Tom E. Curran

Patriots-Commanders preview: A day of ‘quiet reckoning' at Gillette?

The optics of a loss to lowly Washington would be tough to swallow.

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Was it really just 14 days ago that the region was exultant and brimming with optimism after the Patriots polished off the Bills at Gillette? Came from BEHIND to polish off the Bills at Gillette?

It was. And even though the loss to Miami last Sunday wasn’t unexpected, the way it went down – same old Bad Mac pick, another week where they can’t crack 20 points (six times in seven weeks), another week where they’re down more than 10 at halftime, more injuries – means a return to the realization this appears to be a lost season.

Now they face an opponent in the midst of a lost season as well. The Commanders waved the white flag on 2023 this week, dealing away Montez Sweat and Chase Young for second- and third-round picks, respectively. Washington actually has a better record than the Patriots -- 3-5 to 2-6. Their wins are over fellow bottom-feeders Atlanta, Arizona and Denver. They got blasted by Buffalo and lost to the Giants. But at least they put up some numbers -- 31 in a pair of losses to the Eagles and 35 when they beat the Broncos.

Their top three receivers -- Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson and Curtis Samuel (who’s out Sunday) -- have combined for 107 catches and 1,118 yards. The Patriots trio of DeVante Parker, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kendrick Bourne have combined for 67 catches and 653 yards. Bourne’s season is done after last week’s knee injury. Parker will be out Sunday with a concussion. JuJu is averaging 5.9 yards per catch.

Sam Howell, a fifth-rounder in his second year, is having a better season than Jones. The only thing Jones does better than Howell is avoid sacks (Howell’s taken a preposterous 41; Jones has gone down 16 times).

Hate to say it, but facts is facts: the Commanders are probably a better team than the Patriots and they’re definitely more watchable.

Which means Sunday could be a day of quiet reckoning in Foxboro. They are banged up offensively without Bourne and Parker. Left tackle Trent Brown, who hobbled through last Sunday’s game, didn’t practice until Friday and was limited. He’s questionable, as are Christian Barmore, Ja’Whaun Bentley and Jonathan Jones.

A chicken-or-the-egg discussion about whether injuries or ineptitude are the main culprit for where the Patriots find themselves (bottom of the AFC) could be entertained at some point. But for here-and-now, the reality is the Patriots are going to be playing in front of an intimate and restless crowd against an NFC opponent that’s been a punch line for a couple decades. And they shouldn’t be favored to win.

If the Patriots dip to 2-7 and the season is cooked in the first week of November? That wouldn’t represent the improvement Robert Kraft’s been promising, demanding and pleading for since 2021. If only the ownership box could be mic’d up for this one.

Already, the Patriots are forced into “let’s see what we got for the future” mode and the wide receiver position is the primary spot for that.

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Demario Douglas has already established himself as part of the team’s future plans. He’s been targeted 13 times in the past two games after five weeks in timeout after fumbling against the Dolphins in Week 2.

But fellow rookie Kayshon Boutte will likely be up for the first time since the opener. He was outstanding day in and day out during training camp but had two occasions in the opener where he failed to get both feet in bounds. He’s been in timeout since.

Meanwhile, Jalen Reagor – a 2020 first-rounder for the Eagles who’s trying to gain traction here – will also be in the mix. Possibly not in the mix? Last year’s second-rounder Tyquan Thornton, who popped up on the injury report Friday with a foot malady. The waifish Thornton may be the fastest player on the team but he’s perpetually injured and has managed just 24 catches in a year-and-a-half while appearing in only 15 games.

But the prospect of seeing if the Patriots have anything with the youngs is tempered by the reality that the team hasn’t been able run the ball effectively (Rhamondre Stevenson’s averaging 3.2 yards per carry; Ezekiel Elliott’s at 3.9) and has no sub-back to draw attention on third downs.

Too often, the team’s in third-and-four-plus and with the lack of protection, Jones’ oscillating between being too careful and too reckless and nobody getting open, there are many, many punts. Rookie Bryce Baringer is second in the league with 40 punts. (He is tied for the league lead with 20 inside the 20).  

Will the loss of Sweat and Young leave the Commanders punchless up front? Probably not. They still have first-round defensive tackles Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen inside and the players on the edge – Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams – are capable players. Especially if the Patriots once again find themselves in a tackle-by-committee situation because of injuries.

Defensively, the Patriots will have to deal with Howell's ability to distribute. He can get it to McLaurin, their big-play receiver, or Dotson, who’s a surehanded waterbug type. Watch the J.C. Jackson vs. McLaurin matchup as a key. If the Patriots can get to Howell (as everyone did before Washington held Philly to just one sack last week), maybe they can speed him into some mistakes. But if they can’t, the Commanders can find the end zone.

And the plain truth is, the Patriots too often can’t. Which is why this feels like another bleak week and more angst about what’s ahead when the season ends.

Prediction: Commanders 23, Patriots 16

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