 2004, the team had recently set the record for consecutive regular season wins and started to feel ­— and act — invincible. They marched into Heinz Field an infallible super-team but walked out with their tails between their legs after falling to the Steelers. This loss brought the Patriots back down to earth, and the humility that it instilled inspired a new work ethic and sense of professionalism that carried over into the playoffs, where the Patriots met the Steelers again. The outcome of this rematch was a lopsided Patriots victory, showing that the regular season loss to the Steelers had forced the Patriots to mature and progress as a team, whereas the Steelers had stayed static.

More recently, the 2014 Patriots ran into a buzz saw when they met the Kansas City Chiefs in week four, after which Belichick uttered his famous “We’re on to Cincinnati” line. At that point in the season, the Patriots were 2-2 and could have just as easily played an entire season of mediocre football, but the media’s repeated doubts and criticism added fuel to the players’ fire and motivated them, especially Brady. After that loss, the Patriots won 10 of their next 11 games en route to their fourth Super Bowl win.

The Patriots are unique in that they have a propensity to take adversity and use it to their advantage. That is a huge part of what makes them so successful. The one time they didn’t come together through adversity is during the 2007 season when they didn’t encounter any adversity, going 16-0 in the regular season. And when hard times finally came that season in the form of a smug Eli Manning driving down the field in the closing minutes of the Super Bowl, the Patriots were unprepared.

Last week’s shutout loss to the Bills highlighted a number of flaws that can’t be ignored. Had the Patriots been able to continue winning, their small mistakes could have flown under the radar, but this recent loss has illuminated deficiencies — kick returns, ball security and defending against mobile quarterbacks and the option — that the ever-meticulous Patriots coaching staff will undoubtedly remedy before Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns.

The Patriots are special in that their most successful seasons have been defined by key losses rather than wins. Last week’s loss to Buffalo is a fitting spark to drive the team. It was ugly enough and embarrassing enough to get the players fired up, but the notch in the L column did not jeopardize the Patriots’ good standing in the AFC East. Moreover, they have an easy game in Cleveland this weekend to bounce back, giving the Patriots the opportunity to dismantle a bad team and regain their confidence.

The Patriots’ response to the Buffalo loss will define this season. If they play with toughness and professionalism in Cleveland Sunday, the team will likely make a convincing Super Bowl run. If their sloppy play from last week carries over, I wouldn’t count on the Patriots to be playing in February.

Charlie Blasberg ’18 can be reached at charles_blasberg@brown.edu.