ARLINGTON, Texas — There is a significant gap between the team the Patriots think they are and the team that has come to play this season.
The team the 1-3 Patriots think they are is one that should advance to the playoffs, one that can contend with the best in the league. But the team that showed up Sunday afternoon at AT&T Stadium was an undisciplined mess, incapable of stringing together a touchdown drive in a 38-3 blowout loss to the Dallas Cowboys.
“I think we’re a lot better team than we showed out there tonight,” coach Bill Belichick said. “But that’s what we showed. That’s what it was.”
The result marked the worst loss of the Belichick era.
Quarterback Mac Jones also played arguably the worst game of his NFL career, committing three turnovers, including a fumble and one of his two interceptions being returned for touchdowns. Belichick lifted Jones out in the third quarter for backup Bailey Zappe, but insisted Jones was not benched for poor performance.
Although New England’s defense managed to hold its ground in the red zone, limiting Dallas to just one touchdown on four trips, the abysmal offensive showing fueled the lopsided score.
Jones finished with a passer rating of 39.9, completing 12 of his 21 passes (57.1 percent) for 150 yards and the two picks. New England’s longest drive — by distance, time, and number of plays — was its opening possession went for 69 yards on eight plays in 4:11. The Patriots settled for a 29-yard field goal for their only points.
“As the quarterback, you have to play better,” Jones said. “Every team that’s winning right now, their quarterbacks are playing really well. I need to do better.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about execution on Sundays. You can put as much into it as you want, but I just have to put a better product out there.”
Jones and other players echoed Belichick’s sentiment after the defeat. They believe this is a better team than the one that showed up Sunday.
“I’m still optimistic,” tight end Hunter Henry said. “I know the group of guys we have in that locker room. It wasn’t good enough today, but we have a resilient bunch. We’ll learn a lot.”
Added wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, “This is a great team overall. We still have a lot to work on. It’s still early in the season.”
Following four weeks of substandard play, however, those words are starting to ring hollow.
After the Patriots’ Week 1 loss, wide receiver Kendrick Bourne said the offense felt as though it could “definitely” play with any team. After their Week 2 loss, outside linebacker Matthew Judon started his press conference with a stern message: “This is not a bad team. So don’t get to asking those types of questions. We’re going to speak matter-of-factly.”
The fact of the matter is, however, the Patriots are a middling team until they actually prove otherwise.
They turn the ball over. They struggle to play complementary football. They have fallen behind 16-0, 17-3, and now 38-3 in their three losses. They commit untimely penalties, including three Sunday on right guard Michael Onwenu.
There are questions about the talent gap between their personnel and that on opposing teams. There are questions about their ability to generate explosive plays, despite ditching Matt Patricia and hiring new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien.
Players and coaches will continue to express belief in the team, as expected, but belief can only take them so far. Center David Andrews said it himself earlier this season.
“You’ve got to do it at some point, right?” Andrews said. “It’s more about execution than belief.”
Sunday was just another reminder that the Patriots have shown us who they are, time and time again. They are 3-8 in their last 11 games, dating to last November. The three wins have come against Colt McCoy’s Cardinals, Skylar Thompson’s Dolphins, and Zach Wilson’s Jets. All three began the season as their team’s backup quarterback.
Jones, in his third season with the fifth-year option on his rookie contract looming, does not have a signature win. The closest possibility would probably be the 14-10 win in 2021 at Buffalo — a game that featured 50-miles-per-hour wind gusts and just three pass attempts by Jones.
In 35 games, Jones has led just one game-winning drive for a fourth-quarter comeback: a 25-22 victory in October 2021 against the lowly Houston Texans.
The Patriots are about to enter what is supposed to be the “soft” spot of their schedule. Over the next six weeks, they host New Orleans, travel to Las Vegas, host Buffalo, travel to Miami, host Washington, and travel to Germany to face Indianapolis. The combined record of their non-divisional opponents is 7-9.
New England will potentially have to play without two of its best defenders, as both Judon (lower biceps tendon tear, according to an NFL source) and cornerback Christian Gonzalez (shoulder) suffered injuries against the Cowboys and did not return to action.
If the Patriots come out of that stretch 4-2, they will enter their bye week with a .500 record.
“We [have] to put a better product out there to beat good teams,” Jones said. “I’m going to take the positive route as best I can, and hopefully it brings the best out of me.”
The team is saying all the right things, that it will focus on the basic fundamentals this week, support one another, and ensure the woes of this loss do not carry over in Week 5.
But the Patriots can only hover around mediocrity for so long.
Owner Robert Kraft has expressed his displeasure regarding the lack of postseason berths (and wins) over the past four seasons and expects the results to improve. If they don’t, the calls for wholesale changes will begin to gain steam.
Until then, the Patriots will continue to preach they are a good team. They have 13 games to prove it.
“I know we’re going to get there,” Smith-Schuster said. “We still got a lot of ball left. We just have to keep going.”
Read more about the Patriots’ loss to the Cowboys
- Cowboys 38, Patriots 3: Nothing goes right in worst loss of Bill Belichick’s career
- Bill Belichick said the Patriots are better than their 1-3 record. Against the Cowboys, they didn’t show it.
- Instant analysis: Patriots’ blowout loss to Cowboys is what happens with a physically limited quarterback such as Mac Jones
- Bill Belichick backs Mac Jones as starter despite benching him
- Patriots’ defense takes some huge hits with the losses of Christian Gonzalez and Matthew Judon