Maybe it's just the afterglow of a remarkable opening weekend of the NFL playoffs — Four one-possession games! Two upsets! Two overtime games! — but years from now, I feel like we might just look back on this weekend as the start of a new era in the NFL ... or, more to the point, the end of an old one.
You know the story with the New England Patriots, now fated to watch the playoffs from the couch with the rest of us. Playing in the wild card round for the first time in a decade, the Patriots looked overmatched, underprepared … in short, old. The younger, stronger, bolder Titans turned the Patriots’ best weapon — Belichick-style preparation and attitude — against New England, leaving us with the enduring image of Tom Brady’s final pass of the year (career?) getting picked off and run back for a touchdown.
It seems impossible to believe Brady would go out like that, but then neither he nor Belichick said anything Saturday night or Sunday morning that would lead you to assume Brady will return to Foxborough. If it is the end for Brady/Belichick, that’s a seismic NFL change on a meteor-taking-out-the-dinosaurs level.
We figured the potential dissolution of football’s greatest dynasty would be the story of the offseason, and for about 17 hours, it was. And then, exactly 1,518 miles to the southwest, the New Orleans Saints lost yet again in the playoffs, yet again on the final play, yet again (possible) victims of a (possible) officiating mistake. (The Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons still own the most painful streaks and individual games of postseason ignominy, but the Saints’ three-seasons-and-counting stretch of kick-to-the-nethers losses is rapidly ascending the Worst Postseason Runs power rankings.)
What was so stunning about New Orleans’ loss was how ordinary the Saints looked. Aside from Taysom Hill, who did everything for the Saints short of serving beers in the Superdome aisles, pretty much every player on the Saints, including Drew Brees and Alvin Kamara, was basically going through the motions. That’s how a more-than-a-touchdown favorite playing at home spends all but seven seconds of the second half playing from behind.
Brees put up numbers that looked more like a halfway decent first half than a full game — 208 yards, one touchdown, one interception, one fumble lost — but let’s not jump to the presumption that he’s going to age out of the league over the offseason. He should have several years left, and the Saints have the weapons to make another run to potential playoff heartbreak No. 4 next year.
The question is, who will lead that team? Sean Payton signed a five-year deal with New Orleans back in September, yes. That said, I'm sure it’s just a coincidence that Dallas finally booted Jason Garrett once and for all just minutes after Payton’s season ended. And it’s just happenstance that Payton has roots in Fort Worth; he spent the 2012 season coaching his son’s sixth-grade team there while suspended. Not saying, just saying. [UPDATE, 10:04 a.m. ET: OK, so maybe Payton's not going to Dallas after all.]
That leaves us with a new-look NFL playoffs: no Brady and no Brees, only Aaron Rodgers left to carry the banner of the old guys amid the Lamar-Mahomes-Deshaun youth QB movement. Granted, it’s entirely possible Brady signs a two-year deal with New England this offseason and hauls the Patriots back into the Super Bowl to face Brees, Payton and the Saints. But this run for these two iconic franchises has to end someday. And we probably won’t know it’s happened until after it’s happened.
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