When you win six in a row, as the Patriots have, you necessitate both an adjustment of expectations and a reassessment of past performances.
So, let’s talk about those early season losses — two, in particular.
New England suffered a two-point loss to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 3 in a game many assumed it would get blown out in. The Patriots eked out a victory the next week against the Houston Texans before losing in overtime to Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys, leaving them 2-4 through six games.
Bill Belichick’s team should have beaten both the Bucs and Cowboys. The Patriots held fourth-quarter leads and ultimately were doomed by one play — missed field goal against Tampa; third-and-25 failure against Dallas — in both contests.
The results were divisive. Some, like this writer, saw both losses as further evidence of the Patriots’ continued, post-Tom Brady inability to win close games against upper-echelon teams — a hallmark of the Brady years. Others viewed the close defeats as reasons to believe the Patriots were on to something, and that a turnaround was inevitable, provided rookie quarterback Mac Jones continued playing well.
Unsurprisingly, the most level-headed group was Patriots players, who acknowledged their late-game execution shortcomings and refused to lean on moral victories but also insisted they were better than their record. They were right.
The criticisms after the Bucs and Cowboys losses were just, but the pessimistic tone probably wasn’t. Ultimately, it’s now difficult to look at those games as anything other than indicative of what was to come.
The Patriots haven’t lost since falling to the Cowboys, riding a six-game winning streak to the top of the AFC East and to within a game of the conference’s No. 1 seed.
They’ve outscored their opponents 211-63 during that streak, good for a laughable average score of 35-11. The offense has figured things out, now ranking seventh in the NFL in points per game (28). The defense is allowing a league-low 15.8 points per game despite the trading of Stephon Gilmore. With Nick Folk barely missing, Matthew Slater doing his thing and Gunner Olszewski maintaining his status as one of the game’s best punt returners, Patriots special teams look like, well, Patriots special teams. After posting a minus-3 turnover differential over the first six weeks, New England now is plus-10, second-highest in the NFL.
And their playoff odds have skyrocketed. After New England lost to the Cowboys, analytics website FiveThirtyEight gave the Patriots a 21% chance of making the playoffs, a 5% chance of winning the AFC East and a 0.4% chance of winning Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles. Now? Those numbers are 91%, 45% and 10%, respectively.
That’s not to say the Patriots don’t still have something to prove. They obviously do. The victories in their winning streak all carry caveats of varying sizes.
The New York Jets are terrible, and rookie quarterback Zach Wilson missed most of the game. New England’s offense did not play well against the Los Angeles Chargers. The Carolina Panthers received an all-time awful performance from Sam Darnold. The Cleveland Browns didn’t have Nick Chubb or Kareem Hunt. The Atlanta Falcons are a bad team and were without both Calvin Ridley and Cordarrelle Patterson. The Tennesee Titans played the Patriots tough on Sunday despite lacking Derrick Henry, Julio Jones, A.J. Brown and three linebackers. New England largely has dominated its opponents over the last six games, leaving the question of whether it can win a close against an elite team unanswered.
The good news: Next Monday night’s game against the Bills in Buffalo should serve as the final test. If the Patriots go into that environment and leave victorious, with a two-game lead in the division, there will be no more “yeah, buts” — regardless of style points. Of course, the conversation would change if they go on to lose to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 15 and to the Bills on Dec. 26.
But let’s cross that bridge if it’s ever built. For now, it’s clear the Patriots have reestablished themselves as true contenders in the wide-open AFC. The game has not passed Bill Belichick by; rather, he remains at the peak of his profession.
In hindsight, none of that should come as a surprise. The signs were there.