The Patriots had better enjoy this bye week.
It might be the only one they get.
Only one week after rampant apologies rained down upon Patriot Place from any and all who once thought ill of the transitional New England Patriots, the team has seemingly defined itself as an incomplete enigma. For among the ramifications that linger from Sunday’s disastrous 34-10 loss to the Tennessee Titans are New England’s 2018 woes on the road, a spot they more than likely going to find themselves during the second weekend of the NFL postseason.
This is, after all, how life remains in New England, where a loss for the 7-3 Patriots suddenly tumbles them from the second seed in the AFC to a wild-card host without the luxury of a bye week. Please, take the time to discuss the rare situation with your children.
If the playoffs began today, the Patriots would host the Cincinnati Bengals on opening weekend (prime-time game, for sure), then head to Pittsburgh for the divisional round the following week. There is no fear of needing to latch onto one of the final wild-card spots or even — gasp — missing the playoffs thanks to the wondrous and pathetic landscape we call the AFC East.
The Patriots will win 10-11 games, sell AFC East Champs T-shirts, and head into January as a puzzle that isn’t so much missing pieces as it is trying to sustain itself with frayed edges and forced fits. After 10 games, the 2018 Patriots are a team that has managed to beat the high-flying Chiefs, the division-leading Texans, and Aaron Rodgers, but couldn’t find the way past a pair of Bill Belichick disciples (Matt Patricia and Mike Vrabel) away from Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots have been a wildcard (2-3) in their own right.
Wild-card weekend? At home? Against the Bengals? Slam dunk.
Playoffs? On the road? As things stand, you might as well consider that the stop sign to the season.
It’s been a little frustrating for Patriot fans to watch other teams ride the wave of identification that is normally synonymous with Tom Brady and Belichick. While it seemed the Patriots were, indeed, on their typical route, turning a 1-2 start into an undefeated October and coming off a rousing win against the Green Bay Packers, instead the team is still in a certain purgatory with a laundry list of unanswered questions.
How bad is Rob Gronkowski’s back? What is up with the dysfunctional — not to mention gimmicky — play-calling? The inability to duplicate Gillette success away from home? Will Josh Gordon reach a point where he’s truly accessible in the game plan? Can the Patriots defense turn into something it isn’t?
The Patriots have few answers to the questions that plague the team to this juncture of the season, a period when Belichick-led teams normally seem to find their mojo. Instead, that quality has remained just out of grasp while the likes of the Steelers, Titans, and Texans have discovered some of its bounty for themselves.
The Steelers began the season tying the Browns, for God’s sake. Now, they find themselves as the No. 2 seed in the AFC.
Vrabel was the laughingstock of the NFL for deciding to go for two instead of a game-extending extra point against the Los Angeles Chargers in London three weeks ago. His team has responded with back-to-back, convincing wins against the Cowboys and Patriots, and at 5-4 is knocking on the door of the playoff picture.
And remember scoffing at Bill O’Brien’s Texans after the first game of the season when Belichick’s former protege followed the script altered by Patricia and Vrabel? Those same Texans lead the AFC South with six wins in a row during their own bye week.
If you don’t typically know what your team is made of until Weeks 7-10 of the season, then Houston, Pittsburgh, and Tennessee might finally be finding out.
In New England? No freaking clue.
“You can’t just show up expecting to win,” the 41-year-old Brady said in the wake of a game in which he threw for only 254 yards and no touchdowns before giving way to backup Brian Hoyer. “That doesn’t give the other team enough credit. Today we just played a bad game and you see what happens. Hopefully, there’s more urgency as we go forward. The whole season is ahead of us and we’ll see what we do with it.”
Except, the “whole season” now boils down to six regular-season games. The annual hiccup in Miami lingers early in December, not to mention the all-important showdown with the Steelers on Dec. 16. Theoretically, that game will decide which team plays on wild-card weekend, and which has the luxury of awaiting its opponent one week later.
The Patriots might soar out of their bye week with three straight wins and head into that game with a new identity. Or, they might be coming off a loss to the Dolphins and facing further character defects. There is no emerging trait that says one way or the other.
We have the smoke and mirror benefit of assuring the Patriots have a playoff spot sealed up thanks to the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins, the latter of whom technically still has a shot of winning the division, but…right.
Beyond that? These Patriots have given only glimpses of reason for assurance that there’s something there.