The New England Patriots are 4-6, and for the first time in a very long time, their season is over before Thanksgiving. They trail the division-leading Buffalo Bills by three games and are behind six other teams for the two wild card spots. The team is fresh off a loss to the 3-7 Houston Texans, who looked like the second-worst team in football for a large part of this season. The defense doesn't look anything like the elite unit it was in 2019 and the offense can't keep any momentum.
It's all led to declarations such as the one below from Keyshawn Johnson: the Patriots aren't going to make the playoffs this year. A wild sentence to type, but one that is very likely to end up being true this year.
It's tough to disagree. The division title is completely out of reach barring an epic collapse by the Bills. Otherwise, out of all the teams in wild card contention, the Patriots only hold a tiebreaker over the 6-4 Ravens and the 6-4 Dolphins. They play the Dolphins once more this season and Miami has looked better than New England has, so it's more than likely they split their season series. Even if the Patriots win out (not a very good chance of that happening with games against the Rams, Bills, and Cardinals left on the schedule), their playoff hopes are entirely out of their control.
Which is strange. Death, taxes, and the New England Patriots playing postseason football has been the mantra for two decades, excluding that one season where they somehow missed the playoffs despite going 11-5. Even after losing Tom Brady, everybody assumed it would be more of the same once they brought in Cam Newton-- and even before that, the general public's belief in Bill Belichick's coaching skills still led many to suggest they'd end up playing in January one way or another.
It turns out that Belichick the coach cannot overcome Belichick the GM, or the fact that key players opted out of the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Newton hasn't looked very good at times, but he isn't helped by the grouping of undrafted wideouts who have been the only weapons at his disposal. The offensive line has dealt with injuries in bunches and struggled to pass block even when healthy. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who was supposed to be the saving grace of the team with the ability to scheme around a dual-threat quarterback, has been downright baffling with his playcalling at times.
The Patriots have their moments, but are not a good football team, and have not been for some time. They won't make the playoffs unless they get extremely lucky. This is an organization that has enjoyed a significant amount of luck over the years, but the pendulum always swings back the other way. Their luck appears to have run out. And so, for the first time since Belichick was still on the New York Jets, the Patriots are irrelevant. No playoffs, not even a threat to upset another team's chances down the stretch run. The magic of Belichick appears to have a limit, and it's been reached.
All the moments this season that the Patriots would have inexplicably pulled out wins in the past have gone against them. Driving the ball down the field with less than two minutes left against the Bills in Buffalo? Those fans have seen that particularly story a dozen times this century. This time, Newton fumbles, and it's game over.
New England looking terrible against a bad Texans team? Well, they got the ball back down a score with two minutes to go, that's still a win. Until the offense stumbles and Newton throws up a Hail Mary that doesn't even make it to the 10-yard line.
An offensively awful grudge match against the Broncos starting a young quarterback in Drew Lock? That's the type of game the Patriots win by confusing the opposing QB and scraping by on offense. Not this time.
It may not be as fun to watch as many might have hoped, but the Patriots are finally collapsing. They aren't completely there yet-- the team has too much talent to bottom out entirely and will probably finish the season close to .500 with a mid-first-round pick. But they won't be limping into the playoffs by the grace of a weird Belichick rule interpretation, a fortunate call in their favor, and a heaping of good luck, as they have in the past. No, this team is done. After all these years.