We forget this now, but the Patriots of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady went a decade between Super Bowl wins. They lost twice to the Giants in excruciating fashion, though the agony was limited to New England. Everybody else was delighted. On the way to becoming the greatest NFL team ever, the Patriots became the most despised NFL team ever.

Belichick was too smug, Brady too pretty. Plus, there was the widespread belief – buttressed by NFL fines/suspensions – that they were cheaters. (Heck, they’re facing another league sanction for improper taping.) They were the guys we loved to hate, and in the immediate wake of Deflategate it seemed the Pats, to our glee, were about to lose another Super Bowl and recede into the mire of mediocrity.

They trailed Seattle 24-14 after three quarters on Feb. 1, 2015. At that moment, no team had overridden a double-digit second-half deficit in a Super Bowl. The Seahawks entered as defending champ. For the first time since Belichick and Brady sprang their upset of the Rams in February 2002 to get this dynastic thing started, the Patriots were Super Bowl underdogs. They were outplayed for three quarters. Then, with a giddy nation basking in schadenfreude, those rascals up and won.

If Seattle holds that lead, would the Patriots, who would then have gone 10 years without winning it all, have done something different? Might they have begun the phasing-out of Brady, who’d turn 38 before the next season commenced, with an eye toward promoting then-heir apparent Jimmy Garoppolo?

We’ll never know. Brady drove the Pats to two touchdowns. The go-ahead TD was caught by Julian Edelman, who may have been playing with a concussion, with 2:02 left.

If not for the comeback from 10 down, would the even-more-epic fightback from 28-3, have happened two years later?

The Patriots won again last February, beating the Rams 13-3. The score alone should have told us something. These were no longer Peak Pats, and soon Rob Gronkowski, their second-best player, would retire at 29. They began this season 8-0 with their defense being hailed as one of history’s best, but those eight victories were fool’s gold. Only one was achieved against an opponent that finished above .500.

The schedule toughened in the second half. They lost to Baltimore 37-22. They lost consecutive games to Kansas City and Houston. Even when they won, the offense was doing little. They beat Philadelphia 17-10, Dallas 13-9. The Antonio Brown experiment had long since fizzled. Adding Mohamed Sanu availed them little. The greatest quarterback ever finished 19th in passer rating, 27th in yards per pass.

A stupefying home loss to the Dolphins on the season’s finale thrust the Patriots into the wild- card round for the first time since the 2009 season. That was a huge deal: The Patriots of B&B had never reached a Super Bowl without getting a bye and starting at home.

They were drawn against a not-bad Tennessee team, albeit one with the Miami castoff Ryan Tannehill as its quarterback, and they started OK. They led 10-7 and had first-and-goal. Sony Michel was stopped on third down. The field goal made it 13-7. Those would be these Patriots’ final points.

The Pats made four first downs and ran one play beyond midfield, in the second half.

The Patriots lost 20-13, undone by a team coached by Mike Vrabel, the linebacker who’d caught touchdown passes from Brady in the second and third Super Bowl victories.

We’ve proclaimed the dynasty at its end wrongly enough to know that B&B can never be fully discounted. That said, Brady has never been 42.

He has said he wants to play until he’s 45, which seems unlikely. Also unlikely, according to Brady, is him retiring just yet. He’s a free agent for the first time, but there’s next to no chance he’ll wind up elsewhere. Even if the Pats suspect that they won’t win another Super Bowl with this Brady, they can’t let him leave.

Belichick will turn 68 in May. Will he want to start again post-Brady? Knowing him, maybe. Maybe not.

This seems certain, though: It’s unthinkable that the world’s grumpiest man would sit still for a farewell tour. He’ll just show up one day with a piece of paper saying: “I resign as HC of the NEP.”

And that will be that. The NFL’s greatest team will be without the NFL’s greatest coach and greatest quarterback, and we’ll have to find somebody else to despise. We can never say an era is over until, duh, it is, but darned if that loss to Tennessee didn’t seem the end of something.


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