Laird: Mapping out the Patriots' best-case scenario

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Former Patriots’ running back LeGarrette Blount was asked to describe the mythical ‘Patriot Way’ this week while a guest on the Pat McAfee Show, and the Bill Belichick quote that he relayed struck me as significant.

“Bill has different coaching strategies than other guys,” Blount explained. “For instance one thing that he says a lot, every year that I was there… ‘It doesn’t really start until after Thanksgiving.’”

Bill Belichick teams - 2019 aside - rise to the occasion in post-December football. That’s a New England axiom we’ve all come to live by. Belichick’s own bio at Patriots.com highlights the evidence: “Since becoming Patriots head coach in 2000, Belichick is 69-18 (.793) in December, the second-best record in December among head coaches with one team in NFL history, behind George Seifert (27-6).”

So why are all so quick to write-off the 2020 Patriots as contenders?

If Blount is right, the story of the 2020 Pats is far from written, and in fact they’ve got a 1-0 headstart in proving that they are still an NFL force to be reckoned with.

Now, ask even the Foxborough die-hards what the ceiling for this year’s team is, and I expect you’d find few who believe the Cam Newton Patriots - with all of 84-yards passing in last Sunday’s win over Arizona - are capable of a deep playoff run.

But hear me out: I really wouldn’t be all that shocked if we wake up on the morning of the AFC Championship game and New England is there yet again.

First of all, they’ve hung in there this season with some of the league’s elite in Seattle and Kansas City, the later with the deadly duo of Brian Hoyer and Jarrett Stidham under center.

Secondly, they haven’t quit on their coach despite all the excuses at the ready to justify it. Belichick still commands respect, as evidenced by wins in three-of-their-past-four games after Newton fumbled away a winning drive in Buffalo on November 1st.

And by the way - I get the sense Belichick really likes his team this year. He’s in complete control: his guys, coached his way, without any star QBs to throw their weight around. And he also knows that a win in the Divisional round this year is checkmate in the Belichick vs. Brady Gambit, so there’s no doubt that he'll stay focused.

Belichick’s Pats will be underdogs most of the rest of the way, starting even this weekend in Los Angeles against the three-win Chargers… but here are some of the keys that I could see sparking one of Belichick’s more unexpected runs in his storied coaching career:

- Baltimore, Miami and Las Vegas implode and New England makes the playoffs at 9-7

The Covid-Ravens loss Wednesday in Pittsburgh dropped them to 6-5, with the next game Tuesday against Dallas where they’re still likely to be shorthanded. Baltimore’s 7th loss might then follow the next week in Cleveland. The Pats, or course, own the tiebreaker with the Ravens by virtue of their head-to-head win.

The Raiders just lost 43-6… 43-6!... in Atlanta, suffering their 5th defeat. The Pats have the tiebreaker here, too, provided Las Vegas loses two-of-three in Weeks 14-16 against Indy, the Chargers and the Dolphins. I’d call that likely.

Speaking of Miami, currently 7-4, New England can hand them one of three needed losses themselves Week 15. The Chiefs figure to hand them another Week 14, and a Week 17 loss in Buffalo could very well get the Pats in the postseason.

- Julian Edelman returns

Belichick gave a positive update on ‘Highway 11’ during the coach’s interview with OMF on WEEI this week, saying “I think Julian has made a lot of progress in the last couple of weeks. I talked to him the other day and he’s certainly feeling better and able to do a little more each day. We’ll take it day-by-day and see how it goes.

That’s far from a guarantee that Edelman will return in 2020, but if he does return he’ll give Newton a legitimate three-receiver passing attack for the first time all season. Remember the 11 catch, 179-yard performance he had in Seattle Week 2? I bet Newton does as well.

- Josh McDaniels locks in

The Pats’ playcaller had one of his best performances in the upset win over Baltimore, conquering the elements and dialing up gems like the Jakobi Meyers touchdown pass to Rex Burkhead. The following week, in a loss to Houston, his offense couldn’t handle a safety blitz and Newton barely ran the ball. This past Sunday, Newton’s legs sparked a win despite a putrid passing day. Can he find the sweet spot to produce four touchdowns a week from this group? I say yes, and see below:

- Damien Harris becomes elite

Pro Football Focus currently has Harris as the best back in football, with a 90.8 grade that beats Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook. Now granted, Harris is much more of a rotational player than those bell-cow backs, but maybe that’s the essential point: if Harris has more carries to give - especially in the absence of Burkhead - at his current 5.1-yards-per-carry clip, this will be the best run offense in football by the playoffs, surpassing Cleveland, Baltimore and Tennessee in that department.

- A tight end emerges out of nowhere

Don’t look now but rookie Dalton Keene, a.k.a. ‘Rambo, has returned to practice off of I.R. Could Keene be a poor-man’s Rob Gronkowksi? Ok, how about just a poor-man’s Jacob Hollister? At this point, anything helps.

- Chase Winovich and Josh Uche become feared pass rushers

After spending Weeks 6-8 in Belichick’s doghouse, Winovich has been rising back to prominence in the Patriots defense the past few weeks while Uche has finally gotten a taste of NFL life. Against Arizona, these two finally began to look like a promising pass rushing tandem, alternating edge pressure to keep Kyler Murray hurried and contained. Their continued development may be the most significant thing to watch down the season’s stretch.

- Kyle Dugger takes the next step

With three straight games earning over 70% of his defense’s snaps, Dugger is clearly earning more trust from the coaching staff and his impact is showing up more and more. Along with Ju’Whuan Bentley, Dugger helped come up with a big run-stop of Kenyan Drake prior to the Arizona kicker missing a go-ahead field goal this past week. A draft pick mocked by many - myself included - looks to be a good one by Belichick the GM.

The 5-6 Patriots are still a contender, and The Patriot Way declares that the good stuff is just about to begin. And anyway, it’s Christmas, the time of miracles. Even Hans Gruber from ‘Die Hard’ knew that. So be of good cheer and dream of the best case scenario, whether stealing bonds from Nakatomi tower or stealing playoff spots in the AFC.