Can’t stick a fork in the Pats just yet
FOXBORO — While some people have already cashed in their chips on the Patriots this season — and understandably so — don’t stick a fork in them just yet.
Looking at the schedule, make-or-break time comes during the next four-game block. This stretch will determine if the Patriots are truly gonzo in 2021, or if there’s still a glimmer of hope.
How the 2-4 Patriots fare against the Jets, Chargers in LA, Panthers in Carolina, and Browns holds the key to the rest of the season.
The assumption, of course, is the Patriots will beat the Jets for the second time this season, and move on.
If they don’t, this exercise is moot. If they lose, they’re done, throw in the towel. As it is, they lost to the 1-5 Dolphins in the season opener. If they can’t beat the Jets, they no longer deserve to be in any conversation about possibly making a run toward the playoffs.
But the Patriots are desperate for their first win at home, and should get the job done against Gang Green on Sunday.
Beating the Jets would put the Pats at 3-4. Winning two of the next three after that, would have them at 5-5. Obviously, it would be even better if they sweep, putting them at 6-4 with seven games to play.
Is it a realistic goal?
Sure. Several Patriots players have said this week they feel like they’re a better team than their 2-4 record suggests. They know they can play better football.
“(Being 2-4) stinks, honestly. I could sit up here and say we coulda been, or shoulda been, but the reality of it is we’re 2-4,” linebacker Matthew Judon said Thursday. “Nobody in the locker room wants to be 2-4. Nobody in the locker room is happy about that. But, the one thing that we all are, is encouraged. It’s not the end of the season. It hasn’t been said. It’s not written in the record books yet. We can change that.”
Well, until further notice, they’re going to have to prove it, to change the narrative. They’re going to have to show they’re better than their crummy record suggests, and beat the good teams, because the only ones they’ve beaten have a combined two wins.
They’re going to have to change their spots, and stop taking stupid penalties that negate touchdowns, stop making turnovers at crucial times, figure out how to stop getting punts blocked and start making more key stops on defense that win games.
And that starts with the Jets.
“It’s too early to write them off. This could be a get-right game for the Patriots,” said ESPN analyst Damien Woody, who played for the Patriots and Jets during his career. “Sometimes all it takes is one good outing, where you put it all together, and it jumpstarts things. That could happen this week.”
That’s certainly the expectation. On Wednesday, Bill Belichick did his best to pump up the opponent, but he typically lays it on thick for the lesser lights. So that was right on cue.
Let’s just say if the Patriots are as good as they profess to be, they should once again blow out the Jets.
Then it gets interesting.
They annihilated the Chargers out on the West Coast last year. Belichick got into Justin Herbert’s head, and the Patriots rolled.
Herbert & Co., however, have gotten off to a great start this year, so Belichick will still need to have a spell over the second-year quarterback.
And, speaking of spells, after a hot start with the Panthers, Sam Darnold has cooled off, looking more like the quarterback who saw ghosts when he played for the Jets.
Of late, his offensive line has deserted him, and Christian McCaffrey, his security blanket, has been out injured. The combination has left Darnold a mistake-prone puddle once again.
Of course, former Patriot Stephon Gilmore will be making his 2021 debut with the Panthers this week. It’ll be interesting to see if Mac Jones is allowed to throw in his direction.
As for the Browns, Baker Mayfield is currently out with a torn labrum in his non-throwing shoulder. It’s anyone’s guess if he’ll be healthy enough to play Week 10 against the Patriots. Same with running backs Kareem Hunt, who is on IR, and Nick Chubb, who is dealing with a calf injury.
So there’s a bit of daylight ahead if the Patriots can reach out and grab it. Splitting the next four games won’t cut it. Winning three is a start. Then at 5-5, the Patriots will have a Thursday stop in Atlanta before hitting another tough patch starting with Tennessee, then Buffalo.
“There’s nothing we can do about any game that’s been played that’s in the past. But we can control what we do next,” said defensive captain Devin McCourty. “That’s been the big thing this week. Let’s get locked in on the Jets, let’s be ready to go and not dwell in the past. Let’s move on and be ready to go this week.” Judon agreed.
“We all know what we can do better. We all know what we need to do better. And we’re going to go out there and do better,” said Judon. “We have to or it can get ugly real fast ... but everybody is still laserfocused on the goal that we have at hand.”
It’s not like teams are running away in the AFC.
After the first-place teams in each division (Bills, Ravens, Titans, Chargers), there’s two teams at 4-2, four teams at 3-3, and the Patriots and Colts at 2-4. The 1-5 teams (Dolphins, Jaguars, Texans) are pretty much toast, with the Jets (14) about to join them.
If the Fins land Deshaun Watson, with rumors floating that it’s about to happen, that’s a huge upgrade at quarterback, especially if he’s the starter in the final regular-season game against the Pats. When Watson can play, however, is another matter given all his legal trouble, and the possibility of suspension from the league.
The underlying point here is the AFC is wide open. Pull off a string of wins, and they’re back in the hunt.
“We’re at the end of October now,” said Woody. “Enough with the excuses.”