As tempting as it is to issue broad declarations in the immediate aftermath of defeat — and I’ll plead guilty here if you will — perspective sometimes comes around a day or two later, when the frustration begins to fade.
So this is what passes as my moment of Patriots clarity for today. It’s wise to avoid presuming anything with them right now, and I mean that in regard to all possible outcomes of this maddening but hardly lost season, good or bad.
That includes eliminating them as a Super Bowl contender in this entertaining and unpredictable AFC; hey, if any coach can repair his team in a short time, it’s Bill Belichick, right?
But . . . it also includes presuming certain outcomes in the final two games of the regular season against the Bills and Jets. There is more range in the Patriots’ potential outcomes the rest of this season than Ed Reed had in his heyday.
Sure, the last few weeks have felt rather lousy, and that is an unfamiliar feeling around here in December during the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady era. The best Patriots teams typically ascend to their peak during the holiday season, often leading to more joy and merriment and football gifts come January and February.
It’s not happening this December, at least so far, and it’s alarming. The Patriots can’t stop the run, their passing game is disjointed, and they were hit with a month’s worth of penalties in their 17-10 loss to the Steelers Sunday.
For the second straight week, the hats and T-shirts signifying yet another AFC East title (it would be their 10th straight, which is just ridiculous) remained boxed up and unworn.
It was their second straight defeat after last Sunday’s Dolphins game ended on a play so unexpected it makes the Miracle at the Meadowlands look like a common draw play. They’re now 9-5 — their first five-loss season since the unlikable and underachieving 2009 team — and on the outside looking in at a first-round bye, which happens to be the greatest playoff advantage in American team sports.
Presuming some of their flaws cannot be repaired — and I do not envision them adding an influx of speedy young linebackers in the next couple of weeks — these Patriots need that bye more than ever.
But here’s where they deserve the benefit of the doubt: As poorly as the Patriots played Sunday, it’s unfair to compare them with the quittin’ time ’09 team. The effort is there, as evidenced by Jonathan Jones and Rex Burkhead pulling off the coolest downing of a punt you’ll ever see, or Cordarrelle Patterson scrambling with all of his strength to try to get to a first-down marker when he appeared to be stopped well short.
This team may not be playing well right now, but they are playing hard, and they will fight for that bye.
The No. 1 seed is probably out of reach, but the No. 2 spot can be seized if they win out and have no worse than the same record as the 10-4 Texans, who play at Philadelphia against late-season magic-maker Nick Foles and the Eagles this weekend. That seems a reasonable outcome.
But don’t mistake giving them the benefit of the doubt as assuming that positive outcomes will come true. In most circumstances and in most seasons, it would be reasonable to assume the Patriots would go 2-0 against the Bills and Jets at Gillette. Brady is 29-3 against the Bills, and the last Bills’ victory in the series came with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for the Patriots. As for the Jets, they haven’t won at Gillette since their divisional round playoff upset in January 2011.
No, I’m not exactly predicting the rise and revenge of — to borrow a phrase — the tomato cans here. The Bills are just 5-9, while the Jets are 4-10, and both lost to the Patriots on their own turf already this year.
But they cannot be overlooked, either. The Patriots cannot afford to overlook anyone right now, and the Jets and Bills are both trending the right way at quarterback for the first time since — I don’t know, when the Bills took Jim Kelly and the Jets grabbed Ken O’Brien in the 1983 draft? Actually, that can’t be it since they both passed up Dan Marino (as did the Patriots, who took duck-and-cover Tony Eason), so let’s just say it’s been a while.
Both are starting promising rookie quarterbacks, neither of whom played in each team’s previous meeting with the Patriots. Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft by the Jets, drew rave reviews from Texans players after Houston’s 29-22 win Saturday, with field microphones catching J.J. Watt telling him afterward, “You’re gonna be a great pro.”
Meanwhile, Josh Allen, who was taken by the Bills at No. 7, remains raw (he has six TD passes and nine interceptions), but owns a Drew Bledsoe rocket-laser arm and nearly as many rushing yards this season (506, with six touchdowns) as Bledsoe had (764) in his entire 14-year career. Given how poor the Patriots have been against the run, it wouldn’t be a shock if Allen dropped his third 100-yard rushing game of the season on them Sunday.
New England has now lost back-to-back games in December for the first time since 2002, which happens to be the only season they missed the playoffs with Brady as their quarterback.
They haven’t lost three in a row in the month since 1999, when the last days of the Pete Carroll era were wheezing to an end.
This does not feel at all like that. It does not feel like 2009, either, as easy as the comparison has become for naysayers. The true identity of the 2018 Patriots is still to be revealed. Fourteen games into the season, they remain an enigma, tough and undisciplined, talented and flawed. Maybe that’s just who they are. I’m not presuming anything with this team, but I do know is this: If the final answer comes in December, it’s not going to be the one New England wants.
Chad Finn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.