Remember when we used to hand-wring over “unimpressive” wins by the Patriots? Last decade was full of those moments.
Edge the Jets? Struggle to finish off the Dolphins? A week of caterwauling would ensue.
Expectations have dropped. It’s impossible to expect a win Sunday against the Bills. A “hung in there pretty good” performance also seems a long shot. The goal now? Don’t get boat-raced. Try to at least have the Bills’ taillights in sight when the fourth quarter starts.
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Imagine a world in which the Patriots' halftime deficits in four of their five losses is a combined 79-9 (Raiders 13-3, Saints 21-0, Cowboys 28-3, Dolphins 17-3). In the other loss – the opener against the Eagles – they went down 16-0 in the first quarter.
That’s 95-9 combined in the five losses. Week after week. Against good teams and not-so-good teams. The Patriots cannot get out of their own way after kickoff.
Asked Friday whether there was anything the team could do to get off to a “faster start”, a sadly defeated-sounding Bill Belichick said, “I don’t know how much more we could put into it. We emphasize it a lot, we’ve looked at it every week and we’ve given it a lot of attention. So, we’ll see what the results are.
"But, yeah we look at it a lot, talk about it a lot, we try to put ourselves in the best possible position at the start of the game as we can. Which I’m sure every team does that with, too. But, obviously needs to be better. We are certainly aware of it and we are working to make it better.”
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So what, with an injury report 20 names long, leads one to expect any different Sunday against the Bills? A franchise that’s 6-1 against the Patriots in its last seven meetings (the one loss was the wind game in 2021, avenged a few weeks later with a 47-17 playoff drubbing)?
Diplomatic words spilled from the mouths of Bills players and coaches this week.
"We've got great respect for the Patriots and what they've accomplished. They have a deep history of winning and that's not an easy thing to do in this league," said Bills’ head coach Sean McDermott. "Our focus and sole focus needs to be on this week's game."
"They could easily have won a few of those games, so for us we understand that it's in the division, it's a Bill Belichick-coached team, Bill Belichick-coached defense," said center Mitch Morse. "For us, we know that we need all hands on deck, we're gonna see multiple looks, we're gonna have to make in-game adjustments and we're gonna have to battle, because these guys are very well-coached and play very well."
Mitch. They aren’t. They don’t. As we’ve explored before on multiple occasions, well-coached teams don’t start flat, have a predictable bout of competency in the middle of a few games, then come unglued at the end. Poorly-coached teams do that. And teams that play well don’t start the season 1-5.
The Bills are comfortably within the top quarter of teams right now. The Patriots are in the bottom quarter and probably closer to 32nd than 24th.
Is it any solace that the Patriots have played the second-hardest schedule in football with opponents having a combined winning percentage of .622? (The 1-5 Giants have played the hardest schedule with a .629 opponent winning percentage.) Probably not.
It hasn’t mattered whether they’re playing upper-crust teams or mediocrities. The Patriots cannot block well enough. The poor blocking has led to Mac Jones making panic decisions. And he panics because he doesn’t have enough physical skill to extract himself from trouble and doesn’t have enough surrounding talent at the skill positions to bail him out.
It could improve this week, but as we’ve seen the last three games, the Patriots aren’t a spunky underdog nobody wants to play. They’re a doormat. A “get right” date. The perfect team to schedule for Homecoming.
The Patriots culture is either extremely dormant or recently deceased. Either way, it’s been gone since the tail end of 2021 – right after the “wind game” as a matter of fact – and opponents that genuflect publicly to the team they were are now licking their chops for payback against the team they’ve become.
Sunday could get ugly. The patience of the fanbase has run out. They were expecting Belichick would turn the team out of 2022’s skid into gross mediocrity. Instead, head-scratching roster decisions coupled with mostly awful drafts have left them with a worse crop of offensive players. Plus, the team has an injury report as long as a grown man’s arm.
The team’s situation at quarterback is a microcosm of everything. A stationary, mediocre-armed Jones is trying to survive behind a porous offensive line without an NFL-level right tackle. There’s no slot receiver. There’s no third-down back. Their presumed No. 1 receiver, DeVante Parker, would be a No. 3 on an average team. Their Jakobi Meyers replacement – JuJu Smith-Schuster – has been ineffective or injured all year. Jones is a bundle of nerves relegated to throwing sideways because they can’t trust or protect him.
The team cut Brian Hoyer in the offseason, meaning they had no veteran backup to cover for Jones is he was hurt or ineffective (not that Hoyer was a silver bullet, by any means). Last week, they had undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham as the game day backup to Jones. He’s not there because he can throw. He’s there because, since the line is so bad, at least he can move around. He’s also there because they soured on Jones’ incumbent backup, Bailey Zappe.
In 2014, when the Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo to back up Tom Brady, Belichick explained his reasoning.
“In our organization I don’t think we would put together a team the way Indianapolis did it when they lost (Peyton Manning) Manning and they go 0-16, 1-15 or whatever it was.
“I don’t think that’s really what we’re looking for. Unfortunately when we lost Tom (Brady) in 2008 — we had a player that could step in and we won 11 games. We want to be competitive even if something happens to a player at any position.
"I think depth is always important. You never know when you’re going to need it. But I don’t think we’d be happy going 1-15 if we had an injury at one position. But other people have different philosophies. I’m just saying that the contrast to that example. I don’t think that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
They surely weren’t trying to mismanage the quarterback position this badly. But they did. Like they mismanaged a lot of things the past few years.
Just don’t expect the Bills to shed any tears on the Patriots' behalf Sunday.