Tom E. Curran

Patriots enter Chargers matchup in their sorriest state in decades

There's been a seemingly endless parade of 'last straws' this season.

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This is the state of the Patriots heading into to the 12th game of the 2023 season. 

Two wins. Worst team in the AFC. A second-year backup quarterback, Bailey Zappe, whom the team released at the end of training camp, will start. He’ll be backed up by a rookie, Malik Cunningham, who was also released at the end of training camp. Cunningham has spent the bulk of this season training to become a wide receiver.

Zappe’s the starter because Mac Jones – the frontrunner for Offensive Rookie of the Year when the Patriots were 8-2 through 10 games in 2021 – has been so bad that after his fourth benching the Patriots had seen enough. Mercifully.

Enthusiasm over the change is natural. At least Zappe represents something different, even if his preseason and training camp were so bad he wasn’t able to mount even a modest challenge to Jones’ role as starter.

His four regular-season cameos and -- one supposes -- his practice play haven't been overwhelming either. Otherwise, wouldn't the move to Zappe have come sooner?

Remember, it was a little more than a month ago that Zappe was inactive against the Raiders. Bypassed as Jones’ backup in favor of Cunningham, who'd never taken an NFL snap at quarterback. 

That game in Vegas was a week after New England lost 34-0 at home to the Saints. That came a week after they lost 38-3 to the Cowboys. 

For the record, the Patriots lost to the Raiders, quarterbacked that day by Jimmy Garoppolo, who -- predictably -- got injured. Former Patriots backup Brian Hoyer got the win in relief. Former Patriot wideout Jakobi Meyers had five catches and a touchdown. Former Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels got a rare win and was fired a little more than two weeks later. Cunningham was in for three plays. On his only dropback, he was sacked. 

The starting quarterback drama, such as it is, was tabled for a bit Thursday when the Patriots got flexed out of a Monday Night Football game against the Chiefs. That benching (the second time in two years the once-proud Patriots have been bumped from prime time) announces that the networks figure nobody wants to see the Patriots. Even if that means passing on seeing Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce and the opportunity to leverage the presence of Taylor Swift and the few million pairs of eyeballs she’d attract if she came to Foxboro.

But MNF passed. Out of either pity of disinterest, ESPN/Disney didn’t want to look at the wreckage, speculate what’s next and ask the Manning boys to deliver early eulogies.  

These Patriots are for your eyes only. Which, for ownership, feels like the latest in a seemingly endless parade of last straws.

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When the Patriots got good, the Kraft family envisioned the Patriots becoming a global brand. Back in 2008, they were supposed to play a preseason game in China against the Seahawks. That was cancelled, but the team still made inroads there and had been a huge hit in Europe. Then came the Great Frankfurt Disaster of 2023 (the loss to the Colts punctuated by Jones’ eye-melting pick) and now they are back to being relegated to Sunday at 1 p.m. ET. Somewhere, Beasley Reece is warming up his vocal cords.

So it’s Chargers-Patriots Sunday at 1 p.m. with a backup in as the starter. Twenty-one years ago, the same situation was in place. That day, Tom Brady kicked ass and took names against Doug Flutie (nice catch at the end, Wiggy) and Bill Belichick’s record as Patriots head coach improved to 7-14.

Belichick’s gone 287-115 since that day. Unfathomable. The heights he brought this franchise to? The virtually interrupted success from 2001 to 2019? We’ll never see anything like it again.

We also never thought the Patriots would become a rudderless mess. At least not with Belichick scowling, scheming and big-braining from their sideline. But they’ve gone down so fast the entire region’s got the bends.

You still love football. I still love football. There’s still an impossible-to-break attachment to this team, which explains why the reaction to the ineptitude is at times so virulent and over the top. Even though it looks like it did in 1992, these aren’t the same old Patriots.  

Are they?

Prediction: PATRIOTS 16, Chargers 13

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