Are you a sports fan or a Patriots fan?
If you are a sports fan like me, you are loving this Patriots 2020 season, because from week to week you don’t know what’s going to happen.
If you are a Wilfork jersey-wearing Patriots fan, you are not loving this 2020 season … because from week to week you don’t know what’s going to happen.
I know I am outnumbered. Don’t care. This is so much more fun.
For almost two decades, it’s been the same old same old in Foxborough. Every season like the one before. Every week basically the same. Bill, Bob, and Tom. Bob, Tom, and Bill. Tom, Bill, and Bob. Crosby, Stills & Nash. Blah, blah & blah.
Every year for almost two decades, the undefeated (maybe one loss) Patriots would have effectively clinched the AFC East by Week 7. The Dolphins, Bills, and Jets would be essentially eliminated, with their only victories coming against one another. The Patriots and their fans would be looking forward to another AFC East title, a first-round bye, and a second-round Saturday night home playoff game on CBS, replete with shots of the Krafts in the high chairs and Jim Nantz anointing “Robert” or “Mr. Kraft” as the greatest American since Jonas Salk.
For the last two decades, the only drama by Week 7 was wondering whether the Patriots ultimately would get the top seed and advance to another Super Bowl without having to play a road playoff game.
Everything is different now (except for CBS fawning over the owner). Tom has taken his talents to Tampa, bad drafts have made the Patriots old and thin, and the AFC East is legitimately up for grabs. The third-place Patriots are under .500. From week to week, we don’t know what we are going to see from the Patriots or their quarterback. COVID-19 uncertainty has everyone on edge.
The Patriots on Sunday will play the San Francisco 49ers, who have a better record (3-3) than New England and last season played in the Super Bowl. New England is a 2-point favorite at home. It’s pretty close to a “must-win” game for the Patriots.
I love it. At long last, the Patriots offer drama and uncertainty, traditional features of the sports fan experience. Patriots home games are no longer certain victories, graded for style points, punctuated with hard-hitting Channel 4/38 “Fifth Quarter” poll questions like, "Do you think the Patriots were awesome today, or merely super-great?''
In 2020, we tune into Patriots games with no idea what we are going to see.
This is an especially juicy matchup because the Niners quarterback is Jimmy Garoppolo, who was Bill Belichick’s hand-picked successor to Tom Brady in 2014. Unfortunately, when Brady pouted in 2017, Kraft pushed Belichick to trade Jimmy G for a bag of footballs, and now the Patriots are day-to-day at quarterback for the immediate future.
Operating on a one-year bargain contract, Cam Newton has been a trick-or-treat QB. He beat the Dolphins with his legs. He almost beat the Seahawks on the road with his arm and his legs. Then he got the coronavirus. Then he came back without much practice and played badly against the Broncos. He held the ball too long and took sacks. His arm angle dropped and his passes were tipped. It was a disaster. The Patriots have only three touchdown passes this year. They have allowed nine.
To his credit, Newton has been a stand-up guy. Thursday he said, "Our excuse basket is running real low.''
For the first time in memory, Belichick has been making excuses. Stripped of the structure he loves, the Hoodie seems a little lost in the upheaval of COVID-19. He complained about a small locker room in Kansas City and about lack of practice before the Denver game. There were dubious sideline decisions and unexplained strategies against the Broncos.
The coach was happy to be back on schedule this past week and repeatedly used the word “normal” when he spoke to the media Friday morning.
"It was great to be on the field and have a pretty normal week,'' said Belichick.
The new normal in Foxborough means turning the ball over. Traditionally best in the league in turnover ratio, the Patriots have 10 turnovers and 10 takeaways. That puts them in the middle of the pack. This is not “normal” Foxborough.
Going back to last season, the Patriots have lost five of their last seven games and seven of their last 11. Their schedule is about to get tougher. Four of the next five opponents were playoff teams in 2019, and the Patriots still have to play three consecutive games in Los Angeles and Miami.
In any other year, I’d tell you that this game is a sure thing. The Patriots would win because they never lose an important game in Foxborough. They would win because they haven’t lost regular-season home games in back-to-back weeks since 2006. They would win because of Brady and Belichick. They would win because the coach on the other sideline would do stupid things.
Not now. No one knows what to expect anymore. And I am loving it. The unknown outcome is so much more interesting. It’s what got us into sports in the first place.