Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Prior to Monday night’s last-second loss to the New England Patriots, the New York Jets hadn’t been defeated by fewer than eight points all season. Winless and seemingly tanking, the league’s worst team was on pace to be outscored by an NFL-record 288 points in 2020.
That is until the Patriots came to town and the depleted, horribly coached, Joe Flacco-quarterbacked Jets had to go out of their way to lock up a loss while visions of Trevor Lawrence danced in their heads.
That’s how far the once-glorious, formerly terrifying, historically dominant Pats have fallen. This 30-27 victory might keep them alive in the AFC standings, especially with the playoff field expanded to 14 teams this season, but the box score only reinforced the idea that the Patriots are due for a complete rebuild.
New England allowed the NFL’s lowest-scoring offense to put up 27 points, and it might have been a lot more if New York hadn’t comically punted on a 4th-and-3 from the Patriots’ 41-yard line in the first quarter, possessed the ball for just four plays (resulting in three yards and a turnover) in the fourth quarter and settled for a pair of first-half field goals.
“We felt damn good about how we played all night,” Flacco said in his postgame news conference.
That’s not a good sign if you’re the Patriots, who had yet to win outside of Foxborough this year and haven’t defeated an NFL-caliber opponent since they beat the Las Vegas Raiders in September.
This team was trending in the wrong direction even before it was gutted by losses in the offseason. Now, it’s time to wave the white flag on this campaign and start from scratch.
Tom Brady’s replacement, Cam Newton, scored two rushing touchdowns to bring his season total to eight but was held without a touchdown throw for the ninth time in his last 11 games. He completed just three of seven deep pass attempts, and one of the incompletions came on a potential game-winning throw to a wide-open Damiere Byrd in the final five minutes.
Newton wasn’t the main problem Monday night, but he still wasn’t good enough to lead this team to an emphatic win over a squad that is emphatically bad. A 2-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the middle of November isn’t going to cut it, and it’s become obvious that the beat-up 31-year-old just isn’t the player he was in his prime.
The Pats should be thinking about top 2021 quarterback prospects Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Trey Lance—even if Monday’s win might have removed them from the Lawrence sweepstakes. And instead of fighting at the expense of draft stock when we all know their likely ceiling is another one-and-done playoff appearance, they should find out soon if there’s any hope for sophomore fourth-round pick Jarrett Stidham at that critical position.
Bill Kostroun/Associated Press
But they can’t stop there. The Patriots have mastered the ability to recognize when to move on from players on the verge of decline. That might be harder than ever now that they’re so low on talented veterans to exemplify the “next man up” philosophy, at least relative to previous years—but nobody is immune to an occasional rebuild, and New England can’t afford to cling to a roster that is unlikely to bear fruit in the next couple of years.
Cornerback Stephon Gilmore might be the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, but he hasn’t been close to as effective in his age-30 season, and there’s no way the Patriots should take the $17.2 million cap hit in his walk year in 2021.
Wide receiver Julian Edelman might be a local hero, but he’s 34 and his play was falling off a cliff even before he suffered a knee injury last month. In fact, he’s caught just eight of the last 21 passes thrown his way and hasn’t scored a touchdown in more than 11 months. Move on and save $6.7 million next season.
After opting out of the season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, linebacker Dont’a Hightower will be owed $12.4 million in 2021, but the Patriots would be better off cutting the 30-year-old to save $9.9 million.
Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon is in a similar situation ahead of a $10 million age-33 campaign, and it might be time to break up the McCourty twins (Devin is due $11.2 million next year, and Jason will hit free agency) before they turn 34 in the summer.
It’s the end of an era in New England, and that’s the way it should be for a team that has never cast aside calculations in favor of emotions. The writing was on the wall throughout the four-game losing streak that preceded Monday’s victory, but it’s almost poetic that a win over a terrible AFC East opponent contained so little inspiration and proficiency that it ought to be considered the clincher.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.