So here we are. Week 15.
The Patriots’ playoff hopes are flickering. The Bills basically wrapped up the division Sunday night. The Patriots' primary annual goal under Bill Belichick – win the AFC East – won’t happen. They won’t reach 10 wins for the first time since 2002. Best-case scenario is they finish a game over .500 at 9-7.
Less than two years ago, they were playing in their third straight Super Bowl, hoisting a bonus Lombardi after silencing the Rams. And now? For the past four days, they’ve been sucking on a 24-3 prime-time loss to those same Rams. To clamber into the playoffs, they’ll need a boost from someone, anyone.
It all seems beneath them. But it isn’t. If this Patriots roster was oozing talent the way it had for the past decade and 9-7 was a best-case scenario after 13 games, the season would be an abject failure.
I don’t think this one is.
Welcome to Glass Half-Full Monday. Set aside the roster-building discussion for a minute. Forget what they’d look like if they’d done it differently at tight end or wideout. Don’t wonder what the vibe would be like if they’d either kept the quarterback they had for 20 seasons or had already spent a high pick on his successor.
There’s a blizzard coming. Your annual trip to South Florida for the Miami game is off the table. Let’s see if we can turn that sorry frown upside-down with various Patriots-related stuff to feel OK about.
• COVID opt-outs made the team worse. But it also resulted in the team fast-tracking several players who may have otherwise spent time this year in research-and-development.
Start with right tackle Michael Onwenu, who has played every single offensive snap since Week 3. He’s played both guard spots and settled in at right tackle in relief of Marcus Cannon, who opted out this year and who will be 33 next year if he returns. Onwenu should get plenty of All-Rookie recognition at the end of the year and he gives the team an option at left guard if Joe Thuney leaves in free agency.
Kyle Dugger is up next. If Patrick Chung hadn’t opted out, the second-round rookie from Lenoir-Rhyne might not be headed toward being the Patriots' most important defender. Dugger is a chess piece that Bill Belichick and de facto defensive coordinator Steve Belichick ask more from every week.
He’s playing about 75 percent of the defensive snaps over the past five games and – even though he’s listed at 6-1, 217 – he plays big in the running game, can set the edge and has a nastiness to his game when it comes to finishing plays that falls right in line with what Chung’s brought for more than a decade. The coverage skills will come. Dugger has the potential to be the best player taken in the first two rounds by the Patriots since Dont'a Hightower in 2012.
Josh Uche and Anfernee Jennings may not be on the same arc as Dugger, but at least their playing time has increased and there are productive plays to point to. Would that be the case if the Patriots had Hightower? Or had kept Jamie Collins and Kyle Van Noy in free agency? Throw undrafted rookie Terez Hall in there as well as an Elandon Roberts replacement.
• Jake Bailey is the best punter in the league this year and it’s a blowout.
He’s No. 1 in net punting (46.1). He’s dropped 23 of his 40 punts inside the 20. That’s a ridiculous stat, especially considering the three punters who’ve put more inside the 20 have punted 59, 55 and 55 times. Bailey has just three touchbacks and opponents have 46 return yards all year. All year. His 48.8 gross average is fourth in the NFL. He’s been great and the coverage has been – as usual – great.
• Jakobi Meyers is a good player. That’s it. That’s the tweet.
Same goes for Jakob Johnson. Effective players. There’s no screaming need for them to be more than that and it should keep them employed here for a few more years.
• Adrian Phillips and Damien Harris are better than good players.
Pro Bowlers? No. Probably not. But they are definitely positioned to be part of the previously mentioned new core which is going to have to form as so many older, established players creep into their 30s and hit free agency.
• A lot of head coaching positions may open up the next few weeks and a team could do worse than hiring 44-year-old Josh McDaniels, who’s got three Lombardis as an offensive coordinator and has completely reconfigured the Patriots offense to fit around Cam Newton.
If he goes elsewhere, Bill Belichick’s hiring of quarterbacks coach Jedd Fisch as a would-be successor to McDaniels will stand as a nice bit of foresight shown by Belichick. Fisch is getting a crash-course in one of the most trying seasons an OC could experience. Combine this year with McDaniels and last year as assistant OC under Sean McVay with the Rams and Fisch has added tools to his kit. Fisch’s one previous reign as an OC was with the Jaguars in 2013 and 2014. They were last in the NFL in points scored both years.
• There was bound to be a post-Brady slide. But it hasn’t been a crash and it hasn’t been a cratering.
Despite Newton’s limitations as a passer. Despite the shrug-worthy development of Jarrett Stidham. Despite the opt-outs and the injuries to guys like Rex Burkhead and Julian Edelman. Despite the cap crunch that kept them out of the Free Agent Store for most of the offseason.
Despite all that, they’ve won six games. Twice, they yanked victory out on a game-ending kick. Twice, they got beaten at the buzzer by good teams (Seattle and Buffalo). They went through their COVID wave and – because it was one of the first ones a team experienced – it was chaotic. But the Patriots negotiated the adversity.
That’s because they have a program built with that stoic “Obstacle is the Way” mentality. What Matthew Slater, the McCourtys, Newton, David Andrews and so many other players and coaches modeled this season is going to impact for years players who arrived on the team in 2019 and 2020.
There’s a ton to be done in terms of getting more talent on the roster and dealing with the looming potential exodus of players like Andrews, James White, Adam Butler, Lawrence Guy, Edelman, Hightower, Chung, the McCourtys and on and on. Even if the Dolphins drive a stake through the Patriots' 2020 playoff hopes this weekend, there are still going to be opportunities between now and the end of the regular season to model the way the Patriots program does business.
“My message to the guys is that we have to finish what we start,” Slater said at the end of last week. “There’s going to be things in life that you start, and you envision them going a certain way, and they don’t go that way. That’s a part of life. You have to find a way to finish what you started, and hopefully at the end of that, you’re a better man, a better woman for it. I’m going to encourage the guys to keep fighting to the finish and represent ourselves in the best way possible.”
In short? 2020’s a big year for the cullltchahhh! Whaddya need a playoff game for anyway?