Come late Sunday afternoon, Tom Brady might resemble a 41-year-old quarterback instead of a reigning league MVP and the greatest player ever at the sport’s most important position. Bill Belichick might look like a coach unable to come up with answers, rather than the mastermind of the most lasting dynasty of the NFL’s era of free agency and the salary cap. The New England Patriots might, at last, appear done, undoubtedly much to the delight of those who focus on the controversies in their complicated legacy rather than on their ceaseless on-field success.
The Patriots face their latest early-season crisis as they get ready to face the Miami Dolphins on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. They are on a two-game losing streak and have a record of 1-2 entering the matchup with the Dolphins, who are 3-0 with a chance to send a message that they will be a major factor in the AFC East, a division that the Patriots have won in nine straight and 14 of the last 15 seasons.
This is not exactly anything new to the Patriots. They were 1-3 in 2001 and won the Super Bowl. They were 2-2 in 2003 and won the Super Bowl. They were 2-2 in 2014 and won the Super Bowl. They were 2-2 last season and reached the Super Bowl.
Is this merely another false alarm? That remains to be seen. If the Patriots win Sunday, there will be every reason to believe that all will be well yet again, that Belichick and Brady will find a way to make things work and the Patriots will be the team to beat in the AFC playoffs.
But if the Dolphins manage to pull off the upset, things will look quite a bit different. The Patriots, in that case, would be 1-3 and on a three-game losing streak, something that’s happened just once in the Brady-Belichick era. They would trail the Dolphins by three games entering October. And their weaknesses would be on display for all to see.
“We can’t feel sorry for ourselves,” Patriots safety Devin McCourty said at a news conference this week. “We’re here because of [how] we performed. It’s not like we came in and someone gave us a 1-2 record. This is what we went out there and what we deserve . . .. Just put your head down and keep working and then you’ll have an opportunity, like we’ll have the opportunity Sunday to change it and go out there and get a win.”
The offense is suffering from a lack of help for Brady. The Detroit Lions double-teamed tight end Rob Gronkowski regularly when they beat the Patriots last Sunday night, and Brady lacked pass-catching alternatives.
The Patriots have been desperately searching for help at wide receiver. They could receive a boost in that area if Josh Gordon is active for this game. Gordon sat out the game in Detroit just after the Patriots obtained him in a trade with the Cleveland Browns, but if he can contribute, things could start to improve for Brady and the passing offense. Wideout Julian Edelman is serving the final game of his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances.
Belichick must figure something out on defense. The Patriots are ranked 31st in the league against the run and allowed the Lions their first 100-yard rushing performance, by Kerryon Johnson, since Thanksgiving 2013. The defense could benefit Sunday from the potential returns of pass rusher Trey Flowers and defensive backs Eric Rowe and Patrick Chung from injuries.
“There are some flaws there, for sure,” a front office executive for another NFL team said this week. “You just always figure that Bill will work it out.”
There was little reason to believe when this season began that the Patriots would have a viable challenger in the AFC East. The Buffalo Bills reached the playoffs last season but have started over at quarterback after trading Tyrod Taylor in the offseason. The New York Jets are rebuilding around rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. The Dolphins welcomed back their quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, from last season’s knee injury, but are coming off 6-10 season and their third-year coach, Adam Gase, is trying to prove that he can produce a consistent winner with Tannehill.
Nothing is decided yet, of course. But there are positive signs for the Dolphins that Gase and Tannehill can return to their level of 2016, when the team reached the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Dolphins are ranked sixth in the league in scoring defense and Tannehill has thrived thus far, with seven touchdown passes, two interceptions and a passer rating of 121.8 through three games.
Gase said this week the Dolphins can’t concern themselves with big-picture issues.