Since 1990, a total of 201 NFL teams have begun a season with a 2-4 record. Just 19 of those teams — 9.5 percent — made the playoffs.
Just eight of those 19 won a playoff game. Just two (the 2019 Tennessee Titans and the 1996 Jacksonville Jaguars) won multiple playoff games.
The New England Patriots currently sit at 2-3 following back-to-back losses to the Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos. And while the addition of a third wild-card team for each conference will make qualifying for this year’s postseason easier than ever before, the Patriots — division champions in 16 of the last 17 seasons — quickly are approaching must-win territory in the competitive AFC East.
Next up for New England: a battle with old friend Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
Let’s dive into this week’s preview:
Time: Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET
Location: Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
The Patriots are pegged as two-point home favorites over the 3-3 Niners, who represented the NFC in Super Bowl LIV last season.
Below .500 in October or later for the first time since 2002, New England sits in third place in the AFC East behind the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. San Francisco currently is last in the uber-competitive NFC West.
This will be the 49ers’ first visit to Gillette Stadium since 2012 — when Colin Kaepernick led them to a wild 41-34 victory en route to a Super Bowl berth — and Garoppolo’s first game against the team that drafted him in 2014.
The Patriots traded Garoppolo — Tom Brady’s understudy for 3 1/2 seasons — to the Niners ahead of the 2017 trade deadline.
The Patriots practiced just twice during their two-week leadup to last Sunday’s game against the Broncos, and it showed.
New England looked especially disjointed offensively — quarterback Cam Newton threw two interceptions, was sacked four times and struggled with his mechanics and timing in his return from the reserve/COVID-19 list — and six Brandon McManus field goals were enough to deliver Denver an 18-12 upset win in Foxboro.
The Patriots were able to hold a full week of practice this week, so a lack of preparation shouldn’t be a factor this time around.
The 49ers were blown out by the Dolphins 43-17 at home in Week 5 but rebounded with a much-needed 24-16 win over a tough Los Angeles Rams team.
The Patriots ruled out recently signed defensive tackle Carl Davis with a concussion and listed five players as questionable:
WR Julian Edelman (knee)
G Shaq Mason (calf)
DT Adam Butler (shoulder)
S Kyle Dugger (knee)
OLB Derek Rivers (back)
New England’s roster received a welcomed boost this week with the returns of center David Andrews, rookie linebacker Josh Uche and defensive tackle Beau Allen from injured reserve and Mason, Rivers and D-tackle Byron Cowart from the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Andrews, Uche and Allen have yet to be officially added to the 53-man roster. We’ll see if that happens before Sunday.
The Patriots did lose one important piece this week, however, with starting right tackle Jermaine Eluemunor landing on injured reserve with an ankle injury. He’ll likely be replaced by either Mike Onwenu or Justin Herron, depending on the status of the interior O-line.
If Andrews is activated and Mason can play, expect Onwenu to start at right tackle. If either remains out, it’ll likely be Herron in Eluemunor’s spot.
As for the 49ers … man, where to even begin?
This has been the season from hell for San Francisco from an injury standpoint.
Edge rushers Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Ezekiel Ansah; defensive tackle Solomon Thomas; cornerbacks Richard Sherman and K’Waun Williams; center Ben Garland; tight end Jordan Reed and running back Tevin Coleman all are on injured reserve and won’t play Sunday.
The Niners also ruled out top running back Raheem Mostert, starting linebacker Kwon Alexander and both of their starting safeties, Jaquiski Tartt and Jimmie Ward. Ward was a late addition to the injury report after straining his quad during Thursday’s practice.
Starting left tackle Trent Williams (ankle) missed practice Wednesday but was able to participate in a limited capacity Thursday and Friday. He’s listed as questionable, as is running back Jeff Wilson Jr. (calf).
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Cam Newton, Patriots quarterback
Was Newton’s shakiness against Denver the result of a lack of practice time? We’ll find out this Sunday. The Patriots QB has struggled as a passer in back-to-back outings since lighting up the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 and badly needs a bounce-back performance.
Newton admitted he “just (hasn’t) been good” of late and acknowledged New England’s offense is running out of excuses.
The Niners defense Newton will face has not looked like an elite unit without Bosa, Sherman, Ford and the rest of their injured contributors. San Francisco ranks 22nd in both sack rate (third in 2019) and Football Outsiders’ pass defense DVOA (second in 2019).
Jimmy Garoppolo, 49ers quarterback
A high ankle sprain sidelined Garoppolo in Weeks 3 and 4, and he played so poorly in his first game back (the aforementioned Dolphins rout) that he was pulled for C.J. Beathard at halftime. He performed significantly better in his last outing, going 23-for-33 for 268 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions against the Rams.
In Kyle Shanahan’s offense, Garoppolo primarily relies on short passes that quickly get the ball into the hands of San Fran’s athletic skill players. The former Patriots backup ranks last in the NFL in average air yards per completion, 31st in average depth of target and first in yards after catch per completion, according to Pro Football Reference. (Of note: Newton ranks 30th in average depth of target.)
Garoppolo is the only starting QB who has yet to complete a single deep pass this season (0-for-8 on throws that traveled 20-plus yards in the air, per Pro Football Focus).
Devin Asiasi, Patriots tight end
The Patriots rank dead last in the NFL in receptions by tight ends this season — just as they did last season — and Asiasi has yet to receive his first target. With the Niners missing their top two safeties, perhaps this is the week New England finally gets the third-round draft pick involved.
Asiasi was open in the flat on multiple plays against the Broncos, and starter Ryan Izzo could be in the doghouse after losing a fumble in that game. Newton said this week he has “full faith” in the third-round rookie.
George Kittle, 49ers tight end
While the Patriots continue to search for tight end production, the Niners will trot out the NFL’s best in Kittle, who’s coming off a seven-catch, 109-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Rams. Now back to full health following an early-season knee injury, stopping him should be the No. 1 priority for New England’s defense.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick this week said Kittle is “as good as anybody that I?ve coached or as good as anybody that we?ve played against.” Multiple New England defenders have raved about his blocking prowess and run-after-catch ability.
Last season, Kittle and Niners receiver Deebo Samuel both ranked in the top five in the NFL in yards after catch per reception, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Dugger’s status will be worth monitoring here. The versatile rookie safety has been one of the Patriots’ top matchup options against tight ends this season. If he sits, Joejuan Williams could draw back into the defensive rotation after playing only on special teams against Denver.
Beau Allen, Patriots defensive tackle
New England’s mystery man made his long-awaited return to practice this week and could make his Patriots debut Sunday if activated. The 327-pounder would fill a glaring hole in the Pats’ defense, as they’ve operated without a prototypical nose tackle all season (and struggled against the run at times as a result). Cowart also will be back in the mix after a positive COVID test kept him out of last Sunday’s game.
JaMycal Hasty, 49ers running back
Veteran Jerick McKinnon could see the largest workload with Mostert and Coleman sidelined, but some folks in the fantasy community are high on Hasty, a shifty and powerful undrafted rookie out of Baylor.
Hasty, whose 4.03-second short shuttle ranked third among all players at the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine, actually registered more carries and touches than McKinnon against the Rams, rushing nine times for 37 yards.
The Niners also have Wilson in their running back stable, and Samuel and rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk are threats on end-arounds and jet sweeps, as well.