Forecasting the end of the New England Patriots' dynasty has not gone well. The Patriots were supposed to be falling apart before the dynasty really started in September 2003, when they lost 31-0 to the Bills in the Lawyer Milloy game. In January 2007, it looked like they were finally giving way to the Colts when they blew a 21-3 lead in the AFC Championship Game. In 2014, they were blown out in Kansas City on national television before they were famously "on to Cincinnati." During the 2018 playoffs, Tom Brady suggested that "everybody thinks we suck."
None of those situations, though, is as dire as the one the Patriots find themselves in after losing to the Bills on Sunday. At 2-5, they are now 3½ games behind the 6-2 Bills, who also own the division tiebreaker. What's left of the league's top defense from a year ago ranked 25th in DVOA heading into the Bills game, where it allowed Zack Moss & Co. to carry the ball 38 times for 190 yards and three touchdowns. Bill Belichick's defense had allowed a team to run for 175 yards and three scores in a game just six times across his first 20 years with the Patriots; it has now allowed the 49ers and Bills to pull off that feat in consecutive weeks.
In the past, the Brady-led offense was able to bail out the defense when it had bad games (or bad seasons). As currently constructed, the New England offense doesn't have any weapons in the passing game or any ability to solve its problems if it gets off-schedule. The Pats labored in third-and-long for most of the first half Sunday, and while they got their running game going, their margin for error was nil.
On their final drive Sunday, they were in the situation in which they've tormented their rivals for decades. With the ball in the red zone and 37 seconds to go, they were in position to either kick a field goal to tie or score a touchdown to win. Bills fans, some of whom have graduated college without ever seeing Buffalo win the division, must have been watching through their fingers. This was the exact situation they were sick of facing against the Patriots, because it typically ended only one way.
And then, one Cam Newton fumble later, the game was over. In the process, the 20-year dynasty that started with the Patriots going 11-5 in 2001 might have also gone down for the count. The Patriots are 2-5 for the first time since 2000, when Belichick was in his first year as the coach and a 23-year-old Brady was yet to throw his first NFL pass. The ESPN Football Power Index gives them a 10.1% chance of making it to the postseason, and that's with the expansion to the 14-team format.
The fumble might have sunk the Patriots, but it's not the whole story. To understand why this might be the end of the dynasty, you have to understand both how they got here and what it's going to take to get them back on track.
What went wrong
The Patriots have lost a ton of talent. Yes, this starts with losing Brady, but he's not the only one. Go back 21 months to February 2019 and look at the Patriots who started the 13-3 victory over the Rams in Super Bowl LIII. Sunday's roster barely resembled the team that shut down Sean McVay's offense. Thirty-two players suited up for at least 25% of the snaps on offense or defense in that game for Belichick.
Out of those 32 who were playing meaningful roles, just 12 took snaps for New England on Sunday. Fourteen players have left the organization, while six were either injured or elected to opt out before the year as a result of the coronavirus crisis:
Cut/left in free agency (11): TE Dwayne Allen, QB Tom Brady, DT Malcom Brown, OT Trent Brown, DE Adrian Clayborn, WR Phillip Dorsett, DE Trey Flowers, WR Chris Hogan, LB Kyle van Noy, LB Elandon Roberts, DT Danny Shelton
Retired (1): FB James Develin
Available vs. Bills (12): C David Andrews, DT Adam Butler, RB Rex Burkhead, DL Lawrence Guy, CB J.C. Jackson, CB Jonathan Jones, G Shaq Mason, CB Jason McCourty, S Devin McCourty, G Joe Thuney, DE Deatrich Wise Jr., RB James White
You might notice that the guys who were available for Sunday's game were mostly running backs, interior offensive linemen and defensive backs, and they were involved in the best parts of the game for the Pats. Amid swirling winds, the Patriots ran the ball 34 times for 188 yards, 11 first downs and two touchdowns. The Bills had no trouble moving the ball on the ground, but Josh Allen was only 11-of-18 for 154 yards with an interception.
The players who didn't stick around, though, make up a hugely valuable contingent. From that Rams matchup, the Patriots were without their Hall of Fame-bound quarterback, starting running back, fullback, the linebacker who replaced the fullback at fullback, top three wide receivers, Hall of Fame-bound tight end, both starting tackles, best pass-rusher and two best interior defensive linemen, top two linebackers and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year.
Every team loses players, and the Patriots have been able to sustain their dynasty for two decades by replenishing their roster. Belichick has a long track record of amassing extra picks in the draft, both by trading down and using compensatory selections added from losing players to free agency. He has also taken advantage of teams in trades, adding stars such as Randy Moss and Wes Welker to the organization a decade ago before going after useful players such as Van Noy and Trent Brown in more recent deals.
The Patriots haven't gotten much out of their top draft picks. Belichick continues to trade down and add extra picks, and those selections have continued to deliver talent. In the first two rounds of the draft, though, they would expect to select the sort of stars they can't typically find in the later rounds. Between 2007 and 2013, those top two rounds delivered Jerod Mayo, Chung, Devin McCourty, Gronk, Nate Solder, Chandler Jones and Hightower.
After 2013, though, the Patriots haven't been able to unearth stars in the top two rounds, and their roster is feeling the effects. Let's go year-by-year through their picks in the opening two rounds to see what's happened:
2014: DL/OLB Dominique Easley (first round), QB Jimmy Garoppolo (second round). Easley didn't look like the same player in the pros after tearing both of his ACLs at Florida, and he was cut after his second season with New England amid off-field issues. He's out of football. You know how Garoppolo left New England. The Patriots got a second-rounder in the trade and turned it into a handful of players, most notably running back Damien Harris. Garoppolo did win two games for the Pats when Brady was suspended.
2015: DT Malcom Brown (first round), S Jordan Richards (second round). Brown spent four years with the Patriots as a solid-if-unspectacular defensive tackle before they declined his fifth-year option. He then signed a three-year, $15 million deal with the Saints. Richards played 528 defensive snaps over three seasons as a backup safety before being sent to the Falcons in advance of cut day in August 2018. He's now a special-teamer for the Ravens.
2016: S Cyrus Jones (second round). The Patriots lost their first-round pick as a result of the Deflategate scandal. Their first selection ended up being Jones, whom they took at No. 60, two picks ahead of a much more successful cornerback in James Bradberry. Jones spent 2016 as the Pats' return man, missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL and was cut after the end of the preseason in 2018. He has cycled between the Patriots and Ravens since and is now out of football after undergoing open-heart surgery last year.
2017: No picks in the first or second round. The Pats used their first-round pick to trade for Brandin Cooks, a move that netted Brady a star receiver in the middle of a rookie deal. They traded down in the second round and acquired a pair of defensive ends in Kony Ealy and Derek Rivers. Ealy never played for New England, while Rivers has been limited to 138 snaps over his first three-plus seasons via injury. Belichick used his other third-round pick to move up and grab tackle Antonio Garcia, who never made it onto the field; the Lions used the pick they got from the Patriots to draft Kenny Golladay.
2018: OT Isaiah Wynn, RB Sony Michel (first round), CB Duke Dawson (second round). One year after acquiring Cooks, the Patriots sent him away to the Rams and used the first-round pick they acquired on Wynn. The Georgia left tackle missed all of 2018 with a torn Achilles and 10 games in 2019 with turf toe, but he has been a solid lineman when healthy. They temporarily shifted Wynn inside a couple of weeks ago while they were dealing with injuries, although he's back at left tackle now.
The other two selections haven't been as impressive. Michel's power running helped the Patriots down the stretch and in the postseason in 2018, but he has shown virtually no burst as a pro and little aptitude as a receiver. They took Michel one selection before 2019 league MVP Lamar Jackson and four picks before Browns back Nick Chubb. They'll almost certainly decline his fifth-year option after the season is over. Dawson didn't play a single snap with the Patriots before being dealt to the Broncos for a sixth-round pick.
2019: WR N'Keal Harry (first round), DB Joejuan Williams (second round). Injuries have limited Harry to 277 receiving yards over his first season and a half as a pro. After he was selected at No. 32, the second round saw wideouts such as Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf come off the board. The Seahawks traded up at the end of the second round with the Patriots to grab Metcalf; the Pats used the picks on linebacker Chase Winovich and interior lineman Hjalte Froholdt. Winovich has curiously been phased out of the defense after a hot start, while Froholdt is a backup guard.
Williams played 80 defensive snaps as a rookie and is the team's fifth cornerback; he played 12 snaps on Sunday with Gilmore out to get his total up to 58 for the season. The Patriots traded up to draft the 6-foot-4 corner with the hopes he would be able to defend large wideouts and tight ends; it's telling that Belichick reportedly spent this offseason trying to persuade Aqib Talib to rejoin the team to play the same role.
2020: S Kyle Dugger, LB Josh Uche (second round). The Pats traded down in the first round and drafted the uber-athletic Dugger with the 37th pick, but he has missed the past two games with an ankle injury. Uche also missed time with an ankle injury and made his NFL debut on Sunday.
New England had another second-round pick and used it to trade for wideout Mohamed Sanu, which has been another issue ...
The Patriots have lost most (or all) of their recent trades. If you look back to the period before the 2018 draft, Belichick helped build his last Super Bowl team by succeeding on a number of trades. The Cooks trade didn't turn out to add any short-term benefit when Wynn tore his Achilles, but the move for Trent Brown netted the Pats one year of a star lineman and a comp pick. Less notable moves for cornerback Jason McCourty, defensive tackle Danny Shelton and wideout Cordarrelle Patterson also found them useful veterans for mid-to-late-round picks.
While Belichick hasn't made many significant trades since the 2018 draft, many of his smaller moves haven't worked out. Trades for receiver Josh Gordon and pass-rusher Michael Bennett looked great on paper before disappointing on the field in 2019, with neither player lasting the full year. They were legends compared to center Russell Bodine; the Patriots sent a sixth-round pick to the Bills to acquire Bodine last summer, then cut the former Bengals starter a week later. They also lost a useful player at a position of need when they sent tight end Jacob Hollister to the Seahawks for a seventh-round pick.
The Sanu trade turned out to be a disaster. I preferred the Falcons' side of the deal when it happened, although I couldn't have seen it going as poorly as it did for the Patriots. Sanu suffered a high-ankle sprain shortly after arriving in New England, showed virtually no burst after returning from the injury and didn't make the 2020 roster. The Falcons used the pick they got to acquire tight end Hayden Hurst.
Taking a longer view, though, the Patriots just didn't get enough in return from their two most significant trades of the past half-decade. The Garoppolo deal hasn't netted them as much as a single starter, although everyone on the list besides Dawson still has time to develop in New England. We might never know exactly what they had on the table for Garoppolo -- and it was unrealistic to suggest that they would move on from Brady -- but it seems likely that they could have gotten more for their young quarterback if they had dealt him before the season.
The Pats also didn't end up with enough when they shipped off pass-rusher Chandler Jones, who racked up 60 sacks in his first four seasons with the Cardinals before suffering a season-ending biceps tear this season. Belichick sent Jones to the Cardinals for once-promising guard Jonathan Cooper and the 61st pick in the 2016 draft. Cooper never played for the Patriots, but the Pats did find a useful guard after trading down from No. 61 to draft Joe Thuney. Their other selection out of the trade down became receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who impressed as a rookie before struggling with a knee injury and eventually retiring. Thuney is a useful player, but even on a rookie deal, he wasn't more valuable than Jones.
At the time, I wrote that a cap pinch might have led the Patriots to deal Jones. This week, Belichick brought up similar concerns about his team's books ...
The Patriots ended up in a messy cap situation. New England is typically one of the best teams in the league when it comes to managing its cap, but as Belichick noted this week, concerns about its salary-cap situation have hurt the team's depth this season. Given that the Pats are paying Newton only a fraction of what they were paying Brady in years past, they should have had a comfortable cap situation. And a day before the trade deadline, Belichick's team has nearly $26 million in cap room. So what gives?
To start, they have $26.4 million in dead money on their cap for players whose contracts are no longer on the roster. The biggest of those charges is the $13.5 million in dead money owed to Brady. In a move that still hasn't been explained publicly, the Patriots gave Brady a "two-year extension" in August 2019 that really amounted to a $8 million raise and the guarantee that his deal would void after the season without any ability for the Patriots to franchise their star passer.
In return, the team created $5.5 million in 2019 cap space and presumably kept the veteran quarterback happy, although that peace didn't last long or keep Brady around after the season. When Brady decided to sign with the Buccaneers, that $13.5 million in dead money accelerated onto New England's 2020 cap. It also owes $4.5 million in dead money for Antonio Brown's ill-fated stint with the team, which cost the Pats $10.3 million of cap room over two years for one win over the Dolphins. New England also owes $2 million in dead money for Bennett, $1.4 million for kicker Stephen Gostkowski and $1 million for safety Duron Harmon.
Early in March, the Patriots decided to keep two veteran contributors around by franchising Thuney and signing Devin McCourty to a two-year, $23 million deal. They used voidable years in McCourty's deal to help keep his cap hit lower than it would typically be, but Thuney's franchise tag amounts to $14.8 million of the cap. With Mason also on a large deal, they have $24.9 million of their cap committed to guards, nearly $5 million more than any other team in football. Guard typically hasn't been a position where they wanted to spend significant money on multiple players; remember, this is the same team that once successfully converted college wrestler Stephen Neal into an NFL guard.
As a result, the Patriots found themselves with little to no cap space when free agency began. They might have been able to take a more serious shot on depth at receiver or linebacker, but they weren't in a position to take advantage of those opportunities. The cap constraints also forced them to send Gronkowski to the Buccaneers for a late-round pick when they might have held the leverage to ask for a more significant return if they actually had the room to fit Gronkowski on their own ledger.
New England then unexpectedly cleared out cap space when players were afforded the opportunity to opt out of the season, with their cap figures disappearing off the books in the process. Losing Chung, Hightower, Cannon and others to opt-outs freed up more than $30 million in cap space, but by the time that cap space became available, it was August. The Patriots hadn't spent the offseason expecting to need replacements for those players, and while they finally had money to spend, there was nobody left on the market to actually go after. They used the money to hand Gilmore a short-term raise in lieu of negotiating an extension and will roll over the rest of the room onto their 2021 cap, but it didn't help their 2020 roster.
The resulting roster isn't well-constructed. They lost more talent to opt-outs than any other team and were forced to put players such as guard Jermaine Eluemunor, safety Terrence Brooks and linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley into starting roles to begin the season when they were previously ticketed to be reserves. They likely would have been fine on defense if the players who had opted out had decided to play or if they had known in March and been able to spend money on replacements for those players, but being stuck without either has hurt them on that side of the ball.
The offense was fine when Newton was healthy and threatening teams as a runner and play-action passer, but it just doesn't have the talent to compete with subpar quarterback play, which is what coordinator Josh McDaniels & Co. have been dealing with for most of the past four weeks. There's another universe where the Patriots draft a little better and get guys like Metcalf and Chubb instead of Harry and Michel and aren't dealing with COVID-19, which would give them access to veterans like Hightower and Chung. That team might be a playoff team. This one is in serious trouble of crashing out before January.
Can the Patriots salvage their season?
At 2-5, they are in vulnerable shape. Just five teams under the 32-team format have made it to the playoffs after starting 2-5. If we go back through 2002 and look at what would have happened under a 14-team playoff format, we can add four would-be playoff teams to that bunch for a total of nine 2-5 playoff teams out of 85 teams that started that way. The simple estimate would give New England a 10.6% chance of making it to the postseason.
Of course, the Pats also find themselves in a tough spot in the AFC East. They still have two games against the Jets, including a get-right spot next Monday, but they just lost to the first-place Bills. The Dolphins are 4-3. This will be harder than most climbs up the standings. Take 2015, when the Texans won the AFC South after starting 2-5. Despite their ugly first half of the season, they were only one game behind the Colts, who were in first place at 3-4. The 2011 Broncos came back to win the division when they were 2-5 and everyone else in the AFC West started 4-3; the Tim Tebow-led team eventually won a division in which three teams tied at 8-8 and the fourth-place Chiefs were 7-9. That sort of ending seems less likely for the 2020 AFC East.
The Pats could certainly claim one of three wild-card berths, and they already hold tiebreaker victories over the Dolphins and Raiders. At the same time, they ranked 12th in the conference in DVOA heading into the week, suggesting that they were not a much better team than their middling record indicated. They should improve a bit after their showing against Buffalo, and a healthy Newton could help restore the offense, but it seems tough to count on him playing at a high level for the final two months when he has been struggling for most of the first two. Backups Jarrett Stidham and Brian Hoyer haven't shown much when Newton has been sidelined, and the offense is beleaguered by injuries.
When I wrote about the Patriots' struggles in 2014 after the Chiefs blowout, I was careful not to pin the blame on Brady, who was still playing excellent football. The offensive line was a mess, and the Pats made changes before the subsequent game over the Bengals to get the weakest parts of the line on the bench. They also had a Hall of Fame talent playing a limited role in Gronkowski, who was recovering from offseason surgery. They stretched Gronk into a full-time role the following week and it fixed their offense.
I just don't see that sort of fix on the horizon unless Newton turns into an MVP-caliber quarterback. Even if he were capable of playing at that level, I don't think the Patriots have the receivers to take advantage of whatever he might offer. The defense could improve as its younger players grow more experienced in the second half of the season, but they would probably need to go 7-2 over their final nine games to challenge for a wild-card spot.
ESPN Daily podcast: Bill Barnwell wraps up Week 8.
On top of that, there's no guarantee that the Patriots will even keep their core together for the remainder of the season. There have been hints that the team might look to move Gilmore, who will be entering the final year of his deal in 2021 and wants a contract extension to realign his deal with the top of the market. Belichick typically isn't in the market of paying cornerbacks on the wrong side of 30; remember that Ty Law was a first-team All-Pro at 29 in 2003, missed half of the 2004 season with a foot injury and was cut by the Patriots before the 2005 offseason.
Gilmore missed Sunday's loss after suffering a knee injury in practice Thursday; the move could scupper any deal before Tuesday's trade deadline, although there are naturally skeptical people around the league who think Belichick simply didn't want to run the risk of Gilmore suffering a more serious injury in the Bills game before dealing his star cornerback. (Any vaguely intriguing decision made by Belichick after 20 years of outsmarting the rest of the league typically inspires half-serious conspiracy theories.)
I still think Gilmore will be on the Patriots' roster come Wednesday morning, but it wouldn't shock me if they moved on from the reigning Defensive Player of the Year after the season. They could also pursue deals for some of their other veterans over the next couple of days, but no other players have significant trade value. If Patriots fans are looking toward what might happen in 2021, they're facing an uncertain future ...
What happens next
The Patriots will enter the 2021 offseason without a solution at quarterback, given that Newton will be an unrestricted free agent. They would have the right to franchise-tag or extend him, but unless the former MVP can stay healthy and produce consistently, he's likely to head back into the market. The Pats would be left with Stidham under center, and the fourth-rounder has thrown four picks on 27 career pass attempts. There's no public evidence suggesting he's a viable starter.
Belichick's team projects to have $69.8 million in cap space, a number that would approach $80 million if it were to trade Gilmore. The Pats are also set to lose a handful of starters to free agency, including Thuney, Guy, White and Andrews. It seems likely that they would use at least some of that space for retaining their own players. J.C. Jackson would also be in line for an extension. Cannon, Chung and Hightower would all be on the books, but they'll each be 31 or older next year, and they each could consider retirement.
The Patriots would be left with a core of players in their mid-30s, a smattering of promising young players on defense and along the offensive line and virtually no star power. They can use their spending power in a year with a reduced salary cap to try to spend money on veteran depth to cover over their holes and hope that Belichick can coach them up into a playoff team. They would still need a quarterback in that scenario, but there's a chance they could go out and get someone like Garoppolo or Kirk Cousins if their current employers would prefer to have cap space.
Realistically, the Patriots are more likely to find themselves staring down some form of a rebuild. I don't think they are, should or will be tanking, but they're projected to pick in the top half of the NFL draft for just the fourth time since Belichick quit as coach of the Jets and joined the organization. This will probably be their best chance to grab their quarterback of the future, and finding a low-cost option there would allow Belichick to spend on badly needed upgrades at receiver and in the front seven. The Patriots won't be in position to draft Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, but it's not impossible to imagine a scenario where they draft North Dakota State's Trey Lance and support him by signing a wide receiver such as Allen Robinson or JuJu Smith-Schuster in free agency.
Of course, this assumes that Belichick will be the one making the selections. We take him for granted, but the greatest coach in modern league history is 68 and has already cemented his legacy. The infrastructure for the team to succeed might already be in place with McDaniels, Mayo and both Brian and Steve Belichick on staff. Team owner Robert Kraft has already said that Belichick will coach the Patriots for as long as he wants, and I wouldn't expect that to change, but what if he doesn't want to oversee a lengthy rebuild? The idea of Belichick coaching another team or retiring seems far-fetched, but then again, what would you have said this time last year if I had told you Brady would be on the Buccaneers in 2020?
Is the Patriots' dynasty dead? At the very least, it's on hiatus for 2020. It would take a dramatic turnaround to get things back on track this season, and while they might beat the Jets by 40 points Sunday, that sort of improvement over the rest of the way isn't supported by how they have looked so far this season. There's a scenario in which they get a lot of things right this upcoming offseason and get back to the top of the division in 2021, but the spell the Pats have held over the NFL -- the feeling that they will always somehow find a way to win and keep winning -- is gone.