So this is how it ends. Sitting alone with slumped shoulders on a sideline bench, waiting to be devoured by a rabid sea of red. We’re not exactly sure what we witnessed on Monday night in Kansas City, other than one of the greatest fan atmospheres in all of sports, but it certainly felt crushing and conclusive. The New England Patriots spared Tom Brady from the final frightful minutes. Patriot Nation may never recover.

 

Going out on your own terms isn’t really an NFL thing. You don’t get the Derek Jeter victory lap. Instead, you get a relentless pass rush and a litany of desperation third-and-longs. It’s over when time, injury and mismanagement of the salary cap and/or Draft catch up with you. The Patriots appear to have reached that point.

 

Contemplating the official demise of the NFL’s latest dynasty either makes you feel numbingly bereft or extremely giddy. As someone who falls into Category A, I’m aware that I’m in the small minority. I welcome your mockery.

 

The Patriots’ dynastic arc is a curious one, though, as they’ve managed to take smugness and hateability to a new level. The irony is that the franchise toiled in obscurity for decades, a laughingstock of the NFL, before it was rescued by a series of underdogs: Robert Kraft, the long-time season ticket holder and self-made business magnate whose magnanimous wife was a pillar of philanthropy; Bill Belichick, a football gym rat who, despite his love for the game’s nuances and willingness to out-work the room, had failed miserably in his first head coaching go-round in Cleveland; and of course Tom Brady, a sixth-round Draft pick who was never expected to amount to anything in the NFL. The rise of the Patriots, culminating with the shocking and emotional Super Bowl victory over the greatest-show-on-turf Rams, was the ultimate redemption story. That gave birth to the Patriot Way, a term that used to be uttered with reverence and sincerity.

 

For many reasons, this feels like a crossroads for the franchise. It is certainly possible that the Patriots can capture the AFC East title with nine or 10 wins, ultimately falling a game or two short of that elusive fourth Super Bowl yet again. There is a joylessness in that pursuit, however, that seems to permeate from the locker room to the field to the fans. For the first time in over a decade, it’s no fun to be associated with the Patriots right now. And perhaps that’s the biggest Patriot Way violation of them all.

 

Now that we’ve sufficiently buried the Patriots, here’s how we size up the top five Super Bowl contenders, in order, heading into Week Five:

 

1. Seattle: the only thing left to prove for the defending champs is an ability to consistently travel across the country and steamroll inferior competition. The Redskins fit that bill. It’s becoming increasingly tough to see the Seahawks not return to the Super Bowl.

 

2. San Diego: I am very tempted to place the Chargers over Seattle and to vault them into the number one slot. Philip Rivers is playing at an MVP-caliber level, and this could be the most complete team in the NFL. No glaring weaknesses here. A very workmanlike and admirable crew. We won’t learn much against the Jets…other than it’s time for Geno Smith to go.

 

3. Denver: Offensive juggernaut who maintains this position by default. The truth is they are capable of beating every team other than Seattle by two touchdowns, and perhaps they might.

 
4. Cincinnati: We’ve adopted a pragmatic show-it-to-me-in-the-playoffs approach with the Bengals, and our enthusiasm should always be tempered here. Winning at New England may be more symbolic than impressive, but it could do wonders for a team with a fragile big game psyche.

 

5. Arizona: We expected to see an NFC West team in this slot, but early money was on the 49ers. The Cardinals have co-opted San Francisco’s hard-hitting tendencies, and despite injuries to their defensive core and to quarterback Carson Palmer, they continue to chug along. We’ve seen October bring out the worst in this team before, and they face the biggest test of all as they travel to Denver this week.

 

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