All across New England, Patriots fans are quietly whispering among themselves. One week after Tom Brady was outdueled by the half-man, half-meme Blake Bortles, Bill Belichick was out-coached on Sunday Night Football by his protégé Matt Patricia as the Pats lost to the Detroit Lions 26-10. New England has started the season 1-2 in humiliating fashion, and they’ve done it while looking decidedly un-Patriot like, as the players they pulled off the scrap heap this offseason look like scrap, and their whole is no longer greater than the sum of its parts.
With the Patriots already two games behind in the AFC East and in danger of—no, I’m sorry, we can’t do this. These are the New England Patriots, winners of 14 of the past 15 AFC East titles, hosts of five of the past seven AFC championship games, and contestants in three of the past four Super Bowls. They have the best coach and quarterback of all time. Are we actually going to freak out about their demise in September? If you too are unsure of how to meld what you’ve seen through three weeks with everything we know about the NFL, here’s a handy guide on whether or not to overreact to New England’s slow start.
Definitely Don’t Overreact: The Patriots Have Done This Before
[Stephen Jackson exhaling smoke on Instagram voice] Let me teach you some history, youngin’.
- In 2001, the New England Patriots started 1-3, finished 11-5, and won the Super Bowl.
- In 2012, the Patriots started 1-2, finished 12-4, and made the AFC championship game.
- In 2014, the Patriots started 2-2, including a humiliating Monday Night Football loss against the Chiefs. The team finished 12-4 and won the Super Bowl.
- Last year, the Patriots were humiliated in the season opener by the Chiefs, finished 13-3, and nearly won the Super Bowl.
The Patriots are the best dynasty in football history not because of how they start, but because of how they finish. They are the class of the league at adjustments, both in-game and in-season.
History doesn’t repeat, but it sure does rhyme, youngblood.
Overreact: It Is Different This Time Though, Right?
The Patriots have started slow before, but never quite like this. Their 2012 team that began 1-2 lost those two games by a combined three points, whereas this Patriots team has lost by a combined 27. It’s the first time New England has lost in back-to-back games by double digits since 2002.
Worse, this start isn’t entirely shocking. The Patriots entered this year with more roster questions than any Pats team in years—who are their wide receivers? Can they protect Brady? Will the defense remain a sieve?—and none of those questions have been answered entering Week 4. Brady is 41, and this team is going to be his heaviest lift to date.
Calm Yourself: The AFC East Is Still Trash
Even the Pats’ biggest haters aren’t predicting a cliff dive, and that may be the only way the team blows the division. Yes, the Bills thrashed the Vikings on Sunday, the Dolphins are one of the four remaining undefeated teams, and the Jets have looked OK, but you and I know none of this will stop the Patriots from taking the AFC East. Even a mediocre season (by New England standards) will still capture the division crown and potentially even a bye in an AFC that has a precipitous drop at the top after the Chiefs.
Once in the playoffs, New England’s postseason experience is such a huge advantage that just getting to January makes them the favorite to make it to the AFC championship game. Even if the team is slightly worse, their road to the conference title runs downhill.
Undeniable Fact: The Offense Is Lifeless and Has No Playmakers Beyond Gronk
It doesn’t matter how well Brady plays if he has nobody to throw to. After trading Brandin Cooks, letting Danny Amendola leave in free agency, and losing Julian Edelman to a suspension, the Patriots have the thinnest wide receiver group in football. Their wideouts combined for a whopping four catches on 10 targets for 43 yards on Sunday night, Rob Gronkowski has been mostly thwarted each of the past two weeks, and the team’s strategy of compensating with pass-catching running backs has not gone how Pats fans nor Rex Burkhead fantasy owners envisioned.
After Gronk and Chris Hogan, the team is relying on receivers Phillip Dorsett, who could barely get playing time with the Colts before the Jacoby Brissett trade, and Cordarrelle Patterson, who is a special teams player. Meanwhile, rookie Sony Michel was pressed into lead-back duty as New England’s primary ball carrier and didn’t do a great Dion Lewis impression.
All of that combines into an inability to control the game. The Patriots went three-and-out on their first three drives against the Lions and had the ball for only 20:45, barely half of Detroit’s 39:15. The Patriots can’t control the game if they can’t control the clock.
Don’t Overreact: They’ll Add Two Playmakers Soon
The offense has missed their playmakers more than anticipated, but Edelman will return in two weeks, and Josh Gordon, who was inactive on Sunday night, should play soon. Defenses have been free to bracket Gronkowski without repercussion because none of their receivers have been able to beat one-on-one coverage. It’s hard for Gronkowski to make an impact (four catches for 51 yards on Sunday) when defenses can do this against him.
Lions weren't gonna let Gronk beat 'em. Doubled him like they were blocking for a punt returner pic.twitter.com/TLSoRoTC6A— New Account (@ftbeard_17) September 24, 2018
Teams won’t be able to devote so much attention to Gronk when Gordon and Edelman get in the lineup. There’s certainly risk with each—Edelman is 32 and returning from an ACL injury, while Gordon has struggled to stay on the field his entire career—but their presence will open up the field horizontally and vertically, creating passing windows for Gronkowski, and in turn opening rushing lanes for Michel.
Definitely Overreact: The Defense Hasn’t Been Able to Get a Stop for Two Years
While the Cooks trade garnered more reactions, Belichick’s questionable personnel decision-making is even more visible on defense. The front seven, led by Dont’a Hightower and a ragtag group including Kyle Van Noy, Keionta Davis, Danny Shelton, Deatrich Wise, and Lawrence Guy, has not been doing its job. The team just allowed the Lions’ first 100-yard rusher in 50 years (OK, it was five, but it feels like 50) and hit Matt Stafford only once on Sunday. Hightower has proved to be a liability at times, which has highlighted the 2016 decisions to trade away defensive end Chandler Jones (who would have been quite handy in Super Bowl LII) and linebacker Jamie Collins (who would have been a much more prominent “what if” had the Patriots lost to the Falcons in Super Bowl LI).
The defense forced just two punts on Sunday night, which comes just one week after it forced only three punts against the Leonard Fournette–less Jaguars. This is distressing news for Pats fans after New England had an entire offseason to fix a defense that forced one punt against Nick Foles and Philadelphia in the Super Bowl, but made only one significant personnel change by losing defensive coordinator Matt Patricia to Detroit. Belichick may be a Hall of Fame coach, but his recent history as general manager may have dug a hole so deep that even he can’t climb out of it.