Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel entered the visitors locker room Sunday night following a 24-17 victory over the Patriots, and figured his players would need some encouragement.
“I told the guys in the locker room that they’re going to feel like it didn’t need to be a nail-biter,” McDaniel said in his postgame press conference. “You’re fortunate to get the win in that learning process of how to, you know, make sure that that’s not the case.
“But overall — on the road, prime time, division opponent — those are very, very valuable games to be able to come up with a win.”
It’s not often that we get an unfiltered, honest view inside an NFL locker room. The press conferences are often bland and nonconfrontational. The reality shows, miked-up segments, and behind-the-scenes content produced by the teams and NFL Films are all carefully curated.
But McDaniel’s comment counts as one of those rare candid moments. It tells us a lot about the 2023 Patriots, now 0-2 entering Sunday’s game against the Jets, and how they are viewed inside the NFL.
Apparently, it’s no longer good enough for a team to just win on the road at Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots went 147-29 (.835) from 2001-19 under Tom Brady.
Now, if you’re the Dolphins or the Eagles (who also left Foxborough grumbling), you’re disappointed that you didn’t beat the Patriots by enough. You’re frustrated that you weren’t able to put away an inferior opponent earlier. You’re grateful that you could come away with a victory while learning valuable lessons about what it will take to put away better teams in more important games.
It sounds harsh, but that’s the unvarnished state of the Patriots in 2023, their fourth season since moving on from Brady. Gillette Stadium has been far more accommodating to visitors. The offense continues to lack punch. And the fear has dissipated on the opposing sideline.
Since the start of the 2020 season — the first without Brady — the Patriots are just 13-14 at home. The offense ranks 21st in the NFL in points per game in that time frame, 22nd in offensive touchdowns, 29th in passing touchdowns, and 25th in yards per offensive touch.
This year, quarterback Mac Jones has an NFL-high 96 pass attempts, and has exactly one completion of 25-plus yards — a 32-yard checkdown to running back Rhamondre Stevenson. The longest completion to a wide receiver in two games is a 23-yarder to Demario Douglas.
“We’ve had good weeks of practice. I think there’s been just inconsistency in all of our performances on game day,” offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien said Tuesday. “There’s been glimpses of what the offense can be, and we have to be more consistent. There’s no excuse in the world that really matters to anybody out there.”
A season that began with cautious optimism because of the arrival of O’Brien and JuJu Smith-Schuster is already teetering on disaster, with the Patriots sitting at 0-2 after two home losses.
We remember well the 2001 Patriots winning the Super Bowl after an 0-2 start; the 1993 Cowboys and 2007 Giants also accomplished the feat. But they are by far the exceptions.
The sobering reality of starting 0-2:
▪ Since the playoffs were expanded to 12 teams in 1990, only 31 of 270 teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs, or about 11 percent.
▪ Expanding the playoffs to 14 teams in 2020 and the schedule to 17 games in 2021 hasn’t provided much help, either. Since 2020, only 1 of 25 teams to start 0-2 (or 0-1-1) has reached the postseason (the 2022 Bengals).
And 0-3 is a virtual death sentence.
▪ Since 2020, 0 of 15 teams to start 0-3 (or 0-2-1) have made the playoffs.
▪ Since 1979, only six teams to start 0-3 have reached the postseason, though the last to do it were the 2018 Texans, with O’Brien as head coach.
The Patriots know they are already in a deep hole before the calendar has officially turned to autumn.
“We all know where we’re at,” O’Brien acknowledged.
So even with 15 games left, Sunday’s game against the Jets is as close to a “must-win” as possible. Because, oh, by the way, the Patriots play at Dallas in Week 4 — against a Cowboys team that is 2-0, has 10 sacks, and has the best point differential in the NFL (plus-60).
The fact that the first two losses came at home hurts even more. The Patriots play nine of their final 15 games on the road, including a “home” game in Germany.
They are trying to remain steady in their approach.
“I have a lot of faith in our roster, I have a lot of faith in our coaching staff, I have a lot of faith in our resolve, and I have a lot of faith in our process,” longtime captain Matthew Slater said Tuesday. “Consistency is something we’re striving for right now. There’s no reason for us to lose our confidence now.”
McDaniel’s postgame pep talk to his team is what the Patriots used to say about their ugly wins from 2001-19, when they had Super Bowl aspirations every year.
Now the script is flipped. The Patriots don’t strike much fear into opponents. They’re not a measuring stick anymore.
And if you’re the Dolphins, you need to be reminded by your coach that beating the Patriots by only a touchdown is still a good win.
Ben Volin can be reached at email@example.com.