Non-Compete Clause In the ContractThe 2012 NFL season isn't over yet, but the safest prediction about the 2013 season is that the New England Patriots will make the playoffs again. Maybe that was part of their problems yesterday.
As awful as the Pats looked against the Ravens, and they declined from looking inconsistent to ghastly as their asskicking of a 28-13 loss progressed, no one of sound mind is going to do anything but predict that New England will win the AFC East again next season. Who's gonna beat 'em? The Dolphins, in the midst of a reconstruction project taking longer than the Big Dig? The Bills, starting over for about the 12th consecutive season? The Jets (insert hysterical laughter here to finish sentence)?
No, in all likelihood the Pats will go 6-0 against the feeble divisional foes, or 5-1 at worst, and qualify for the playoffs shortly after Thanksgiving, just like in 2012 and the two preceding seasons. Those wins will give 'em a big leg up on home field advantage for more than one game in the playoffs, too. That's all to the good. Or is it?
In the most ferociously competitive sport man has yet devised, the Pats are missing competition at the most basic regular season level. Every August at every NFL training camp, the same mantra is incessantly repeated. Our first goal is to win the division. New England has a de facto bye for its first goal. I don't think it's superstitious or practicing psychoanalysis without a license to suspect that having it too easy to reach one important goal may make it more difficult for the team to meet its other more important postseason goals.
If there's been one mark of the Belichick-Brady Pats, it's been winning the games they were supposed to win in the regular season. You can count their upset losses (like the loss to the Cardinals this season) since 2001 without using up all your fingers. This is an admirable quality. But has it sapped New England's ability to rise to challengers who demand more from their opponents?
I don't want to make too much of this. The Ravens are demonstrably the toughest AFC matchup for the Pats, just as the Pats' are intrinsically a nightmare for the Texans. But I can't help comparing the regular season challenge Baltimore faces each September with New England's planned stroll through the dysfunctional AFC East.
The Ravens have two games with the Steelers each year, games which are mandatory viewing for the International Criminal Court's war crimes division. And two games with the Bengals, who've made the playoffs for two straight years now. Even their patsy in-house foe, the Browns, plays in a city that has a uniquely passionate hatred for the Ravens.
Baltimore, in short, starts the season knowing it wouldn't take much of a slip in commitment and performance to wreck their season by midseason. New England starts by looking forward to divisional showdowns in December against teams that're better than even money to have the coaching staffs spending hours at the copy machine with their resumes at that time.
Maybe that's why Tom Brady is so obsessional about saying "it's hard to win in the NFL." He may just be reminding himself of a lesson he knows isn't always applicable to him.
The only thing economists agree on is that competition is good for all concerned. That goes for football, too. The line between confidence and complacency is both narrow and blurry, but New England sure looked like a team undergoing a serious psychic shock last night. They missed their opportunities and folded at every adversity and seemed stunned at every setback. Their unspoken message was "this can't be happening to us."
Could be that the reason it did is that the Pats played too many games where it couldn't.