Just a point of order before we start. The Patriots weren’t really “close” to winning Sunday's game. They didn’t come up “just short.”
They gave the ball up at the Miami 30-yard line after failing to convert a fourth-and-4 when needing a touchdown to tie as their left guard got short of the line to gain after taking a lateral from a tight end. That’s not exactly breathing down the neck of victory.
“Coming up just short” conjures a play to the end zone that was millimeters from success. The opener was closer, but again, that was failing to convert a fourth-and-11 from the Philly 20 with 29 seconds left. The Patriots would have had the ball on the 8. That’s more than a whisker.
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Why’s that relevant? Because while the product’s been more watchable and there are things to be encouraged by on both sides of the ball, they aren’t just a bounce or a toenail away from being or beating a “good” team.
Because the New England Patriots find a way to lose.
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Whether it’s a nut-crushing sack during a two-minute drive (this week, last week and last season vs. Minny), a defensive lapse (Raheem Mostert’s 43-yard run Sunday night; Derek Carr's 30-yard game-tying touchdown pass with 30 seconds left in the Vegas game last year), a turnover (Rhamondre Stevenson at the Bengals 5 with 1:05 left last year; Mac Jones’ pick at the end of the third quarter Sunday night) or some innovative new way to lose (Vegas game), the Patriots crack in crunch time.
For most of the past year, I believed Bill Belichick’s Patriots would resume playing Bill Belichick football. That once they got the penalties, mental errors, concentration lapses, situational miscues, turnovers and communication issues cleaned up, they’d once again be a whole greater than the sum of their parts.
Matt Patricia’s out of the building. Joe Judge is back on special teams. The Patriots would resume big-braining more talented opponents by out-scheming and out-executing. The unforced errors and self-inflicted wounds would be easy stuff to eliminate. Wins would follow.
But when it comes to self-inflicted pain, they’ve picked up where they left off last season. The Patriots are now 2-7 in nine games since last Thanksgiving. The two wins were against the hapless Cardinals (quarterbacked by Colt McCoy) and the Dolphins playing with backup Teddy Bridgewater and third-stringer Skylar Thompson.
The Patriots were IN all but one of those losses (the 24-10 beating by the Bills) but eventually found a way to come in second.
Slow starts. Turnovers. Mental errors. The usual.
Matthew Judon -- who I think is a terrific leader -- stepped to the podium last night and tried to head off negative questions that would basically point that out.
“I know we lost,” said Judon. “I know it looks bad when you start (0-2). But this is not a bad team, so don’t get to asking those kind of questions. We’re going to speak matter of fact, but I don’t think we’re about to hang our head up here or in that locker room.”
“We’ve got to just play how we play in the second half from the first play,” Judon added. “We’ve got to get the crowd involved from the get-go. When we take the field, it’s got to have some type of energy. We’ve got to have some type of juice. We can’t wait until we’re down 17. We can’t wait until we’re down 13 to try to make a comeback.”
The Patriots fell behind the Bengals on Christmas Eve last year 22-0. They allowed a game-opening kickoff return touchdown to the Bills two weeks later. Their offense dug them a 16-0 hole against the Eagles. It was the defense that couldn’t handle Miami in falling behind 17-3 Sunday night. That’s four of the last five games.
I think the 2023 Patriots have the potential to reside in the upper tier of NFL mediocrity. A playoff aspirant. A Wild Card team. If you figure the fat swath of average encompasses teams from about 12 to 25, the Patriots should be in the low teens.
Their quarterback is not the problem (he also isn’t the answer all by himself, but that’s another conversation). They have a talented defense. They have experienced coaches. They just keep losing to teams they aspire to be. And yes, they lose in part because they don’t have the magic wand of more talented players to wave over the field. But they lose more often because they do dumb things.
Nobody should be shocked by 0-2. The Eagles and Dolphins are better teams than New England. But you should be disturbed that the Patriots were taught a valuable lesson (again) in the opener about attention to detail and then made similar mistakes throughout another loss.
Moral victories are only validated if the team uses something learned to propel it forward. The Patriots did it all again.
I’m inclined to agree with Judon when he says, “This is not a bad team.”
But good teams don’t make bad mistakes on a week-in, week-out basis. And good teams sometimes beat other good teams. The Patriots make bad mistakes weekly. They only win when they play the dregs of the league.
The new leaf turned over in 2023 looks a lot like last year’s leaf so far.