The New England Patriots start their postseason campaign on Saturday as heavy favourites, but also begin their 15th playoff appearance in 17 seasons with a fair share of doubt surrounding the franchise.
Rumours of an imminent Patriots demise have been far from a rarity during New England's seemingly endless period of dominance, but they have always quickly been forgotten once Bill Belichick's men have firmly reasserted their position as the superior power in the NFL.
And, on the heels of a 13-3 season in which the now 40-year-old Tom Brady has largely continued to look like a player in his prime and not one heading towards the twilight of his career, speculation emerged recently that the key players in their dynasty could be poised to go their separate ways.
A report in ESPN claimed that the relationship between Brady, Belichick and owner Robert Kraft had become strained as a consequence of "serious disagreements" between the trio, concerning the quarterback's trainer, body coach and business partner Alex Guerrero, the long-term plan at quarterback and the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo to the San Francisco 49ers - as well as the veteran head coach's style.
Brady, Belichick and Kraft have all been quick to debunk the contents of the article but their denials will have done little to quiet the belief outside the Patriots organisation that discontent is growing within the building.
Though the Kansas City Chiefs, who stunningly marched into Foxborough and claimed a Week 1 win, are out of the playoffs, there is also a belief that New England's veneer of invincibility is eroding.
Indeed, had Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James not seen a game-winning touchdown reception overturned as a result of the NFL's increasingly bemusing catch rule, then the Patriots would be looking at a potential road game against Mike Tomlin's charges in the AFC Championship Game.
Brady also suffered something of a dip in form in the latter stages of the regular season, throwing six interceptions in the last six games and, while few expect the Tennessee Titans to have any shot of eliminating him and the Patriots in the Divisional Round, there can be no doubt the veteran's recent performances have not been of the standard necessary for playoff success.
But great teams thrive amid dysfunction and, regardless of how much substance there was to the reports of a breakdown in relations between Brady, Belichick and Kraft, the Patriots' on-field response will be expected to be emphatic, as it has so often been in the past.
The spygate scandal was followed by arguably the greatest regular season of all time as the Patriots went 16-0 in 2007, and they also successfully shut out the noise around Deflategate to beat the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX.
Angering the Patriots has rarely been considered a good idea. Neither the Titans nor the Steelers or Jacksonville Jaguars are responsible for doing so but at least one of those teams will have to deal with the consequences. Brady had a difficult December but, if his mood has indeed soured in the wake of recent reports, then it will take an especially monumental effort to stop him and New England making it back to the Super Bowl next month.
21. Januar 2018
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