New England’s current record of 3-5 isn’t a death sentence for a potential postseason berth, nor even would a potential 3-6 mark should the team lose to AFC juggernaut Baltimore at home on Sunday.
If the Patriots can’t beat a team like the Ravens, though, what’s the point in hoping for what would truly be a miraculous playoff berth at that stage? Baltimore, 6-2, boasts the second-best point differential in the NFL at plus-85, as well as Lamar Jackson, the 2019 league MVP who despite having taken a step back in 2020 remains a formidable challenge for New England’s disappointing defense.
Yes, the Ravens are far superior to the Patriots at this juncture. Baltimore is currently a 7-point favorite for Sunday night’s game on NBC 10 Boston, marking the first time since 2014 New England has been an underdog at home and the largest point spread the Patriots have ever faced at Gillette Stadium. Seriously, the last time New England was an underdog of more than 7 points at home was in 2001, the final year of old Foxboro Stadium.
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Again, there would be a path to the postseason for the Patriots even if they lose to the Ravens Sunday. But Baltimore – or Kansas City, which has already beaten New England this season – represent the exact kind of team the Patriots will face come January.
For a postseason push to be worthwhile, mark Sunday down as a must-win for the Patriots.
It’s hard to get too geeked up over a 30-27 win against the winless Jets, a game in which New England led for only 8 minutes, 35 seconds against the lamest of lame duck coaches in Adam Gase and the saddest of sad sack quarterbacks in Joe Flacco.
Still, win they did, and the Patriots can, believe it or not, take a few positives from their ninth straight victory over Gang Green with them.
Cam Newton looked the part of an NFL quarterback Monday night. Yes, against the worst team in the NFL, but if you actually watched him play, you could tell he looked more comfortable throwing the ball than he has at any point since the first three weeks of the season.
The end results were decent enough: 27 of 35 passing for 274 yards and, most importantly, no turnovers. Newton’s 99.0 passer rating was his best since Week 1 against the Dolphins – his only other start in 2020 without a turnover. Newton added a pair of rushing touchdowns, though that’s something he still managed to do even during New England’s four-game losing streak.
Newton completed 12 passes for 169 yards to Jakobi Meyers, a performance which only raises bigger questions as to why Meyers wasn’t involved in the offense until Week 7, but that’s another story for another time.
Likewise, whether Meyers is the kind of player you build a receiving core around remains unanswered, but it’s never been clearer that if nothing else, Meyers makes the Patriots better in 2020. Damiere Byrd, who caught five passes for 65 yards, shined in a secondary role Monday.
It’s unfair to expect that kind of production out of Meyers and Byrd every week, and with absolutely positively zero contributions from the team’s tight ends, New England is faced with the unenviable task of relying on N’Keal Harry and perhaps Julian Edelman not only returning from their respective injuries, but performing at a high level once back in the fold.
That’s a whole lot of what-ifs, and it’s completely understandable if the ship has already sailed on this idea in your mind. After all, Edelman, 34, is now the second-oldest receiver in the NFL following Chicago’s release of Ted Ginn Jr. – Larry Fitzgerald, 37, remains an ageless wonder in Arizona – and it remains unclear whether or not he can even come back at all in 2020.
In the case of Harry, who returned to practice Wednesday in a limited role as he battles back from a concussion, it’s all about proving he’s not a complete lost caused after the Patriots selected him 32nd overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. He’d been… so-so at best through four weeks, setting career highs in catches (8) and yards (72) in a Week 2 loss in Seattle.
Can you talk yourself into a rejuvenated Newton leading a receiving core of a banged-up Edelman, Byrd and two young receivers on a chase for a wild-card spot?
Good, because that’s pretty much the only hope at this point. New England’s defense is a lost cause.
Until his ill-timed fourth quarter interception Monday night – Flacco deserves blame, but so too does the play call itself – the elite former Super Bowl MVP had a career-high single game passer rating. The Patriots didn’t have Stephon Gilmore available, true, but who really knows what the team is getting from the 2019 NFL Defensive Player of the Year after he surprisingly stayed put at last week’s trade deadline. Gilmore may not even know himself.
Let’s say Gilmore comes back and plays at a reasonable level to his 2019 self… is the rest of New England’s much ballyhooed secondary really up to snuff? J.C. Jackson had his fourth straight game with an interception Monday, but also was in coverage on two of Flacco’s three touchdown passes. Jason McCourty was the guilty party on Flacco’s third, and he was also flagged for a 42-yard pass interference penalty.
It’s not unreasonable to think that Jackson and McCourty bounce back. On the other hand, it’s becoming more and more unreasonable not to think that the front seven the Patriots are currently trotting out there is the worst, by far, of the Bill Belichick era.
New England is 25th in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (131), 18th in yards per carry allowed (4.5) and tied for 25th in sacks (11). Too many players are being asked to do too much, a la Ja’Whaun Bentley, John Simon, Byron Cowart and Adrian Phillips, the last of whom is really a safety; too little, like Chase Winovich, who finally played a representative number of snaps (31, or 67%) against the Jets; or is simply too young and not ready yet, such as rookies Anfernee Jennings and Josh Uche.
To think, the Patriots actually miss many of the departed Boogiemen.
After Sunday, the Patriots are at Houston, home vs. Arizona, at the Chargers and Rams on a Sunday-Thursday routine, at Miami and home against the Bills and Jets to close out the regular season. Homefield advantage is virtually nonexistent in 2020, but that’s a lot of miles the team has to travel over the next seven weeks.
The name of the game for the remainder of 2020, as far as the Patriots are concerned, should be seeing what exactly they have in players they've drafted over the last two or three seasons. Find out if they're a part of the problem, or part of the solution. Since it's already clear that quarterback is a need heading into next season, the team is better off riding it out with Newton than Jarrett Stidham, who's thrown four interceptions in 27 career attempts.
If the end result is an unlikely postseason berth? Fantastic. If not? New England's numerous question marks for the future will finally have some answers.