With a spot in the 2021 NFL Playoffs secured, the New England Patriots are at least back to some form of normalcy. However, depending on how Week 18 plays out, the six-time Super Bowl champions may find themselves in an unfamiliar reality.
The Patriots and Buffalo Bills each entered Week 18 with a chance to win the AFC East. If New England does not win the East, they’ll qualify for the postseason as a wild-card team for the first time in Bill Belichick’s 22 seasons with the franchise.
The playoff-bound Patriots could be a wild-card team for the first time since 1998
When the Patriots reached the postseason in the Tom Brady era, they always did so as AFC East champions. It wasn’t until last year, his first with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that the three-time NFL MVP participated in a playoff game without his team having won its division.
The Patriots’ wild-card streak dates back even further. New England hasn’t reached the postseason without winning the AFC East since 1998, Pete Carroll’s penultimate season as head coach.
While Brady faced Big Ten defenses at Michigan, the Patriots went 9-7 and finished fourth in the five-team AFC East. That still proved good enough for New England to qualify for the AFC’s sixth and final playoff seed.
Carroll’s team didn’t last long in the postseason. Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Mike Hollis drilled four field goals in a 25-10 victory for the AFC South champions on Jan. 3, 1999.
Scott Zolak, the Patriots’ backup quarterback, completed only 21 of 44 pass attempts for 190 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception in the loss. After rushing for 1,115 yards in the regular season, Robert Brown mustered only 28 yards and the Patriots’ lone touchdown on 17 carries.
Life in the NFL and in New England looked much different in January 1999
Think about how long ago January 1999 was, especially in the NFL. Brady had just wrapped up his penultimate season at Michigan, and Belichick was still the New York Jets’ defensive coordinator. The Houston Texans were still over three years away from playing their first game.
To give you an idea of how strange the 1998-99 season really was, the Jets were good. Gang Green went 12-4, won the AFC East, and even reached the AFC Championship Game. However, John Elway and the Denver Broncos emerged victorious, 23-10, at Mile High Stadium.
Elway, playing in his final career game, threw one touchdown and ran for another in a 34-19 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 31, 1999, in Super Bowl 33. The 38-year-old quarterback earned Super Bowl MVP honors and retired a champion.
As for the Patriots, they’d need to wait a few more years before making it back to the Big Game. In February 2002, Belichick and Brady faced a dangerous and highly-favored St. Louis Rams team in the Louisiana Superdome. You know the rest.
The Patriots have historically had mixed success in the Wild Card Round under Bill Belichick
As mentioned, the Patriots have never reached the postseason as a wild-card team in Belichick’s 22 seasons. However, they have played in the Wild Card Round, albeit very rarely.
The NFL had six playoff teams, including two wild-card teams, through the entirety of Brady’s time in New England. From 2000-19, the Patriots didn’t finish among the AFC’s top two teams — and, as a result, played in the Wild Card Round — only four times.
New England defeated the Jaguars in January 2005 and took down the Jets a year later. After missing the playoffs in 2008, the Patriots won the AFC East in 2009 and prepared to embark on another Super Bowl journey … at least, until the Baltimore Ravens shocked the Patriots, 33-14, at Gillette Stadium.
New England didn’t play in the Wild Card Round for another 10 years. Patriots fans, look away. Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry rushed for 182 yards and a touchdown on Saturday, Jan. 4, 2020. The Patriots’ offense failed to do much of anything on a humid night in Foxborough.
Down one with 15 seconds left, Brady threw an interception from his own one-yard line and watched former teammate Logan Ryan return it for a touchdown. Tennessee departed with a 20-13 victory, and Brady signed with the Buccaneers two months later.
For Belichick’s sake, he can only hope for better results this year, even if he is coaching a wild-card team.