By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — We should all be able to reasonably agree that there is no sports term misused more than “must-win.” In reality, the only games that are “must-win” are the ones where a team faces elimination if they lose. Everything else? Everything else is a “want-to-win,” or a “would-benefit-greatly-from-winning,” or “would-avoid-a-lot-of-trouble-with-a-win.”

Those are admittedly not quite as catchy as “must-win,” and so the term lives on, even if it’s poorly applied in most situations.

With that important matter now settled, we can say this: Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium BORDERS ON MUST-WIN TERRITORY for the New England Patriots.

(See how we slunk right around that malapropism? That’s what being a professional is all about, kiddos.)

Obviously, if the Patriots lose on Sunday, their season won’t be over. They’ll be 1-3, which yes, is not ideal. But we’ve seen enough 10-0 runs and 8-2 runs and 9-1 runs and the like over the years from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady that only the most foolish of fools would declare the Patriots to be D-E-A-D dead after four weeks of the football season.

Heck (sorry for the language), history shows that the Patriots always get better as the year goes on. With Brady under center, the Patriots have:

A .692 winning percentage in September
A .788 winning percentage in October
A .754 winning percentage in November
An .841 wining percentage in December

September struggles are nothing new, and the Patriots have overcome them before. They haven’t been 1-3 in a successful season since 2001, but that history at least provides some reason to believe the entire season will not be lost if the Patriots lose this coming weekend.

But it’s close.

Here’s why.

THE SCHEDULE DOESN’T EVER GET EASY

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Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers (Photos by David Eulitt/Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Given the year-to-year fluctuations that are commonplace in the NFL, sometimes your first-place schedule isn’t terrible. This is not one of those years.

After Sunday, the Patriots will have a short turnaround before they welcome the Colts on the following Thursday night. Those early-season Thursday night games are always a challenge, especially when the offense and defense aren’t particularly functioning at full capacity.

After that, the Patriots welcome the Kansas City Chiefs to town for Sunday Night Football. The Chiefs currently have the NFL’s best offense, and we saw a year ago how easily Andy Reid’s team could stomp the Patriots in Foxboro. And that was with Alex Smith at QB. With Patrick Mahomes throwing lasers all over the field, that game won’t be easy.

The Bears and the Bills in Weeks 7 and 8 should be wins (right?), before Aaron Rodgers and the Packers visit Gillette in Week 9, once again on national TV. That will be the Patriots’ fifth prime-time game in a span of seven weeks, or their fourth in a span of five weeks, or their second straight. And it’ll be on a short week, after playing the previous Monday night in Buffalo. Facing Rodgers is tough enough, but fatigue figures to be a factor at that point for the Patriots as well.

The Patriots then have to go to Nashville to face the Titans. After a bye week and a trip to New Jersey to play the Jets, they welcome Minnesota to town. Even though the Vikings were stunned by the Bills in Week 3, it would be safe to expect that defense to remain one of the NFL’s best for the balance of this season.

Week 14 brings the always-difficult game in Miami (the Patriots are 1-4 in Miami since 2013), followed by a trip to Pittsburgh.

So as you can see, while we can all sit here and say “falling to 1-3 won’t kill the Patriots, because they’ve always proven to be capable of reeling off 10 straight wins,” it just seems like an especially daunting task this year, given the competition.

THE HEAD-TO-HEAD WILL MATTER

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Dolphins players celebrate a touchdown. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

I, along with every other sentient human being in the universe, predicted that the Patriots would be able to waltz their way to a division title in 2018, no matter how many issues they may have. That still may end up being true, but none of us accounted for a 3-0 start from the Miami Dolphins. And if that start improves to 4-0, with a head-to-head win over the Patriots mixed in? The task for the Patriots to win the AFC East becomes actually quite difficult.

Of course, we could look at recent Dolphins history or Ryan Tannehill’s uninspiring career and forecast some rough spells ahead for the high-flying Dolphins. Their schedule the rest of the way is no picnic, either.

But if the Patriots lose this game, they’ll be three games behind Miami with 11 games to play, and they will have the disadvantage of having lost the head-to-head meeting. (Head-to-head is the first tiebreaker for playoff scenarios.) A loss on Sunday will nudge the Week 14 meeting between the Patriots and Dolphins in Miami into BORDERLINE MUST-WIN TERRITORY, and we’ve already pointed out how poor the Patriots’ record in Miami has been (for mysterious, inexplainable reasons). The Patriots don’t want to put themselves in a position where they have to win in Miami later in the year. Even great Patriots teams (2001, 2004, 2014) fell flat in those games. It’s just been a bugaboo for Belichick and Brady through the years, which puts an added emphasis on winning the home game vs. the Dolphins.

THEY’VE ALREADY “USED UP” TWO OF THEIR LOSSES

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Bill Belichick (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images)

In a way, this point goes hand in hand with the schedule. But think back to the preseason, when we all looked ahead at the upcoming year and tried to lay out our predictions. Vegas set the over/under for wins at 11. Most people reasonably predicted 11-5 or 12-4. (The Patriots have averaged a 13-3 record since 2010.) And as we laid out the aforementioned slate of opponents, it appeared that a quartet or perhaps a quintet of losses could be found therein.

But through three weeks, the Patriots have already “used up” two of those losses, in a manner of speaking. Which is to say, if we all felt as though the team should or would lose maybe five games over the course of 17 weeks, the team has already managed to pick up two losses.

A third loss on Sunday would really eliminate the margin of error going forward for the rest of the season. Maybe this year’s team is good enough to play with that reality hanging over them. Maybe Belichick will use it to his advantage to keep everyone’s focus sharp. Maybe the return of Julian Edelman and the introduction of Josh Gordon to a mostly stagnant offense will bring about the change that’s necessary, and the team will look completely different starting in Week 5.

But, well, maybe not. Maybe the Patriots are a lot more like other teams in the NFL. Maybe there won’t be a magical run, one that can’t be foreseen and one that defies explanation. The Patriots may have some more Brady/Belichick magic in them, or they may be facing the struggles that every other team in the NFL faces. One of those two scenarios is bankable — and as a hint, it’s not the one that involves magic.

HISTORY

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Patrick Chung and Jonathan Jones (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)

This is admittedly a bit specious, as it involves different players and coaches and eras and stadiums and everything else. But it also can’t be ignored.

Since 2001, the Patriots are 15-2 at home against the Dolphins. Most of those wins have been blowouts, too; the average score of the 17 games has been Patriots 27, Dolphins 15. And one of those two losses was essentially on purpose (the 2005 Doug Flutie “dropkick game”) so that the Patriots could get the Jaguars in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

But, in what is surely not a coincidence, the last time the Patriots lost at home to the Dolphins was 2008, which was also the last time that the Patriots did not make the playoffs. Being able to beat the Dolphins — no matter who was coaching or playing quarterback or any other position — has been a prerequisite for Patriots teams during the Brady/Belichick era.

While Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams won’t be shocking the Matt Cassel-led Patriots with any Wildcat formations this weekend, the nine straight Patriots wins over the Dolphins in Foxboro feels relevant to the conversation.

If the Patriots lose, at home, to the Dolphins, then there will be no denying that this year’s September struggle is a whole lot different than anything the Patriots have experienced before.

On the flip side, a Patriots victory over the Dolphins — and a comfortable one at that — will go a long way toward restoring order and balance, in quelling fears that things may be slipping, and in building up the confidence for this year’s Patriots.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

Comments (4)
  1. Ed DeSalle says:

    Patriots are on their way out. NEW sheriff in town. Sorry!

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