Commentary

It’s up to Bill Belichick to fix the Patriots — and fast

“We do enough good things to be competitive,” Belichick said Monday. “We just need to be more consistent.”

Bill Belichick walks off the field after losing 33-24 to the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on January 09, 2022 in Miami Gardens, Florida. Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

By his own admission, Bill Belichick hadn’t yet moved past Sunday’s loss to Miami, so the preparations for Saturday’s Wild Card contest at Buffalo hadn’t really begun by the time he made his usual Monday morning media appearances. But half a century of experience in pro football has left him plenty aware of what’ll matter in his 44th playoff game as a head coach.

“The game will be determined,” he said during his weekly spot on WEEI, “by how well we prepare, play, and coach.”

Uh oh.

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If he’s right, his Patriots are in big trouble.  

There’s almost no other way to see it after the last month, when a team that went steaming into its bye week as winners of seven straight has since been confronted by legitimate competition three times — and has been outclassed in each encounter by measure of all three criteria: They’ve started every game poorly. Their execution has been brutal in big spots. And the other sideline has too often seemed strategically a step ahead. 

Ultimately, all of that reflects on Belichick, and so it’s up to him to fix it over the next six days, or else the Pats will whimper out of the playoffs and risk souring what has largely been seen as a faith-affirming season.

“We do enough good things to be competitive,” Belichick said Monday. “We just need to be more consistent.”

Indeed, the Patriots have remained competitive. Although they’ve lost three of their last four, in each game they were within one score of the lead entering the final three minutes of regulation. In each of those games, had they managed to come up with a defensive stop, their offense would’ve had the time necessary to complete the comeback.

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But just as in the Week 15 loss at Indianapolis and the Week 16 loss against Buffalo, Sunday at Miami the Patriots were scrambling because, yet again, their inconsistency dug them too deep of a hole, starting from the evening’s first possessions.

The Dolphins took the opening drive Sunday and went 77 yards with neither an incompletion nor a negative run. That 7-0 lead then doubled on the Patriots’ third play from scrimmage when Xavien Howard intercepted Mac Jones and returned it for a touchdown. 

That left New England down 14-0 at the end of the first quarter, matching the margin by which it trailed at Indianapolis after the Patriots’ first possession netted 10 yards on nine attempted snaps, and the second resulted in a blocked punt that was recovered in the end zone. The least-damaging start of the three games actually came against the Bills, when the Pats started with a routine three-and-out before Buffalo marched its way to paydirt. At least then it was only 7-0 (albeit on the path to 20-7).

Totaling up the first periods of all three setbacks in this slide, the Patriots have been outscored, 35-0. That reeks of a team that hasn’t been ready to play — or, at the very least, wasn’t prepared for what the opponent was about to do. To make the point further, consider it this way: The Dolphins scored four offensive touchdowns against the Patriots this season. Those came on Miami’s first possession of the four halves it played against New England. Coming out of the locker room, Brian Flores scored on Belichick’s defense all four times. 

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Flores was fired on Monday, while Belichick was on to Buffalo.

“Whether it’s energy, focus, execution,” special teams captain Matthew Slater said after Sunday’s game, “you name it, we’re not doing anything well enough early in the games to give ourselves a chance to get in a rhythm and remain competitive early on.”

Energy, focus, execution. All have been problems. Add discipline and carelessness to the mix, too. The Dolphins picked up four first downs via penalty on Sunday, and the majority of the Pats eight penalties were killers. Lawrence Guy lined up in the wrong spot defensively on a punt, causing a procedure penalty that cost them a field goal. Jalen Mills was whistled for pass interference in the end zone. 

Brandon Bolden was probably flagged unjustly for unnecessary roughness when he whiffed on Miami’s sliding punter during a fake, but if he’d gotten away without a call, it would’ve been only because he got lucky. Looking at the replay, the intent was there. He turned himself into a torpedo and took aim at his target helmet first. Not smart.

The eight penalties matched the number of infractions the Pats were convicted of in Indy. Again, the Bills’ game looks better in the box score, but there were a couple of killers by the offensive line getting caught up in extracurriculars. 

Add to those setbacks a 7-to-1 ratio of giveaways-to-takeaways over those three games, and the Patriots have repeatedly put themselves at a disastrous disadvantage. A team that needs to dictate terms has regularly seen its razor-thin margin for error reduced even further, and when those turnovers are converted directly to points, or curtail promising opportunities, winning has essentially proven to be impossible.

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“It’s been a combination of bad football. A bad play here, and then instead of having one bad play and moving forward, we have two good plays and another bad play,” said safety Devin McCourty, who had an easy interception fall through his own hands Sunday. “We let them score on defense, then we throw a pick six. So it’s just a bad combination of complementary football, bad football on both sides of the ball.”

At its core, complementary football relies upon a team’s ability to rise when the moment requires it. And that may be where the Patriots have been their most disappointing of late. Several times on Sunday, they were in a position to change their fate with a single play. They never got it. They allowed Tua Tagovailoa to scramble for first downs on both third and six and third and eight — the latter allowing Miami to effectively salt away the game. Both of Miami’s field-goal drives were extended by the fourth-down penalties, and its second touchdown drive would’ve ended were it not for the PI call on Mills, which came on third and seven.

Again, there were painful precedents in previous weeks. The Bills scored a touchdown on fourth down, then later scored on third and 11 after converting a fourth down earlier in the drive. Trailing by five points late, the Pats could’ve given themselves a shot by thwarting a fourth-and-1, but instead they let Josh Allen run for eight.

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Indianapolis went 3-for-3 on fourth down, two of those coming just as the Colts began teetering and as the game could’ve been tipped the Patriots’ way. New England let those opportunities pass, just as they let Jonathan Taylor run past them on the way to a game-clinching, 67-yard touchdown in the final minutes.

Winning teams make those winning plays. They have the poise to deliver on demand. They have the composure that often exudes as a result of good coaching. But based on the way they’ve played since the level of competition ramped up in December, it’s hard to say that the Patriots are a winning team, or that they’ve been well-coached over the last month. It’s far easier to say they’re frontrunners who seized upon a sequence of good breaks in the middle of the season while dispatching the dregs of the league.

They won eight of nine at one point, but that rampage through mostly lightweights was bookended by a start and a finish which, in retrospect, are alarmingly similar. New England started the regular season 1-3. They ended it 1-3. In each case, the win came against a team that wound up with a losing record. The other three games were against winning teams, and all losses.

Just like over this last month, back then the Patriots were within a score with less than three minutes to play in each game. 

Just like they have lately, back then they couldn’t come up with a big stop when they needed it. 

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Just like they have lately, back then they struggled with inopportune turnovers. And just like they have lately, back then they spent most of their time fighting from behind. Among the signatures of a Belichick team is supposed to be its improvement over the course of the season, but comparing the first and last quarters of this campaign does little to inspire belief that the Patriots have truly been building. And perhaps even less belief that this season lasts through the weekend.

When they’re challenged, as they will be by the Bills, these Patriots have repeatedly looked ill-prepared. They’ve executed poorly. They’ve been out-coached.

And if he can’t fix all that by Saturday night, those realities will make the unceremonious end to this season Belichick’s responsibility to bear.

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