Prior to the start of this new season, Bill Belichick spent a lot of time talking about the fact that he wouldn’t have a feel for his team until it played at least a month or more of action.
Well, four games are in the books and the 1-3 Patriots are in last place in the AFC East, one of just nine teams in NFL with fewer than two wins. Unscientific power rankings put New England somewhere between the 24th and 27th best team in the league. The results, they haven’t been good.
Sunday afternoon in Green Bay the Patriots were able to take Aaron Rodgers and the Packers to overtime before coming up short of victory in a tremendously tough spot at Lambeau Field.
It was a more than challenging day and New England in many ways answered the challenges.
With Mac Jones already sidelined with an ankle injury, fourth-round rookie Bailey Zappe was forced into action when veteran backup and fill-in starter Brian Hoyer was knocked out of the game with a head injury.
The quarterback spot was just one of many that was undermanned.
New England was also without its No. 1 wide receiver Jakobi Meyers, No. 1 cornerback Jalen Mills and defensive line captain Lawrence Guy.
Through it all, the Patriots put up the good fight. The visitors led in each of the four quarters, if not when it mattered most.
The running game churned out more than 150 pace-setting yards to take some pressure off Zappe, following a Trent Brown-led line that was as engaged and effective as it had been all year.
At times, the defense made the kind of game-changing plays that heavy road underdogs led by a backup (or third-string) QB need, specifically when rookie cornerback Jack Jones undercut a disrespectful Rodgers out throw late in the first half and returned it for a touchdown.
Overall, the Patriots made plays in all three phases in Green Bay against a Packers team that’s supposed to be a Super Bowl contender.
New England’s mettle was tested. As Kevin Garnett might put it, the Patriots showed grit and balls.
Winning effort, attitude and professional pride were on full display, even if winning wasn’t the end result.
It was the kind of loss that we’ve heard Belichick talk about over the years as a building block or stepping stone for past team’s building toward postseason runs and Super Bowl berths. Remember that lesson in football life from the defeat at the hands to the Greatest Show on Turf Rams at Foxboro Stadium back in 2001? Or that gut-check, gut punch in Kansas City in early in 2014?
Belichick, at least retroactively, claimed he learned something about his team in those defeats. Maybe, just maybe, the same can be said of Sunday’s loss in Green Bay.
Now, let’s be clear, barring a miracle run this is not a Super Bowl-bound Patriots team. But after Sunday, it feels pretty safe to say the 2022 New England Patriots are a team that will give max effort and compete till the finish of the game and probably the season. A team that wants to win and is willing to lay it on the line to get the job done regardless of the circumstances of the competition.
But being a try-hard team doesn’t necessarily equate to being a winning team. Now that we seemingly have a positive handle on the Patriots’ mental and motivational makeup, the question is whether New England has the talent to get the job done more often than not.
That question should be answered over the next six weeks or so as the supposed soft spot in the Patriots’ schedule arrives beginning with Dan Campbell’s kneecap-biting Lions Sunday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.
Over the next month-plus of games against the Lions, Browns, Bears, Jets (twice) and Colts, Belichick’s team has a chance to at least prove it’s better than its 1-3 record, as it did a year ago with a midseason run. It has the chance to prove that while it may not be a Super Bowl contender, it’s also not a bottom-feeder preparing for a top-5 or top-10 pick in next April’s draft.
To do that, New England won’t just be able to want-to its way to victory each week. The Patriots still have to prove they have the requisite talent and playmakers on both sides of the ball to get the job done.
That the team has the coaching acumen on the sidelines to pull together weekly game plans and in-game adjustments to turn Moral Victory Mondays into actual Victory Mondays.
As we hit early October we certainly have a better idea who these Patriots are. They are a resilient team that will absolutely compete to the final whistle of the fourth quarter and beyond if necessary.
That much we now know.
Are they talented enough to win more often than they lose?
Well, that’s still very much in doubt but something New England certainly can try to answer for the affirmative over the next six games.