It's one thing to finish just below .500 and barely miss the playoffs. It's quite another to be one of the worst teams in the NFL.
That's the reality currently facing the New England Patriots, who have tumbled to 1-4 after being outscored 72-3 over their last two games. They rank dead last in Pro Football Talk's latest NFL Power Rankings, and if they can't beat the Raiders in Las Vegas this weekend as 3-point underdogs, their hopes for turning their season around might be lost for good with the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins looming in Weeks 7 and 8.
Our Patriots insider Phil Perry recently reported that Patriots players and coaches aren't throwing in the towel just yet, and that the team is holding onto some hope that it can right the ship this Sunday. But as Albert Breer detailed Thursday on NBC Sports Boston's Arbella Early Edition, this team is nearing a tipping point.
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"The belief in what they're doing right now is tenuous," Breer said when asked about the current morale in New England's locker room, as seen in the video above. "This has to become a proof-of-concept thing where you've done things a certain way for so long, and (head coach) Bill (Belichick) has been able to point at the trophy case and say, 'This is why you're doing it.' Now, what they're doing is not working, and I think there's sort of a 'show me' feel to everything right now."
If the Patriots can't deliver Sunday and fall to 1-5 ahead of matchups with the Bills and Dolphins, they risk losing collective buy-in among their players, says Breer.
"I think they're going to have to get results to prevent from happening here what happens with bad teams," Breer said. "What happens with bad teams is, guys become independent contractors. And because you haven't been around a bad team here in a long, long time, people here don't understand that.
"When a team is going down the tubes in November and December, what ends up happening is, guys start protecting themselves. Guys start worrying about what next year is going to look like. Guys start to think about the offseason."
As Breer pointed out, roughly 80 percent of players on NFL rosters "don't know where they're playing next year," let alone whether they'll still have a job in the league. For those players who aren't on long-term contracts or are lower on the depth chart, it can be hard not to enter self-preservation mode -- especially if their team's outlook is bleak.
"Naturally there's a human nature part of it that kicks in," Breer added. "I don't think they're there yet, but there's this natural thing where, with bad teams, you get to a certain point and then it's like, 'All right, I'm worrying about myself now.'"
That would be rare territory for the Patriots, who haven't finished worse than 7-9 since Belichick's first season in New England in 2000 (5-11). So, even if this ends up being a lost season for New England, there's incentive to pick up a win Sunday and stave off a complete loss of faith this early in the season.