FOXBOROUGH, MA — In the dank and drear of an autumn Sunday, the NFL’s longest-running absurdist drama finally played out its last act. Next Sunday, Tom Brady will be back playing quarterback for the New England Patriots, having served his four-game suspension for whatever it was that Roger Goodell thinks Brady did with the footballs almost two years ago now. (Like any obscure medieval war, the Deflategate saga has gone on so long that nobody remembers what the original fuss was about.)
We all can put away the elemental physics textbooks. We can take the tinfoil off our hats. Ted Wells can fade into whatever limbo there is for lawyers who spend a brief and uncomfortable time in the national spotlight. (See also: Ginsburg, William H.) We can forgive whoever it was in the Indianapolis front office who ratted out the Patriots, and we can forget all we know about the Ideal Gas Law. At long, agonizing last, there is nothing more to say about what happened to the footballs for one half of the 2015 AFC Championship Game that the Patriots won 45–7. Everybody can take off his or her clown shoes and red rubber noses.
Deflategate ended in a fashion befitting the grim slog through the courts and across the airwaves that Deflategate became—the Bills defeated the Patriots 16–0 at home, the first time the team has been shut out at home since it moved into Gillette Stadium in 2002. Yes, the Patriots were playing their third-string quarterback (Jacoby Brissett) and he had a broken thumb. Nonetheless, New England was dispirited and lifeless, and their defense, which stood stoutly against Arizona and Houston earlier this season, could not find an answer to Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor, who completed 27 of 39 passes for 246 yards and tossed the game’s only touchdown.
“It was satisfying, but let’s face it, they had a player out and we had our team, so we expected to win,” said Buffalo coach Rex Ryan. “They’re different. I got news for you, [Jimmy] Garoppolo’s not Tom Brady, either. He’s a good player, but there’s only one Tom Brady.”
As you might expect, Bill Belichick was grim death after the game. His thoughts on Brady’s return tomorrow?
“Right now my thoughts are on the Buffalo game,” he said.
In fact, Sunday’s game was a good look at what Life After Tom is going to be like when Brady finally does go off to his second career as a cliff-diver in Costa Rica. To be fair, Brissett wasn’t bad—he had a couple of really bad throws, but he also kept getting put in impossible positions and got precious little help from either his teammates or the officials or both, in combination. Inexplicably, Cyrus Jones decided to run back the first two Buffalo kickoffs, presenting Brissett and his offense with first downs on the nine- and 14-yard lines, respectively. On New England’s first offensive play of the day, Julian Edelman broke a short pass for 90 yards, only to have it called back when wideout Chris Hogan managed to get called for holding and pass interference on the same play. And the entire day followed suit.
“It wasn’t good enough in any area,” Belichick said. “Obviously, we were in a lot of third-and-longs, so that wasn’t good. A lot of third-down problems are related to first and second down, and it wasn’t good enough on third down. It’s pretty obvious.”
Belichick and the Patriots came very close to helping Roger Goodell make an even bigger public fool of himself. When the last scrap of the Deflategate nothingburger had been chewed up, the only rationale the commissioner could come up with for socking Brady with a four-game hiatus was that he had to power to do it. The league’s players union had given it to him. (The negotiations for the next collective-bargaining agreement ought to be a real joy. Does Armani work in Kevlar?) And it is true that Brady could have been playing yesterday had he taken the four-game hit last year but, honestly, you can hardly blame the guy for litigating every last minute out of a completely preposterous punishment.
However, over the first three games of this season, with Brady cooling his heels in enforced exile, Belichick and his team schemed and played their way to 3–0. Behind Garoppolo’s strong play, they beat Arizona on the road and then Miami at home, a game in which Garoppolo went down with a shoulder injury. Brissett stepped in and the Patriots completely dismantled a good Houston Texans team, 27–0. If, after all the fuss and bother, New England could have stood at 4–0 upon Brady’s return, the record itself would have stood as an impeccable rebuttal to Goodell’s imperial foolishness.
What happened, however, was that the New England defense, which had throttled Houston 10 days earlier, came up soft and passive on Sunday. They could not contain Taylor, who kept rolling out and escaping trouble, and throwing just enough to keep the clock and the chains moving. Their tackling was shoddy and their linebackers were playing back on their heels all day.
“It definitely wasn’t a perfect game by any means,” said Taylor, whose 94.5 passer rating for the game was 11 points higher than his season rating coming into the game. “We can’t control who’s their quarterback. We went into the week preparing for whoever’s going to be back there.”
It should be noted here that, in all the attention that has been paid to Brady’s absence, the New England defense has been missing Rob Ninkovich, its best pass rusher, for the same four games. (Ninkovich was suspended for a banned substance). Also, on Sunday, Rob Gronkowski caught his first pass of the season, so the fact that the Patriots came out of this weird Phantom Zone 3–1 is as much as anybody except the haunts in Belichick’s soul could have expected.
Next week, he gets Brady back, and he gets his best pass-rusher back, and he gets Gronkowski a week healthier. The shelves of the la-BOR-a-tory get properly filled up again with all the usual dark matter.
Obviously we didn’t do much of anything well enough to win today,” Belichick said. “So we’ve got to do a better job, turn the page. So we’ll get back to work and get ready for Cleveland.”
Behind the relentless avalanche of the banal, a distant and wicked—but faintly familiar—giggling could be heard, and “On To Cleveland” sounded more like a spell. He should’ve said it in Latin.