After Sunday’s last-second defeat at the hands of the Buffalo Bills, I sat with my head in my hands for at least a full minute. There was no anger or frustration, just sadness, after yet another heartbreaking loss. After having seemingly no chance at victory earlier in the game, the Patriots marched down the field trailing by three points and showed no signs of slowing down. They had plenty of time to score and Cam Newton seemed in control of the game. The worst case scenario was that the Patriots kick a short field goal to send the game to overtime. The best case was that the Patriots score a touchdown and sneak out a win against the AFC East-leading Buffalo Bills, putting the Patriots right back in the hunt for the division lead. But just when things looked like they were going well, tragedy struck again as Newton had the ball punched out from behind. A lost fumble and another lost game.
That seems to be a common theme of this season. Any momentum the Patriots seem to be gaining is squashed just seconds later. Meanwhile, Patriots die-hards watch Tom Brady thrive in Tampa Bay with various offensive weapons, a solid offensive line, and a top-10 defense to balance out all of his pick sixes. As a Patriots fan, it feels like we’re watching our ex live their best life while we eat Doritos on the couch in our parents’ basement.
The national sports media just loves to watch the Patriots’ demise and revels in it every chance they get. Rex Ryan, who spent years getting spanked by the Patriots as the coach of the Jets and the Bills, is having a field day on ESPN and has proudly proclaimed that “it’s flat out over” for New England.
Many saw this coming, but it doesn’t sting any less. Tom Brady, the greatest quarterback in NFL history, has gone south. Their roster on the defensive side of the ball has been depleted as Kyle Van Noy, Elandon Roberts, Jamie Collins, Danny Shelton, and Duron Harmon are all long gone. Meanwhile, Dont’a Hightower, a team captain and arguably their best defensive player, opted out due to COVID-19.
They are now 2-5, having dropped four straight games after beginning the season at 2-1. Cam Newton, Brady’s replacement, has looked good at times but has just two passing touchdowns compared to seven interceptions. It all looks terrible at a quick glance, but is this team really that bad? Let’s take a walk through the season.
In Week 1, the Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins 21-11. While this is not typically a cause for celebration, the Dolphins have proven to be a competitive team at 4-3 and are coming off a big win against the Rams. Newton was an accurate passer in this game, going 15-19 for 155 yards. He had 75 rushing yards, as well as two rushing touchdowns. The defense was also disruptive, forcing Dolphins quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to throw three interceptions. At this point, it looked like the season was off to a fast start.
Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks was a bit different. I remember watching this game and thinking how poor the defense looked. Russell Wilson shredded the Patriots secondary, throwing for 288 yards and five touchdowns. This game was also the best passing game of Newton’s Patriots career to this point, as he threw for 397 yards. 179 of those went to Julian Edelman, who had a career night against Seattle. In the end, the Patriots had a chance to win it on a quarterback draw for Newton. He had already run for two touchdowns in the game, but the Seahawks were ready for him this time and stopped him short of the goal line as time expired. The Patriots were just one yard short of starting the season 2-0, but fell short. This was the beginning of a long, complicated first half of the Patriots’ season.
In Week 3, the Las Vegas Raiders came to town. Derek Carr was sharp in the passing game, but the Raiders lost three fumbles and weren’t able to stop the Patriots rushing attack. Newton was quiet in this game, but New England ran for 250 total yards and overwhelmed the Raiders defense. Rex Burkhead was the player of the game for the Patriots, as he combined for 98 yards from scrimmage along with two rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown. The Raiders kept it close early on, but the Patriots poured it on in the second half and ran away with the game. At this point, the Patriots were 2-1 and the season was looking good.
They haven’t won a game since. The problems all began when Cam Newton tested positive for COVID-19 and missed an important Week 4 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs. The Patriots defense held the Chiefs potent offense to just six points in the first half. They had a chance to tie it at the end of the half, but Patriots quarterback Brian Hoyer pulled the ultimate bonehead move. With no timeouts left and time winding down, the Patriots ran one more play before bringing out the field goal unit. The one thing Hoyer couldn’t do was take a sack and let the clock run out. You can guess what he did. After that, things just never came together for the Patriots. On the second drive of the second half, Hoyer led the Patriots down the field only to fumble the ball away at the Chiefs 15-yard line. The Patriots played the kind of defense necessary to win this game. But incompetent play from their backup quarterback made victory impossible. A loss is a loss, but one can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Newton was healthy.
In Week 5, the Patriots’ COVID-19 problems continued. Their game against the Denver Broncos was postponed until Week 6, resulting in the Patriots using their bye week earlier than expected. Normally, the bye week is used to work on issues they had been having up until that point and getting in some extra preparation for their next opponent. Unfortunately, the multiple positive tests from the team made it so that they were only able to hold one practice in the two weeks leading up to the Broncos game. Their rust and lack of preparedness showed, as the Patriots turned in a horrible performance against a dismal Broncos team. Though they only lost 18-12, the Patriots looked the worst they had in any game. They fumbled four times, though they only lost one, and Newton threw two interceptions. If the Patriots had an adequate amount of practices leading up to this game, it could have been a different story.
Week 7 brought the only game that I can’t make up any excuses for or take anything positive out of. I see myself as a fan who can put a positive spin on nearly any situation, but this game was just flat out horrible. The Patriots were humiliated from start to finish by a San Francisco 49ers team that currently has a record of just 4-4. Cam Newton threw three more interceptions and was benched in the second half. The Patriots continued to be sloppy with the ball, fumbling twice. The defense was even worse. Despite throwing two interceptions, former Patriot Jimmy Garoppolo went 20-25 for 277 yards, while his running backs did the rest. The Patriots’ poor tackling effort resulted in 197 total rushing yards on an alarming 5.3 yards per carry, as well as four rushing touchdowns by the 49ers. All of this led to the Patriots being walloped 33-6 by the defending NFC champions. It was at this point that I hoped the Patriots had reached rock bottom and would only improve.
I headed into Week 8 with a newfound sense of excitement and hope. The Buffalo Bills, who started the season 5-0, had dropped two straight games heading into their matchup against the Patriots. Despite Julian Edelman and N’Keal Harry, two of the Patriots starting wide receivers, as well as star cornerback Stephon Gilmore being ruled out, I got the feeling that some magic was going to happen in this game. The Patriots were able to keep it close before going down 14-6 early in the second half. The Patriots tied the game 14-14 on a 22-yard touchdown run by Damien Harris and a two-point conversion on a pass to Jakobi Meyers. After a surprise onside kick attempt that failed, the Bills scored a touchdown. But the Patriots took just three minutes and thirty-six seconds to go 72 yards on the ensuing drive, which was capped off by a Cam Newton touchdown run. The Bills drove right down the field again, but the Patriots were the beneficiaries of a dropped pass that would have been a touchdown. The Bills settled for a field goal to take a 24-21 lead.
This is where the magic would happen. This is where the Patriots would turn their season around and complete an electrifying game-winning drive. Early on in the drive, the Patriots looked great. They converted on every third down they needed to and quickly got down to the Bills 19-yard line. They looked confident and ready to go get a crucial win to break their three game losing streak. But in one play, all of that changed. Newton, on a quarterback run to the left side of the field, had the ball punched out from behind by Bills defensive tackle Justin Zimmer. For a moment, it looked like the ball was going to fall right back into Newton’s hands and disaster would be avoided. But disaster has not been avoided often by the Patriots this season, and this game was no different.
So here we are, sitting at third place in the AFC East, a division that the Patriots have dominated for the last two decades. Only the pathetic, dysfunctional, comically terrible, 0-8 New York Jets are worse than us. But if circumstances were different and a couple plays had gone the Patriots’ way, they could be sitting in a familiar spot: atop the AFC East and competing for a top playoff seed. The Patriots have been SO close to victory in various games this year. In my opinion, the Patriots could be 6-1 at this moment in time. Without injuries and COVID-19 diagnoses of key players, poor execution at the end of games, and a two week streak without practices, the Patriots could be right where they want to be. Despite being so close to so many wins, they’ve only managed to get two of them. And after all, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Despite all the negativity surrounding the Patriots’ season, it appears that their locker room remains upbeat and unfazed by talks of their dynasty’s downfall. Running back James White was quoted after the Bills game saying “we’re not that far off, but we have to pick up the sense of urgency really quickly if we want to turn this thing around. We have the guys in the locker room to do it. We just have to go out there and play to it.” Center David Andrews added after watching film from the Bills game that “we did a lot of good things. Need to do a little better at some things, but really encouraged with what we saw on tape. We don’t have a great record but I don’t think we’re a bad football team.”
For the first time this year, there are three wild-card teams in each conference, which gives the Patriots an extra spot to sneak in. Realistically, they’ll have to go 6-3 or better the rest of the season to come remotely close to making the playoffs. With one of the most difficult schedules in the league, that’s going to be tough. Perhaps I’m in complete denial, but I’m holding out hope that the Patriots can pull it together and make things interesting going forward.