Bill Belichick and his Patriots will find there’s no easy way out of AFC East purgatory

After the 14th game of this 2020 New England season, a 22-12 loss to the Miami Dolphins, the Patriots were officially eliminated from the playoff race. I found myself reflecting on the moment in “Rocky IV” when Movie Bad Guy Hall of Famer Ivan Drago took his first significant shot from the hero — and not just because I enjoy making ’80s movie references whenever possible, either.

“He’s cut!” the announcer exclaims. “The Russian’s cut!”

“You hurt him!” Rocky’s corner man, Duke, later exclaims. “You see, he’s not a machine! He’s a man!”

Unlike Drago, Bill Belichick has been beaten before. Though the Patriots won six Super Bowls under his watch, they’ve fallen short plenty of other times. However, much like Drago’s aura of invincibility, the certainty of Belichick as a man destined to finish with a winning season, fell by the wayside during this, the most unusual of Patriots seasons.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gestures during the second half of an NFL football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
Year 1 without Tom Brady has resulted in no postseason for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Belichick’s legacy is secure, but …

This does not change the totality of Belichick. He will go down as one of the greatest coaches, if not greatest, of all time. His legacy is secure.

But the Patriots’ loss to the Dolphins (9-5) showed that two of their AFC East rivals — the Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills (11-3) — have surpassed them, an unthinkable reality before the season.

One team leapfrogging the Patriots (6-8) in the first year of the post Tom Brady-era would be OK, even expected. New England has lost the division before under Belichick, albeit not in 11 years. And after all, I picked the Bills to win the division.

But the Dolphins? In 2020? Miami is in Year 2 of a rebuild that saw the Dolphins get 59 points hung on them in the 2019 season opener against Baltimore. How well their turnaround is going, and how quickly it happened, is a testament to their head coach, Brian Flores, a Belichick disciple who might be the NFL’s Coach of the Year in 2020, and Miami general manager Chris Grier.

It’s also a sign that the Patriots may be in trouble.

This was a game Belichick almost always wins

Although the Dolphins entered with a better record than the Patriots, who dropped to 6-8 with the loss, Belichick had one ace up his sleeve: he was facing a rookie quarterback.

Heading into Sunday’s game, Belichick had not lost to a rookie QB since 2013, when the immortal Geno Smith rode a 177-yard day from running back Chris Ivory to take down Belichick, Brady and the Patriots, 30-27.

Since then, Belichick has been a nightmare for rookies, racking up a 9-0 record against them over six-plus seasons. It’s a tally that includes a dominant 45-0 win on Dec. 6 over the Los Angeles Chargers and Justin Herbert, who has been the league’s best rookie.

The fact Belichick made Herbert look bad was a sign that, despite the Patriots’ middling season, the team we’ve all come to know was still lurking, perhaps ready to rally to a 9-7 finish that would preserve Belichick’s 19-year streak of winning campaigns.

But a week ago, they got eviscerated by a Los Angeles Rams team out for blood after a Super Bowl loss a couple of seasons ago. And then on Sunday, with 10 days to prepare for a feisty Dolphins team, they couldn’t find the end zone in the loss.

The defeat doomed Belichick to his worst season in 20 years, when he went 5-11 in his first year in New England. The fact it came just one day after the Bills locked up the division for the first time since 1999 was poetic.

Why the Patriots are in a sticky spot

So now here the Patriots are, doomed to finish third in the division they’ve dominated for two decades.

They’re an average team stuck in quarterback hell, with one of the league’s least-explosive offenses and worst collection of wideouts.

It’s all extremely disappointing, especially after the way the season started. They needed to win with the ground game and defense. I underestimated how little juice they had at the skill positions. I also overestimated how much Cam Newton would overcome it.

Newton has accounted for 16 total touchdowns and 10 interceptions. His passing numbers are dismal. In 13 games, Newton has thrown a mere five touchdown passes, and in a passing league like the NFL, that’s not good enough, especially when New England’s defense ranked 21st in DVOA entering Sunday’s game.

No matter how good the head coach is — and Belichick is still the best — no team can overcome that.

So now Belichick has to fix it all, a process that will almost certainly demand a fresh start at quarterback.

Head coach Bill Belichick and Cam Newton talk on the sideline against the Miami Dolphins.
Bill Belichick got Cam Newton on a bargain contract, but since starting 2-1, the Patriots have plummeted. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

How Belichick can forge path to contention in 2021 and beyond

Be it a rookie they can develop, or a veteran seeking a fresh start like Detroit’s Matthew Stafford, the Patriots’ quarterback must be paired with a vastly upgraded receiving corps, one that can stretch the field vertically and force teams to account for the threat of the deep ball.

Tight ends Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi, and the talented young offensive linemen must continue to be developed and supplemented, as well.

New England’s defense is young and playing without key players due to COVID-19 opt-outs. That unit has to be refortified, especially along the defensive interior. The run defense uncharacteristically stunk this season, and that must be addressed.

Yet, there is talent on that side of the ball (like cornerback J.C. Jackson, safety Kyle Dugger and edge rushers Chase Winovich and Josh Uche) worth building around. These guys (and others) must continue to be coached up, especially in a division where Josh Allen, already a league MVP candidate, and Tua Tagovailoa loom as obstacles for the next decade. The latter completed 20 of 26 passes for only 145 yards and an interception Sunday but also rushed for two scores and might one day grow into an MVP candidate.

And with the New York Jets still within reach of landing Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, widely regarded as a can’t-miss guy, Belichick is staring at a lengthy stay in AFC East purgatory, of which there’s no easy way out if he fails to do those things.

The nearly $70 million in salary-cap space Spotrac projects the Patriots to have in 2021 is the third-most in the NFL. It could go a long way toward helping Belichick fix this team, especially if free agency shapes up as the buyer’s market.

There are historical ramifications at stake. While Belichick does not need to successfully refashion the Patriots to solidify his legacy, Brady is hurtling toward the playoffs with his new team.

Pushing the Patriots back to contention in a division as promising as this one sure wouldn’t hurt Belichick’s case a decade from now, when people debate which man deserves more credit for the Patriots’ dynasty — he or Brady.

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