FOXBORO, Mass. — After the New England Patriots’ Week 1 loss, they were presented with an ideal get-right opportunity: a tasty matchup against the New York Jets and their rookie quarterback, Zach Wilson. They capitalized, rolling to a 25-6 victory.
The Patriots won’t get the Jets — or the Jacksonville Jaguars, or the Houston Texans — after Sunday’s 28-13 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. They’ll get the GOAT.
Next up for New England is the matchup that’s been circled on calendars since May, perhaps the most anticipated regular-season game in NFL history: the Patriots hosting Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the legendary quarterback’s return to Gillette Stadium.
The Bucs aren’t unbeatable. The Los Angeles Rams proved that Sunday afternoon, dispatching Brady’s troops 34-24 to hand Tampa Bay its first loss since last November. But for the Patriots to topple the defending Super Bowl champs, they’ll need to play a whole lot better than they did in their latest outing.
The Patriots’ issues against New Orleans were myriad. As head coach Bill Belichick said, his team was “inconsistent in every area.”
They couldn’t move the ball early, going three-and-out on their first three offensive possessions. They couldn’t run the ball at all; quarterback Mac Jones finished as their leading rusher with 26 yards. They couldn’t protect Jones, allowing nine QB hits in the first half and 11 overall. They scored just one touchdown and couldn’t find the end zone in their lone red-zone visit, dropping their success rate there to a league-worst 2-for-8. After two turnover-free games, Jones threw three interceptions.
Jonnu Smith had as many drops that resulted in a pick-six (one) as catches on his six targets. Fellow tight end Hunter Henry jumped offsides on fourth-and-1, killing a promising two-minute drill late in the first half.
Running back James White, arguably the Patriots’ best offensive player through two weeks, was carted off with a hip injury and could miss significant time. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave his replacement, Brandon Bolden, three handoffs inside the Saints’ 25-yard line that gained a total of -1 yard.
The Patriots’ defense, excellent for much of the second half (the Saints’ first three drives after halftime traveled 16, -1 and -8 yards), folded late, surrendering a back-breaking 13-play, 75-yard, nearly seven-minute touchdown drive after a Kendrick Bourne touchdown reception had cut New England’s deficit to eight.
Oh, and the Patriots also committed two special teams penalties to go along with a blocked punt and Jake Bailey’s second out-of-bounds kickoff in as many games.
Slot cornerback Jonathan Jones summed up the loss well in his postgame news conference.
“It’s a reality check for us,” Jones said. “At this point, we need to find out who we want to be, what team we want to be. Are we going to come together or just lay down? At the end of the day, this is up to us to decide.”
And they’ll need to decide quickly. The Patriots currently sit at 1-2 on the season — not a desirable start, certainly, but one Bill Belichick’s teams have overcome in the past. (In fact, the last three times the Patriots opened 1-2, they either won the Super Bowl or lost in the AFC Championship Game.) 1-3, though, would be a tough hole to climb out of.
Of the 473 NFL teams that lost three of their first four games in previous seasons, just 41 went on to make the playoffs, according to Radar360 — a rate of about 8.7 percent. The league adding an additional wild-card spot for each conference last year skews those historical odds a bit, but the point remains:
The Patriots need to start winning games, and their next opponent is their toughest yet — by far.
“It’s coming down to the point in the season, like, you’ve got to do it,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said. “When we talk about a lot of different things each week, we kind of live off of what the Patriots have done in the past with the fast starts and all of that. But for this team, we’ve got to go do those things, and we’ve got to stop talking about it and getting it done.
“Obviously, we’ll have a huge test Sunday coming in — we’ll have Tampa coming in here who’ll be ready to go. … We are going to be playing a good team. Those guys are coming here as defending champs. So all those things we talked about, you want to have a test and see if you can get it done. We’ll definitely get that Sunday night.”
Can the Patriots respond? The answer to that question will define their season.
“I’ve been here 10 years,” Bolden said. “We’ve done this before. … We’re way better than that, and we know we are.”