The Patriots said all the right things after Sunday night’s loss to the Buccaneers.
“We don’t really do moral victories, those are always forgotten,” quarterback Mac Jones said.
“Games like this, that come down to the wire early in the season, don’t help us on the back end — so games like this are a hard loss,” edge rusher Matt Judon told reporters.
Safety Devin McCourty added: “We are 1-3 now. We need to find a way to win these games going forward.”
And all of them were right. New England, despite losing by just two points to the defending Super Bowl champions, left another winnable game on the field. Blocking, situational defense and ill-timed penalties once again were areas of concern.
(And a very questionable coaching decision didn’t help.)
But, unlike after their Week 3 loss to the New Orleans Saints, Patriots players struck a somewhat optimistic tune after taking Tampa Bay to the wire.
“I don’t think we are far off,” Judon said. “I think we are right there.”
But are they? Could the Patriots use Sunday’s defeat as a springboard to greater success, like the 2001 team did after a mid-season loss to the Rams? Can they pull a 2007 New York Giants and get revenge in February?
Yes, they can, but what was true before Sunday’s game was even more so afterward: New England faces a significantly uphill climb to playoff contention.
First, the positives.
Sunday’s game just felt like a night when multiple new Patriots players — Judon, Kendrick Bourne, Jalen Mills and especially Jones — truly became Patriots. It’s one thing to perform well during a 1 p.m. game against middling AFC East opponents. It’s another to do so in the Sunday night atmosphere — facing Tom Brady and the defending champions, no less.
Brady himself said it last week: Bill Belichick places a huge emphasis on embracing Sunday nights in Foxboro. He wants his players to relish that opportunity. And many new faces, young and old, did just that. The importance of that step can’t be understated.
Sunday’s game also saw coaches and players accustomed to the “Patriot way” step up, clean up many of the errors from the first few weeks and deliver strong performances in a big spot. Well, most of them, anyway.
Of course, Jones was the top story for the Patriots. The rookie had his best game as a pro and showed poise and toughness in the face of immense pressure, in the form of both Tampa’s pass rushers and the hoopla surrounding Brady’s return. The defense, too, executed well and showed a lot of fight.
All of those are good things and should give Patriots fans hope that this season might go somewhere.
But there still are warts, as well as reasons to doubt the prospects of the 2021 Patriots.
The offensive line was atrocious Sunday night, as it’s been all season. And it’s not just about the absence of Trent Brown — everyone has struggled at some point. Isaiah Wynn was awful on the left side, and Mike Onwenu got benched. It’s been tough to watch.
The players are good enough, which makes it fair to wonder whether Carmen Bricillo is doing a good enough job as the offensive line coach.
Whatever it is, it needs to be fixed or the Patriots aren’t going anywhere. Jones won’t last the season, the passing game never will reach its potential and the running game will continue to sputter. If New England can get the line figured out — and, you know, get everyone back onto the field — everything else on offense should fall into place.
And the defense, while definitely improving, still has issues. It hasn’t been stingy enough at the ends of games — the Bucs scored on their final three possessions — and the run defense, while improving, still is far too leaky. Also, speed (or lack thereof) at linebacker remains a big concern. Judon, Josh Uche and recently re-signed Jamie Collins all are athletic, capable playmakers, but Uche hardly has played and Collins is, well, Jamie Collins. What the Patriots get from him in his third tour remains to be seen.
As for the secondary, it no longer can bank on the return of Stephon Gilmore, who was traded to the Carolina Panthers on Wednesday. Sunday’s performance against Brady and Tampa’s vaunted passing attack was promising, but the corners and safeties must keep it up and, perhaps most importantly, stay healthy. The lack of depth is concerning.
Lastly, let’s touch on the upcoming schedule.
We broke it down last week: Given the performance of the Patriots, coupled with the performances of their opponents, this team realistically could finish anywhere between 7-10 and 10-7. It now is much harder to look at teams like the Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns and say, “Yeah, New England should win that game.”
Until further notice, the Patriots only should be favored against a select few opponents on their schedule.
However, that is subject to change. And what we saw Sunday night at Gillette Stadium gives us reason to belive it will change.
The Patriots are capable of turning their season around, that much is clear. Now they just need to do it.
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