Why Patriots’ 1-3 Start Isn’t Death Sentence For Playoff Hopes

The Patriots are off to another rough start

by

October 5

Four weeks into the 2021 NFL season, the New England Patriots were 1-3, coming off a narrow loss to a heavily favored legendary quarterback with a handful of winnable games on the horizon. They went on to rebound from that inauspicious start to win 10 games and make the playoffs.

We’re now at the same point in the 2022 campaign. The Patriots’ record? 1-3, coming off a narrow loss to a heavily favored legendary quarterback with a handful of winnable games on the horizon.

It’s not a perfect comparison, admittedly.

Most notably, these Patriots, who took Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to overtime at Lambeau Field last week before losing 27-24, currently are without their starting quarterback (Mac Jones, ankle) and his primary backup (Brian Hoyer, concussion). Until one of those two recovers, they’re expected to roll with fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe, who displayed admirable composure and moxie in Green Bay but also some obvious limitations.

The odds of New England ripping off a ’21-esque midseason win streak would be considerably higher with a healthy Jones, and as of Wednesday morning, it was unclear how much longer his high ankle sprain would keep him sidelined. But if a Zappe-led squad can stage the kind of upset bid it put forth this past Sunday — leads in all four quarters, never trailing by more than four, possession near midfield with the chance to win in overtime as 9.5-point underdogs — then the Patriots are capable of capitalizing on the soft stretch in its schedule regardless of who’s behind center.

Here’s how the next seven weeks look for Bill Belichick’s club:

Week 5: vs. Detroit Lions

Week 6: at Cleveland Browns

Week 7: vs. Chicago Bears (Monday night)

Week 8: at New York Jets

Week 9: vs. Indianapolis Colts

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: vs. New York Jets

Few obvious pushover opponents exist for the post-Tom Brady Patriots, but New England should be favored in most, if not all of those games, even if Jones continues to miss time:

— Detroit’s offense is shockingly electric (first in points scored, yards per game and yards per carry), but its defense is a dumpster fire (last in points allowed and yards allowed, and close to it in nearly every other category). Dan Campbell is building something in the Motor City, but the Lions are just 4-16-1 in his head-coaching tenure.

— The Browns have an excellent backfield tandem in Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt but will have Jacoby Brissett at QB, with the Patriots just missing the end of Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension. Cleveland also faced a cupcake schedule in the opening month.

— The Bears are in the running for the NFL’s worst team despite their deceptive 2-2 record. Justin Fields, picked four spots ahead of Jones last year, somehow is averaging just 8.5 completions and 117.8 yards per game as he operates the league’s meekest passing attack.

— The Jets are the Jets, and the Patriots get to face them twice in a four-week span.

— The 1-2-1 Colts have been a major disappointment thus far. Viewed as a strong playoff contender after swapping out Carson Wentz for Matt Ryan, they’ve instead been an unmitigated mess offensively, rankings dead last in scoring offense and Football Outsiders’ offense DVOA and 31st in expected points added per play. They tied the Texans and were blown out by the upstart Jaguars, and now they’re dealing with injuries to two of their best players (running back Jonathan Taylor and linebacker Shaquille Leonard).

Four of the Patriots’ next five opponents rank 18th or worse in total DVOA, which measures overall efficiency, with the Jets (25th), Bears (27th) and Colts (32nd) all occupying spots in the bottom eight. The lone exception is Cleveland, which sits 12th.

Again, none of these games should be viewed as layups for New England, which is dealing with more concerns than just QB availability (shaky play at linebacker and right tackle, leaky run defense, ongoing coaching questions, etc.). But it’s also not difficult to envision the Patriots emerging from this seven-week run at, around or even above .500. That would keep them squarely in the playoff mix in the deep, competitive AFC.

The Patriots’ brutal home stretch — at Minnesota, vs. Buffalo, at Arizona, at Las Vegas, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Miami, at Buffalo — might extinguish those postseason hopes. But it would be premature to already write this season off as a long cause. Of the 14 teams that qualified for last year’s playoffs, three began the season 1-3.

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Thumbnail photo via Dan Powers/USA TODAY Sports Images
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