Ask any New England Patriots player and they will tell you that practice performance makes game day reality. The team’s 27-17 loss against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday night should therefore not come as a surprise, at least if quarterback Mac Jones is to be believed.
Jones pointed out after the game that the team was not at its best coming out of its bye week and preparing for the upcoming matchup against a quality opponent such as the Colts. It certainly showed, with the Patriots falling behind 20-0 by the time the fourth quarter began. They were unable to come back despite a solid rally.
Where does that leave New England, though, heading into the final three weeks of the regular season?
From a standings perspective, the team no longer controls its fate as far as the top seed in the AFC is concerned. In order to win the division, a victory over the Buffalo Bills next Sunday is paramount.
There are also other questions about this team and its standing among the NFL’s potential Super Bowl contenders. Could it be that the Patriots do not belong in this group, and rather should be labeled a “pretender” or, as the Boston Herald put it, a “pseudo-contender”?
If they play like they do on Saturday, that argument can definitely be made. The Patriots’ players made it themselves, actually.
“Eight penalties and two turnovers is not going to win you a lot of football games,” said center David Andrews during his postgame press conference.
“We can’t expect to beat anybody playing like that,” added fellow team captain Matthew Slater.
Does any of that change what we know about the 2021 Patriots, though? Hardly. New England not practicing well leading to bad performances on game day is not news (even though the players themselves rarely mention it in the same clarity as Jones did). The same goes for other universal truths that have been established about this team over the course of the regular season thus far.
The Patriots have some talent, but the margin of error is pretty slim against playoff competition — especially on offense.
Shooting yourself in the foot certainly does not help New England’s cause.
Mac Jones is going to make the occasional rookie mistake despite his solid all-around play.
The team does have some strong leadership and plenty of fight in it.
Bill Belichick is going to make the occasional conservative decision.
New England is comfortable making some sacrifices in one area for potential gain in others.
There may be more one-liners such as these, but you get the point. All of that was known heading into Week 15’s matchup with the Colts, and nothing has really changed despite the fashion in which New England lost the primetime showdown.
Obviously, though, that does not make dropping to 9-5 on the season any less of a disappointment. That is especially true given how poorly the Patriots performed especially during the first half of the game.
“There’s just no excuse to play like that,” said Slater. “Come out flat, uncharacteristic penalties, just basic stuff that we’re getting beat on fundamentally, not being sound. That’s disappointing to come out and perform like that. We knew it was going to be tough coming in here and win. We knew we had to be at our best and we weren’t.”
Still, the loss to the Colts confirmed nothing we did not already know about the 2021 Patriots. It can still teach us something new, though: How will the players and coaches bounce back from this kind of adversity?
New England obviously started the year by losing four of its first six games. “We’re better than our record,” was a popular refrain at the time and the team lived up to it. A seven-game winning streak later, the Patriots established themselves as playoff hopefuls and one of the best teams in the league — one that faced limited adversity in two months.
Will New England be able to bounce back this time as well and turn its “2-4 mindset” into a “9-5 mindset” of sorts? The team’s long-term outlook might depend on it.
“If we don’t handle it well, it’ll be our season,” said safety Devin McCourty. “I mean its competition, it’s the National Football League. Guys in here have all lost games. We started the season off losing games, so we know what we need to do, and we know how we need to practice against a team we know well. Shoot, we were just studying them a few weeks ago, we just have to get ready to go. Put this in the past and keep going and moving forward.”
Matthew Slater echoed those remarks.
“I hope that’s not us. I believe that’s not us. I think we have shown that we can be much better than we were tonight,” he said.
“But I think as you begin to have success, there’s a tendency sometimes to start reading your own press clippings. Not to say that we did that, but human nature is that you can say, like, ‘We’ve got this thing figured out.’ And I think this is a good wakeup call for us. Like I told those guys, we have to keep the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is having success and winning games and playing well.”
New England shown that it can do all that, otherwise the team would not still stand atop the AFC East and firmly in the playoff picture. Even a bad game in Indianapolis does not change this.
It also does not change who these Patriots are and what we have learned about them the last 14 weeks.