Good morning! The NFL regular season is over, and now the real work begins.
Twelve teams remain alive. Eight of those teams will face off this coming weekend. And for the first time since the 2009 season, the New England Patriots will be one of those teams playing on the first weekend of the playoffs.
For New England, long accustomed to a smooth, regular January routine of two wins in Foxborough and a Super Bowl berth, this has to feel like getting demoted to the kids' table at Thanksgiving. Granted, there's every chance they'll blow right through Tennessee at home and then play the tired, old “nobody respects us” card to three more wins.
But ... what if they don't? They just lost to Miami — Miami! — in a game not even the most diehard chowderheads could brush off as an acceptable defeat. What if Ryan Tannehill makes like Ryan Fitzpatrick and dusts the Patriots right out of the playoffs before Baltimore or K.C. even take a snap? What then?
This isn't the same Patriots team of years past. The defense, heralded as one of the best of all time earlier this year, before the Pats had really played anyone, couldn't stop a 57-year-old veteran of 23 teams* from marching a 4-11 team right down the field to score a go-ahead touchdown with less than 30 seconds left.
(*Possible exaggerations, but come on — Fitzpatrick is the living embodiment of “grizzled veteran.”)
We've grown so accustomed to Tom Brady whipping collections of castoffs and never-weres into world-beating receiving corps that it's surprising to see him struggling, floating passes and missing targets like he's ... well, like he's a quarterback in the twilight of his days.
That's the door we're not supposed to open, right? The idea that the Patriots dynasty — probably the greatest dynasty in sports history — is grinding to a close. We know it'll happen sometime, but everyone always assumes it's two or three years away. We've been assuming that for the last six years or so. But what if this year is that year?
We'll learn a lot about the Patriots in the next week. I'm a big believer in the Beat the Man to Be the Man theory of playoff dominance, meaning that for narrative purposes, I'd rather see the Patriots face off against the Ravens or Chiefs than go out like chumps against the Titans. Will it shake out that way? No telling. New England's path back to a championship is murkier than ever.
This is usually the exact moment where Brady, Belichick and crew use the disdain and disgust of an entire nation as fuel for their dark machines of domination. It would surprise exactly no one if the Patriots tapped into their legacy and stiff-armed the rest of the league, Brady grinning that I-own-you grin as he accepts yet another Lombardi Trophy in yet another confetti shower. But would you bet the mortgage on that scenario in 2020?
Pats fans, you're welcome to rub this column in my face after New England torches the league and snares ring No. 7. But admit it ... you're a little nervous, aren't you?
Rounding up some of the other big stories of the weekend:
Does Aaron Rodgers scare anyone? Like Brady, Aaron Rodgers is a QB who’s been so great for so long that it’s easy to assume he’ll just fling magnificence like fairy dust every time he steps onto a field. Truth is, Rodgers isn’t nearly the force he once was, and you need look no farther than Sunday’s ugly win over Detroit to see why. Rodgers had every chance to command the field against a pathetic Detroit team, and yet still needed 59 minutes and 57 seconds to win. The Packers have a bye, but when they suit up in two weeks, they won’t be scaring anyone.
8 & 8 & heartbreak: Dallas started the year 3-0 and hasn’t looked that good since. The Cowboys thumped the Redskins but missed out on the playoffs when Philadelphia scrambled past the Giants. Where does that leave Dallas now? Strapped with Super Bowl-level talent but as aimless as they’ve ever been. At this writing, Jason Garrett is still the Cowboys’ coach, but if you happen to be serving him drinks or mowing his lawn in Dallas, you might want to get your cash up front.
30-30 nightmare: There has literally never been a quarterback quite like Jameis Winston in the NFL. No quarterback toggles between exhilarating and infuriating, often on the same play. Sunday was a perfect example: Winston helped the Bucs off the deck when he threw a touchdown pass into a space roughly the size of a postage stamp, then lost the game in overtime when he threw a ridiculous pick-six. Combined, they gave him 30 touchdowns and 30 interceptions on the year, something no one has ever done in NFL history. He’s at the end of his deal, so will Tampa Bay pay him or kick him to the curb? What would you do?
Black Monday looms: The Cleveland Browns got the jump on the NFL’s annual housecleaning when they booted the overmatched Freddie Kitchens within hours of Cleveland’s final-day loss. Washington kicked general manager Bruce Allen to the curb early Monday morning, potentially clearing the decks for former Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. The Giants ushered Pat Shurmur out the door soon afterward. Who’s next to go? We’ll find out soon enough, but the Jaguars’ Doug Marrone and the Cowboys’ Garrett can’t be feeling too comfortable at the moment.
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