I must maintain consistency. Last Sunday was a great loss punctuated by a doinked field goal from 55 yards away in a rainstorm against the defending Super Bowl champions. Those 60 minutes were the most encouraging of the Patriots young season.
This Sunday? Well. Bad win. Playing against the Texans, one of the three worst teams in the league along with the Jags and Jets, the Patriots bumbled themselves into a 22-9 hole then extracted themselves. They won with 15 seconds left.
They weren’t hanging by a thread all day because their patchwork offensive line -- missing four of five starters -- failed to show up. They were there because they A) couldn’t get off the field defensively in the first half, B) routinely allowed rookie quarterback Davis Mills to throw over, through and around them and C) had another game where fumbles, penalties and defensive busts showed up.
The bottom line isn’t completely whether you win or lose. It’s where you are and where you’re going. In 2019, the Patriots started 8-0 but the fine print on that start built against overmatched opponents was that was a record built on sand. The second half of that season bore that out.
The Patriots have every right to feel real good about leaving NRG Stadium with more points than Houston. A game on the road after an emotional Sunday night win with unprecedented offensive line attrition with the threat of 1-4 and a visit from the Cowboys ahead of them? This truly was a must win and they got it.
Once again, Mac Jones was their best offensive player on Sunday (and he benefited from some good fortune with cement-handed drops by Texans defensive backs) . Guys they invested in during the offseason -- tight ends Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith, wide receivers Kendrick Bourne and Nelson Agholor and linebacker Matthew Judon -- were all positives.
But this was a day when the offense could be excused for scuffling. The defense? On the Texans first four drives, they went touchdown, touchdown, field goal, touchdown. They scored on long drives -- an 18-play touchdown drive opening the game and a 15-play drive ending with a field goal that was aided by a 40-yard fourth-and-2 completion. They scored on quick drives -- a three-play drive ending with a 67-yard touchdown on a third-and-2 and a two-play drive coming out of halftime capped by a flea-flicker touchdown over Joejuan Williams from 37 yards away.
Damien Harris fumbled on the goal line in the first half (a BS replay overturn, but still), corner J.C. Jackson got flagged twice and beaten for some key completions and Devin McCourty -- the epitome of steadiness -- twice found himself out of position on completions that turned into big plays.
Meanwhile, can someone explain how the Patriots were able to get their best offensive line performance on a day when four of their five starters were out? As for the fumbles and the flags and the defensive flatness at the start of each half, we keep saying these are uncharacteristic mistakes for a Bill Belichick-coach team. They’ve become characteristic.
Which brings us full circle to where they are and where they are going? 4-5, 2-3, 7-9.
Since their aforementioned 8-0 start in 2019, they are 13-17. Since Thanksgiving of that year, they are 11-16. Since the start of 2020, they’ve beaten the Jets three times, the Dolphins, Raiders, Ravens, Cardinals, Chargers and Texans. The only games that would qualify as “stirring” wins? A 43-0 blasting of the Chargers and the upset of Baltimore.
Personnel-wise, the pieces the Patriots didn’t have in the lost season of 2020 are now there. A quarterback they can build around. Wide receivers. Tight end. Pass rush. But concerns loom at other key spots. Left tackle Isaiah Wynn has been less than impressive this year but the team’s committed to paying him $10M in 2022 after picking up his fifth-year option. J.C. Jackson will be a free agent at the end of the year and will command a contract that pays him $15M a year.
Including Wynn, there are seven players with cap hits over $10M for 2022. The team has $90M committed to Wynn, Shaq Mason, Hunter Henry, Davon Godchaux, Nelson Agholor, Matt Judon and Jonnu Smith. The team we are seeing now is largely the same team the Patriots expect to be on the field for them in 2022. What you see is what you will get.
And while we keep waiting for the Patriots to play like the Patriots, it’s getting harder to ignore the reality that that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. These are the Patriots.