One of my sons recently asked me who the Patriots’ rival was. I told him they don’t really have one, and haven’t since Peyton Manning departed Indianapolis. The truth is, though we have vied for AFC dominance with New England for the past decade and a half, we haven’t had enough success to earn the standing as a rival. We hate them the way the Oilers, and before them the Raiders hated us. We are to New England what Cincinnati is to us.
My fear is that such will soon be even more true. That is, while the Bengals have been, at most, a pothole on our road to success, they are these days more like an empty water bottle on our road. I suspect that the Patriots, even though their season has not measured up to their own standard thus far, likely come into Pittsburgh less nervous than they have ever been. Their top slot receiver is healthy. Their all-world tight end is ready for anything, save tackling a running back with a full head of steam. And we have lost three in a row. Have we already become just another game?
And if so, have we so swiftly become just another team? I mentioned in my last piece that there are few football hardships more devastating than the end of a career for a Hall of Fame quarterback. Would you want to come back to take such a beating to end up 7-8-1? If, and when Ben hangs up his cleats we will have an offensive line that is part young, part long in the tooth, and expensive. We will have perhaps the best wide receiver tandem in the league. We will have a Pro Bowl caliber tailback. And we will have a defense that is young, uneven and it seems, badly coached. In short, take this year’s team, and take out Ben. With Ben we will finish a smidge above or a smidge below .500. Without Ben the question isn’t above or below .500, but whether it’s a smidge below or way below.
I can tell you that while we had a few exciting years along the way, the 80’s, the post-glory years were rough sledding. Watching superstars slowly age and limp into the sunset, watching prospects fail to measure up, watching other teams in the playoffs was no fun at all. My only consolation is the hope that the Patriots are just a year or two behind us. Who knows though? It is just possible that Belichick is the real emperor of the dynasty, and it may well continue.
I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade. I’m just trying to help prepare you younger folks that those are storm clouds gathering, and you might want to button up. And if we should yet turn it around this year, I want the old folks like me to savor it deeply. If we squeak into the playoffs, and given the weakness of our division that remains possible, hold on tight as it may well be our last rodeo.