Are Patriots Exceeding Expectations, Underperforming Or Both This Season?

The 2020 Patriots don't really make any sense


December 2, 2020

The New England Patriots are complete enigmas in their first season of the post-Tom Brady era.

The Patriots are 5-6 and one win — against a 3-8 Los Angeles Chargers team — away from a .500 record and a more legitimate shot at the postseason. They’ve upset two good teams in the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals but played down to their competition in losses to the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans and in a too-close win over the dismal New York Jets.

Defeats at the hands of the Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills — both current division leaders — also came down to the final drive. The Patriots’ 26-10 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs (with Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham at quarterback) was closer than the score would indicate.

It’s also worth noting that the Patriots’ two most recent impressive wins came in a monsoon against the Ravens and against a Cardinals team whose quarterback, Kyler Murray, didn’t totally look like himself because of a shoulder injury. That doesn’t mean those wins should be discounted. But it’s worth mentioning, right?

The Patriots are a couple of plays away from being 8-3 — or 3-8. They’re overachievers who have also managed to underperform. They’re neither a good bad team nor a bad good team because the 2020 Patriots are neither bad nor good though certain pundits have labeled the Patriots as a bad team.

The Patriots have a bad roster. That’s unequivocal, but it’s also different. Players like James Ferentz, Donte Moncrief, Terez Hall, Nick Thurman, Tashawn Bower, Carl Davis, Myles Bryant, Isaiah Mack, Akeem Spence and Xavier Williams have been added off of the street or practice squad and thrust into key roles. They don’t have a pass-catching tight end. Their No. 2 wide receiver was no more than a No. 4 or 5 on previous teams. What should be their biggest strength, a secondary led by Stephon Gilmore, has been inconsistent at best and disappointing at worst.

That doesn’t necessarily make the Patriots a bad team, though. They’re a team that is exceeding expectations despite a dearth of talent. If anything, that makes them a pretty good team that has been coached beyond its reasonable means.

Their biggest strength is the offensive line, and they do one thing very, very well, and that’s run the ball. They’re first in both expected points added (EPA) and success rate on designed runs. They’re 25th in EPA on dropbacks, 28th in EPA against dropbacks and 21st in EPA against the run. The Patriots, overall, are 23rd in Football Outsiders’ total DVOA.

It’s an impossible and fruitless endeavor to try to predict how the Patriots will perform for the rest of the season. That’s why, on NESN’s weekly Pregame Chat, I just keep picking the over/under. I’m 8-3 on the season. I guarantee that would not be the case if I was betting lines because every game with the Patriots is a crapshoot.

If the first 12 weeks of the season are any indication, then the Patriots will probably stink against the Chargers and New York Jets and play competitively against the Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills.

Maybe the Patriots will figure it out down the stretch. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that their rushing attack could carry them on offense, and their defense could round back into shape with cornerback Stephon Gilmore on the field. A playoff run is still in the cards. Wins over the Dolphins, Ravens and Las Vegas Raiders help in potential tie-breakers. Future wins over the Bills and Dolphins would be similarly valuable.

Or maybe those wins over the Ravens and Cardinals really were flukes.

But, if nothing else, the Patriots are fairly entertaining, because unlike past squads, the results of their contests are anything but predetermined.

For now, the Patriots are a mediocre team with a bad roster that’s playing up and down to its competition and confounding oddsmakers along the way. They’re a paradox. And with a win this week, they’ll be back up to average.

Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images
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