Ding Dong, the witch is dead, sang the AFC East as the clock hit 00:00 in Miami on Sunday. The New England Patriots, after falling to the Dolphins by the score of 22-12, are officially eliminated from the playoffs. It will be the first NFL postseason without Bill Belichick and his team since 2008. New England will finish with a .500 record or worse for the first time in 19 years. And for the first time since Belichick decided Tom Brady would start for the team, the Patriots are rudderless and have no clear path forward to winning again.
The Patriots badly need to replenish their talent level at just about every position. They're currently slated to pick No. 15 in the 2021 NFL Draft, which will likely be just out of reach for any high-level QB prospect barring an unforeseen tumble down draft boards. But they need more than just a quarterback. Jakobi Meyers emerged as a reliable No. 2 option this year, but otherwise, the receiving corps needs a complete overhaul. The defensive line has been awful all season and the linebacker group is a big weakness on the roster. The offensive line is good and it seems like the cadre of running backs in Foxborough is good enough.
But that's the problem with the Patriots as a whole. Belichick has gotten away with drafting players who are "just good enough" for years because Tom Brady's excellence made it so that winning football could be played with just good enough. But it turns out that not having a Hall of Fame QB to cover up the holes on the roster means it's much harder to win football games! New England has no star power at any position except cornerback, and their best players are aging quickly in that grouping other than J.C. Jackson.
Cam Newton is not the answer going forward. The hope was that a stint in New England would return the former MVP to his previously high levels of play and Newton would be, at worst, a one-year stopgap that kept the Patriots winning while they figured out the future of the quarterback position. At best, he would show enough to justify a longer contract and New England kicked the QB can down the road. Neither of those theoretical futures came to be. Newton looked bad enough in 2020 that he might not have any job at all in 2021.
Unfortunately, there were times he was just good enough, which means the Patriots will finish with a mid-first-round pick. There isn't a fast track to success in the NFL like there is in the NBA via way of an elite talent at the top of the first round, but building from the ground up like New England has to do is a much longer process when draft picks are outside the top 10. As we discovered this year, Belichick's coaching prowess can only go so far. Doing your job doesn't matter if the players across the line of scrimmage are simply better at just about every position.
So what the hell do they do now? Jarrett Stidham certainly isn't going to be their savior. New England could get lucky in the draft; maybe Trey Lance takes a tumble or Florida's Kyle Trask is actually the second coming of Joe Burrow. But recent draft history does not suggest that's in the cards. The last time the Patriots got truly lucky in that regard was when they drafted Rob Gronkowski in 2010 and that was a once-in-a-lifetime pick.
There just isn't a way for New England to bounce back quickly. That happens in the NFL. But it doesn't happen under Belichick. Yet here we are. The Patriots are mired in mediocrity with nobody there to pull them out. It'll be like that for a while, too.