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Four games into the 2020 regular season, here are three reasons to be optimistic and three reasons to be pessimistic about the 2020 Patriots:
Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore might be coming back.
The two have been removed from the COVID-IR, and appear to be ready to return to action. Newton has clearly been the MVP of the team through the first four games — if it wasn’t clear by his performance through the first three games, his absence against Kansas City made that evident. Meanwhile, Gilmore remains New England’s best defensive player, and one of the best cornerbacks in the game today. Bottom line? They are a better team with the two of them on the field.
A lot of the kids can play.
Five of them come to mind immediately: Kyle Dugger, the second-round pick, has handled a lot of Patrick Chung’s work. Guard Michael Onwenu hasn’t looked overwhelmed in his first two starts. Edge player Chase Winovich has been a relentless presence. The sample size is probably less than minuscule, but Gunner Olszewski is vaguely reminiscent of Julian Edelman circa 2010 or so. And Damien Harris was arguably the Patriots' most consistent skill position player in the Patriots' most recent game, against the Chiefs on Oct. 5. In all five cases — and I’ve probably missed a few, to be honest — it hasn’t been perfect, but they have looked natural.
They are playing very well on the line of scrimmage, on both sides of the ball.
The offensive line has had three different combinations and they have rotated “feature” backs through much of the first quarter of the season. But whomever has been in there has done well — the Patriots are second in average rushing yards per game (179.8), fourth in yards per carry (5.1), and second in total rushing yards (719). It’s only four games, but those numbers will travel, especially as the season gets colder. And a large part of that is because of the offensive line. On the other side of the ball, Lawrence Guy has been immense, Winovich has delivered consistent pressure, John Simon (who is second among New England’s front seven when it comes to total defensive snaps through the first four games) has been his usually sturdy self. And it’s worth reiterating something we all sort of expected — the secondary is really, really good.
On the other hand …
They’re in serious trouble if they lose Newton.
You can argue that if any of the 32 NFL teams lose their starting signal-caller, they’re going to be in a bind. But as we saw against the Chiefs, the dropoff from the No. 1 quarterback to Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham is more dramatic than most. Newton was as durable as they come from 2011 through 2018, but played just two games last season. It’s a good thing the offensive line has played as well as it has this year — they’re going to have to keep him clean if the Patriots want any shot at playing significant games in January.
They’re getting no production in the passing game from the tight end position.
Barring a big deal, I don’t know if that’s going to change. The Patriots had only three catches through the first four games at the tight end position, all of them from Ryan Izzo. Nothing from Dalton Keene, who has taken four straight inactives, and no catches from Devin Asiasi. This is not sustainable going forward, especially when you consider the fact that the Patriots are getting underwhelming production from Edelman, N’Keal Harry, and the rest of the wide receivers. They need more receptions from both positions over the final three quarters of the season. Good defenses will find it easy to slow that offense, especially if/when Newton isn’t in the lineup.
There’s already a gap between themselves and the AFC leaders.
In a season that figured to have measured expectations, it’s fair to say New England’s once-traditional berth in the AFC title game is a thing of the past. But the Patriots' 2-2 mark puts them behind eight other teams in the conference, including two teams that are undefeated. They have some winnable games over the next month-plus, and if they take advantage of that stretch, they can make a move. (Those two games against Buffalo are getting bigger by the week.) But in the end, New England’s near misses in Kansas City and Seattle — some near misses are closer than others, sure — suggest the Patriots can play with a lot of teams. They’ll need some of those near misses to be hits if they want to be able to land a spot in the postseason.
Christopher Price can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at cpriceglobe.