What's the New England Patriots' identity in the post-Tom Brady era?
Assuming the 2020 NFL season starts on time, we could find out very soon.
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That's a steep challenge indeed for 23-year-old quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who has the unenviable task of filling Tom Brady's shoes on a team that hasn't won fewer than 11 games since 2009.
It's unclear whether the Patriots will start Stidham out of the gate or let veteran backup Brian Hoyer take the reins early in the season. But New England appears to believe in the Auburn product, so for now, we'll assume "Stid the Kid" is the starter until further notice.
How will he handle the pressure? After analyzing the 2020 schedule, we've identified two four-game stretches that will be crucial to Stidham's development as a starting QB and could determine whether New England is still a playoff team or a mediocre club in rebuild mode.
Stretch No. 1: Weeks 1 to 4 (vs. Dolphins, at Seahawks, vs. Raiders, at Chiefs)
Yup: Stidham's first crucial test comes right away. His first game as an NFL starter comes against a defensive-minded head coach (Brian Flores) with an intimate knowledge of the Patriots, while Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts will know all of Stidham's secrets after facing him in practice last season.
Stidham's first road trip is to one of the NFL's most hostile environments to face an experienced, well-coached Seahawks team. After somewhat of a respite in Week 3 against a subpar Las Vegas Raiders squad, it's off to Arrowhead Stadium to battle the defending Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
The Patriots would be lucky to come out of this stretch 2-2. If they fall to Miami or Las Vegas at home (neither are a cakewalk), they'll slip to 1-3. And if Stidham throws a few interceptions? We can already hear the angry calls to 98.5 The Sports Hub calling for his benching.
Stretch No. 2: Weeks 7 to 10 (vs. 49ers, at Bills, at Jets, vs. Ravens)
Let's assume Stidham steps up to beat the Dolphins, Raiders and Denver Broncos in Week 5. The Patriots are 3-2 heading into their Week 6 bye and feeling pretty good about themselves.
Then Stretch No. 2 shows up.
Jimmy Garoppolo makes his triumphant return in Week 7 for the defending NFC champion 49ers, who allowed the fewest passing yards per game (169.2) last season.
One week later, Stidham gets the NFL's fourth-ranked 2019 passing defense (and second-ranked scoring defense) in a road matchup with the Bills, who will be champing at the bit to knock New England from its AFC East perch.
The Patriots stay on the road in Week 9 for what should be a win against the Jets ... only to face another Super Bowl contender with a stout defense in the Ravens, who allowed the third-fewest points per game last season.
These are three of the NFL's best defenses in a four-week span for Stidham. An upset of San Francisco, Buffalo or Baltimore likely would be the first signature win of his NFL career and a sign the Patriots have a guy they can work with.
It's highly possible New England goes 1-3 in this span, though. If the team is hovering around .500 and fighting for its playoff life, it may serve as a wake-up call that Stidham needs more time to develop.