By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) – With an entertaining surge in the second half, the Patriots are on their way to honor on Sunday. A win at Buffalo, plus a win over the poor Jets next week, and the Patriots will be back to .500. They may not be Super Bowl contenders or anything close to that, but they’ll at least be a respectable team, strong in the mix for a playoff place.
But in an instant, the road to honor turned to ruin and burned. Cam Newton’s failure ended hopes of sniffing .500 for at least a month – and possibly for the rest of the season.
That shows just how little room for error the Patriots have left after home faceplants vs the Broncos and 49ers in successive weeks.
And after Sunday’s defeat to Buffalo, here are the realities the New England Patriots 2-5 faced.
–They are currently in third place in East AFC. The divisional crown was basically out of reach, and with Miami’s win over the Rams on Sunday, the Patriots are now two games behind Miami for second place. Only the useless and winless Jets were worse than New England in this division.
–They are currently in 13th place in AFC. It was foreign territory to Bill Belichick’s team, who are now behind Cincinnati, Denver and Cleveland at the conference.
-They are 2.5 matches from the last playoff place. Remember, the NFL is introducing an expanded postseason in 2020. That means seven teams at each conference make the postseason, not six. That would seem to have opened the door for the Patriots to at least participate in the postseason, but it didn’t look too good in that respect. They are 2.5 games behind Cleveland for the final playoff place at the AFC, and there are five teams between the Patriots and the Browns.
–They still seem to be unable to get the top pick in the draft. Despite being so far from racing the playoffs, they are still far from landing in the top five, thanks to many of the worse teams out there in the league. Their own top 10 pick would still be / would be a rare occurrence in Foxboro, but there was no way the Patriots would lose as many Jets, Giants or Jaguars to fall into the top three.
–The Patriots have lost four straight matches for the first time since 2002. Those four defeats knocked the Patriots from 3-0 to 3-4. The team will not reach the postseason in Tom Brady’s only full season in which he did not make the postseason.
–The Patriots are three games under .500 for the first time since 2000. In Belichick’s first season at Foxboro, the Patriots lost their first four games, and they sat 2-8 in mid-November before finishing the season 5-11.
Obviously, this was completely foreign territory to most people in New England. Some fans who are now adults have spent their entire lives knowing nothing but the world where the Patriots are competing for the championship. Since that 2000 retooling season, the Patriots have been – well, the Patriots. Even in the two years they didn’t qualify for the playoffs (2002, 2008), they drew at the top of the division and only lost in the postseason via a tiebreak. And one of those years came with a spare QB under the center.
But things have changed. Patriots 2-5. The division is long gone. The playoffs are a huge long shot. Fixtures – with home vs. Baltimore and Arizona, plus trips to both the LA and Dolphins teams that suddenly go official – doesn’t get any easier.
After the 2019 season, the departure of the greatest midfielder in NFL history, a season that was stagnating due to mismanagement of salaries, half a dozen COVID-19 allowances, and the uncertainty and challenges that accompanied the football season during the pandemic, expectations were lower than usual for Belichick’s team in 2020.
But lower expectations in New England would generally be considered an 8-8 record, or perhaps 7-9 at worst. If things turn out badly, maybe 6-10 gets into the equation.
But an eight-week 2-5 record and the very real odds of 4-9 when they head to Miami just before Christmas time? It’s never on the cards, even for the most pessimistic of the Patriot prognosticators.
Yet that is the reality for the Patriots. After nearly 20 years over, it will have to end someday. No one knew it would be a disaster.
You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaeljogja.