By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — With an entertaining surge in the second half, the Patriots were well on their way on the road back to respectability on Sunday. A win in Buffalo, plus a win over the hapless Jets next week, and the Patriots would be back to .500. They may not be a Super Bowl contender or anything close to it, but they’d at least be a respectable team, firmly in the mix for a playoff berth.
But in an instant, the road to respectability turned into a crash and burn. Cam Newton’s fumble ended any hope of sniffing .500 for at least a month — and possibly for the rest of the season.
That goes to show just how little room for error the Patriots left themselves after faceplants at home vs. the Broncos and 49ers in back-to-back weeks.
And after Sunday’s loss to Buffalo, here are the realities facing the 2-5 New England Patriots.
—They’re currently in third place in the AFC East. The division crown is essentially out of reach, and with Miami’s win over the Rams on Sunday, the Patriots are now two games behind Miami for second place. Only the useless, winless Jets are worse than New England in the division.
–They’re currently in 13th place in the AFC. That’s unfamiliar territory for Bill Belichick’s team, which now finds itself behind Cincinnati, Denver and Cleveland in the conference.
–They’re 2.5 games out of the final playoff spot. Remember, the NFL introduced an expanded postseason in 2020. That means seven teams in each conference make the postseason, instead of six. That would have seemingly opened the door for the Patriots to at least participate in the postseason, but it’s not looking too good in that regard. They’e 2.5 games behind Cleveland for the final playoff spot in the AFC, and there are five teams between the Patriots and Browns.
–They’re still likely unable to land a top pick in the draft. Despite being so far out of the playoff race, they’re still a long way from landing a top-five pick, thanks to a slew of even worse teams out there in the league. A top 10 pick of their own would/will still be a rare occurrence in Foxboro, but there’s no way the Patriots will lose as much as the Jets, Giants or Jaguars to tumble into the top three.
–The Patriots have lost four straight games for the first time since 2002. Those four losses dropped the Patriots from 3-0 to 3-4. That team would not make the postseason in what was the only full season of Tom Brady’s career in which he didn’t make the postseason.
–The Patriots are three games under .500 for the first time since 2000. In Belichick’s first season in Foxboro, the Patriots lost their first four games, and they sat at 2-8 in mid-November before finishing the season with a 5-11 record.
Obviously, this is completely foreign territory to most folks in New England. Some fans who are now fully grown adults have spent their entire lives knowing nothing except a world where the Patriots compete for championships. Ever since that retooling season of 2000, the Patriots have been — well, the Patriots. Even in the two years they did not make the playoffs (2002, 2008), they finished in a tie atop the division and only lost out on the postseason by way of tiebreakers. And one of those years came with the backup QB under center.
But things have changed. The Patriots are 2-5. The division is long gone. The playoffs are a massive long shot. The schedule — with home dates vs. Baltimore and Arizona, plus trips to both L.A. teams and the suddenly legitimate Dolphins — doesn’t get easier.
After a down 2019 season, the departure of the greatest quarterback in NFL history, a stagnant offseason due to salary cap mismanagement, a half-dozen COVID-19 opt-outs, and the uncertainty and challenges that come along with a football season during a pandemic, expectations were lower than usual for Belichick’s team in 2020.
But lowered expectations in New England would generally be considered an 8-8 record, or maybe 7-9 at worst. If things turned sour, perhaps 6-10 entered the equation.
But a 2-5 record through eight weeks and the very real possibility of being 4-9 when they head to Miami near Christmas time? That was never in the cards, not even for the most pessimistic Patriots prognosticator.
Yet that’s the reality for the Patriots. After nearly 20 years on top, it had to end some day. Nobody knew it would be so calamitous.