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chad finn

The Patriots are at a crossroads. Down one street is a dead end

Bill Belichick has his work cut out as a coach, and may have work to do as general manager soon.
Bill Belichick has his work cut out as a coach, and may have work to do as general manager soon.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

I’ll tell you what I want to say before I get to what needs to be said.

I want to say give the Patriots one more week. One more week to prove that this messy three-game losing streak can be relegated to a footnote, that Cam Newton — and this season — can be salvaged, that the Buffalo Bills, the next opponent, shouldn’t be scoping out a spot in their stadium to display what would be their first AFC East banner since 1995, a year before current quarterback Josh Allen was born.

I want to say that coach Bill Belichick and Patriots cornerstones such as Devin McCourty, James White, Matthew Slater, and the battered remnants of Julian Edelman deserve that much.

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But I also know this: The Patriots have been miserable for two straight games, and the benefit of the doubt stretches only so far before it snaps. Skepticism, even doubt, about the 2-4 Patriots after their second straight debacle Sunday in a 33-6 loss to an injury-ravaged Niners team, is not a product of recency bias or the overreactive nature of a fan base that has forgotten what a losing streak looks like.

That skepticism, even doubt, comes from the very real possibility that, with a loss Sunday to the 5-2 Bills, the Patriots' season will be over before half the schedule has been played. They are at a crossroads, now, and one of the options is a dead end. If they don’t win this week, the roster may look a whole lot different after the Nov. 3 trading deadline. Sunday’s game may be this group of players' last chance to win together.

Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick leave the field after Sunday's loss.
Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick leave the field after Sunday's loss.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Their prospects sure look grim. No team that began a season 2-4 has ever reached the Super Bowl, let alone won the thing. The only reason to think that this might be salvageable, that the Patriots can cook up something to beat the Bills and restore those good vibes from the 2-1, give-Cam-a-contract-extension-now start, is because Belichick is the coach.

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And even then we must acknowledge the degree of difficulty is so much higher than it has ever been, now that his chief collaborator in dynasty-building is enjoying a little schadenfreude and a lot of wins with the Buccaneers. (I do suspect Tom Brady the GM will hurt Tom Brady the coach before this season is over. The Antonio Brown signing is pathetic.)

I haven’t always agreed with Tony Dungy’s thoughts on the Patriots, but the former Colts coach and current “Football Night In America” analyst was spot-on Sunday night when he described their situation thusly: “Bill Belichick is the best fixer of problems I’ve ever seen, but I’m not sure this is salvageable.”

If it going to be salvaged, we know what must happen: Josh McDaniels and Newton must solve the quarterback’s mechanical problems, pronto. We’ve seen Newton play well, even electrifyingly well at times. It’s time to find that guy again.

It would be wise, too, if not imperative, for the Patriots to take some of the passing burden off of him and commit to becoming a power running team, much as they did down the stretch in 2018 en route to their sixth Lombardi Trophy. Damien Harris (16 carries, 77 yards over the past two games) needs to be much more involved against Buffalo’s 25th-ranked run defense (887 yards allowed, 4.6 per carry).

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If the Patriots cannot pull it together and beat the Bills, if they do not take the right path at this crossroads and salvage all that must be salvaged (the defense, which played like a Monty Beisel tribute band, shouldn’t escape scorn, either), the possibility that Belichick trades veterans of value has to be considered.

How about Cam Newton, Dallas Cowboy? Julian Edelman, sixth receiver for the Bucs? Stephon Gilmore, to any contender willing to swap a first-round pick or two for the reigning Defensive Player of the Year?

Belichick has made unexpected deadline trades — Jamie Collins to the Browns in 2016, Jimmy Garoppolo to the Niners in 2017 — in contending seasons. I don’t want it to happen — it’s much more fun to write about a good team — but it would be fascinating to see what a Belichick fire sale would look like.

Bill Belichick is seen on the sidelines late in Sunday's game.
Bill Belichick is seen on the sidelines late in Sunday's game.Matthew J. Lee/Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

I don’t believe he will go into full blow-it-up mode; he’s 68 years old, chasing Don Shula for the all-time wins record, and his own high baseline of competence wouldn’t allow for even a depleted roster to drop to the Jets level of rebuilding/ineptitude.

I don’t know about you, but I’ll resist writing off the 2020 Patriots at least until the results of this Sunday’s game are final. Belichick, and McCourty and White and Slater, among assorted others, deserve that much. But there is no room for another moral victory.

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If they don’t win, it’s hard to believe they will stay together beyond the trading deadline. And harder still to trick yourself into believing that they should.


Chad Finn can be reached at chad.finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.