By Matthew Geagan, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Patriots are reallllllly in a bind now. At 6-7 with just three weeks left in the regular season, their chances of making the playoffs are next to zero.
Those chances are actually two percent, which means it’s more probable than not that we won’t be getting any playoff football come January. So with very little to play for — other than pride — Bill Belichick and company should be in “Asset Evaluation Mode” the rest of the way. They’re going to still try to win games, but they should focus more on what they have for the future.
Cam Newton is still the starter, but expect the team to take a good look at Jarrett Stidham in game action in the coming weeks. The game plans should also call for more attention to N’Keal Harry, Jakobi Meyers and the pair of rookie tight ends on the roster. And it’s time to take the training wheels off the rookies on defense and really let them loose.
It doesn’t guarantee winning football or even, at the very least, watchable football. But after taking a gigantic step back throughout the season, the Patriots should be focused on the future more than the present.
Here’s what we’ll be watching for when the Patriots take the field against a tough opponent in the Dolphins down in Miami:
Show Me What You Got
The rest of the season should be all about teaching and evaluating the many young players on the roster. On defense, we want to see Josh Uche set his sights on the quarterback. We’d like to see Anfernee Jennings make some stuffs at the line. We want to see Kyle Dugger keep delivering hits like a heat-seeking missile. We want to see Myles Bryant continue the trend of undrafted corners succeeding in the New England defense.
On offense, they should be targeting Harry as much as possible, to see what the second-year wide out can offer next season. Jakobi Meyers has calmed down a bit since his mid-season breakout, so it would be nice to see him turn in some big afternoons over the next three weeks. And we’re eager to see something — anything — from Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, whose rookie seasons have been nearly nonexistent due to injuries and inactivity.
With the results on the scoreboard no longer important, it’s imperative for the Patriots to identify which players fit in their future plans, and which do not. With no preseason, now is the time for rookies and younger players to get some very meaningful playing time, even if the game they’re playing in doesn’t mean all that much.
Jarrett Stidham is at the top of the list when it comes to players the Patriots need to see in action. But Bill Belichick has made it clear on a number of occasions that Cam Newton is his starting quarterback.
However, just because Cam is getting the starts doesn’t mean he’s going to finish games. And we’ll see just how long Newton’s leash is should he struggle in the first half on Sunday and going forward. Going up against one of the NFL’s best scoring defenses, with Miami allowing just 18.8 points per game this season, Newton probably won’t generate much on Sunday. This is a much better Dolphins defense than he saw back in Week 1.
At this point, we know what Cam Newton is: He’s a supremely talented running quarterback who is struggling to throw the ball with any sort of consistency, and is prone to making a game-losing turnover. That was his scouting report coming into the season so not much has changed, though his running has been a lot better than advertised while his arm has been much, much worse.
Stidham has been somewhere between decent and uninspiring in his relief appearances this season. He essentially looks like a second-year QB who had barely any training camp and no preseason, relying on practice time and his brief stints to show coaches what he’s got. For the year, Stidham has completed 18 of his 33 attempts (55 percent) for 212 yards, two touchdowns and three picks. He’s gone turnover-free in his last two appearances, going 7-for-10 for 88 yards and a touchdown against the two L.A. teams.
Stidham may become the starter when the Patriots are officially eliminated from postseason play, but for now, he and the coaching staff will have to rely on his relief outings. Now that the team is in evaluation mode, those appearances will mean a lot more for Stidham.
There was some talk around draft time that the Patriots were interesting in trading up to draft Tagovailoa. They did not though, and Tua is now the budding face of the Dolphins franchise.
He now has six starts for Miami after taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick, with the Dolphins 4-2 in those contests. He’s completed 62 percent of his passes as a rookie, averaging 6.6 yards per completion, with nine touchdowns and just two turnovers (one pick, one fumble). He hasn’t relied too much on his legs to pick up yards, but he also has a rushing touchdown on the year.
Tua is also coming off his best game of the season, too, after nearly bringing the Dolphins back against the Chiefs despite losing two of his top weapons in DaVante Paker and Mike Gesicki. He threw for a career-high 316 passing yards in the 33-27 loss with a pair of passing touchdowns and a rushing score.
But he was also sacked four times by Kansas City, including once in the end zone for a safety. So opposing defenses can get to Tua. It will be important for the Patriots to destroy the pocket and force the rookie to make quick decisions this weekend.
And here is where we’ll note that the Patriots have won their past nine games against starting rookie quarterbacks.
Flo vs. Bill
Brian Flores is a rare breed, a Belichick disciple that has gone on to enjoy success as a head coach. He’s also got a win against his former boss, handing the Patriots a crushing defeat in New England in Week 17 last season.
Most importantly though, is that Flores has given the Dolphins an identity. They’re a tough defensive team that doesn’t back down from a fight, whether that fight is in the trenches or retaliation for a dirty hit. Flores himself is even down to throw down. The Dolphins actually feel like an NFL team again, thanks to Flores.
Now they’re looking to clinch a playoff spot for the first time since 2016, but they need to keep racking up wins in order to do so. Miami heads into Week 15 with a 30 percent chance to make the postseason. That will grow to 76 percent if they beat the Patriots this weekend and the Raiders next weekend, even if they do lose to the Bills to close the regular season.
Perhaps it’s Bill Belichick’s turn to play spoiler, and maybe dish out some payback for last season. His team has nothing left to play for, but they can spoil Miami’s season with a win on Sunday.
Tune in to Sunday’s Patriots-Dolphins clash on WBZ-TV — the television home of the New England Patriots. Pregame coverage begins at 11:30 a.m. with Patriots GameDay, kickoff is set for 1 p.m., and after the game switch over to TV38 for full reaction and analysis on Patriots 5th Quarter!