In the back of most every Patriots fan’s mind, from minicamp to Christmas, year-in and year-out, is that game in February.
A berth in that game in February seemed like a longshot in Week 2, when the Patriots and Jets “battled” in the Foxboro rain, and it looked as though Kenbrell Thompkins would be Tom Brady’s security blanket going forward. That February game looked even less likely in Week 4 when Vince Wilfork limped off the Georgia Dome turf. And thoughts of that February game should have been wiped out entirely after Week 6, when it was learned that Jerod Mayo had a torn pec.
Then again, that February game seemed like a distinct possibility in Week 9 when Stevan Ridley rushed for 115 yards and the Pats hung 55 on the Steelers. It seemed as though “destiny” would be paying rent for a Route 1 apartment over the next few months in Week 12 when the Pats stunned the Broncos with a comeback for the ages. The prospects looked even better last week when the Patriots beat the Texans on the road, despite playing their worst game of the season, and a No. 2 seed in the AFC seemed like a lock.
In seven days, matters have been altered. Today, a berth in that February game seems next to impossible. The Patriots’ best player not-named-Tom-Brady, Rob Gronkowski, is done for the season and may never be the same player again. In some circles, because of this, the 10-3 Patriots, owners of the third best record in football currently, now have about the same chance of playing in New Jersey in 54 days as the Jets or Chargers or Dolphins. It’s certainly “possible.” But it’s also “possible” that Bill Belichick waxes poetic about Rebecca Black’s new single, “Saturday,” at his weekly press conference Wednesday.
Here’s the thing, ultimately: we all knew heading into this season that the 2013 Patriots would need to have 2001-like luck to be a Super Bowl contender. Through it all, that hasn’t changed.
We already know that the Patriots are extremely lucky to be in the AFC, a conference in which all 11 teams with chances at landing a playoff spot have major question marks and issues. We already know that this team has the “grit and balls,” as a great Boston athlete once said, to come through in the clutch. We already know that this team will have Brady and Belichick, playing and coaching, respectively, in a meaningful game next month.
Yes, playing in that game in February may seem next to impossible right now, but as we’ve learned nearly every week throughout this NFL season, expectations can and will change in an instant.
So keep that game in February in the back of your minds, Patriots fans. There are still 54 days left on the NFL calendar for matters to be altered.
Follow Metro Boston sports editor Matt Burke on Twitter @BurkeMetroBOS