The Patriots final exam for the 2021 season came last January. They failed in historic fashion. The morning after that 47-17 thrashing at the hands of the Bills, Bill Belichick grappled with the question of who and what his team really was.
"We have to take a good long look again, not at just one game, but at all 18," he said. "You could argue that there were elements of last night's game and some other games, but you're right. Last night's game was the least competitive game that we played last year. So again, is that what we are, or is that a bad night? We'll see when we start playing again next year, I guess."
We are an offseason, training camp, and 14 preseason and regular-season games into next year. Eleven months removed.
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Despite sweeping changes prompted by that Bills loss and the 1-4 close to 2021, the Patriots appear to be just about in the same spot they were in January. Bobbing on the waves of mediocrity.
Some things -- pass rush, secondary, overall defense -- seem better. Other things -- offense, coaching, attention to detail and situational football -- are worse. Their 6-5 record has them sniffing at the hindquarters of the playoffs but they aren’t exactly feeling dangerous.
The "fear factor" of a Belichick-coached team after Thanksgiving has washed away on a three-year wave of December swoons. New England is 6-11 after December 1 the past three seasons.
Thursday is December 1. Is this year going to look like the previous three -- a Patriots team getting fat on inferior or banged-up teams that gets exposed when the weather turns and the going gets tough? Is it even still in the team DNA to be the smarter, tougher, better-coached team in high-leverage games?
All it will take to change the conversation and sandblast the slur "MEDIOCRE" from the franchise façade is one night of extreme competency against Buffalo. That’s it. Just a sign that -- despite all the wailing we’ve done about the offense, the penalties, the makeup of the coaching staff, the lack of production from high-end players -- the team is better against the best team in their division than they were In January.
That shouldn’t be an impossible bar to clear.
Buffalo is 2-2 in its last four. Josh Allen’s got a bum elbow. There are key defenders missing (Von Miller and Micah Hyde). Both the Jets and Dolphins were able to topple Buffalo. The game is at Gillette and the offense just showed its highest level of competency last week.
So force a punt or two.
Come up with a turnover.
Keep Buffalo under 20 first downs (they had 29 and 28 in the infamous Games Without a Punt).
Take a trip to the red zone and finish it with a touchdown (the Patriots are 12 for 31 doing so this season). Hell, score more than one touchdown. You only have 20 so far in 11 games and you might not catch the meager 2020 output of 32 from Cam and Co.
See what you can do about taking fewer penalties than the opposition for just the third time all season. Narrow that league-worst yardage discrepancy.
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Also? Don’t get sacked, lose yards on offense or turn it over as has been done 65 times in the past eight games.
Bang it to Hunter Henry, DeVante Parker, Nelson Agholor, Jonnu Smith and Kendrick Bourne a few times and see if you can get one of them to the 25-catch mark on the season before the snow flies.
Play like a team that’s made significant progress because there was significant progress to make. Play like a team that’s closer to the top of the division than the bottom. Don’t just make a playoff-caliber team with an objectively good quarterback sweat as you did with the Vikings this year and the Bucs and Cowboys last year. Beat one for the first time since November 2020 when you took out the Ravens and Lamar Jackson.
I strongly believe 6-6 is inevitable against the Bills. And I have all the bouquets ready to lob at you if I’m wrong. Honestly, I’ll lob them even if you lose without beating yourselves senseless with penalties, in-game mismanagement and play-calling that looks pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey inspired.
I’ve got no issues with a moral victory against the Bills. Not after the way they thoroughly demoralized you last year. But you can’t get boat-raced. It can’t be a drama-free fourth. You can’t have them taking mercy knees in prime time on you like Justin Fields was doing when you played the Bears two months ago.
It’s examination time.