The Patriots have jumped out of the tank, right into the pool of contenders

"The Patriots are, officially, back in the race."

The Patriots' defense in the huddle.
The defense huddles up prior to Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens in Foxborough. – AP

Well, that changes things.

If you were among the growing legion of fans rooting for the New England Patriots to accelerate the tanking process in order to secure a top-five pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, then we regret to inform you that possibility has sailed with as much immediacy as a fourth-quarter monsoon in Foxborough.

Just think; if the Patriots were intent in their mission to land one of college football’s top quarterbacks in the draft, losing to the 0-fer Jets last Monday night, followed up by a defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, one of the better teams in football, they’d be at least in the top-six right now. Showdowns against the Texans (No. 6), Chargers (No. 5), and Jets (No. 1) would still loom, leaving plenty of chance to fall down and surrender in the name of finding a long-term solution behind center.

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Scratch that. Two wins later, including Sunday night’s thoroughly-entertaining 23-17 soaker of a win over the Ravens, and New England has tumbled all the way down to No. 15 in the potential draft order. That’s only four spots worse than where a wild card team might end up.

So, why not?

Seeing how head coach Bill Belichick has now made it clear that drafting order will not be the priority for his team this year, the Patriots suddenly find themselves right back in the hunt for a wild card berth. And that remaining schedule, the same one that seemed so perfect for a tank job only as many as 10 days ago, suddenly doesn’t look all that daunting.

The Houston Texans franchise is an imploding mess reminiscent of the pre-Kraft Patriot days. The Arizona Cardinals needed a Hail Mary in order to beat the Buffalo Bills Sunday. The attraction of Justin Herbert aside, the San Diego (I know) Chargers can’t get out of their own way. You tell me that Belichick and Sons won’t devise a successful defensive scheme against Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff. Then, the season ends with the Dolphins, Bills, and Jets.

Suddenly, the season has gone from drooling for Trevor Lawrence to taking advantage of the NFL’s expanded playoff format.

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If the win over the Jets didn’t exactly instill you with playoff fever, it was probably a different case against the Ravens Sunday night. Because in between steady drops of rain and Chris Collinsworth’s constant smooching of Lamar Jackson’s rear end, you might have noticed something about these Patriots. They were playing angry.

For about 20 years, we’ve had to listen to the Patriots cry about the disrespect card, all as everybody in the surrounding stratosphere lauded the team for being the most successful dynasty in the modern NFL. But if those self-induced mind games were what it took to breed success, so be it.

But this time around? Everybody has been disrespecting the 2020 New England Patriots, if only for the fact that they deserve every shred of doubt shot in their direction. Yes, yes, a play here, a play there, and we could be talking a different prognosis for the team. There’s a little credence to that argument, even if it does leave out the embarrassing loss to the 3-6 Broncos.

Let’s see it then. Let’s see what these smash-mouth Patriots can do with nobody thinking they can do it.

“We just want to keep getting better each and every week and I think we have been showing that, finding different ways to win,” quarterback Cam Newton said. “As this season keeps going, we just want to keep transcending upwardly in a way that our team is getting better week by week.”

There was a time that those words would have sounded like a cliche coming out of the mouth of Newton’s predecessor. But then again, didn’t everything?

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Not so with the incumbent quarterback. These Patriots may just be defining themselves more and more as each week passes.

The team is still two games out in the race for a playoff berth, but it isn’t like the Raiders, Dolphins (currently slotted as the top two wild cards), and Browns (sitting in the potential No. 8 seed, a playoff spot that will only exist if the NFL is forced to cancel games due to COVID concerns) are the three most steady forces.

The Patriots are, officially, back in the race. Against all odds.

Cue the doubt.

“They’re still not talented enough,” ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said Monday. “Listen, if they’re going to play in 30 degrees in pouring rain against a team with no passing game, sure. Then I’ll give it to you, but no, I look at this schedule. They’ll probably beat Houston, that Cardinals game will probably be a loss. They’ll probably beat the Chargers, then they’ll lose to the Rams, they’ll lose to the Dolphins, they’ll lose to the Bills.

“So you’re looking at what, 7-9? Maybe 6-10, so still not a playoff team. A nice win yesterday, great coaching using the fullback in the run game, but this is not a playoff football team.”

Perfect, says Belichick, smiling, as he posts comments like those to the locker room wall.

Why not, indeed.

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