Before the New England Patriots hosted the Tom Brady and Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this month, team owner Robert Kraft lamented that that marquee matchup had to come so early in the season.
Even during the Brady era, it typically took the Patriots a few months to round into form — for the players to develop ideal chemistry and the coaches to determine how all of their pieces best fit together. New England’s wave of offseason additions — including a new rookie quarterback — only exacerbated that annual process.
“In some ways, it would be great if this game was happening 10, 12 games into the season when the new players have really matured and we have the chemistry,” Kraft said on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown.” “The team’s still evolving and developing.”
Two weeks later, that statement still rings true.
The 2021 Patriots do not look like a finished product. They’ve shown positive signs in all three phases — from Mac Jones’ play behind center to Matt Judon’s historic sack pace to Nick Folk’s near-perfect performance on field goals — but have just as many flaws.
Their defense looks elite on some drives and porous on others. Their cornerback depth is paper-thin. They’re turning the ball over far too frequently. They’ve struggled to score in the first quarter and in the red zone — and overall, for that matter, ranking 26th in points per game.
“Around here, we’ve always taken October and November to see what you have as a team, a defense, an offense,” cornerback Jonathan Jones said Wednesday. “You’ve got the trade deadline still ahead of you, so you’re still building as a team. And this defense, we have a lot of guys — we have what we need in the room, obviously — but we’re still building. You want to build that consistency.”
Some of these shortcomings could and likely will improve as the weeks pass and the Patriots’ new-look roster continues to coalesce. But if they hope to compete for a playoff spot in the competitive AFC, they don’t have much more time to wait.
The Patriots currently sit at 2-3. Their only wins to date came over two of the NFL’s worst teams — the New York Jets and Houston Texans — and one of those required a 13-point second-half comeback.
Though they put forth an admirable effort against Brady’s Bucs — losing 19-17 in the rain after missing a 56-yard field goal in the final minute — and likely would have beaten the Miami Dolphins in Week 1 if not for a late Damien Harris fumble, the Patriots have yet to prove they can defeat a legitimate, postseason-caliber opponent. They’re also 0-3 in home games, a drastic pivot that wide receiver Jakobi Meyers called “unacceptable.”
They’ll get another chance this weekend when the 4-1 Dallas Cowboys come to town.
After their own narrow loss to Tampa in their season opener, the Cowboys have blitzed through the rest of their early-season schedule, ripping off consecutive wins over the Los Angeles Chargers, Philadelphia Eagles, Carolina Panthers and New York Giants. Their offense — ranked second in the NFL in scoring behind the Buffalo Bills — has put up 41, 36 and 44 points in the last three games, numbers the Patriots’ Jones-led attack hasn’t even approached this season.
Quarterback Dak Prescott — an early MVP candidate — is surrounded by a dizzying array of weapons, from receivers Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb to running backs Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard and emerging tight end Dalton Schultz, whom Bill Belichick noted actually leads Dallas in receptions through five games. (Belichick opened his Wednesday news conference with a nearly five-minute salute to the Cowboys’ talent.)
“They have depth at every position,” Jones said. “They have receivers that can get open, running backs that run hard, and their O-line — I mean, they’ve been one of the top O-lines for years. So we’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’re ready for the challenge.”
The Cowboys also boast a much-improved defense that ranks sixth in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and features some stud young playmakers, like cornerback Trevon Diggs (NFL-high six interceptions) and rookie linebacker/defensive end Micah Parsons (2 1/2 sacks, 10 QB hits).
“They’ve got a lot of good players,” Meyers said. “A lot of good young players, too, mixed in with some vets. That’s definitely a good combination. (They’re) a fast defense, a defense that makes a lot of turnovers. They’re definitely a great defense. I’m excited to play against them. You want to go against the best when you play in this league.”
Simply put, the Cowboys are good. Now’s the time to find out if the Patriots are, too.
If they can do to this high-powered Dallas offense what they did to the Brady and Co., while also building on some of the offensive strides they made against Houston, they are very capable of pulling an upset at Gillette Stadium. But they’ll need the type of complete performance they have yet to deliver this season.
(Back in 2019, the Patriots held a top-ranked Cowboys offense without a touchdown in a cold, wet 13-9 win, but that was with Stephon Gilmore erasing Cooper, who finished without a catch. With Gilmore now in Carolina, they won’t have that luxury this week.)
“When I say we’re going to be a good football team, we’re going to have to prove it,” Judon said. “We’re going to have to prove it as a unit, as a team, as a position group. We’ve got to prove it. It?s not going to be given to us.”
With an easily winnable home game against the New York Jets up next on the schedule, a victory Sunday could help springboard the Patriots back above .500 for the first time since last September. After that brief reprieve, they face the Chargers, Panthers and Cleveland Browns in a three-game stretch that could determine whether they’ll be in the hunt or playing out the string come December.