The New England Patriots are without Tom Brady this season for the first time in 20 years and already they've been swimming in the waters of unchartered territory. While Brady has the Tampa Bay Buccaneers off to a 4-2 start, the Patriots sit at 2-3 and in third place in the AFC East -- the first time New England has been under .500 this late since Week 8 of the 2002 season.
New England was coming off its first Super Bowl title, but started 3-4 in that 2002 season -- the only season Brady played the full year and the Patriots missed the playoffs. The Patriots finished 9-7, second in the AFC East, and it was the only time the franchise failed to win 10-plus games when Brady played the full season. New England endured a four-game losing streak that season, the team's last losing streak of 4-plus games under Belichick.
The run of success the Patriots have been on since the 2002 season is unprecedented, as Brady has cemented himself as perhaps the greatest quarterback of all time in the 18 seasons that followed. The 2020 Patriots don't have Brady, but they do have Bill Belichick -- but through five games, they haven't recaptured their winning ways.
The COVID-19 pandemic has plenty to do with that, as the Patriots have closed their facility on four separate occasions due to positive COVID tests within the organization, including Cam Newton and Stephon Gilmore testing positive. New England has had a game rescheduled (Chiefs) and a game postponed and pushed back a week (Broncos) in addition to having the facilities closed.
"We need more time together, we need to practice together, we need to execute and do everything better. No question about that," Belichick said after the Patriots' loss to the Broncos Sunday. "It's the same for everybody on the team. Nobody's practiced. I mean we all need to do more practice, we need to get our execution levels up a lot higher."
The lack of practice time has hurt the Patriots, but the same could be said for the Tennessee Titans and they are coming off back-to-back victories and are 5-0 on the season. The Broncos hadn't played since Oct. 1 and beat that same Patriots team in Foxborough. New England is 25th in the NFL in scoring and second to last in passing touchdowns, not a formula for success in a passing league. The Patriots are second in rushing, but their 10 giveaways rank amongst the top five in the league.
The defense fell from No. 1 in the league in total points and yards allowed to 11th and ninth, respectively. The top-ranked pass defense has also fell to ninth, while the run defense has dropped from sixth to 16th.
"I think we need to do everything better, offense, defense, special teams," Belichick said after Sunday's loss. "They scored more points than we did, so we need to play better defense and give up fewer and try to score more. We'll look at everything on the film. We feel there was a lot going on out there, I couldn't analyze all of it. But we need to do everything better, I think I said that three or four times so I'll just say it again, we need to do everything better."
Buffalo (4-2) hasn't run away with the AFC East, so New England still is in the division race. The Patriots are also 1.5 games out of the final playoff spot in the AFC with 11 games still to play, so there's plenty of time to turn the season around. Playing the Jets twice will certainly help, but New England also as three more games against the loaded NFC West and two games against the Bills.
The Patriots play seven games against teams with a .500 or better record in the final 11 games. The NFL will see if practice is what the Patriots needed, or if this is a sign of things to come in the post-Brady era.