Curran: Late-season meltdowns becoming the norm for these Patriots


The Patriots have a closing problem. Over the past three seasons, their combined record after December 1 is 6-13.

This year -- after beating the Bills on December 6 and then taking a bye week – the Patriots came back and lost four of their last five games. Their lone win came over a COVID-riddled Jags team that wound up with the league’s worst record.

Last season, the Patriots demolished the Chargers 45-0 on December 6 to get to 6-6. Then they got outscored 74-24 by the Rams, Bills and Dolphins over their next three. They beat the Bills handily in Week 17.

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In 2019, they were 10-1 going to December. They got dismissed easily by the Texans and Chiefs. They beat up on the Bengals and Bills. Then got stunned by the Dolphins in the season finale and dusted by Tennessee in the playoffs.

The weird thing is, they’re not just losing these late-season games. Frequently, they’re getting demolished, especially in the first 30 minutes or 20.

This year, it was down 20-0 to Indy, 20-7 to Buffalo and 17-0 to Miami before getting down 27-0 to the Bills by halftime Saturday night.

In 2020, they got down 17-0 to the Rams and 24-9 to the Bills. They did have a 6-0 halftime lead over Miami before succumbing, 24-12.

In 2019, they fell behind Houston 21-3 and 23-7 against the Chiefs in back-to-back weeks. The losses to Miami and the playoff loss to Tennessee were tight the whole way.

You can even go back to 2018 and see back-to-back December losses to Miami (the Miami Miracle) and Pittsburgh that dropped the Patriots to 9-5 before they got right against the Bills and Jets in the final two weeks and rode that wave into the postseason to win a Super Bowl.

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The whole "season starts after Thanksgiving" notion? That’s a bygone era. In recent years, December’s been one long tryptophan funk.

"You know, we had our ups and downs -- slower start, some higher points in the middle of the season and didn't finish the way that we wanted to," Bill Belichick said via video conference on Sunday. "I think we need to go back and take a longer view of just everything. Certainly last night's game was important. Not in any way trying to minimize that. But at the same time, there were 17 other meaningful games, so 18 in all, that I think we really need to look at and see how we can do a better job of everything, coaching, playing, schematically, whatever adjustments we need to make there and so forth, and just in season planning for next year."

There are a lot of things that can accumulate over the first three months of the season that lead to a December swoon. Injuries being the most obvious. But this season in particular, the Patriots were complicit in their own demise.

Against the Colts, they had eight penalties for 50 yards and gave up a blocked punt. Their first drive was waylaid by an illegal man downfield penalty followed by a delay of game followed by a 15-yard sack. Their second drive was ruined by a downfield drop and a blocked punt on back-to-back plays.

Against Buffalo, it was three-and-out with a sack on third down on the first drive, a drop by N’Keal Harry followed by a pick on the third drive. On defense, an encroachment on fourth down allowed a Buffalo touchdown drive to continue.

Mental errors with the penalties and preparation issues. Physical errors with sacks and drops. And scheme errors when they just can’t stop Tua Tagovailoa, for instance, never mind Josh Allen and the Bills.

It’s three seasons running of seeing a general late-season malaise. And, while Belichick is right that they all count the same in the standings, there’s no question the Patriots have traditionally tried to build to a powerful close while regarding the start of the season as kind of an extended training camp.

Are they running out of gas? Are they plateauing while other teams are cresting? Is it coaches? Players? Scheme? Is it all of the above?

One thing for sure, it’s not a coincidence. And it’s a troubling trend when a franchise that used to get hot when the temps got cold is now in the business of melting in December.

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