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Even at 1-2, the Patriots find themselves in surprisingly good company as they peek around the neighborhood to see the other sub-.500 teams who hope they’re just temporarily subletting in this area of the NFL standings. The Chiefs, Steelers, Colts, Seahawks, Bears, and Washington Football Team are all there, too, and each of those clubs is coming off a playoff season. At least a couple others, like the Dolphins and Vikings, expect to at least contend for a place in the postseason this year.
But only one of those teams has to line up against Tom Brady as it tries to get its season on track this coming weekend. Only one of those teams has the reigning champs up next as it stares straight at the prospect of a 1-3 start.
And so for as big as this game was always going to be, the Patriots’ performance over the first three weeks has put them in a position where next Sunday night might be nearly as enormous for the sake of the 2021’s playoff aspirations as it promises to be for posterity and the confrontation between the franchise’s historical powerbrokers. Especially when glancing at the Pats’ current predicament with an eye on the schedule and what comes after the GOAT passes through.
At 1-2, Football Outsiders gives the Patriots a 42 percent chance of making the playoffs — although since 1990 only 14.2 percent of teams that eventually started 1-3 have gone on to play in the postseason, according to Pro Football Reference. That works out to an average of one a season. There’s a bit more leeway this year because of the extra wild card berth that was added last season, and there’s also an additional game on the regular-season slate, but the Pats can’t afford to count on those more forgiving logistics to salvage their season. Not in the position they’ve put themselves. They need to play better. Now.
Problem is, though, they could conceivably put their best effort on display Sunday and still lose. The Bucs are better at almost every position, they’re battle-tested, and, oh yeah, they’ve got Brady — three advantages so significant that even a six-point spread shouldn’t keep bettors from taking Tampa. Are they perfect? No. In fact, had a couple of plays gone differently on opening night, the Buccaneers could well come to Foxborough with the same record as their hosts. But their talent level on both sides is elevated enough that they can overcome their flaws, whereas the Patriots’ weaknesses have been exposed and exploited by the Dolphins and the Saints. Mac Jones was under attack most of Sunday. The running game has hardly been efficient. The defense has struggled to come up with timely stops. And unless it’s been Zach Wilson on the other side, the turnover battle has been a bloodbath.
The Pats need to clean all of that up, immediately. And they need Bill Belichick to create one of those Canton-worthy gameplans to confound a quarterback he knows so well. Otherwise, the Pats are headed to 1-3 — and the schedule says there may not be much opportunity to recover.
AFTER THE BUCS
Following Tampa there’s a brief reprieve, with the Pats heading to Houston. The Texans won’t have DeShaun Watson, and won’t even have Tyrod Taylor, so Belichick vs. Davis Mills should be a clear enough advantage — even if last year New England went to Reliant Stadium and was manhandled by a Texans team that was 2-7 at the time, en route to 4-12. After that, the Cowboys come to Gillette Stadium. Dallas gave Tampa Bay everything it could handle on opening night, then went to LA and beat the Chargers in Week 2. Dak Prescott’s offense is loaded with weapons, and the defense successfully prompted two elite offenses into six turnovers in the first two weeks. It won’t be surprising if the Patriots are home underdogs in that one.
The Jets come to Foxborough a week later. That should be another win, though with the Bucs and Cowboys occupying the visiting locker room between now and then, there’s a decent chance that it could represent New England’s first home win of the season. If so, the Pats would be 1-4 at Gillette; best they could finish at home would be 5-4, if they ran the table starting Oct. 24.In that case, they’d need to go 5-3 on the road to get to 10 wins. By beating the Jets and Houston, and they’d be 2-0 — but splitting the six from there doesn’t figure to be easy for a team that went 2-6 as a road team last season.
Starting on Halloween, there’s a trip to face Justin Herbert and the Chargers — who won impressively at Kansas City this week — and then it’s on to Charlotte for a visit to the Panthers team that’s 3-0, has yielded just 30 points so far thanks to a defense that is generating a lot of pressure on QBs, and should see the return of super-back Christian McCaffrey well before then.
Oh, and that two-game road trip to Carolina might be just the start of the season’s toughest six-game stretch. The Pats come home the next week to host the Browns, then it’s a quick turnaround for a Thursday night trip to Atlanta. After Thanksgiving they’ll welcome the Titans, which is followed by a Monday night game in Buffalo. Only then (in Week 14) will the Patriots get their bye.
Following the week off, the sprint to the finish starts with a trip to Indianapolis, and a Colts team that has started 0-3 but was a popular preseason pick to challenge for the AFC South title. A week later the Bills come in, likely battling for home-field advantage by then, and they’re followed a Sunday later by the Jaguars. That’ll help, if the Pats are still in it — though a season-ending trip to Miami, to face a team they’ve struggled with in a place that’s historically been hellacious, is hardly as appealing.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
Part of the frustration of the defeats to the Dolphins and Saints was the feeling that the Pats lost a pair of games to teams that aren’t better than them, and did so despite playing both contests at home. For this season to have any hope, New England needs to handle its business against the teams it outclasses in terms of talent and coaching. Going in order, put the Texans, Jets, Falcons, and Jaguars in that category — and, subsequently, the win column.
From there, though, it’s tough to declare the Pats better than anybody else on the schedule, at least based on what we’ve seen so far, and what little advantage playing at Gillette Stadium appeared to be in September. On the slate are what have been three of the NFL’s five best rushing teams through three weeks, against a defense that has struggled to stop the run. Four of the top six offenses in third down conversions remain on the slate, which should pressure a unit that has struggled on got-to-have-it drives thus far. And if teams getting to Mac Jones is a concern, facing the three teams that have hit the quarterback the most this month won’t likely help matters.
The three-week stretch around Halloween looks especially dangerous. Even if the Pats reach that juncture with a record of 3-4, at the Chargers, at the Panthers, then returning home to face the Browns could sink the season before Turkey Day. And that’s before they even play the Bills twice. Or go to Miami.
Around here, we assume a Bill Belichick team will get better over the course of the season — but that didn’t happen last year, when they were 6-6 before finishing 7-9. It didn’t happen the year before that, either, when an 8-0 team lost five of its last nine. The Patriots have to improve significantly from what we saw Sunday if they’re going to make anything of this season. That part is obvious.
But if the gains are only incremental, and they come after a 1-3 start, it’s not inconceivable to see this as a 6-11, 7-10 team.
A MORE-HOPEFUL SCENARIO
The most hopeful scenario starts with upsetting the Bucs on Sunday night. Win that, spoil all this fretting by getting to 2-2, and suddenly the Patriots could conceivably be a win over the Cowboys away from a 5-2 start.
More realistically, a loss to Tampa Bay turns that Dallas game into something of a must-win. That tussle becomes the ticket to righting the ship, as it would position the Pats to take a winning record into Los Angeles on Halloween night. On that visit, maybe there are residuals from last year’s 45-0 win over Justin Herbert’s Chargers that help in the rematch. Or maybe the next week they make Sam Darnold see ghosts again, this time for the Panthers. Even splitting those tough road trips might breed enough confidence to come home and propel them through a test against the Browns.
After the Thursday in Atlanta, they’ll have 10 days to get ready for the Titans. The next week they’ll have an extra day to get ready for the Bills. Then they’ll have their actual bye week, which means that between Nov. 19 and Dec. 18 they’ll play only twice. Those breaks could have huge value both in terms of health as well as the development of Jones. If they’ve made enough progress to really take advantage of that time, the final four games become far less daunting, and at the very least the Patriots should be playing meaningful football after Christmas. The red-zone offense and running game will need to become much more reliable, and relatively quickly, to make it realistic. Although, if the Pats can scrape their way to reaching the bye at 7-6, there should be ample opportunity to finish with 10 wins — even after a 1-3 start.
SO, IS A 1-3 START SALVAGEABLE?
Ultimately, 1-3 doesn’t need to be a death knell — though the schedule appears to be a bit more difficult now than it did a month ago, and the two games the Pats have lost can never be regained. Those will loom larger than what we presume will happen Sunday night, because that loss was already penciled in by most. It looks like New England may still be lamenting Damian Harris’s fumble and the New Orleans debacle deep into December, assuming those aren’t later seen as symptoms of what this squad really was.
With more than three months of football left, it’d be silly to rule out anything. Amid all the other memories, Sunday night may be a good time to remind yourself that the 2001 Patriots were one of those teams that got off to a 1-3 start. Things are still salvageable — but the failures of these first few weeks have certainly sped up the clock on how quickly the Pats need to fix things. And the one guy who’s seemingly able to stop time is only in town for one night.
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