The last 19 years, the New England Patriots had something to play for late in the season. Whether it was competing for playoff seeds, the quest at perfection, building momentum into the postseason, or making it into the tournament to begin with every Patriots game had at least some meaning.
The last time they played games not falling into that category was in 2000, when they finished the season 5-11 but were already eliminated from the postseason after a 34-9 loss to the Detroit Lions in Week 13 (a game that saw a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback throw his first regular season pass). Fast forward to 2020, however, and you find a Patriots team in the same boat: they too have virtually nothing to play for.
Of course, New England will continue to try to play winning football and finish the season on a strong note. Head coach Bill Belichick won’t allow his team to simply roll over just because it cannot earn one of the AFC’s seven playoff seeds anymore — that is not the culture he built in his first year, the aforementioned 2000 campaign.
Accordingly, Patriots fans should keep watching the team these last two weeks of the regular season. That is not only true because the players and coaches will continue to compete for victories, but also because of five additional reasons.
Reason No. 1: The Patriots’ young core
New England is expected to keep starting Cam Newton at quarterback this week and, as noted above, still play to win and roll with the players putting the team in the best possible position to do that. However, the team might still be willing to get its young talent involved a bit more than the norm against the Buffalo Bills in Week 16 and especially the New York Jets in Week 17.
Not all young players are alike, though.
Take J.C. Jackson, Chase Winovich, Damien Harris, Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu, for example. All of them appear to be on their way to become foundational-type players for the organization, and are projected to see a healthy dose of snaps against Buffalo and New York. That would have been the case regardless of whether or not the Patriots would have something to play for other than top-18 draft positioning because they are at or near the top of the depth chart at their respective positions.
The same cannot be said for others, but that also does not mean that those players will only see limited action. Yes, the goal is to keep winning but at some point — be it late versus the Bills or maybe the second half against the Jets — they are still expected to be given some more substantial action than they have so far during the season.
We do not know when this will happen, or how it will ultimately look like, but you probably don’t want to miss it. After all, it might offer a glimpse at the Patriots’ future at positions such as quarterback (Jarrett Stidham), tight end (Devin Asiasi, Dalton Keene) or linebacker (Josh Uche, Anfernee Jennings) — all while the men listed above will also continue to gain quality experience.
Reason No. 2: Must-see players
The 2020 Patriots may not be a star-studded team, but they do have some players worth keeping an eye on each week. Joe Thuney is part of an impressive interior offensive line that is not guaranteed to remain intact next year; Devin McCourty is still one of the NFL’s better free safeties; J.C. Jackson and Kyle Dugger are emerging young stars.
And then, there is New England’s special teams operation. While its players live in relative obscurity for most of their careers, the unit does bring some much-needed stability and highlight-reel play to the team on a week-to-week basis.
Not every one of Gunner Olszewski’s punt returns will end up a touchdown like the one he returned to the house against the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 13, but he sure is leaving it all on the field whenever he touches the ball. The same has to be said about the team’s coverage personnel — a group led by Pro Bowler and future Patriots (and Pro Football?) Hall of Famer Matthew Slater and veteran Justin Bethel, who are both performing at an elite level.
Punter Jake Bailey might also be the very best the NFL has to offer at his position. Nick Folk, meanwhile, has proven himself a reliable presence at the place kicker spot.
A noticeable portion of New England’s current roster has been rather uninspiring this year, but the special teams crew has performed on a high level each and every week.
Reason No. 3: The long offseason ahead
New England will host the Jets on January 3, and head into the offseason just one day later. That offseason will last more than six months until the start of training camp, more than seven months until preseason is kicked off, and eight months before the 2021 regular season is underway. That is a long time without Patriots football, so any chance you can get to still watch the team play — even in its most disappointing iteration of the past two decades — is a welcome one.
Reason No. 4: Potential offseason departures
The Patriots’ offseason that will be kicked off on January 4 projects to be a busy one for the club given that 29 of its players are headed for free agency. 23 of those 29 are scheduled to enter the open market as unrestricted free agents.
While some such as James White or David Andrews appear to be relatively safe bets to return to New England, it is not a given that this happens. The same is particularly true for players such as Joe Thuney: the Patriots’ starting left guard is expected to earn a record-breaking deal next spring, and there is a realistic chance that it won’t come from the team with which he spent the last five seasons and won two championships.
Thuney might be the most prominent example, but he is not the only starter-level player set to hit free agency in 2021. Quarterback Cam Newton, running back Rex Burkhead, defensive linemen Lawrence Guy, Adam Butler and Deatrich Wise Jr, linebacker John Simon, cornerback Jason McCourty, and kicker Nick Folk — let alone the aforementioned Andrews and White — are all candidates to leave New England in a few weeks.
That group does not even include potential retirees such as Matthew Slater or, if he does return off injured reserve next week, Julian Edelman. The games against the Bills and Jets could be the final opportunity to watch at least some of them in Patriots colors.
Reason No. 5: A sense of normalcy in 2020
From New England’s early playoff exit, to Tom Brady’s departure, to the worst story of them all — the Coronavirus pandemic — 2020 has been a pretty bad year all around the globe. So, any chance at some distraction is a welcome one. NFL football, for as bad as the Patriots have looked at times this year, has been such a distraction. At least for a few hours each week there was a sense of normalcy. And yes, there are no fans, but the game still is the same.
If the first four reasons above are not convincing enough for you to keep watching this team in its final two weeks, maybe that fifth can do the trick. We all need to clear our heads from time to time to get away from from what has been an abysmal year. The Patriots still provide that, if nothing else.