Two games into the 2020 season, you can already take this to the bank about the Patriots.
They are way, way, way ahead of schedule.
With all of the attrition, no offseason, an offense that was hastily installed after a castoff superstar was signed and won the starting job, the Patriots didn’t figure to look like the Patriots until around Columbus Day. Or maybe Halloween. If at all.
Sunday night in Seattle, they showed their DNA remains intact.
"We learned a lot tonight from these guys,” said Julian Edelman, who caught eight Cam Newton passes for a career-high 179 yards in a spectacularly fun 35-30 loss. “Down two scores with two minutes to go, across the country against a good football team. It literally came down to the last play but (I’m) really proud of how we played as a team."
"We've got a good group,” said Devin McCourty, who took a room-service deflection off the hands of Seahawks tight end Greg Olsen back for a touchdown in the game’s opening stages. "I think when you lose an offseason and come back in training camp and everything’s different, we’re still learning about ourselves.
"We fell short tonight, we didn’t get the outcome we wanted but I think we gotta keep improving, we gotta keep at it. Games like this let you know you got a shot. You got a shot to be a really good team but we gotta get better.”
Every week is its own test. And this one was a whole lot different than what the Patriots took in Week 1.
Instead of playing against a building team with a journeyman quarterback in the Dolphins, Sunday night they faced a capital P Program that featured the league’s best player (depending on the week) at the height of his powers on offense (Russell Wilson) and a defense with superstars.
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They weren’t in a defensive rockfight but a bona fide shootout. They weren’t rolling up yards on the ground and covering up perceived deficiencies at wideout, they were ripping off chunks of yards through the air and using those wideouts as the hammer.
There are a few losses in the Patriots’ past that served as springboards for future success. The 24-17 regular-season loss to the Rams in 2001 is a prime example. It’s too early to tell just what this loss to Seattle foretold, but the Patriots know more about themselves than they did when they got on the plane to the Pacific Northwest on Friday afternoon.
“I think the team took a big step the way we competed,” said Bill Belichick. “I think our team stepped up collectively. They competed right down to the end, the last four minutes of the game. We did a lot of things right there. Unfortunately it was not quite enough.”
Not enough to secure the non-conference win. Correct. But they did plenty to announce to a national audience that they’re not going anywhere.
Just as last week’s win against Miami was graded on the curve as being, well, fine. A start. Nice but not cause to break out the sheetcake in the breakroom. This week’s loss needs to be graded on the curve.
Olsen’s early stone hands gave them seven, sure. But Wilson took touchdowns that few other quarterbacks would be able to. His two long-distance touchdown passes – one to D.K. Metcalf and the other to David Moore – came on throws few in the league can make.
His early touchdown to Tyler Lockett came because he skittered around like a salamander until coverage inevitably loosened.
His other two touchdown passes – yes, there were five of them – came on plays the Patriots could have executed better defensively, but those busts are so far the exception and not the rule. I don’t know about you, but I thought the learning curve for a remade linebacker crew and a secondary without Patrick Chung was going to be a whole lot steeper than it appears to be.
The Patriots got lit up on the ground (Seattle rolled up 154 yards rushing) and that’s something they’ll need to shore up in a hurry. And they benefited a bit from Seattle rolling up nine penalties for 68 yards. But the building blocks appear to be in place for them to get better over there.
And the offense? As eye-opening as Newton was last week when he took over against Miami with his legs, his arm strength and accuracy against Seattle made eyeballs stretch the sockets.
His 49-yard dime to Edelman when the Patriots absolutely, positively needed to stem the Seahawks' tide was the play of the night, coming after Seattle had turned a 17-14 deficit into a 28-17 lead with consecutive touchdowns.
But other plays sprinkled in – subtle and obvious – demonstrated just how multifaceted and dangerous the Patriots offense can be with Newton.
A subtle one? On a second-and-7 play late in the first quarter, Newton wriggled out of a would-be sack and threw incomplete to the sideline. Instead of third-and-12 or worse, the Patriots had a manageable third-and-7 and Newton picked that up with a dart to Damiere Byrd for 14.
On a fourth-and-3 later in the drive, he hit N’Keal Harry for a 13-yard gain. Harry took a helmet-to-helmet hit on the play that resulted in the ejection of Seattle safety Quandre Diggs. Three runs later – two by Newton – and it was 14-7 New England.
An obvious one? The next time the Patriots were on the Seattle goal line, they were able to use the Seahawks’ fear of Newton bulldozing into the end zone to free up fullback Jakob Johnson for a simple little 1-yard throw for a touchdown.
The end-of-game sequence is going to be second-guessed because it’s the law. But there really was nothing else for offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels to do on the final play of the game except put it in Newton’s hands.
You put the ball in the hands of your best player and let him do something. You don’t draw up a fade to Ryan Izzo even if you’re completely certain he’s going to be standing naked and alone in the end zone.
The red-eye flight home from Seattle figured to be long enough if Newton didn’t get in. If the Patriots fought for 59:57 to get in position to win then put all their chips on someone other than Newton making a play? That flight would have felt like they were circling the globe.
Newton self-flagellated about the play.
“It’s humbling to have the respect of the team to have the ball in my hands,” he said. “I could've made it right by just bouncing it (outside) or diving over the top. The play was there. The play’s been there all game. Put in that situation again I hope we can have a better outcome.”
Chalk that up to a learning experience. One of many Sunday night. The biggest lesson, though? These Patriots are real. And while they might not yet be spectacular, they've got a shot.