It’s been almost 28 years since the most consequential moment in Patriots history that nobody talks about.
That season finale in 1993, when Drew Bledsoe found Michael Timpson for the game-winning touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in overtime, was more than an ornamental gewgaw of a 5-11 season. You could argue that, while not the birth of a dynasty, that Sunday afternoon gave us the nascence of the New England Patriots franchise as currently constituted.
For if the new owner and the new uniforms hadn’t already made it perfectly clear, the Patriots were hell-bent on putting the miserable qualities of being a New England football fan in the past. This win was only the final piece of a four-game winning streak to close out the year. But it wasn’t so much a statement that the following season would bring with it a Super Bowl-themed run, but that, whatever transpired, the Patriots now inhabited a different piece of your soul. Suddenly, there was reason to accompany the hope, and it’s hard to imagine a more fun combination of attributes.
There hasn’t been a singularly similar moment in 2021. But it’s probably not coincidental that, ever since that frustrating loss to the Dallas Cowboys one month ago, the New England Patriots have managed to whip off four wins in a row. At the time, 2-4 New England was a team in purgatory, a unit with flashes of uprise, but one, clearly, still in the throes of evolving.
It seemed more beneficial to look toward 2022, when quarterback Mac Jones would have accustomed to the professional game and schedule. By next year, Bill Belichick would have added whatever extra pieces his defense needed in order to be considered elite. ‘Wait ’til next season” had a chord of authority, a requisite warning that eschewed blind faith.
That game against the Cowboys changed the equation. Despite another rash of untimely penalties, an offensive game plan born out of intimidation, and the sobering comprehension that Jaylen Mills was a cornerback the Patriots would rather have playing for them than Stephon Gilmore, it was also when the lightning bolt went off. It wound up a loss, but one filled with enough ‘a-ha’s’ that both coaches and fans might have started to have an understanding of what made the 2021 New England Patriots tick. They might be good enough to make a run at this thing, but that was really going to be an adornment on this season.
For an entire generation, rooting for the Patriots has been cheering for the establishment. In Bill we trust, the Patriot Way, and New England vs. the World. The rest of us, though, recognize the script currently unfolding, and that being able to watch a team mature week-to-week is a much more rewarding experience than defending the Wall.
It’s been a while since we’ve had a Patriots season that has elicited this much enjoyment. That’s bound to happen when expectations are lowered and you’re presented with reason to build a new attachment. It’s fun to be favored. But it’s more fun to witness the progression that leads to providence.
It’s been easy to liken this team to the 2001 squad, one that followed a similar script to success before laying down the foundation for a dynasty of two decades. But that ’93 team gets some regard as well for being the last time the Patriots dedicated the season to a rookie quarterback. Unfortunately, the moment of nirvana came only when there was no more story left to write.
So maybe the game against the Cowboys, much like the first meeting against the Rams in ’01, did serve as some ballyhooed “moral victory” for a team seeking its way. It’s hard to judge the veracity of a statement until the finished product determines the substance with which to judge it by. But it was certainly when the team at the least opened some eyes, and fans began to back the team based on a nibbling, but increasing, sense of merit to join their annual certitude.
Now, four wins later, it’s easy to find arguments as to the team’s congruousness. Jones is maturing at a rate that few NFL quarterbacks have managed during their rookie season. Players like Christian Barmore, Matthew Judon, and J.C. Jackson have become the defensive building blocks upon early glimpses of possibility. The free agent class is starting to show worth. Belichick and Josh McDaniels seem to have their coaching hunger reenergized, or re-focused, with a team that can feed it.
You could argue that it was during the loss to the Buccaneers that the illumination occurred, the fact that the rebuilding Patriots were able to stay competitive with the defending Super Bowl champs. But that game brought with it the emotion and circumstances surrounding Tom Brady’s return to Foxborough. It would have been easy to discount that performance’s meaning under the characteristics of it all.
Two weeks later, all nostalgia aside, the Patriots gave added justification. They may not be good, but they were going to be interesting.
Through 10 weeks, they’re good and interesting, a combination that hasn’t always defined the Patriots. For when they’ve been good, they’ve been foretold. But not always compelling.
This team is different, which provides a gripping narrative about the journey. At the very least, it’s a fun ride that hints for the future.
But it’s also becoming easier to see it as much more than that.
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