Patriots' talent-deficient roster is producing predictable results

Patriots' talent-deficient roster is producing predictable results originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

The Patriots must go 7-2 in their final nine games to avoid a sub-.500 season.

If they fail -- and I have a better chance of dunking than they do of going 7-2 -- it will be the third time in four post-Brady seasons they’ve lost more than they’ve won. That didn’t happen from 2001 to 2019. And it only happened three times in the decade prior (1993, 1995, 2000).

Imagine that. In 27 seasons, Robert Kraft saw his team finish below .500 three times. And now they’re about to do it for the third time in four years?

They’re the only two-win team in the AFC. They’ve been outscored by 90 points (208-118) and only the Giants have been outscored by more (92). They’re scoring a cool 14.8 points per game and allowing 26.

Interestingly (troublingly?) the three lowest-scoring teams in the league are Brian Daboll’s Giants, the Patriots and Josh McDaniels’ Raiders. That nugget may be a rebuke, a repudiation, a refutation, a GALLDARN MOUNTAIN OF PROOF THAT THE COMMON DNA IN THESE OFFENSES IS OUT-FRIGGIN’ DATED!!!!

(Fixing collar … smoothing shirt … clearing throat … gathering composure …)

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Now, the Patriots have played by far the most difficult schedule in the league. The combined winning percentage of their opponents is up to .656 after the loss to Miami. No other team has an opponent’s winning percentage over .600.

They lost their two best defenders weeks ago (Christian Gonzalez and Matt Judon). Their offensive line has been pockmarked by injuries since the summer. And, if the injuries sustained by Kendrick Bourne and DeVante Parker on Sunday linger (Bourne reportedly is done for the season with a torn ACL), they’ll be choosing between Demario Douglas, Tyquan Thornton, Jaelan Reagor, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Kayshon Boutte when setting their lineup for the Commanders on Sunday.

But the strength of schedule and the injuries don’t muddy the water enough to hide the most basic facts about this franchise.

The Patriots don’t have enough good players on their football team. They have no elites. They rely on players -- especially on offense -- who’d be hard-pressed to start anywhere else in the league.

If the Patriots play close to perfect and get a little assist from their opponent, they can topple a team. We saw it last week against the Bills. It was sublime.

And all of us (me included) who latched onto that bout of competence as evidence they’d play close to perfect every week AND get an assist from the opponents are once again staring at hard-to-swallow reality. The Patriots stink.

Defensively, they’re a pretty well-constructed team. You can tell what Bill Belichick’s going for. He’s evolved that side of the ball to deal with the offenses that have sprung from two decades of kids in Texas, Florida and California growing up playing 7-on-7 football year-round. He’s got a crap-ton of versatile safeties and fast-as-hell corners. He’s got second-level players who move better than the ones he used to succeed with and he’s invested through the draft and free agency in pass-rushers.

Offensively? Honestly, I don’t know if they know what they’re going for. But I do know that almost every wide receiver they’ve targeted and brought in is the wrong one. From Mohamed Sanu to N’Keal Harry to Nelson Agholor to Tyquan Thornton to DeVante Parker to JuJu Smith-Schuster, their worst players are the ones they prioritize. The best ones -- Jakobi Meyers, Demario Douglas -- are the ones they take flyers on.

They have two interchangeable thumping running backs but no sub-back. And this is the team that made the sub-back great. From Kevin Faulk to James White, for 20 years there was a steady stream of backs who were walking mismatches on third down. Sometimes they’d have two of them (White and Rex Burkhead).

Now? None. No wonder they’re 26th in the league on third down (34 percent conversions) and 31st on fourth down (25 percent).

They’re developing Douglas three years after the last of the great Patriot slot receivers (Julian Edelman) hung it up.

They have a stationary, soft-throwing quarterback behind a starting offensive line comprised of late-round picks except for left guard Cole Strange, who they spent a first-rounder on when the rest of the league saw him as a late-round pick.

Sunday they went to Miami and played an OK game. They took an early lead. They got an early turnover. But the wide receiver the Dolphins traded for and spent a boatload of money on – Tyreek Hill – ran through their defense and caught a 42-yard touchdown in the first half. Then the big-ticket corner they went out and traded for – Jalen Ramsey – easily picked off Mac Jones when Jones threw a changeup to the outside to snuff a Patriots drive.

Late in the game, after the Patriots narrowed the score to 24-17, the Dolphins faced a third-and-1 at the Patriots 31. Miami coach Mike McDaniel schemed a play that caused the Patriots to overcommit to Hill and allowed Jaylen Waddle to run free for an easy 31-yard touchdown.

Hill and Waddle combined for 15 catches, 233 yards and two touchdowns. The Patriots' six wideouts combined for 12 catches, 89 yards and two touchdowns. And that was with Miami trotting out a makeshift offensive line because of injuries and being without high-level corner Xavien Howard.

The Patriots got out-talented on Sunday. The Dolphins have better players because they were urgent in acquiring them. And they acquired speed, speed and more speed for their offense because they knew exactly how they wanted to play.

Belichick has employed a throw-it-against-the-wall approach to the Patriots offense for far too long, even before Tom Brady left. There was no urgency to replacing Brady or Josh McDaniels. There’s been no urgency to bolster the offensive line in front of Jones.

Belichick’s stock offseason response to questions about acquisitions and coaching moves has been, “We’ll see how it goes…”

We’ve now seen how it’s gone. Straight to the bottom of the conference.