Cam Newton

New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton, center, celebrates his rushing touchdown with teammates in the second half of a game against the Ravens on Nov. 15 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. AP photo

If you’re like me, you watched the New England Patriots play the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday and you found yourself throwing your hands up at every defensive holding call in the red zone. Or every run to the outside that was blown up for a loss. Or every Cam Newton pass that sailed through the air with the flight pattern of a deaf bat.

And then you saw Nick Folk’s kick sail through the uprights, the clock at all zeroes, and you wondered “Now how the heck did they pull that off?”

Welcome to Patriots football in 2020, where the home team is endlessly frustrating, talent deficient, maddeningly inconsistent — and a whole lot of fun to watch.


Fun, in this case, doesn’t mean good or efficient. The Patriots have holes so big even Sony Michel could run through them. They have precious few linebackers. The ones they have are slow. N’Keal Harry plays receiver the way Hanley Ramirez played left field. Newton throws the ball like it weighs 12 pounds. There’s a punchline for every position.

But it’s fun in that it’s compelling, in the way that so many of the games and so many of the seasons with Tom Brady and his premier receiving corps weren’t. Those teams were impressive, and awe-inspiring. They played football at an astonishingly high level of ability and consistency. And when those teams and players were at their highest points — think Randy Moss in 2007, Brady in ’07 and 2010, Rob Gronkowski in 2011 and ’14 — the spectacle was dazzling.

But were those seasons compelling? Was it fun to watch the Patriots beat the Bills, the Dolphins, the Jets or the dregs of the league outside the AFC East by 30 points? You knew you were seeing something special, you knew you were fortunate to witness it, you tried your best to soak it in, knowing those days would never come around. But you also found yourself looking at your phone late in the third or chatting with someone else in the living room with the Patriots driving to make it 42-17.

Because those standards got so high, and fans inevitably were spoiled, that the years where things didn’t go according to plan were miserable slogs. Take 2009 and 2019. The Patriots won the AFC East and hosted Wild Card games those seasons. And fans both times couldn’t wait for the year to end. Even 2011, which wound up a dropped pass away from another Super Bowl title, had fans complaining about a subpar defense more than they were celebrating a winning team.

This? This is a flashback to 2001. The Patriots might not make the playoffs. They probably won’t. But they could, and each week either is a shot of adrenaline or a sledgehammer to those hopes. That’s how the ’01 season went. It’s now heralded as the start of one of the NFL’s greatest dynasties, but there were no thoughts that something long-term was brewing that season. The Patriots that fall were a team that got off to a bad start, started to win despite their flaws, and entered the playoff conversation. Sound familiar?

Fans didn’t wonder after a victory how they felt about Super Bowl chances. All that mattered was getting in. It’s been a while since that’s been that’s been the thinking here.

That’s not to say this season has been easy. Far from it. The Patriots have had some ugly losses this season. They sleepwalked through their first two games after their COVID stretch. Their offense has sputtered far more often than it’s clicked. The defense has let some fairly routine running backs look like Emmitt Smith.

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New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches from the sideline in the first half of a game against the San Francisco 49ers on Oct. 2, in Foxborough, Massachusetts. AP photo

And in Newton, they have a quarterback who is doing a dead-on Tim Tebow impression. The Broncos in 2011 won a game in which Tebow went 6-of-22 for 60 yards. The Patriots just won one in which Newton went 9-of-18 for 84. The only difference is Cam is right-handed.

However…

This Patriots team also turns it on for the best opponents. New England pulled off two upsets against Baltimore and Arizona, and almost got two more against Buffalo and Seattle. The Patriots have a real find in hard-charging running back Damien Harris, a ballhawk in J.C. Jackson, and receivers in Damiere Byrd and Jakobi Meyers who get the absolute most out of ordinary skill sets. Even Newton, for all his limitations, has continued to be an enthusiastic leader in a season that won’t earn him much of a contract next year, a welcome change from Brady’s sulk show last year.

This is a team that needs to take advantage of every opportunity that comes its way. New England can’t commit turnovers, can’t miss tackles, can’t so much as make a penalty on offense, or the whole thing can come crashing down.

This year, someone else is the Patriots as we’ve come to know them. The Patriots as they are now are the team that needs everything to go right, needs to get some breaks, and…yeah, maybe, they could have a shot.

And sometimes this year, it’s happened. The Patriots are 5-6. With a little luck, they might make the playoffs.

It’s been a while since that was a good thing.


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