By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — This is how the rest of the NFL has lived for quite some time. Are you enjoying it?
The Patriots are 6-7, the definition of a middling, mediocre, going-nowhere team in the month of December. New England used to experience much worse than this on a regular basis, of course, but it hasn’t happened in a very, very, very long time.
Even in the two years that the Patriots missed the postseason — 2002 and 2008 — they had playoff hopes until the very final moments of the season. After an incredible come-from-behind, OT victory over the Dolphins in Week 17 in 2002, Brett Favre and the 12-3 Packers laid an egg in the Meadowlands, thus paving the way for the Jets to win the AFC East on a tiebreaker. In 2008, Favre struck again, this time making a windy win for the Pats in Buffalo mean nothing by losing for the Jets in Miami in the late-afternoon window, giving the AFC East crown to Miami.
This time, though, there will be no drama. The Patriots have between a 4 and 6 percent chance of making the playoffs. That number can drop to 2 percent if the Dolphins win on Sunday. They’ll almost assuredly be at zero-point-zero percent by the end of Week 15.
Getting to this point wasn’t a cliff dive. The descent was gradual. The 8-0 start to last season was a product of the defense carrying the team. Once the Patriots faced some real competition, they withered, losing to Baltimore, Houston and Kansas City before the infamous loss to Miami. Once they lost at home to the Dolphins, the fate of the season was known; it was just a matter of details.
Tom Brady tried his best, but he knew even in 2018 that the days of the Patriots running a high-octane offense were over. I still contend that his celebration on the field in Kansas City after beating the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game was a look of true, genuine shock. He didn’t think they could do it.
A lot of time was spent last year wondering why Brady was so grumpy even after Patriot victories, but the reasoning wasn’t hard to discern. The Patriots were bad, and Brady knew it.
So he left. The plan after that for Bill Belichick and Nick Caserio was apparently to just shrug their shoulders and see which veteran free agent would be available for next to nothing at the end of June. After that, they’d see what happens.
Now we know, what happened isn’t great. It’s not entirely the quarterback’s fault, and some key opt-outs on defense might have helped win an extra game or two along the way. But when removing the ifs/ands/buts from the equation, the Patriots are a sub-.500 team in the middle of December, miles from being a Super Bowl contender and a healthy distance away from nabbing even the third wild card spot that was added this season.
They haven’t been this bad since 2000. Two-thousand! Al Gore. George W. Bush. Y2K. Subway Series. Dial-up internet. “Gladiator.” The debut of “Survivor.” You remember these things. (Or, because it was 20 years ago, you could be a fully grown adult with no working knowledge of any of it. Yeesh!)
So that’s where they are. It’s been clear they were heading here for some time, but now there can be no mistake. The Patriots organization is in an unenviable place, and it’ll take some significant work to turn that around in 2021.
That’s a story for another day. For today, we can hit some leftover thoughts from the demoralizing 24-3 loss to the Rams on Thursday Night Football.
–Given the swagger a team can develop in a 45-0 win, one can’t help but wonder if some over-confidence affected the Patriots at the start of the game. Because, really, outside of the first few drives, it was a competitive football game.
It’s just that Tyler Higbee was wide open on the first play, and then easily shed a tackle attempt from Stephon Gilmore:
And then Cam Akers, aka a modern day Gale Sayers apparently, ran untouched for 35 yards on the next snap:
THE CAM AKERS TAKEOVER STARTS NOWpic.twitter.com/iusbuk2xi8
— PFF (@PFF) December 11, 2020
That led to the first score. Then the Patriots went three-and-out, in miserable fashion. But the Patriots had the Rams in a third-and-12 on the following drive. That’s a winning situation for the defense. But not when the defense does … this:
J.C. Jackson dropping so far behind the line to gain — to the point where defensive lineman Adam Butler, who dropped five yards in coverage, had to make the tackle 15 yards from the line of scrimmage — is such a bizarre, un-Patriot-like moment. It was fair to wonder what was going on.
I tried to ask Belichick on Friday morning how the team could come out so poorly, but I probably worded the question poorly, because I only got a brief play-by-play of events without much detail. So we’re all left to wonder how it was that the Patriots came out looking like the Chargers team they had just demolished a few days earlier in the same building.
–This was the hardest hit delivered on a Rams player all night:
HEY-O! Kid’s got jokes.
–This was some old school football right here. Straight off the practice fields on a sultry August day.
Boom pow. pic.twitter.com/0eSCo7GXIE
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) December 11, 2020
That’s a shoulder pad pop right there. Football’s different now, but sometimes, it’s still football.
–Look. OK. The Patriots have been pretty good in the past decade. Not bad. DECENT, some would even say.
They went 125-35 in the decade during the regular season. That’s stupid. Throw in a 16-7 playoff record, three Super Bowl victories, two more Super Bowl appearances, and three conference championship game losses in the “down years,” and we get it. The Patriots were otherworldly in the 2010s. Got it. Noted.
It is, nevertheless, fascinating to look at these two graphics.
The Patriots have obviously made it work. Having Rob Gronkowski (and Aaron Hernandez for a stretch, eek face emoji) helped quite a bit. Same with having James White, and Shane Vereen before him. And of course, the drafting of Julian Edelman in the seventh round in 2009 turned into one of the best draft picks of all time. Getting contributions from the likes of Deion Branch (in his second go-round), Brandon LaFell, Danny Amendola, Malcolm Mitchell (for half of a year, plus a Super Bowl), Brandin Cooks, and Josh Gordon (for one hot minute) has helped keep the receiving corps at an adequate level. And the insurance signing of Martellus Bennett in 2016 was a Super Bowl-winning decision.
On the whole, the Patriots have managed their roster in terms of receivers. But now with the cupboard essentially bare, all of those swings and misses in the draft have caught up to them.
–This looked like it sucked for Gunner. Plain and simple.
–Aaron Donald is like, 6-foot-1, 700 pounds of pure muscle. Yet he has the agility and athleticism to turn into Allen Iverson when he feels like it.
I mean … that is genuinely unfair.
–I think I have what it takes to be a halftime banana guy.
Honestly, I do. You grab two bananas. You hold the bananas — one high, one low. Make it look nice. Sell the hell out of that hing.
If one of the big, strong football men grabs the banana from your hand? Buddy, you better get another banana up there, STAT!
I think I have what it takes to be a halftime banana guy. Where do I apply? Does that go down as Creative Fruit Director on the resume? Chief Of Bananatorial Services? Ram Banana Man?
RAM BANANA MAN!
And do we all get together after work and make fun of the cracker bag guy? What’s his deal, you know? Get a real job, buddy.
–It was pretty crazy how, despite the disastrous start, it was a football game at halftime. If the Patriots could’ve come out and put the ball in the end zone, it’s a 7-point game. And we’re game on from there.
You’d think the Patriots might have come out of halftime focused and determined, then.
Instead, well, they came out like this:
— @The_Coach_A (@The_Coach_A) December 11, 2020
The crazier part of that is that the Patriots overcame it, with (another crazy event) a 30-yard pass from Newton to N’Keal Harry. Alas, a third-down pass from Newton to Harry on third-and-8 fell incomplete, and the Patriots punted. A 97-minute Rams drive followed, essentially ending the game. Tough turn of events for the visitors.
–Last week, Anfernee Jennings and Kyle Dugger looked like rookies when they failed to touch a ball carrier on the ground, allowing the opponent to gain extra free yards. This week, it wasn’t clear if Jennings didn’t know to touch the ball carrier or just … really, badly screwed up.
That is kind of an insane gaffe. It was pretty big, too. Instead of a third-and-2 at the New England 38-yard line, it was a fresh set of downs at the Patriots’ 34. The Rams drained six more minutes off the clock after that.
Would the Patriots’ defense have even made a stop on third down? Maybe. Would Sean McVay have gone for it on fourth down and found success? Probably.
But we’ll never know for sure. Little things like that … they’re big.
–Sports are cool:
–OK, should we stop?
Bill says stop. We’ll stop it there.