The Patriots aren't what they used to be, but continue to find ways to win

The Patriots aren't what they used to be, but continue to find ways to win

The Patriots are 8-3 and – thanks to the Steelers’ gag job in Denver – are the second seed in the AFC right now.

With the head-to-head win over Kansas City in their back pocket, all they have to do to get home field in the AFC is take care of their business and wait for the Chiefs to stub their toe.

And you have to expect toe-stubbage is coming for KC with games against the Ravens, Chargers and at Seattle in the next four weeks.

But the “take care of their business” part for New England isn’t assured as it’s been in years past. The 2018 season has not been business as usual on the way to 8-3.

Nothing’s coming easily for a team that’s made it look easy so long we all forgot how hard it can be.


Since their blowouts of the Dolphins and Colts in Weeks 4 and 5, the Patriots were within a foot of being tied at the buzzer by Chicago, didn’t get separation from the Bills and Derek Anderson until the fourth quarter, broke loose from a 17-17 tie with the Packers with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, got manhandled by Tennessee and – on Sunday – eventually took care of the Jets with two late touchdowns.

But neither the inevitability of the win nor the invincibility of the Patriots were much in evidence.

The fourth-quarter drive that salted it away was a case study in how narrow the margin is this season, even against a team like the Jets.

Forget the “they always play ‘em tough down there” tripe. The Jets are playing under a soon-to-be-canned head coach with an old quarterback who was just OK when he was young. They got undressed by the Bills, 41-10 and had gone 8-for-52 on third downs in their previous four games.

When the Patriots took over at their 20, leading 20-13 it was early in the fourth quarter and the Jets had just been forced to punt after their would-be, game-tying drive was stalled by a penalty.

What followed from there was, depending how you look at it, a triumph of resourcefulness or a little reminder of just how slim their margins are this year. Maybe it was both.

The first play of the drive was a 33-yard burst by Sony Michel following a path opened by Shaq Mason, David Andrews and James Develin. Michel – who missed a chunk of time earlier this season with a knee injury and a chunk of time Sunday after being bent back Medievally at the end of a run.

That he returned from that injury was remarkable. It’s also remarkable that a rookie running back is the Jenga piece that could make the whole offensive tower fall down if he’s not around.

On the next snap, Brady tried to throw it 60 yards downfield to would-be wide receiver Cordarelle Patterson. His pass went 54 yards and would have been picked if it hadn’t been so underthrown. Patterson had one catch for 7 yards in his previous four games. In his best game as a wideout this season, he had three catches for 54 yards, including a 55-yard touchdown. That’s right, he lost yards on his other two catches. And on his only catch Sunday, he lost a yard.

Second down brought a hurried flip in the flat to James White that fell incomplete.

Then, facing third-and-10 Brady dropped, stepped up to buy time and 25 yards to the right sideline where Josh Gordon picked the ball neatly off the turf to extend the drive. Good throw, great catch by the team’s lone outside threat, a guy who exceeds expectations every additional week he’s on the field.

After Jets safety Jamal Adams hysterically knocked a teammate offsides to make it first-and-5, Patterson got nothing on a handoff before Michel picked up the first down with terrific interior running.


Play-action to Michel on the next play sucked up the Jets linebackers and opened an alley for Julian Edelman – who had his 32-year-old body bounced all over MetLife Stadium on Sunday – to put the Patriots at the Jets 2.

From there, Patterson – who’s obviously watched too many NFL Films highlights of Billy Sims – got labeled trying to vault into the end zone. Michel got stacked up six inches from the goal line. Now it was third down. Since the Patriots aren’t very effective this year throwing in tight spaces, they went to Michel again. This time, he barely got it to the front edge of the goal line for the score.

It was a two-touchdown lead at 27-13 and that’s where it would stay.

But, man, it was harder than you’re accustomed to seeing.

Consider this, after Halloween last year, the Patriots went 7-1 winning by 25, 25, 18, 20, 3 (on the road at Pittsburgh), 20 and 20.

Entering December, the Patriots are what the Patriots are. The likelihood that they are going to suddenly going to start overwhelming teams or having them crumble at the mere sight of Brady and Bill Belichick wandering around in the pregame is slim.

They’re vulnerable in a way they haven’t been in a long time, but they’re dangerous too because they do still have the smarts and resourcefulness to find a way, whether it’s against the Chiefs in a shootout or the Jets in a rock fight.

This week, as the Patriots get ready for a three-game run against the Vikings then at Miami and Pittsburgh, you may hear people say that we’re going to learn a lot about this Patriots team.

But really, you should know it by now. They’re nothing like they’ve been in past years in terms of being able to impose their will.

And it’s their will that will take them as far as they get.  

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Could Patriots ranking among dead money leaders cost team in 2020?

Could Patriots ranking among dead money leaders cost team in 2020?

The New England Patriots have won six Super Bowls over the last 20 years in part by spending wisely.

Is that all about to change?

The Patriots currently have the least amount of cap space of any NFL team at $1.85 million, per Spotrac. Part of the reason for that is the amount of money they're paying to players who won't play for them in 2020 -- otherwise known as "dead money."

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In fact, New England currently owes $24 million in "dead money," which according to Spotrac puts the team in dubious company.

Let's just say the Panthers, Jaguars, Rams and Dolphins aren't expected to be Super Bowl contenders in 2020.

And if the last four seasons are any indication, the Patriots would be bucking a trend just by going 9-7 in their first season of the post-Tom Brady era.

Brady is the primary reason why New England is in this position: He accounts for $13.5 million of that $24 million number, while Antonio Brown is next-closest with $4.5 million in dead money owed.

But such was the contract that Brady signed last August that gave him a potential out in 2020 -- one he took to join the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rather than take another pay cut to stay in New England.

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The Patriots, who have signed all of their 2020 draft picks, still can create extra cap space by trading or extending offensive guard Joe Thuney, who currently has a $14.7 million cap hit that's second-highest on the team.

New England also could restructure the deals of several other players -- like it did recently with Patrick Chung -- to free up more space.

That dead money isn't going away, though, so Bill Belichick and presumptive starting quarterback Jarrett Stidham have another historic precedent to overcome this season.

What's with Jarrett Stidham's surprisingly strong 2020 NFL MVP odds?

What's with Jarrett Stidham's surprisingly strong 2020 NFL MVP odds?

Christian McCaffrey led the NFL in total scrimmage yards in 2019. Jarrett Stidham attempted three passes that weren't intercepted.

Both players share the same odds to win 2020 NFL MVP.

That's right: The New England Patriots' second-year quarterback, who has yet to start an NFL game after backing up Tom Brady last season, is listed at +5000 to win the NFL MVP award at DraftKings Sportsbook.

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Stidham shares those +5000 odds with eight other players. Here's the list:

Josh Allen, QB, Bills
Saquon Barkley, RB, Giants
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, 49ers
Derrick Henry, RB, Titans
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Steelers
Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons
Matthew Stafford, QB, Lions

To reiterate: Stidham (who might not even start in Week 1) has the same chance to be named the NFL's best player as the league's rushing title holder (Henry), a former Rookie of the Year (Barkley) and the guy who was supposed to be Brady's heir apparent in New England (Garoppolo).

How is this possible? It's all about expectations.

Many expect the Patriots to nosedive following Brady's departure to Tampa Bay. But if Stidham can guide New England to a winning record or even a playoff berth, he could gain traction as a dark-horse MVP candidate who worked wonders with an offense lacking elite weapons.

Considering Bill Belichick's Patriots went 11-5 with Matt Cassel after Brady got hurt in 2008, that scenario isn't totally far-fetched.

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Of course, there still are 11 players with better MVP odds than Stidham, including Brady, whose +1600 odds rank him behind Dak Prescott (+1400), Russell Wilson (+800), Lamar Jackson (+700) and favorite Patrick Mahomes (+400), per DraftKings Sportsbook.

But it appears there's faint optimism among oddsmakers that "The Stidham Plan" will pay off in a breakout season for the 23-year-old QB.