Welcome to the new normal, where tensions are high, masks are required and the New England Patriots are mediocre at best.
The Patriots suffered their worst loss of the 2020 NFL season Sunday, falling to the uninspiring Houston Texans 27-20 at NRG Stadium. The defeat came only one week after New England thrust itself back into the AFC playoff picture with an upset win over the Baltimore Ravens.
“Had some opportunities throughout the course of the game and just couldn’t do enough with them in all areas,” Patriots head coach Bill Belichick told reporters after Sunday’s faceplant, which dropped New England’s record to 4-6 while all but squashing its postseason aspirations.
Losing to a team that had been 2-7 is bad enough. It’s even worse when you consider Houston’s two wins came against the Jacksonville Jaguars (now 1-9), its operation currently is being run by a lame duck interim coach (Romeo Crennel) who’s nearly two decades removed from his stint as New England’s defensive coordinator and the Texans’ biggest weakness (run defense) should’ve played directly into the hands of the Patriots’ offensive strength.
Really, though, it’s all indicative of what the Patriots are right now: An underwhelming team with a flawed roster that’ll be pesky some weeks but ultimately isn’t good enough.
In many ways, the Patriots are the antithesis of what they had been for the past 20 years.
They’re not just devoid of talent. They also play down to inferior opponents, make backbreaking mistakes and collapse in crunch time, all of which was on display Sunday in Houston.
Even the Patriots’ missed tackles, overreliance on trick plays — a product of having a ragtag offense — and perplexing in-game decisions reflect a so-so team, the likes of which Belichick pummeled throughout the formative years of New England’s dynasty.
It’s natural to draw a straight line from Tom Brady’s departure to the Patriots’ 2020 struggles. More so with Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers looking like legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
But New England’s issues go well beyond the quarterback position, where Cam Newton has been nothing more than average. And they’re finally derailing a franchise that once seemed invincible.
In hindsight, the victory over Baltimore was overrated, a small battle in a war Belichick and the Patriots are losing rather definitively through 10 games. Not only did New England benefit from playing that Week 10 matchup in a monsoon at Gillette Stadium. The Ravens also further exposed themselves as frauds this week with a 30-24 overtime loss to the sputtering Tennessee Titans.
Truth is, we should’ve seen Sunday’s letdown from the Patriots coming — and maybe we did — because that’s what middle-of-the-road teams do: They suck you in with their perceived potential, occasionally flashing upside, only to lay an egg at the most inopportune times.
The optimist will tell you, even in wake of Sunday’s loss, not to write off the Patriots, for they’ve long figured out ways to bounce back in the face of adversity.
The realist will tell you it’s 2020, where change is all around us, and that the Patriots’ once-feared swagger is long gone.