Sunday, January 31, 2016

Complacency Is a Hobgoblin of Minds Little and Big

Most Patriots commentators, national NFL commentators and many New England fans have spent the past week executing a difficult and curious two-step opinion dance. It's a dance fraught with peril for their peace of mind come autumn of 2016.

Step one is the universal shower of second-guessing that follows a close loss by the home team in any home town in any sport. Since a loss could hardly be closer than what the Pats suffered against the Broncos in the AFC title game, the second-guessing has been proportionally extensive. Questioning and even criticism has been directed at Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, let alone the poor unfortunates of the New England offensive line.

So far, so normal. One week from tomorrow, we'll hear the same sounds emanating from either Charlotte or Denver. What makes the Pats-related hot take adagio unique is the breathtaking leap its chorus line makes from aggrieved complaint to calm assurance. Yeah, the team lost in the semi-finals. Don't worry. They'll be in the Super Bowl next year. It's next door to a cinch.

Airtight logic, this is not. Premise B does not exactly follow all those second guess As. But since football is only sporadically logical, the local belief that the Patriots are favorites for Super Bowl LI (back to Roman numerals next year, gang) is not a complete fallacy, either. It's just true enough to be be dangerous, a house built half on bedrock, half on sand.

Let's start at bedrock. Having been a very good team for the last 15 seasons, it's much more likely than not New England will make it 16 straight. There's no reason to believe Brady won't continue to be among the two or three best quarterbacks in the NFL. The Patriots defense is evolving from quite decent to way better than that. Its performance in the second half against Denver, when they knew damn well giving up a touchdown meant doom, was admirable to the max. Belichick doesn't figure to forget much football in the next seven months.

Pause for a few quibbles. If the 2015 Pats taught us anything, it's that the quarterback cannot sustain an offense by himself no matter how good he is. Brady's irreplaceable receivers Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman may fairly be regarded as injury prone at this point. Dion Lewis's supernatural agility made him just as valuable. Running backs returning from knee surgery tend to be less agile. And the line did allow Brady to suffer more than one beating, although none as thorough as the one in Denver.

But those are quibbles, not red flags. Line the Pats up as is next year, which they won't be, and they're still a double digit winner, tougher schedule (goodbye, Jags, Titans, and the NFC East, hello, Bengals, Steelers and NFC West) and all. Anyone saying New England is AMONG the favorites to be AFC champions next season may stand on 17 with as much confidence as 17 warrants.

It's the next step where the Pats' forecasting dance takes a pratfall, the big leap where we are assured that New England will succeed because it will have no other real rivals in the AFC. The Broncos won't have a quarterback, the Chiefs have Alex Smith, the Steelers always have cap problems, etc., etc. And of course the Pats will win their division with ease because the rest of the AFC East will stink as it always does.

(For the record, New England didn't exactly breeze through its six divisional games in 2015. The Pats went 4-2, both losses coming when a win would've given them number one seed for the playoffs, and only one game, home against the Dolphins, was less than close).

That the Pats will stand far above their AFC rivals is a premise based on 15 facts not in evidence, the 15 other teams in the conference. No one knows, not even they, what kind of teams they'll put on the field next year. Some will be about the same, some will even be worse. But some will be better, count on it, and one or two might be much, much better.

In 2014, the Carolina Panthers won their division with a 7-8-1 record, won a playoff game because the Cardinals had to start Ryan Lindley at quarterback, and were duly eliminated by the Seahawks. It's safe to say they weren't among the Super Bowl favorites last August. They weren't favorites in their division, the Saints and Falcons were.

The Panthers are 17-1. They were the best team in the NFL in the regular season and are strong favorites in Super Bowl 50 -- an opinion as justified by the known facts as any sports prediction can ever be. As it turned out, prognosticators should've paid more attention to Carolina's five straight wins at the end of the 2014 regular season than to the team's overall mediocrity.

No blame should be attached to that miss. All predictions are based on the past because time doesn't work any other way.  However, that's also why predictions should be made with diffidence, not confidence. A prediction about a football season eight months from kickoff should probably not be made at all.


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