Curran: Who the hell did the 2021 Patriots think they were? originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
On November 24, I wrote a column suggesting the Patriots adopt a “Why Not Us?” attitude.
In a wide-open AFC that the Patriots were leading, it was OK to embrace the possibility of a magical season. A Bucs-Patriots Super Bowl? A reboot of 2001 20 years later? Why not?
Because, as we’ve seen over the past five weeks -- and Saturday night especially -- the 2021 Patriots actually kinda stink. That’s why not.
When I wrote that column, the Patriots were fresh off a 25-0 dissection of the injury-riddled Falcons. That weekend, they beat the injury-riddled Titans 36-13. Then they beat the Bills in a crossfire hurricane to get to 9-4.
They took a week off. Then they went on a five-week exhibition of ineptitude, undiscipline and lethargy that I haven’t seen in any of the 22 seasons I’ve spent covering Bill Belichick’s Patriots.
WTF was that? Not just the total and historic annihilation administered by the Bills on Saturday night. The whole five-game stretch closing the season when the only team they could beat was the worst one in football? And, for good measure, WTF was the seven-game winning streak over the cannon-fodder competition like the Falcons, Browns, Jets, and Panthers?
WTF was the 2021 season? Who do the Patriots think they are?
Bill Belichick acknowledged that’s the main question he’ll grapple with this offseason.
"I think we have to take a good long look, not at just one game, but at all 18," he said on a Zoom conference call. " ... 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?”
So are they a bad team that masqueraded as a good team for a couple months?
Or are they a good team that simply had a bad luck streak at dancing school in the last five weeks?
They have good coaches, but are they "well-coached"?
Their persistence in committing unforced dead-ball penalties, starting games slowly, mangling substitutions, burning timeouts, getting punts blocked and being completely without answers against their main divisional rival in their past two meetings indicates they really weren’t.
That divisional rival? The Bills? They lost to the Jaguars and got pushed hard late in the year by the Falcons and Jets. They didn’t punt in either of their last two games against the Patriots and outscored them, 80-38.
Is Josh Allen -- a power-runner at quarterback in the Cam Newton-mold who throws it a tick better than a young Ben Roethlisberger -- uniquely skilled to make their defense look horrendous? Or is their defense kinda horrendous?
When the dust settles this offseason, how many of the links to the 2.0 version of the dynasty will remain? Is this the end of the road for Dont'a Hightower, Devin McCourty, James White, Jamie Collins and Matthew Slater?
The ballyhooed spending spree that landed difference-makers Kendrick Bourne and Hunter Henry also yielded low-impact Nelson Agholor and no-impact Jonnu Smith. Matthew Judon went from one of the AFC’s best defenders to a liability in the last month of the year. Are they building blocks or placeholders?
Mac Jones is a playoff-level quarterback. After playing shabbily down the stretch, he showed up Saturday night. His 18-month odyssey from assuming the starting role at Alabama to last night may have been the most arduous journey any quarterback’s taken in recent memory. There’s no point in pining over the things he can’t do that Allen, Patrick Mahomes or Justin Herbert can.
But how are the Patriots going to surround him with players who make a defensive coordinator sweat? Are they going to buck convention and actually find a decent wideout early in the draft?
Finally, will Belichick accurately appraise his defense? Because there were key points in 2021 when he got it wrong.
In overtime against the Cowboys, when Dallas was on its way to putting up almost 600 yards of offense on the Patriots, Belichick chose to give Dak Prescott the ball rather than roll the dice on a fourth down. Didn’t work out.
Saturday night, down 14-0, the Patriots faced fourth-and-1 from their own 34. Not only had they failed to stop the Bills on their first two drives, they hadn’t stopped them in two games. A pointless possession for the Patriots meant the gig was up. The Patriots punted. The Bills made it 20-0.
Belichick has a penchant for either overestimating his defense or underestimating opposing quarterbacks like Allen, Nick Foles, Blake Bortles or a handful of others the Patriots have been riddled by since 2017.
On December 26, after the Bills dismissed the Patriots at Gillette Stadium to drop New England to 9-6, Slater said, "We have some choices here. One of the choices is to let this just spiral out of control. And the other choice is (put) our feet in the ground and make a stand and fight."
I won’t say the Patriots didn’t fight at all. That they didn’t try. But the results and -- more troublingly -- the way those results came about over the final five games lead to the inescapable conclusion that this team didn’t have the mental resilience to fight like we’ve seen the Patriots do in the past.
They started the season 2-4. They ended it 1-4. They won seven in the middle. Who the hell do the Patriots think they are?