Roles were reversed for the first time this century on Monday Night Football when the Buffalo Bills beat the tar out of the New England Patriots to clinch the AFC East. It was the first time the Bills swept the Patriots in a season since 2000 and Buffalo will be crowned division champs for the first time since 1995. Josh Allen looks like an All-Pro with a partner to match in Stefon Diggs. Good times were had all around by Bills fans last night.
The game also served as yet another jarring reminder that New England has no plan or future at quarterback, the most important position in the NFL. Cam Newton looked done a few weeks ago and nothing has changed since. He threw for all of 34 (!) yards in a little over two quarters of play against Buffalo last night. Jarrett Stidham, appearing in relief five minutes into the third quarter, looked no better, throwing for 44 yards. Nowhere else on the roster are the Patriots this devoid of talent.
Their quarterback of the near and far future is not currently on the roster, that much is clear. Maybe Bill Belichick and Co. liked what good parts of Newton they saw this year and bring him back for 2021. Perhaps Newton builds upon his first year in the system and can be at least average. But throws like his incompletion to N'Keal Harry last night (when Harry was wide open and Newton threw it into the dirt five yards in front of him) suggest that Newton is closer to being out of the league than returning to anything near his old level of play.
The Patriots might bring back Newton because they don't have a choice. They'll be picking in the middle of the draft, and the four best QB prospects in this class aren't expected to last until New England is on the clock. The free agent market will not be like the 2020 offseason, where there were three or four starters available; Dwayne Haskins is around but needs too much work to fit the Patriots' timeline, Philip Rivers is probably done after his one-year stint in Indy, and anyone else available will be either unproven or straight-up bad. A Gardner Minshew reclamation project would be intriguing but the fact that he's been benched on multiple occasions this year in favor of Mike Glennon is not exactly a ringing endorsement, even if the Jaguars are quietly tanking.
Belichick is too old and too competitive to play a long game where his team starts Stidham or Newton for another year and hope that a new QB falls into their lap via trade or draft. What's the plan otherwise? Neither of those two will lead the team to a Super Bowl. The defense was supposed to be the strength of the unit, but no pass rush combined with aging stars does not make for a winning combination. The offensive line is great, but that only gets you so far.
The reality is the Patriots are destined for mediocrity. That's the long and short of it. We've all watched the franchise get lucky in some truly obscene ways over the course of their lengthy dynasty, but none appear on the horizon now. Justin Fields isn't going to drop to the No. 14 pick and the Jets won't trade them Sam Darnold. That's not how it works for every other team, and now the Patriots are just that: another team. With no Tom Brady, it turns out, it's hard to win games. That's what New England will have to learn to cope with for the foreseeable future.