Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 33-6 loss to the 49ers, which revealed the stark reality of where Bill Belichick’s team is at as Tom Brady starts to get things rolling in Tampa Bay…
THE DYNASTY IS DEAD
The timing seemed a little bit odd Thursday, when the Patriots announced their “All-Dynasty Team” — in the middle of October, in the middle of the season, with the head coach, owner, parts of the staff, and a bunch of players all still, theoretically, trying to extend the reign such a squad was meant to celebrate.
But perhaps they were on to something.
Because, after Sunday, it’s hard to argue with the notion that the Patriots dynasty is officially dead.
Some may wait a week to make such a declaration, putting it off until the Pats go to Buffalo with a chance to try and rebuff the Bills’ assumption of power in the AFC East. But there’s no need to delay any longer. The largest home loss of Bill Belichick’s time as the Patriots coach leaves no doubt about the direction his team is headed, and leaves just as little hope for what where this first season post-Tom Brady could be headed.
Dropping the Pats to 2-4, the loss was New England’s third straight. That hasn’t happened since 2002, and almost as unprecedented over the last 18 years has been a stretch of football as consistently bad as what the Patriots have delivered over the duration of this losing streak, when they’ve managed to score just two touchdowns while turning the ball over 11 times.
That’s losing football, and has totally wiped away all the promise and hope that the club had built by winning two of its first three games. Even the loss in that mix was a hard-fought battle at Seattle, which ended within a yard of stealing a win.
Gone, too, are the good feelings of giving the Chiefs a battle despite difficult travel and missing Cam Newton in Week 4. Newton hasn’t even deserved the moniker of Clark Kent, much less Superman, since returning from his bout of coronavirus, and he’s not the only Patriot struggling. That’s as plain as the gap Sunday’s total yardage — 467 for San Francisco, 241 for New England — would suggest.
A franchise that has prided itself on playing winning football for 20 years is now falling prey to the same sort of loser tendencies it has feasted upon from the other side for those two decades. They are lacking talent, and compounding their shortcomings with bad decisions, poor execution, and no evidence of an ability to overcome — whether it’s a scoring deficit or a negative play. The hallmarks of Brady’s teams are as gone as he is.
So is the Patriots’ mystique.
“Just because you’re the Patriots doesn’t mean anything good’s going to happen,” center David Andrews said. “It all starts with your work ethic and execution in practice, and you’re just not going to show up and be the New England Patriots because of a name.”
AN UNACCEPTABLE RESPONSE
As kickoff drew closer, the sense that Sunday was a must-win for the Patriots seemed to become an increasingly popular perspective. The week after that dud against Denver appeared to proceed normally — with a full allotment of practices, no known Covid-19 complications, and a return to health at a number of key spots — theoretically presenting New England with a chance it’s better than it showed against the Broncos. Add in a losing record, with the division-leading Bills looming next week, and the need for urgency was evident.
Well, to everyone except the Patriots, apparently.
A season-long trend of sluggish starts reached a new low on Sunday, when not only were the Pats unable to establish their footing offensively, but were brutally outplayed on both sides of scrimmage throughout the first two quarters.
San Francisco led 23-3 at halftime — and those might’ve been the gentlest of the numbers outlining the disparity between the teams before the game’s midpoint. The 49ers gained five times as many yards as the Patriots prior to intermission, 301-59. They had more than four times as many first downs, the count finishing 18-4. And while the Niners did own a massive advantage in time of possession, that didn’t solely explain those differences; through a half, San Francisco gained more than twice as many yards per play, 7.5-3.7.
If that’s what it looks like when the Pats are pushed up against the wall, with a formidable foe coming to town, and with their season starting to teeter, there’s something seriously wrong in Foxborough. Actually, based on Sunday’s response in a big spot, it seems increasingly likely that it’s two somethings.
The problem might not just be the talent. It might be the team’s mental toughness, too.
CAM’S ARM DOESN’T COMMAND RESPECT
The Patriots’ collection of receivers and tight ends has become a punching bags for those looking to explain just how pathetic the team’s offense has looked over its last three games — and deservedly so. There’s not a lot of explosiveness there, and they’ve demonstrated little ability to make a big play. They don’t scare opposing defenses.
But the bigger problem is that neither does Newton’s arm. Nor should it.
Sunday’s performance of 9-for-15, 98 yards, and three interceptions was just the latest example. To this point, there has been exactly two quarters worth of football where Cam Newton has played like an effective passer. Those came in the second half at Seattle, when he threw for 312 yards. In the 17 other quarters he’s played, he’s totaled just 657 yards with six interceptions to his one touchdown.
His receivers are limited. Unquestionably, particularly with Julian Edelman looking like a shell of himself. But the primary reason that opposing defenses are able to sell out against the run, and in blitzing Newton, is that the quarterback has given the opposition no reason to respect his arm. None.
Maybe it’s injury. Maybe it’s mechanics. Maybe it’s indecisiveness or difficulty making the right read. Whatever it is, Newton has been woeful with his throws, looking belabored in his release and erratic with his accuracy.
Early Sunday, he had Damiere Byrd open down the left side and missed him badly. He later skipped one to Byrd, on what looked like a clear, easy pitch and catch. He was high and wide to Edelman on the ball that became his third pick of the day.
Sunday showed — again, for a third straight start — that a team doesn’t need to worry about Newton beating them through the air. Stop the Patriots running game, and you’ll make the Patriots look ugly. Until Newton makes teams pay for dismissing his arm, that’s not going to change.
The question now, though, is how many more times he’ll get the chance to do that.
TIME TO BE SELLERS, NOT BUYERS
If there’s a silver lining to this poor stretch, perhaps it’s this: It should be clear, now, which way the Patriots should approach the upcoming trade deadline. And maybe that will keep them from investing too much into a team that isn’t going anywhere this season.
Go back to last year. With the Pats squarely in the mix around deadline time, Belichick authorized the decision to send a second-round pick to Atlanta in exchange for receiver Mohamed Sanu. That’s the type of transaction a team makes, and the price it pays, when they think they’re a piece or two away from something special. The acquisition of Sanu was a signal that the front office believed they needed a receiver, and it was worth spending significantly based on the potential they perceived for the 2019 team.
In retrospect, it was probably the wrong move. Sanu didn’t have a major impact, and didn’t keep the Pats from a late-season collapse and subsequent first-round playoff exit.
Had New England beat Denver, and followed that up by defeating the 49ers, they could be going to Buffalo next Sunday with the division lead hanging in the balance. They’d at least be in the thick of the fight for the AFC’s three wild-card spots, and potentially be starting to target a Sanu-like maneuver with aims of plugging a hole. Belichick has had a knack for those sorts of deals during his time at the helm.
The Bills have come back to earth recently, losing consecutive contests before barely beating the lowly Jets on Sunday. Yet, the odds appear to be good that by the Nov. 3 deadline the Pats will be 2-5, and three and a half games back in the AFC East. That’s the reality, and they’re fortunate to know that now. Had they split the past two weeks, maybe they would’ve tricked themselves into believing something they’re not.
And so they should face the reality. Even if it’s hard and harsh. There’s no reason to be buyers, so they should take a seller’s mentality in advance of the deadline. No one should be untouchable. Edelman. Stephon Gilmore. Joe Thuney or Shaq Mason. If there’s interest, and their value for 2021 is greater in a deal than on the roster, make the move.
As Devin McCourty said Sunday, after losing 33-6 it’s hard to say they’re close. It’s time to start looking beyond what’s fast becoming a lost season.
JIMMY G’S RETURN A NON-STORY
The big story in these parts leading into the week was the return of Jimmy Garoppolo, the quarterback who appeared to be Brady’s heir apparent before being traded to San Francisco three years ago. His team scored 33 points, and he played well in his return, completing 20 of 25 throws for 277 yards. He was intercepted once in the middle of the field, and once on a desperate heave at the end of the first half. Those numbers and the outcome say he came to Foxborough and left having exacted his revenge.
This wasn’t about him, though. On the San Francisco side of things, it was about Kyle Shanahan’s extensive offense and the coach’s ability to capitalize on his club’s athleticism. But this was about the Patriots. It was about Newton, and Belichick, and a clunker from all the guys around them. It was about New England’s inability to answer the 49ers’ challenge, and it’s trouble punching back.
Garoppolo deserves to celebrate the win, but Sunday was more about the trajectory of his current team in comparison to that of his old one. Yes, a large part of that trajectory is the fact the Patriots are struggling to fill the void left by Brady. And yes, it’s looking now like Garoppolo would’ve filled that void better than Newton or Jarrett Stidham.
But as the team around Jimmy G illuminated Sunday, that’s far from the only problem in Foxborough.
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