ESPN – FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — More than any sports franchise on American soil, the New England Patriots refuse to bask in the glories of their past. Bill Belichick won a record fifth Super Bowl title on a record comeback in February, and before he even boarded the plane heading home he was complaining he was five weeks behind the league-wide losers in preparing for 2017.
The Patriots live the stay-in-the-moment cliché every hour of every day. They don’t spend any more time polishing past trophies than they do booking Super Bowl hotel reservations in the middle of October. But on Thursday night, before opening the season against a room-temperature opponent, the Kansas City Chiefs, the Patriots finally surrendered to human nature. They finally stopped for a moment to tell themselves: You know what, we are pretty damn special.
And they are, of course. Given that the NFL has long seen parity as a virtue, and uses the draft, salary cap, schedule and free agency to protect that virtue, the Patriots of Belichick and Tom Brady might go down as the greatest dynasty in all of team sports.
They had earned their pregame party and the unveiling of their new banner. But the postings on the Gillette Stadium scoreboards that read “ATL 28 NE 3″ and “2:12 3RD QTR” seemed a bit overdone for a franchise that never dances in yesterday’s confetti. So did the five oversized Lombardi Trophies that were rolled onto the field, along with the booing of Roger Goodell when he stepped onto the field during warm-ups. Thousands of fans wore T-shirts and waved towels carrying the image of Goodell wearing a clown’s red nose.
Yes, in his first regular-season appearance in Foxborough since Deflategate turned into a raging hot mess, Goodell might’ve had a harsh New England welcome coming to him. But the Patriots have won two Super Bowls since that story first broke. The team and its fans had already won that fight, and yet continued to spend time and energy flailing away at a commissioner who made himself an easy target.
So in that context, it was fitting the Patriots opened a season that some observers, including this one, believed could end with a historic 19-0 record and got hammered by the Chiefs, who came in a lot hotter than room temperature after all. They scored 42 points, more than any points New England has ever surrendered in Belichick’s 17-plus years. They gained 537 yards, more than any yards New England has ever surrendered in Belichick’s 17-plus years. Just as the Chiefs did in 2014, when they dropped 41 on the Patriots in Week 4, they made the ageless Brady look about as old as his birth certificate suggested.
Brady went under center Thursday night as a 40-year-old regular-season starter for the first time. When he was done misfiring on 20 of 36 passes and failing to throw for a single touchdown, nobody dared write or say that Brady was done as a dynasty maker the way they wrote and said he was done in 2014. He was angry all the same. Brady was asked about Rob Gronkowski’s failure to hold on to a touchdown pass in the first quarter, a pass that could’ve given the Patriots a 14-0 lead and instead altered the momentum of the game, and this is what he said:
“That was a disappointing play. I mean, that would have been a big play in the game. We just didn’t make it. We didn’t make a lot of plays tonight actually. So we just have to be a lot better in a lot of areas, starting with our attitude and competitiveness.”
Attitude and competitiveness? Tom Brady was questioning his team’s attitude and competitiveness?
“I just think we need to have more urgency,” he said, “and go out there and perform a lot better. That is a winning attitude, a championship attitude, that you need to bring every day, and we had it handed to us on our own field. It’s a terrible feeling.”
It’s a rare feeling, too. The Chiefs beat the Patriots with the blazing speed of Tyreek Hill and rookie Kareem Hunt, who had scores of 75 and 78 yards, and with decisive power and patience on the 90-yard drive following the missed Brady-Gronk connection in the first quarter. When the Patriots tried to keep their offense on the field in short-yardage situations, the Chiefs physically dominated them up front and made the game-shaping stops.
“Just a very poor effort,” Brady said.
“Bad defense, bad coaching, bad playing, bad football,” a barely audible Belichick said. “There were problems all over the place.”
The defensive front was as concerning as advertised, as Alex Smith, a consistent and reliable character actor, suddenly turned into Marlon Brando. He threw for 368 yards and four touchdowns, including his 75-yarder to a wide-open Hill streaking down the sideline at Olympic-like speed.
Even before Danny Amendola went down because of his head injury, Brady was going to miss Julian Edelman and Malcolm Mitchell — especially Edelman. As much as it was mentioned that Brady won it all without Gronkowski last season, Edelman did make the most important and most bizarre catch in the Super Bowl LI victory over Atlanta, and he did score the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl XLIX victory over Seattle. He had more than 1,100 receiving yards last year. His absence was going to hurt.
In the end, Kansas City acted as if it didn’t want to be Kansas City anymore. The Chiefs have averaged nearly 11 wins over the regular season for the past four years but have fizzled in the playoffs. But the Chiefs looked hungrier and angrier than the Patriots. At halftime, Michele Tafoya of NBC said she had a conversation with Belichick about the way the first 30 minutes went down, but that Kansas City coach Andy Reid refused to talk. You know a coach is locked in when he rejects an interview request that Belichick accepts.
Before Thursday night, the Patriots had won 87 consecutive home games when leading at the half. Before Thursday night, Brady had won 52 consecutive home games against AFC opponents when he’d effectively played the entire game.
None of that means New England should start scouting Josh Rosen and Sam Darnold. The previous three times the Patriots lost their season opener, they ended up winning the whole thing.
But first they need to figure out how to field a competitive defense. Oh, and they also need to forget about their absurd comeback victory over Atlanta.
In Week 1 of the 2017 season, the Patriots cut against their own grain and reminded the world one more time about that 28-3 deficit they overcame. And then they played like they did for the first 43 minutes in Houston in February, this time with no miracle in sight.