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Down, but not out... yet: What has happened to the New England Patriots?

Related: How can the 2020 Patriots be fixed?

Patriots vs 49ers Staff Photo By Matt Stone/ MediaNews Group/Boston Herald

Jimmy Garoppolo and the San Francisco 49ers came into Foxboro and laid a 33-6 thumping on the now-2-4 New England Patriots, handing Bill Belichick his worse home loss ever as the team’s head coach. Quarterback Cam Newton threw for under 100 yards with three interceptions on Sunday — the same day that Tom Brady strengthened his MVP candidacy with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by scoring four touchdowns just to add salt to the wound.

For the last two decades, flipping the calendar to October typically meant it was time for the Patriots to tighten up defensively and work through their usual September hiccups to start finding their identity as a team. For the first time in a long time, however, it seems as if that just isn’t the case anymore and the wheels are slowly starting to fall off the bus.

This Patriots team has seemingly lost its culture and character.

There is no question that New England has several major issues on both sides of the ball. That said, it is hard to not hone in on the offensive struggles that have seemingly become a weekly occurrence. Cam Newton has digressed in every single game since Week 2, Jarrett Stidham hasn’t provided any sort of hope for the future in his relief appearances, and the Patriots are still lacking speed and play-making ability at the skill positions.

Now sitting at 2-4 and with a huge divisional matchup on tape (with arguably your season on the line), it’s time to get things straightened out quickly or the mock drafts and 2021 pipe dream acquisitions will start to come out a lot sooner than we’re used to.

The biggest question I have is this, though: What happened?

Through the first four games of the season, the Patriots racked up two hard-fought wins against the Miami Dolphins and Las Vegas Raiders at home, competed and battled all night long against the Seattle Seahawks before ultimately coming up a literal inch short, and later turned in a strong effort under pandemic-related circumstances in a loss in Kansas City. The Patriots were a respectable opponent and had teams wondering if they were a real threat in the AFC with Newton continuing to improve alongside a defense picking up where it left off a season ago.

However, since September turned into October, Newton has thrown for just 255 yards with a touchdown-interception ratio of 0-to-5. Once a man on a mission and dominant dual-threat quarterback, he has suddenly appeared to have lost his swagger and confidence following his Coronavirus diagnosis earlier this month: Newton is missing open receivers left and right and can’t seem to process things quickly enough.

The Patriots certainly lack top-end speed and separation at times at the wide receiver position but you are still only as good as your quarterback. New England’s just hasn’t been any good. As a result, the team now ranks 12th in the AFC and has scored just eight more points than the winless New York Jets in their last three games.

The Patriots defense also has holes, meanwhile.

Its front seven is getting gashed on the ground, lacking pressure and getting beat at the line of scrimmage. We saw Chase Winovich the first few weeks look as if he was molding into another great Patriot edge rusher, but his playing time has decreased in each of the last three games. Due to the opt outs and lack of experience at linebacker, the Patriots have opted to go much lighter in their packages this year, and that’s certainly made it tough for them to stop the run.

The Patriots can’t get a lead and have to play a style they aren’t accustomed to, or quite frankly lack the personnel to play. They have started slow on offense for four straight games now and the book is out on this team: if New England gets down early, it’s extremely hard for the squad to battle back with the passing attack it currently has.

As we now look ahead to Buffalo, the Patriots have arguably the most important divisional game in recent memory on tap, and their season and certainly hopes to win the AFC East are on the line. Buffalo heads into this contest at 5-2 and has plenty of breathing room inside the division. A loss on Sunday will likely make things extremely difficult for New England when it comes to turning things around in a crowded conference.

With Buffalo still on the schedule twice, a home game against Baltimore, trips to Los Angeles and a game against Arizona all lined up, every game looks like a playoff contest from here on out for the Patriots.

As Cam Newton said last week in one of his media availabilities, “the excuse bucket is running real low.”