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Dublin: 15 °C Friday 14 August, 2020

It’s the most open Super Bowl race in years - and NFL fans should be thrilled

At a time when we expect them to ramp up, some big teams are falling short writes Steve O’Rourke.

Patriots: have lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002
Patriots: have lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002
Image: SIPA USA/PA Images

A BIT LIKE grief, there are five distinct stages of the NFL season.

Denial is the preseason, when despite a terrible draft or signing a head coach to a 10-year, $100-million contract, you still believe your team could do something extraordinary. After all, everyone has the same record at the start of September.

For a lot of fans, the first month of the season brings anger; whether it’s that their team is performing below expectations or because NFL referees are reminding everyone just how poor they are.

October and November mean bargaining, fans spending their time working out complex scenarios by which their two-win team can somehow still get a spot in the playoffs.

December, of course, introduces depression for 20 of the 32 sets of fans with the realisation that they’ll have to wait nine months to see meaningful football again.

While January and the first weekend in February has — for most of the past two decades — come with the acceptance that the Patriots are likely to win the Super Bowl.

But not this year, because this is uncharted waters for New England.

After finishing the last eight seasons with four losses or fewer, last night’s defeat in Pittsburgh means the Patriots now sit at 9-5 with just three wins from their eight road games and will finish below .500 away from Gillette Stadium for the first time since 2009.

They’ve also lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002 — the only season in his career that a healthy Tom Brady has failed to make the postseason.

And the loss to the Steelers also drops New England to the third seed in the AFC, meaning they could have to play a wildcard game for the first time this decade.

New England could, of course, still win out and secure the second seed with a Houston slip up, but it’s now more likely than not that they’ll have to win at least one road playoff game in order to reach the Super Bowl.

Considering their last win away from Foxborough in the postseason came in 2006 — with three losses since — that is a tough ask for a team seemingly unable to stop the run at the moment.

Of course, the Patriots are not the only contenders struggling at the moment and it says a lot about the state of the race for the Vince Lombardi trophy that the Chargers — with four wins — are the hottest team in the NFL right now.

The previously dominant Rams have also dropped two games at the worst possible time with quarterback Jared Goff showing signs of the indecision that Sean McVay has worked so hard to mask with his creative offensive schemes.

The Chiefs also picked a terrible time to lose just their third divisional game in the past 23 attempts and, a week after nearly stuttering against the Ravens, nobody in Kansas City could claim that Andy Reid’s team is showing anything like playoff form.

The Cowboys and Seahawks also watched impressive win streaks shudder to a halt this weekend while the Saints — the Super Bowl favourites — are still to play.

Given how the weekend and season has gone to date, would anyone be shocked if they were to lose to a Carolina Panthers team riding a five-loss streak on Monday Night Football?

Of course, they could also put up 50 points on their divisional rival and, because of that, nobody could argue that football is not more exciting this way; that it’s as likely the Bears play the Ravens for the Vince Lombardi Trophy as it is the Chiefs play the Saints.

Well, nobody except Patriots fans.

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About the author:

Steve O'Rourke

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