FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — By almost any measure, a 12-4 record and a division title are about as good as it gets in the NFL.
For the Patriots, it’s almost disaster.
Yes, they made the playoffs for the 11th straight season, an incredible run. But by losing their final game of the year against the underdog Dolphins — at home, no less — meant that the six-time Super Bowl champions would be in the wild-card round for the first time since 2009.
It also meant that the Patriots would face the unenviable task of trying to win a Super Bowl without a bye week, something they’d never done before.
A win over Miami and former Patriots defensive coach Brian Flores, who now runs the show with the Dolphins, and New England would have earned the second seed in the AFC playoffs, gotten a week off and hosted a divisional round game next week.
Instead, they lost and thus faced the sobering reality that there would be no week off and a much more difficult playoff road ahead that began Saturday night against the Titans at Gillette Stadium.
“Here in New England, we’ve been a little bit spoiled with having byes early,” special teams All-Pro Matthew Slater said. “But look, we’re blessed to be in the playoffs, and we should be excited about that. We should look forward to our opportunity and try to seize the opportunity.”
The stakes couldn’t have been higher and the high-wire act more perilous. Slater put it best when he explained the situation this way: “Look, the reality is there are guys on this team that may never see the playoffs again over the rest of their careers. So we need to make this opportunity count.”
Win or lose against the Titans, the Patriots were potentially on the verge of franchise-shaking change ahead.
• Tom Brady, at age 42, worked out a contract before the start of the season that makes him a free agent in 2020. After 20 seasons in New England, where he has produced the most prolific career for a quarterback in NFL history, there is a chance he will decide to see what life is like elsewhere. There are no guarantees he’s leaving, but it’s the first time the Patriots won’t have him under contract for the following season.
• Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who has been one of the most dynamic play-callers during the Patriots’ most recent run of Super Bowl success, could very well be gone in 2020. He’s a head-coaching candidate with the Giants, Browns and Panthers.
• If McDaniels leaves, that could mean that brilliant offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who turns 72 next month, goes into retirement. Scarnecchia credited McDaniels as being a major factor in the line coach’s continued run in New England.
• Slater, for years a mainstay with the Patriots’ special teams, as well as linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins and safety Devin McCourty, are all free agents in the offseason.
• And Bill Belichick’s right-hand man, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio, could move on after his contract expires in the coming weeks. Ditto for director of college scouting Monti Ossenfort.
Yes, there could be big changes ahead for the team that has come to define NFL excellence over the last two decades. Maybe a win over Miami last week could have bought the Patriots some time before facing the inevitable questions the offseason will bring.
But losing to the Dolphins meant no time off and a treacherous road ahead. Even a win over the Titans would mean a trip to Kansas City for next week’s divisional playoffs against the well-rested Chiefs, who earned the first-round bye as a result of New England’s upset loss last week.
The beginning of the end of the dynasty?
Sure feels that way.