Sat, 06 Mar 2021

After Further Review: Closing out the 2020 Patriots

New England Patriots
16 Jan 2021, 19:34 GMT+10

Mike Dussault

With the 2020 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for the final edition of After Further Review, as we take a look back at the season and try to identify the moments and themes that defined this 7-9 edition of the Patriots.

There were certainly some bright spots and some exciting wins, but the inconsistency and recurring problems haunted them all season long, as the team was never quite able to get fully on track in all three phases of the game, stumbling down the stretch with some of their most disappointing performances of the season.

Here are the five key moments of the 2020 season and the pick for the Enel Powerful Play of the Season.

Meet the new Pats, same as the old Pats?

No one knew quite what to expect from the 2020 Patriots as they took the field for their home opener against the Dolphins. Not only did they have a new starting quarterback under center, but they were also entering the game after a truncated training camp and no preseason games.

In many ways, their performance in the 21-11 win over the Dolphins was a clear indication of how the season would go. Many of the characteristics, good and bad, would stick with the team for the rest of the schedule.

Some of the most notable include Cam Newton's effectiveness as a runner, winning the turnover battle, but struggling just before halftime. Those were some key features of the 2020 Patriots and they were evident from this first battle.

Newton bookended the 2020 season with his two best performances; this win over the Dolphins and the season-ender against the Jets. Though the passing game never truly hit a new level, the strength of the run game, initially led by Newton's 75 rushing yard performance with two touchdowns, was the offensive engine all year long. Newton's second touchdown, where he handed the ball to David Andrews for the spike, was the kind of feel-good exclamation point that left much of the league wondering if the Patriots wouldn't miss a beat in 2020.

J.C. Jackson got his nine-interception season started with his first pick of the year in the end zone. It was one of two games in the season that they would get three takeaways. On the season, the Patriots were 6-1 when they won the turnover battle, 1-8 when they tied or lost it.

The Pats defense would also pick up just one sack, a slow start for what would be the lowest sack output (24) in 20 years by a large margin and just over half of their 2019 production (47).

There's no denying this was a big win, after having lost to the same Dolphins in the 2019 regular-season finale, but producing these kinds of perfect efforts would prove more and more difficult as the season progressed.

Week 4 Gets Turned Upside Down

With the win over the Dolphins, a last-second loss to the Seahawks and a grinding win over the Raiders, the Patriots were poised for their biggest test of the season as they prepared to head to Kansas City to take on the defending Super Bowl champs. But suddenly, on Saturday morning prior to Sunday's game, Cam Newton popped up with a positive COVID-19 test that sent the entire 2020 season sideways.

The game was pushed to Monday night, with the team traveling the same day of the game and being forced to start Brian Hoyer at quarterback. We all knew heading into the season that something like this was a distinct possibility, but it was still shocking to see it unfold and put the Patriots in a near-impossible situation against the best team in football.

Surprisingly, the Patriots played the Chiefs tough, holding them to Patrick Mahomes and his speed merchants to their third-lowest yardage total of the season and only six first-half points. Red zone defense was a big plus for the Patriots on the day, as was third-down defense, holding the Chiefs to 4-of-11 on conversions. Both were somewhat out of character for the 2020 Patriots defense, as they finished 27th in red zone defense and 16th in third-down defense.

Of course, turnovers were a key storyline, especially in the first half. After a Brian Hoyer interception set the Chiefs up on the Patriots' 23-yard line while holding a 6-0 lead, Stephon Gilmore forced a fumble and J.C. Jackson recovered it, saving the Patriots from falling behind by two scores. The offense would capitalize, putting together a field-goal-scoring drive to cut the lead to 6-3.

On the next drive, the Patriots almost had a chance to take the lead when Chase Winovich sacked Mahomes and forced a fumble. Officials incorrectly blew the play dead and it should've set the Pats up well inside Chiefs territory. The Pats would still force a punt on the possession and their offense would respond with an excellent end-of-half drive.

But as was often the case in 2020, failure to execute in the waning second before halftime hurt the Patriots, with Brian Hoyer taking a sack with no timeouts left. The Patriots watched helplessly as the clock expired, costing them at least a 6-6 halftime tie.

Still, Hoyer and New England would get another shot to tie the game up. After trading punts to start the third quarter, the Patriots put together another solid offensive drive, making it all the way to the Kansas City 10-yard line. But once again they'd fail to get points as Hoyer would take a sack and fumble on a third-down play. From there the Chiefs pulled away, scoring touchdowns on their next two possessions then tacking on a pick-six.

Considering the circumstances it was one of the better efforts of the year, at least in the first half. But with four turnovers, the Pats could not expect to realistically knock off the Chiefs.

Week 10's promise, Week 11's demise

The fallout from the Chiefs game continued to be felt over the next four weeks. The team's bye week was moved up and then Pats looked lifeless in the two of the worst losses of the season, first to a 1-3 Broncos team and then to Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers. They fought hard against the Buffalo Bills, as second-year players Damien Harris and Jakobi Meyers continued to make strides in their breakout seasons. The Pats even had a chance to win the game at the end until a Newton fumble sealed their fate. Even a win over the winless Jets was a struggle that came down to the final seconds as Nick Folk hit his first of two game-winning kicks on the season.

Entering their game against the Ravens, the Patriots stood at 3-5 and appeared to be fading, but they'd pull off one of their best wins of the season over a team that had easily handled them just a season prior.

It was a windy and rainy night and the Ravens had some key injuries to their defensive front that allowed the Patriots ground attack to get going. Damien Harris rushed for 121 yards while the Patriots didn't have a turnover for the second-straight game. They even came through with a needed play just before halftime, with J.C. Jackson picking up another interception that likely kept points off the board.

The game also featured our pick for the Enel Powerful Play of the Season, with Jakobi Meyers throwing a touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead. It was just the kind of trick play the Pats needed to find the end zone and one they'd return to in the season finale. Josh McDaniels attempted plenty of these kinds of plays during the season, but this was the most successful and necessary, and it led directly to the Patriots' win. It was a huge play.

After pulling off the upset, the team and their fans were riding high, still just 4-5 but with some hope restored that the COVID downturn was behind them and that they were capable of beating the good teams in the AFC. But all that fell apart a week later as Deshaun Watson and Texans destroyed that hope. We didn't know it at the time but the loss to Houston was where the Patriots playoff path actually died.

Watson was nearly perfect on the game, picking apart the Patriots' pass defense in the kind of effort that was a reality check for what the strengths of the defense really were. They had no answers for the Texans quarterback, who had big plays all game long, including multiple on another characteristic touchdown drive just before the half that extended the lead to 21-7.

Any hope that was restored after the win over Baltimore was lost in disappointing fashion against the Texans.

Tale of Two LA games

The defense and special teams rose up against the Cardinals the following week, as the team and their fans clung to the hope that the Patriots could somehow squeak their way into the playoffs if everything broke their way. But with the offense producing just 69 passing yards, their inconsistency and lack of development continued to hamper those efforts.

This led to a two-game road trip to Los Angeles to face the Chargers and Rams back-to-back. The special teams would build on their effort against the Cardinals, producing one of their most dominant efforts in recent memory, with Gunner Olszewski taking a punt back for a touchdown and Devin McCourty recovering a blocked field goal attempt and taking that to the house for another score. Nick Folk would continue his perfect streak on field goals, as well as making all of his extra points.

The 45-0 blowout was the high-water mark of the season, coming against an overmatched coach and rookie quarterback, as the Pats scored on their first drive and rolled from there.

But just four days later, the Rams would put one of the final nails in the 2020 Patriots' coffin with a dominating 24-3 win after racing out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. The Patriots' offense was controlled all game long by the Rams' defense, one of the best in football who played like they had something to prove.

The disparity between the two Los Angeles games summed up the season in many ways. When things unfolded perfectly and they played a clean game, the 2020 Patriots could compete with anyone. But when the other team played perfectly, it was tough for the 2020 Patriots to overcome.

The Bills rise

A week after giving up 186 rushing yards to the Rams, the Patriots' run defense would bottom out in a loss to the Dolphins, allowing a season-high 250 rushing yards. Offensively, it was the second-straight game the Pats would go without a touchdown.

The Bills, already crowned champions of the AFC East, marking the first time since 2008 the Patriots had not won the division, came to New England on Monday Night Football, looking to make a statement and that's exactly what they did.

Josh Allen's offense would put up 474 total yards of offense, the highest total allowed by the Patriots all season, while the Bills' defense held the Pats to just 201 total yards, their second-lowest output of the season.

It was a strange departure to see the Patriots fizzle out at the end of the season with some of their worst offense and defensive football in this three-game losing stretch. Injuries played a factor on both sides of the ball, but the dropoff was dramatic and it was jarring to see such domination in December.

The Pats ended their season on a high note, knocking off the Jets with another one of their mistake-free performances with flawless execution in key moments. Cam Newton's 49-yard run and Jakobi Meyers' second touchdown pass of the season stood out, as did J.C. Jackson picking up his ninth interception of the season, tying him for best in the league.

There were bright spots this season, led by Meyers, Jackson and Harris, while many youngsters got a ton of experience that should pay off down the line. But the inconsistency and dropoff on offense and defense was the overriding theme of the season. When the Pats played perfect ball -- winning the turnover battle, finishing in the red zone, making game-changing plays on special teams -- they looked pretty good.

But in far too many games they never really had a chance, due to sloppy play and poor execution that lingered, and in some cases got worse, as the season progressed.

It was a challenging season for a laundry list of reasons but perhaps the Patriots picked the right year to hit the reset button. The integration of more younger players should bode well for the future and give them a jumpstart on the post-Brady rebuild that has only just begun.

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