Like it or not, the Patriots could still sneak their way into the playoffs

The New England Patriots’ mettle did not pack up and move to Tampa.

It may have seemed lost for a bit, but after Sunday we can confirm it didn’t flee to the ritzy Davis Islands with Tom Brady.

The Patriots faced the near-certain death of their 11-year postseason streak unless they pulled out a win on Sunday. They not only handed the Los Angeles Chargers the biggest loss in franchise history, 45-0, they dominated rookie quarterback darling Justin Herbert on defense, controlled the clock with their running game and had a healthy amount of stellar special teams play.

In other words, for those of us who have followed the Patriots for long enough, they looked a lot like the teams from the beginning of this unprecedented run of success. Not a lot of offensive flash, but with support from the other two units, flash isn’t necessary.

So while Brady may be enjoying the warmth of Florida’s Gulf Coast, the man he wanted to get away from, Bill Belichick, is still in New England. And that’s why the mettle remains. Belichick’s greatest strength as a coach is figuring out what his players and teams do best, and riding with that. Where so many other coaches are wedded to their system, their playbook, Belichick’s malleability is a big reason for the Patriots’ sustained success.

This has been a season unlike any other for the Patriots: Cam Newton was signed late in the offseason, and because of COVID-19, he had no formal camps to get in work with his new teammates and coaches. Then a league-high eight players opted out of this season because of concerns with the virus, including standout linebacker Dont’a Hightower, safety Patrick Chung and starting offensive tackle (and cancer survivor) Marcus Cannon. Newton eventually contracted COVID-19, which further hindered things.

After falling to 2-5 with a loss to the Buffalo Bills early last month, New England has now won four of its last five games and is sitting at .500 for the season (6-6).

The team is still looking up at the Bills and Miami Dolphins in the AFC East — when was the last time that sentence was written? — but still has a chance of getting a wild-card spot. Currently, the 8-4 Indianapolis Colts own the seventh and final playoff berth.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick wears a face mask on the sidelines during the first half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Nov. 22, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
The playoff force has been strong with Bill Belichick, though the Patriots' four remaining games look tough. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

New England’s final four games are not easy. The Patriots will stay in California to play the Rams on Thursday night, then to Miami to play the Dolphins, host the Bills and finish with the Jets at home.

Playing the way they did on Sunday, however, will go a long way toward getting to the playoffs again. Newton had another underwhelming game as a passer (12 for 19 for 69 yards and a touchdown), but had 14 rushes for 48 yards and two scores, and as a team, the Patriots had 165 rushing yards, pushing them over 150 yards per game this season.

New England’s first two touchdown drives totaled 29 plays and took nearly 13 minutes.

Conversely, with the Chargers down all afternoon, Herbert was asked to pass Los Angeles back into the game. He attempted a season-high 53 passes but completed just 26, with two interceptions. Covered by reigning Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore, Keenan Allen, who entered the game with an NFL-best 85 receptions, had just five catches for 48 yards. A third-quarter fourth-down pass intended for Allen was one of Herbert’s two picks.

Los Angeles’ best chance to score came at the end of the first half, when kicker Michael Badgley lined up for a 58-yard field goal. It would have cut the score to 21-3. The Chargers were set to get the second-half kickoff so it could have led to some momentum.

Instead, Cody Davis blocked the kick and veteran safety Devin McCourty got it off the bounce, sprinting to the end zone for his second touchdown of the season. The Patriots went into halftime up 28-0.

And on it went. Receiver Gunner Olszewski had a day on punt returns, with a 70-yard score in the first half and a 61-yard return in the fourth quarter that put the Patriots inside the red zone to start the possession.

The Patriots were up by so much that backup Jarrett Stidham got to play, and had some fun with punter Jake Bailey, teaching him how to properly do his once-signature dab.

Belichick praised the team’s leaders for a good week of practice, and noted that younger players stepped up, as well. And he was of course happy to see all three units make contributions to the final result.

“It was a complementary game. We played at a good level for 60 minutes and had more consistency than we’ve probably had in most other games. Just really proud of how the team competed,” Belichick said. “Our guys really stepped up.”

We’re not saying this team will recapture the magic other Patriots teams have had, or that a special teams- and defense-heavy team can win in a league that so clearly values explosive offenses. But if you were eagerly waiting to see New England’s downfall, you’re going to have to wait a little longer.

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