By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
FOXBORO (CBS) — We must begin by stating what should be obvious: That was rock bottom. It can’t get much worse than that.
We understand the reasons and the reality of that situation, and we can feel comfortable saying that as long as the Patriots work in a practice or two before their next game, they can’t possibly look as flat and uninspired as they did on Sunday vs. the Denver Broncos.
Yet even if we accept that Sunday’s performance was as bad as bad will get, we still must alter the way we view the entirety of the Patriots’ 2020 season. With a 2-3 record here in the middle of October, the climb to the postseason — let alone a division title — just got a whole lot steeper.
Prior to Sunday, the Patriots had more or less run through their schedule according to plan. Wins over the Raiders and Dolphins, losses at Seattle and at Kansas City. That was mostly expected.
A loss at home to the Broncos? That was not on anyone’s itinerary. It’s just one game, of course, but the ripple effect is such that the margin for error has narrowed considerably for Bill Belichick’s team.
Next week against the Niners, who suddenly look competent again? Can’t really afford to drop that one and fall to 2-4, now can you? A Week 11 trip to Houston to face Deshaun Watson and the underwhelming Texans? Have to be your best there. The double-dip in L.A.? You absolutely cannot afford to drop both.
And those two big ones vs. the Bills? You’ll obviously need to sweep them if you want to even sniff the AFC East crown.
(All of that is of course assuming two wins against the Jets and a loss to the Ravens.)
On the one hand, an unexpected loss seems to happen every year. True. But they generally don’t come against a team that had only beaten the putrid Jets prior to their arrival in Foxboro, and they generally don’t put the team firmly in the lower-middle class of the NFL. In the past, the unexpected loss to an inferior opponent has been the difference between the AFC’s top seed and second seed. This year, the stakes feel much different.
Football seasons don’t ever play out according to plan, but the road map to 9-7 just became a lot clearer than it was before the Patriots blew a game against a bad Broncos team.
At the same time, provided the Patriots are through the worst of their COVID problems (that’s a huge assumption, of course), the team should be much better when we see them again next weekend against the 49ers. If not? Then you can be sure that the words spoken about the Cam Newton-led Patriots will grow quite grisly in a hurry.
That’s the future, though. And before we fully head there, we must confront the past. So let’s hit the leftover thoughts from the Broncos’ 18-12 win in Foxboro on Sunday.
–This is the wrong thought to have, maybe, because sports don’t work this way, yet it’s all I can think of: THE NEW YORK JETS SCORED 28 POINTS AGAINST THIS SAME BRONCOS TEAM.
Should I say it again? I think I’ll say it again.
THE NEW YORK (freaking) JETS SCORED 28 POINTS AGAINST THIS SAME BRONCOS TEAM.
Sure, sure. Six of those points came on a pick-six. OK. Whatever. Still! You may have had COVID-19 hit your team hard, and you may have had your already-thin offensive line lose the starting right tackle early, and you may have only practiced for a few hours total in the past two weeks. Got it. Roger that.
But you’re still not the JETS, a bum team that used its third-string left tackle and is objectively terrible. THAT team scored 28 points against the Broncos. The Patriots scored 12.
Obviously the transitive property doesn’t work in sports. Each game is its own entity.
–By almost every measure, the Patriots’ defense was not bad. Keeping an opponent out of the end zone for 60 minutes? Good. Stopping 10 out of 14 third downs? Also good. Holding the opposing QB to 10-of-24 passing? Really good. Making not one but two picks in the fourth quarter to help create a comeback chance? Excellent. Really.
Not a bad day, sure.
But there were still some individual plays that cumulatively felt like back breakers. That began when Jason McCourty got beat by Tim Patrick 1-on-1 up the right sideline on the opening possession.
That pitch-and-catch from Drew Lock to Patrick accounted for 41 of the Broncos’ 48 yards on that field goal drive.
Patrick again won a 1-on-1 battle later in the game up the right sideline, this one coming against J.C. Jackson and going for 35 yards on a third-and-21.
Timmy Toe Tap. 👣
— Denver Broncos (@Broncos) October 18, 2020
That turned what should have been a punt into a field goal drive that sucked nine minutes off the clock.
A third-and-1, Denver on its own 18-yard line late in the first quarter: Royce Freeman runs for 11 yards. Later on that same drive, a third-and-8 at the New England 38: Kyle Dugger gets beaten on a post by Albert Okwuegbunam for a killer gain of 27 yards.
That drive ended in … yes, a field goal.
Given all of the positives that the stat sheet shows, it’s very hard to get on the defense too much. Those plays — the drive extenders — nevertheless stand out after a loss.
–Cam Newton was bad, no doubt about it. At the same time, it’s not exactly a setup to succeed when your left tackle-turned-left-guard gets smoked so soundly off the line:
Cam probably should have pocketed that one at that point, but he probably wasn’t anticipating a mammoth human being in his grill about 1.3 seconds after taking the snap. That’s a tough way to pick up a notch in the INT column.
–Going to hit you with a positive from this one, and it goes by the name of Jonathan Jones. Here’s a supercut of Jones breaking up would-be touchdowns to Okwuegbunam. (Frankly I’m getting really tired of Googling “broncos okwuedgugbabanemen” and then copying and pasting the corrected result. That name is flat-out disrespectful to bozos such as myself.)
First drive of the game:
Second Broncos drive:
Third quarter in the red zone (WARNING: This play rocks):
Jones also had a ridiculously athletic interception. I hope people understand and respect how difficult that catch was to make.
That’s evident both in video form:
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 18, 2020
And in still photographs:
Great game for J. Jones, is what I’m saying.
–Damien Harris got the start at running back, and he got carries on the Patriots’ first two plays. That’s a positive step for the second-year mystery back.
He finished the game with just 19 yards on six carries. That wasn’t necessarily a positive step. The tide rises, the tide falls.
–There wasn’t much to write home about from the perspective of the Patriots’ offense, but I really liked this one play.
The defense has to respect the jet sweep to James White, and that gap between the D tackle and the defensive end was looking juicy as heck prior to the snap. A simple kickout block by the right guard takes care of the only defender in the area, and it’s free money from there.
That’s a good one for Josh McDaniels to have in his back pocket going forward.
–Is it a good thing or a bad thing that Cam Newton is a tougher receiver than the team’s first-round draft pick at the position?
Good thing? Bad thing? Hey I’ll leave the evaluating to the evaluators.
Kidding aside, that play was legitimately awesome. He adjusted to the throw, spun, made the catch while keeping momentum before spinning free of a tackle and staying upright while cutting up the sideline to move the chains.
–That completion, plus another pass to White for 22 yards, made Edelman’s already-sterling passing stats even better. Edelman is now 6-for-6 for 128 yards and a touchdown in the regular season, and he’s 1-for-2 for 51 yards and a touchdown in the playoffs. (His lone incompletion came during Super Bowl LI.)
Tally it up, and he’s got a … 158.3 passer rating. As in … perfect.
Hey, he was a quarterback in college. Perhaps you’d heard.
–Rookie linebacker Anfernee Jennings made a REAL BIG STRONG MAN tackle late in the first quarter:
Jennings clearly didn’t let the pandemic prevent him from lifting weights this offseason.
And speaking of good plays by young Patriots defenders, check out Chase Winovich’s recognition, pursuit, and finish on this one:
That man is saving the milk industry, one firm tackle at a time.
–Late in the first half, Edelman finally made his first catch of the day:
Oh, hardy har har, funny man!
–The Patriots’ last offensive play — an incompletion to N’Keal Harry — was of course no bueno. Cam says it’s his fault. He might just be doing the good teammate situation. It feels like Harry should have read the defense and thus broken to the outside at the top of his route.
— NFL Brasil (@NFLBrasil) October 18, 2020
As is often the case in these situations, it was probably a little bit of both. It’s too bad that the connection didn’t work, as Harry would have had the chance to break just one tackle and score what could have been the game-winning touchdown. That’s gotta sting, so it will be really interesting to see how Newton and Harry come out next week.
–It’s good to know The Cam Newton Rules are still in effect. Those rules, of course, state that late hits or helmet-to-helmet hits in the pocket or violet clubbings of the head of the QB do not result in flags, because Cam Newton is a large individual. It was a big deal back in 2015 and 2016, when Newton was “not old enough” to get calls based on the rulebook. And based on this clear late hit not drawing a penalty flag, the separate Cam rules are alive and well.
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) October 18, 2020
Cam had taken three steps out of bounds before Kareem Jackson leaped into Newton’s back.
It didn’t even matter much, because a personal foul penalty at the 8-yard line is merely a 4-yard penalty. It mattered only in the sense that the Newton Rulebook still lives.
–Matthew Slater: Wizard?
After he came flying in at the punter but somehow avoided even a light brushing … I’m just asking the question.
I guess a real wizard would have blocked it, scooped it, and scored it. Never mind.
–I said everything I need to say about Brandon McManus in this tweet:
I guess when you kick like 40 field goals in a game, accounting for 100% of your team's points in a road win, you're allowed to do whatever you want. STILL, Brandon McManus was PUSHING IT with his sauce level for postgame media availability. pic.twitter.com/ii7HgPRQoa
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) October 19, 2020
That is all.
–We’ll end with where we started. If the Patriots lose next weekend to the 49ers in what is a very losable game? Boy howdy. Folks around here have not seen anything like that since the year 2000, when Bill Belichick was flushing the system and laying the groundwork for his program.
As you’ve surely heard 11 million times by now, the Patriots are currently under .500 in October for the first time since 2002, when they were 3-4 through Week 8. They’d win five of their next six and salvage a 9-7 season, missing out on the playoffs on a tiebreaker.
Based on the total look of the Patriots this season and based on the difficulty of their schedule, a similar result is starting to appear more possible. A loss next week could paint the picture of something even worse.
That’s what’s on the line this week. Whatever excuses and explanations may have been applied to the Broncos’ loss, none will work next weekend, when the ever-handsome James Richard Garoppolo returns to Foxboro, coming off his best performance of the season.
It’s a big week coming up in Foxboro, the likes of which nobody has seen here in a very long time.