There’s a chance the Patriots exceed all expectations this season and wind up being pretty good. James White believes New England is “very underrated,” and we might agree with him.
But the 2023 season also could wind up looking a lot like the last three.
For many years, Bill Belichick has used the first few weeks of a campaign as an extended training camp, sacrificing early season success and efficiency for late-year excellence. Year in and year out, Patriots players and coaches talk about the importance of the team hitting its stride by Thanksgiving. And you don’t need a history lesson on how well that went for nearly two decades.
But the approach relies on two non-negotiable factors: New England can’t start too slowly, and it must finish well. It’s done neither of those things since Tom Brady left town.
In 2020, Cam Newton dragged the Patriots to a 2-5 start and a 1-3 finish, resulting in New England’s first non-playoff campaign since 2008. In 2021, with then-rookie Mac Jones under center, the Patriots started 2-4 before finishing 1-3 and getting their doors blown off in the first round of the postseason. Last season, New England started 1-3 and limped to a 2-5 finish, missing the playoffs for the second time in three years.
In all three seasons, the Patriots used a mid-season surge to keep themselves afloat. They enjoyed a 4-1 stretch in 2020, a seven-game winning streak in 2021 and a 5-1 run in 2022.
If the goal is to stay in the playoff picture, that level of inconsistency is fine. But it won’t cut it if the goal is to return to the days of not even thinking about the AFC standings and instead focusing on winning a Super Bowl.
So, can New England avoid repeating that pattern this season? It’s going to be tough. No matter which way you slice it, the Patriots face a very difficult road in 2023.
If you need a refresher, here’s the full schedule, which ranks as the third-toughest in the NFL:
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 10 vs. Philadelphia Eagles (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 17 vs. Miami Dolphins (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC)
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 24 at New York Jets (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 4: Sunday, Oct. 1 at Dallas Cowboys (4:25 p.m. ET, FOX)
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 8 vs. New Orleans Saints (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 15 at Las Vegas Raiders (4:05 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 22 vs. Buffalo Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 29, at Miami Dolphins (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 5 vs. Washington Commanders (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Week 10: Sunday, Nov. 12 vs. Indianapolis Colts in Germany (9:30 a.m. ET, NFL Network)
Week 11: Bye
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 26 at New York Giants (1 p.m. ET, FOX)
Week 13: Sunday, Dec. 3 vs. Los Angeles Chargers (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 14: Thursday, Dec. 7 at Pittsburgh Steelers (8:15 p.m. ET, Amazon Prime)
Week 15: Monday, Dec. 18 vs. Kansas City Chiefs (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 24 at Denver Broncos (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 31 at Buffalo Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS)
Week 18: Saturday/Sunday, Jan. 6/7 vs. New York Jets (TBD)
If you want to go glass-half-full, you could point toward the Patriots having all summer to prepare for the Eagles, 11 days to get ready for the Chiefs and the advantage of not going on the road to face either defending conference champion. Additionally, New England has a well-timed bye week and could benefit from another relatively soft stretch from Weeks 9 through 14. The Patriots also only will play on short rest once, compared to last season when they tied for the league lead with five short weeks.
But that’s where the good vibes end.
You easily could make the case for the Patriots starting 2-6, depending on what you think of the Dolphins and Raiders. Remember: Tua Tagovailoa is undefeated in four starts against New England, and Bill Belichick has gotten smoked by his former protegees in recent years. As for the end of the season, a best-case scenario might be a 2-2 finish. But 0-4 could be on the table if Sean Payton has the Broncos playing good football in December — the Patriots are just 3-3 in their last six trips to Denver — and Aaron Rodgers is doing Aaron Rodgers things for the Jets.
If the Patriots start 2-6 and finish, say, 1-3, they’d be 3-9 with five games unaccounted for. A perfect record in those matchups still would leave New England with a losing record. And even if the Patriots marginally outperform those projections, we still would be talking about a team just a game or two above .500.
Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Probably. Was that too much negativity before the Patriots even take the field for OTAs? Most definitely.
After all, you need only look at last season to remember that preseason expectations can age poorly. Just ask the Broncos, Raiders and Colts. Even the Chargers and Dolphins wound up being relative disappointments despite punching playoff tickets.
But it’s impossible to ignore what New England has done each of the last three years and how eerily similar 2023 looks on paper. If the Patriots want to play meaningful football in January, they must reverse what’s become the most alarming trend of the post-Brady era.