Time for Patriots fans to book a flight to Houston … again

By Ian O’Connor for ESPN.


DENVER — Even in victory, Tom Brady made it official Sunday: He would rather join NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on a two-week Caribbean cruise than play football in the city of Denver.

And that’s OK. The greatest of the great usually can’t stand doing something. Frank Sinatra hated singing “My Way,” for instance, and things worked out pretty good for him.

Brady took the field with a 2-7 record in this city, a .222 batting average, and then, on muscle memory, struggled to find his way. Of course, no right-minded fan of the New England Patriots really cared in the end. As their coach Bill Belichick would say after this 16-3 victory, “We’re not really interested in individual stats.” Thanks to Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett and, of course, Tom Brady, the Patriots are the class of the AFC East for the 14th time in 16 seasons.

The Patriots are interested only in team-centric pursuits, starting with their 14th AFC East title in Brady’s 15 healthy seasons under center, a staggering run in a sport that tries to protect the principles of parity as fiercely as New England tries to protect its quarterback.

But now that another division title and another first-round bye are accounted for, the Patriots can focus on what their coach called a “reset” of their goals. Home-field advantage is on deck, followed in the lineup by two postseason victories in Gillette Stadium and then, of course, a record fifth Super Bowl ring for Belichick and Brady.

This is why Patriots fans don’t sweat the small stuff, like Brady’s 0-for-6 start on Sunday against the Broncos, his failure to complete a pass until the second quarter, his failure to throw for a touchdown for only the second time this season, and his failure to throw for at least 200 yards for the first time this season. In fact, Brady’s nonperformance coupled with LeGarrette Blount‘s nonperformance only sweetened the result and emboldened New Englanders to go ahead and put down some nonrefundable money on hotel rooms in Houston, site of Super Bowl LI.

The Patriots are in perfect position to play all their AFC tournament games at home. They will pound the heartless Jets on Christmas Eve (1 p.m. ET) for their 13th victory, and might not need to worry about finishing a second consecutive year with a seed-altering loss at Miami. The Raiders and/or Chiefs will likely have to win playoff games in Foxborough, Massachusetts, and hey, let’s face it:

That’s not going to happen.

Why? Sunday’s game told you why. Brady opened the day as the leading candidate for the league’s MVP award, and Blount opened as a 1,000-yard back — something rarely seen during Belichick’s reign in New England. The quarterback completed 16 of 32 attempts for 188 yards. Though Blount did score on a 1-yard run, breaking Curtis Martin’s franchise record with his 15th rushing touchdown of the year, he finished with 31 yards on 17 carries.

The Patriots still controlled the defending champs, with Dion Lewis advancing the ball (18 carries, 95 yards), and with Logan Ryan delivering a game-shaping interception to start the second quarter that denied Denver a potential score and set up the touchdown drive that produced the decisive points. On that drive, the visitors recovered two of their own fumbles. Only the Patriots do that.

When it was over, Belichick allowed that the game wasn’t “a masterpiece” and credited his team’s plus-3 turnover advantage for deciding the result. “I think that overrides a lot,” he said.

So does an offensive line that no longer crumbles at the mere sight of the Denver front. The Broncos treated Brady as a human piñata in last season’s AFC Championship Game, and had all the incentive needed for a worthy sequel. They knew a loss here would dramatically reduce their chances of returning to the postseason, and yet they put less than a third of the hits on Brady that they put on him in January. Von Miller, Super Bowl MVP and best player on the field in the conference championship game, was all but entered into the witness protection program.

Some credit (maybe a lot of credit) belongs to Dante Scarnecchia, the Pats’ 68-year-old offensive line coach, who looks so much like a boxer’s cut man that you could’ve imagined the late, great Burgess Meredith playing him in the movie. Belichick summoned him out of retirement after firing Dave DeGuglielmo in the immediate wake of the AFC title game beatdown of Brady in this same building, and there was the quarterback Sunday evening praising the line for keeping him safe and sound.

Brady fielded only five questions in his postgame news conference before running a fast break for the team bus, stopping to sign a young boy’s jersey along the way. He has been a bit odd in these post-Deflategate settings, and who knows what exactly is fueling his inner fire. Brady’s friends have publicly and privately said he wants to stick it to the league commissioner for suspending him for four games, and the other day Denver coach Gary Kubiak said the New England quarterback has been “on a mission since he’s come back.” Brady hasn’t added anything of substance to that conversation. If nothing else, Brady should be happy other franchises have recently added to the New England narrative that the Patriots are hardly alone in the NFL’s bad boy department. The Seahawks and Ravens were punished by the league for offseason workout violations, and recently the Rooney Steelers were sorta accused of deflating footballs (by the Mara Giants) before the Mara Giants were definitely accused of using an illegal sideline walkie-talkie. (What’s next, Rooney Mara being accused of tampering with a competitor’s script while landing her part in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”?)

Maybe Brady isn’t thrilled that these cases have received a fraction of the attention that his did. Either way, the four-time champ won’t care as long as he overcomes the loss of Rob Gronkowski, advances to Super Bowl LI, and ultimately passes his boyhood idol Joe Montana with championship No. 5.

Brady might have to finally beat the Giants in the big game (and wouldn’t that third meeting be fun) and survive Odell Beckham Jr.’s attempt to outdo David Tyree and Mario Manningham. Perhaps he’ll see the NFC favorite, the Dallas Cowboys, in a matchup that would make everyone forget about the league’s ratings woes.

But after what went down here Sunday, this much is clear: Brady and friends appear set for a seventh appearance on the biggest stage in sports. The 2016 Patriots look very much like the 2003 Patriots — bound for a Houston Super Bowl that will enhance the historical standing of their quarterback and coach.

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