For so many years, almost 20, the goals and rooting interests became so habitual at this point of the Patriots season that we almost forget they were worth appreciating once achieved.
You knew what you were supposed to be rooting for as the midpoint neared and the Patriots were well on their way to proving they were the class of the division, and maybe much more.
The pattern was so familiar. Lock up the AFC East, hopefully early enough to rest a few key members of the varsity. Earn a first-round bye. And daydream about the real possibility of hoisting another Lombardi Trophy in a monsoon of confetti come February.
For two decades, excellence was such the norm that it became predictable. Which is why Patriots fans, especially those of a younger generation who have known such unprecedented success, might feel disorientated right now.
The Patriots are 2-5. They’re 3½ games back of the Bills in the division. They’re in 12th place in the AFC. Their roster is thin at multiple positions, their quarterback struggles to throw strikes, and none of their receivers would make Tom Brady’s game-day roster in Tampa Bay.
Given the toughness of the schedule, a rally to become one of the seven AFC playoff teams is unlikely, even with Bill Belichick on their sideline.
So the question must be asked: With all of those old benchmarks out of reach, what is a Patriots fan to root for right now, with half the season still remaining after Monday night’s stirring matchup with the hapless-as-ever Jets?
There’s still plenty, even in these less-fulfilling circumstances.
The primary thing to root for is fairly obvious: the development of any young players who have a chance to be part of the next excellent Patriots team.
Poor drafts, particularly in 2016 (other than Joe Thuney) and ’17, are a bigger reason for the Patriots’ depth issues than the salary-cap consequences Belichick mentioned recently in an interview with Charlie Weis. Last year’s draft doesn’t look great, either — I’ll admit it, the N’Keal Harry pick is going to haunt even if he becomes adequate — but players do emerge a year or two or three after they’re drafted, with Damien Harris being the current example.
This is the time to maximize the young players' game experience, even if they haven’t entirely earned it in practice. Joejuan Williams and Chase Winovich, both of whom have seen their snap counts diminish lately, need to play. When safety Kyle Dugger, who makes a play or two per game that jumps off the screen, comes back from his ankle injury, he should rarely leave the field.
Linebacker Josh Uche played just 12 defensive snaps in his debut last Sunday against the Bills but made two standout plays, including a hit on quarterback Josh Allen. I’m looking forward to seeing more. The same goes for fellow rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings, who played 53 defensive snaps two weeks ago against the 49ers but had just one snap, on special teams, against the Bills.
I suppose it would make sense, if the math doesn’t cooperate with any playoff aspirations, to find out what the young quarterback, Jarrett Stidham, can do, too. But I’m not on board with this, not for at least a few more weeks.
I want to see more of Cam Newton. I know, he hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass since Week 3 against the Raiders. I know he has three times as many rushing touchdowns (6) and more than three times as many interceptions (7) than passing TDs, which generally aren’t signs that you’re getting maximum production from the quarterback position.
His turnaround is something worth rooting for. Newton, who leaves his blood, sweat, and perhaps even a few tears on the field each Sunday, isn’t just saying all the right things, he’s trying to do them, with increasing, humbling desperation.
I knew, from his exceptional years in Carolina, that he was one of the more charismatic players of his era. I did not know that he was so easy to like. I want to see Weeks 1 and 2 Cam Newton again before this season is over, even if this ends up being his only season as a Patriot.
It’s new, rooting for Newton. Then there’s Julian Edelman, whom Patriots fans have adored for years. (Can you believe he’s been here since 2009? He was teammates with Joey Galloway, Fred Taylor, and Junior Seau.) It’s fair to fear that this might be his last season with the Patriots. He’s 34, he’s on injured reserve with a knee injury, and his body has been under siege for years.
Even if he does come back this season, it feels like he’s an avatar of another time, with his Super Bowl performances against the Seahawks, Falcons, and Rams in particular making him a legitimate candidate for Canton. He has been a nonfactor this season, other than a dazzling flashback in Week 2 against Seattle (8 catches, 179 yards).
If he is running a fade pattern that leads to a new destination next season, here’s hoping he can come back from the current injury (and an undoubted assortment of others that we don’t know about) and provide one or two more fearless and productive performances.
The good old days might be gone, but reminders, should Edelman be able to muster them, are always welcome.