By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) — Admit: As recently as last Saturday, you were mapping out the Patriots’ course to an 11-5 season. It’s OK.

Beat the Broncos, easy. Handle the 49ers, who are an injured mess. Boom, 4-2. Split the two with the Bills, sweep the Jets, win three out of four in the Texans/Cardinals/Chargers/Rams stretch. That lets you go 1-1 vs. Baltimore and Miami, and hey, 11 wins. Same as always, baby.

Yet if the last eight days have done anything, they’ve served as a reminder that things can change in an instant in the NFL. And now instead of a road map to 11 wins and a division title, it’s a very real look of staring down the barrel at 2-5, with the season basically crashing down before Halloween.

My initial reaction was that even those of us who anticipated a sizable step back for the 2020 Patriots didn’t quite see this comingThis is a bit much.

So where do they go from here? Honestly, it’s hard to say. We’ll get there, though. For now, we might as well look back at that 33-6 thumping at the hands of the 49ers to see what in the world is going on.

–Nope, just checked. There are no answers on film.

OK, just kidding. NOW it’s leftover thoughts time.

–The run defense was atrocious, obviously. But don’t let the breakdowns on San Francisco passing plays off the hook.

First drive of the game, fifth play of the game. I’m honestly not sure who would be responsible for Deebo Samuel coming off this fake jet sweep action, but surely it should have been somebody, right?

23-yard catch-and-run from Deebo Samuel (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Very next snap: Rookie Anfernee Jennings thinks it’s going to be a pass behind the LOS for Brandon Aiyuk. Rookie Anfernee Jennings completely abandons all-world tight end George Kittle.

Rookie Anfernee Jennings made a mistake:

George Kittle makes a 15-yard catch. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

One would think — on the fake National Tight Ends Day, no less! — that covering No. 85 would have been a point of emphasis for the team in blue. Yet on the sixth play of the game, he was left all alone.

And while the Niners’ passing offense didn’t need to do a whole lot, there was also this breakdown in the third quarter, when it looked like Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones weren’t on the same page (or reading the same book) when it came to switching assignments off a pick route:

Brandon Aiyuk makes a 35-yard reception. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

For all of the Patriots’ issues, their secondary should be a point of strength. But they have the NFL’s fourth-worst defense when it comes to yards allowed per passing play. They’re not giving up a ton of touchdowns and they’re making a lot of interceptions, so it’s far from a total disaster. But it’s definitely been underwhelming.

–The Cam Newton thing is perplexing. He was legitimately good to start the season. Dual threat, fearless, confident. Since returning from the COVID list, he barely looks like an NFL quarterback at all. It’s baffling, really.

One thing I noticed was that it seemed like there might have been instructions to Cam to run less. At least, that’s what I gleaned when he had THIS MUCH open space staring him in the face …

Cam Newton on the Patriots’ opening drive (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

… and here’s one more look at the large running window …

Cam Newton on the Patriots’ opening drive (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

… but he chose to hang in the pocket and look for a receiver. And guess what happened? He missed the brief window to hit N’Keal Harry, and he ended up taking off running anyway. After the long delay and dance in the pocket, it went for just a gain of four:

Cam Newton scrambles for four yards. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Instead of a new set of downs, the Patriots faced a third-and-4. They came up a yard short and settled for a field goal.

That play struck me as odd, and it looked like Newton was doing much more thinking in the pocket than he should be. While he cannot run every play and take that beating … a vacated field seems like the right time to pull the trigger.

–While Newton didn’t actually deal with symptoms from COVID, the time away from the team clearly set him back. 

Newton’s passer rating pre-COVID list: 89.7
Newton’s passer rating post-COVID: 43.2

The Denver game kind of made sense. Getting worse after a week of practice? Not so much.

–And maybe this isn’t surprising, but Sunday’s 39.7 passer rating was the third-worst single-game mark for Cam Newton in his career. He was worse against New Orleans in 2014 (10-for-28, 151 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) and against Atlanta in 2017 (14-for-34, 180 yards, 1 TD, 3 INTs). The passer rating formula is kind of silly, though, because 9-for-15 for 98 yards with no touchdowns and three picks seems worse than those games.

–Tight End George Kittle vs. Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, man-to-man, third-and-11, first quarter:

George Kittle vs. Stephon Gilmore (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

George Kittle, you’re a monster, buddy. That ain’t right.

–While Patriots fans are no doubt bummed out after that drubbing, at least they don’t have to hear about how great and wonderful Jimmy Garoppolo is, right? In this blowout win, Jimmy was … Jimmy. Which is to say he was there, he was handsome, and he didn’t screw everything up for his team. That’s kind of his thing.

He did sort of seem to try his best to mess things up though, didn’t he? I mean, Jimmy. James. What are we doing here?

Yuck, buddy.

–Jimmy putting this Oscar-worthy Superman dive on tape was rude.

Jimmy Garoppolo dives to draw a 15-yard penalty. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Credit to Chase Winovich, though, for standing up for himself. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that Belichick was informing Winovich that Garoppolo was 10 miles from the play and thus the block was completely unnecessary, while Winovich was arguing that it was a flop of the highest degree.

Chase Winovich and Bill Belichick (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

While Belichick is still correct in this instance, it’s nevertheless interesting to see a young, second-year player stand up for himself on the sideline like that.

In what may be a related story, Winovich played a season low 19.7 percent of the Patriots’ defensive snaps, after playing in a season-low 34.4 percent of the team’s defensive snaps a week ago.

–Back to Cam: Even when he made the right read Sunday, it was a step too late. Case in point: the final play of the first quarter, when N’Keal Harry suffered a concussion. The pass was a hospital ball in the truest sense of the term, and it took Harry off the field for at least the rest of Sunday’s game and possibly longer.

Cam was staring at Harry right from the snap and knew he was open, but he took an extra second to release the pass, allowing the safety to close on the receiver and jar the ball loose with a violent hit.

N’Keal Harry suffers a concussion after trying to make a catch. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Now, that really should have been a 15-yard penalty for a hit to the head on a defenseless receiver, but that’s beside the point. A flag wouldn’t have kept Harry from suffering that injury, and while the pass was on the money, it was just a second late, thereby bringing about some very terrible results.

–Newton’s pick on the throw to Julian Edelman was likewise a late decision. Edelman was in position to make a catch, but Newton didn’t throw to him, so Edelman tried to move to find more space at the same time that Newton made the late decision to uncork a pass.

Cam Newton’s third interception vs. San Francisco (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

That stunk. At least nobody got hurt.

–Jarrett Stidham, once tabbed as the great and obvious successor to Tom Brady (for some unknown reason) has thrown 27 passes in the NFL. Four of them have been intercepted. 

That would be … 14.8 percent of his NFL passes getting picked off.

Incredible.

He does have one touchdown though … a touchdown that came immediately after he threw an interception which was called off for a penalty.

Cue the picture!

(I do not think that Jarrett Stidham is going to be the great successor to Tom Brady. Maybe that’s just me.)

–Maybe this is mean, I don’t know. I do know it is the truth, though.

Here’s a play from Denver on Sunday:

Failed flea flicker in Denver (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

The Patriots lost to that team.

That one kinds of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

–One more thing on Cam: I want to show you four different passes that show two different quarterbacks.

Here’s a pass late in the first half:

Cam Newton strike to Jakobi Meyers (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

That was perfection. Standing tall in the pocket, making multiple reads, stepping up to buy time, then delivering an absolute bullet for a perfect strike where only his receiver could make the catch. Tremendous play from Cam.

But it didn’t count. Holding on Joe Thuney.

How did Cam respond? With this:

Cam Newton to Jakobi Meyers for 20 yards. (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

Another perfect play. Patience in the pocket, and precision and velocity on the pass. A 20-yard gain.

That’s the quarterback we saw for the first three weeks of the year.

Then, the very next play … this:

Newton had a clean pocket, and he had James White releasing into the flat as a safety valve.

Cam Newton’s interception (Screen shot from NFL.com/GamePass)

Instead he launched a long bomb to Meyers, with two defenders back to make a play on the ball. It was, in a word, terrible.

The fourth pass in this miniseries came on the Patriots’ previous drive. Third-and-4 at the New England 38. Damiere Byrd is open on a simple hitch to move the chains. Newton sees him. Newton throws. Aaaand …

Cam Newton incompletion to Damiere Byrd (GIF from NFL.com/GamePass)

There’s a lot going on with Newton. Perhaps too much. It’s probably time for Josh McDaniels and crew to simplify the offense, get back to what worked, and then try a second time to build from there. Because this current direction is busted.

In other words, the Patriots need to unplug and plug themselves back in again. Sometimes, the simplest fix is the best.

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

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