The Patriots have been sliding down the canyon wall since the end of 2021. They’re scraped, bloody and scared.
But Sunday, they grabbed a root and gained a foothold. Assessing the situation: They are 2-5. They’ve got a long climb ahead of them to get back on solid ground. And they’re still dangling high above a painful drop.
But everybody gets a week’s reprieve and an injection of optimism. This was the Patriots team I envisioned in the offseason when I said they’d get to double-digit wins. Smart. Situationally shrewd. The whole on offense greater than the sum of its parts with Mac Jones and Bill O’Brien in a mind-meld.
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The day began with the team at the lowest point of Bill Belichick’s tenure and a rare report on Belichick’s contractual status from NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport, who said Sunday morning that Belichick “quietly” signed a “lucrative, multi-year” new contract in the offseason.
"His contract [is] one of the most closely held secrets in New England,” said Rapoport. “That said, I think it's fair to say there was some, at least, uncertainty or intrigue surrounding him. Now, contractually, he is locked up long-term."
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Given the state of the team, it wouldn’t hurt for Patriots players and coaches to know there was certainty for the future. At least on paper.
In trying to confirm the report, sources indicated Belichick’s contract expires after the 2024 season. Which doesn’t seem to fit the definition of “locked up long-term.”
The post-2024 timeline has been my assumption. Here’s why: Robert Kraft wants Jerod Mayo to stay in Foxboro. Mayo agreed to a two-year contract in the offseason to remain as linebackers coach through 2024. Kraft has inferred he views Mayo as a head coach. The timeline for Mayo’s elevation to head coach only matches if Belichick steps aside after 2024.
Which makes the “multi-year” descriptor confusing. If the contract expires in 2024, “multi-year” would only be accurate if Belichick signed in the offseason for 2023 and 2024. Meaning his contract expired in 2022 and he was in his walk year with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge running the offense? Despite how closely guarded details of Belichick’s contract are, there’s no way his contract expired after last season.
Most likely, Belichick was entering the final year of his deal in 2023 and an extension through 2024 was given so that Belichick wasn’t a lame-duck coach. And the same process would perhaps be followed at the end of this season with the Krafts and Belichick discussing the future.
In an August interview with Bloomberg’s David Rubenstein, Kraft was asked about Belichick’s future.
“Is he gonna stay for another X number of years or he can stay forever?” Rubenstein asked.
“I’ll let you ask him. He has to decide what’s right for him,” replied Kraft.
Kraft has spoken openly about his expectations for the team’s improvement. The backsliding this season smashed the offseason optimism.
But this kind of win over what’s been one of the league’s best teams shifts the conversation away from whether or not Belichick gets to finish out the season and back to how long before he catches Don Shula and whether the Patriots will host a playoff game.
Interesting what a win can do.
The question now is whether the Patriots can sustain. This week, they face the first-place Dolphins in Miami. In Week 2, they fell behind 17-3 and crawled back into it before losing 24-17. That long-standing pattern of falling behind early because of self-inflicted mistakes was reversed Sunday.
They got up 13-3, took that lead into halftime and got up 22-10 early in the fourth. More impressive than the fast start, though, was the way the Patriots closed.
Late-game mistakes and meltdowns have pockmarked the past two seasons. Defeats to Cincinnati, Minnesota, Las Vegas, Philadelphia and Miami were all examples of a team that would find a way to lose.
They were on the verge of the same thing against the Bills. After Buffalo narrowed the Patriots' the lead to 22-17, Kendrick Bourne fumbled at the Patriots' 29 with 4:56 left. The Bills inevitably turned that into a touchdown and took a 25-22 lead.
But this time, the Patriots executed a pristine game-closing drive with Mac Jones – in his 38th game – directing for the first time a comeback win against a superior opponent.
They stared into the abyss. They didn’t blink.
Whether this is a landmark win or just a blip on the EKG before the season flatlines for good, we won’t know for a few weeks. It does, however, confirm that the Patriots are capable when they have their full complement of offensive linemen, Jones is protected and they don’t shoot holes in their own feet. It confirms that they have not quit.
And the conversation around this team, their Hall of Fame coach, their first-round quarterback and the future of the franchise goes from dark pessimism to guarded optimism.