Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 24-3 loss to the Rams, as another chance to climb over .500 goes by, and Bill Belichick’s playoff hopes fade further away…
It’s all but official.
If there was one game in the final five that the Patriots could afford to lose, this was it. The Rams are an NFC team, while the final three tilts on the Pats’ slate are all against AFC East foes, with two of those against clubs they’re trailing in the conference.
Realistically, though, if New England wanted to keep pressure on teams like Miami and Buffalo, they couldn’t afford to leave a two-game trip to Los Angeles without a couple of wins. If Pats fans really wanted to see the stiff weekend tests awaiting the Bills (who play the 11-1 Steelers) and Dolphins (who play the 11-1 Chiefs) to represent a chance for the locals to close the gap, they needed their team to handle its own business first.
Had the Patriots beat the Rams, and Kansas City followed that up by beating Miami, New England could’ve gone to South Florida with a chance to climb over the fish in the AFC wild card race. The Ravens and Raiders, both also ahead of the Pats, also have loseable games on Sunday. This might’ve been a week where the Patriots got some help.
But first they had to help themselves — and they couldn’t do it. They had no solutions against a defense that began the night ranked second in yardage and allowed, and fifth in points. Cam Newton’s rushed, wayward throw on a screen pass gifted LA six points on an interception return. The defense wasn’t bad, but got pushed around in critical sequences at the start of both halves.
The Rams got out to a 10-0 lead early Thursday, and from there the Pats never seemed to have much of a chance.
The same can now all but officially be said of their playoff push.
Deficits are a death knell.
Not only did Newton’s second-quarter interception represent a double-figure swing on the scoreboard, it also brought upon a series of evidence affirming what had been suspected, though recently untested: If they fall into a big hole, the Patriots are ill-equipped to assemble a comeback.
The proof came via the play by play. Suddenly down three scores, the Patriots took the ball at their own 40 (after a penalty), and passed the ball just one time during a 12-play possession. They picked up 58 yards on the series, but swallowed up almost eight minutes of the clock, and ultimately came away with nothing because when they reached a goal-to-go situation, the lack of a passing threat made Newton’s two attempted runs painfully predictable. Neither came close.
Next time they got the ball, the Pats again moved it, picking up another 57 yards. Again, though, they couldn’t convert when it counted, and stalled out when they got to the red zone. This time they got a field goal from Nick Folk, but for 20 snaps and 115 yards, New England got three points — and burned 11:34 off the clock.
Of those 20 plays, only six gained more than six yards, illustrating the Patriots’ inability to deliver a big, game-turning splash play offensively. Compare it to the Rams, who saw six of their first 16 plays go for 11 yards or more, and rode 84 rushing yards on their first nine carries to quickly establish a double-digit advantage.
The Pats have played on a fine line all season, teetering between wins and losses with little to no margin for error. As such, turnovers have been big trouble — but the biggest problem with Newton’s pick Thursday wasn’t that it cost them a possession, or points. It was that, with those points, the game was effectively over.
Why not Stidham sooner?
After the Rams stretched their advantage with a 90-yard march that munched 9:42 of the third quarter, the Patriots trailed 24-3. They took over a touchback — and Newton came out to command the huddle.
Why was Newton still in the game to that point? And what was there to lose by giving Jarrett Stidham a chance in that spot?
Newton’s 119 passing yards might’ve been his most in three weeks, but his pick-six marred a performance that was below-average even without the interception. The offense had produced only a field goal, and any of its success was predicated on the running game. Down three touchdowns, it was time to throw.
By now there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Newton isn’t the man for that task.
Is Stidham? We still don’t know, and the stats we do have to go on suggest he’s far too interception-prone to be trusted with the responsibilities of QB1. But at that point, on the cusp of a fourth quarter that was quickly becoming garbage time, there was nothing to lose by giving Stidham his chance behind center. The worst case was that the margin widened.
The best case was probably out of reach by then, but realistically the Pats couldn’t afford to lose. Pulling Newton there would’ve been like a hockey team pulling their goalie with eight minutes to play, down three goals in the playoffs. Losing by three is the same as losing by four, five, or six. It’s a loss, either way. The final deficit is irrelevant.
New England needed a win. To get the win, they were going to need to throw the ball. Even if Stidham can’t manage the game as well as Newton, or doesn’t pose the run threat Newton does, throwing is one area in which he can’t possibly be worse.
Belichick should’ve given Stidham a shot sooner on Thursday night — and turned him loose. It was a chance to see what he could do, open things up, and it may have even been the coach’s best chance to sneak his club back into the game.
Instead, they waited two unsuccessful series after the deficit spread to 24-3, haplessly punting twice before calling on Stidham with 10 minutes to go. By then, the game — and season — had already slipped farther away.
Now the question is, with 10 full days to get ready for the Dolphins, and even less to lose, does Belichick decide to start Week 15 the way he finished Week 14?
It was ugly up front.
Beyond exploiting their hosts’ brutal special teams units, the most encouraging part of the Patriots’ 45-0 win over the Chargers this past Sunday was the way New England physically dominated at the line of scrimmage. That strength was a consistent stalwart throughout the season-salvaging stretch that saw the Pats win four of five, in fact.
Thursday, though, the Pats’ offensive and defensive lines were both pushed around. Offensively, New England surrendered six sacks and take upwards of 10 hits. The team managed 107 rushing yards, but it took 29 attempts. A team that entered averaging 4.6 yards per haul gained almost a full yard less per try, picking up just 3.7.
Defensively was arguably more disappointing. After yielding fewer than 71 yards in three of their last five contests, they gave up 171 to rookie Cam Akers alone, and 186 overall. The Rams loaded up with an extra tight end on most snaps, and threw the ball on just 25 of 61 snaps, making a concerted effort to bully the Pats up front — and they did exactly that. They slammed the ball forward, averaging 5.2 yards each time, and didn’t balk in the face of fourth and short.
Those can be the ultimate test in the trenches, and Los Angeles converted one on each of its two touchdown drives. Meanwhile, the Pats couldn’t get the two yards they needed on third- or fourth-and-goal situations in the second quarter. The juxtaposition was telling.
What comes next?
Quarterback will be the most interesting position to monitor as the Patriots prepare to face Miami on Dec. 20 — but it’ll also be fascinating to see if the combination of a few extra days and the writing on the wall results in other consequences related to how the Patriots approach the season’s final three weeks.
At a minimum, New England will be two games out of a wild-card playoff spot with three games to go when it plays next. They’ll also be needing to leap over three other teams to get into position for the No. 7 seed. And remember, this team hasn’t even been on the right side of .500 in a couple of months.
Does the dire reality of the situation prompt Belichick to change the way he’s handled his personnel? Do younger players take more snaps as veterans spend more time on the sidelines. Does the playcalling get more experimental? Does this stretch become less about remaining competitive and more like the preseason, where growth and evaluation are the priorities?
The Stidham-Newton decision could be the tell-tale sign. So could decisions on whether or not to activate players — like Julian Edelman — from injured reserve, as those decisions would likely be announced as the Miami game approaches.
Pragmatically, it’s time to make that shift. The schedule allows for a natural reset, and with a seventh loss on the ledger for the first time since 2002, there’s a lot to be figured out if seasons like this one are to remain more an aberration than a trendsetter. Don’t wait any longer than two Sundays from now to start making decisions with a focus on 2021.
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