It’s true: none of New England’s three opponents in 2019 have won a game yet.
The Steelers, on the receiving end of a 33-3 beatdown on opening night, are 0-3. The Dolphins, who tanked their way to a 43-0 laugher in Week 2, remain winless, as do the Jets, who scored two garbage time touchdowns in a 30-14 setback in Week 3.
The Patriots haven’t exactly faced a murderer's row at the outset of the 2019 season, which finds them at 3-0 for the seventh time since Bill Belichick took over in 2000. That’s in stark contrast to last season, in which New England looked lost through three weeks at 1-2.
Make no mistake about it, this year’s schedule has been more forgiving... but how much so?
After beating the Texans in Week 1, 27-20 at home, the Patriots dropped back-to-back road games at Jacksonville (31-20) and Detroit (26-10) last year. The Jaguars, a season after holding a fourth quarter lead at Gillette Stadium in the AFC Championship Game, went on to finish 5-11, while the Lions, coached by former New England defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, stumbled to a 6-10 finish.
Timing and location both matter; you have to think that if the Patriots were facing Jacksonville or Detroit in November or December, in Foxboro, the results would have been different. But it doesn’t change the fact that New England lost two games to two mediocre teams in September 2018.
As we know, the Patriots went on to win Super Bowl LIII last season despite their September woes, just as they overcame a 2-2 start in 2014 to win Super Bowl XLIX. New England reached Super Bowl LII after a 2-2 September.
Hot starts don’t always lead to a Super Bowl win either, of course. You may remember the season in which the Patriots won their first 18 games before losing the one that mattered most, but there’s also 2015, in which they went 10-0 before stumbling down the stretch to a 2-4 finish and falling in the AFC Championship Game in Denver.
“In September, your football team is always looking to get better,” Matthew Slater said. “We’re thankful that we’ve started this season out a little bit stronger than we did last year, but it really doesn’t mean anything. It’s just three games.”
The Patriots were 3-0 in 2016 with Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett at quarterback in place of Tom Brady before going on to win Super Bowl LI. Going way back, they started out 6-0 in 2004 as a prelude to winning Super Bowl XXXIX.
Could there be something to peaking too early? Perhaps. But there’s unquestionably more downside to getting off to a slow start and putting yourself behind the eight ball when it comes to homefield advantage in the postseason. The win in the AFC Championship Game last January for the Patriots was their first road playoff win in 12 years.
One possible reason for New England’s quick start this season is the fact it had not one, but two joint-practice sessions in the preseason, teaming up with the Lions and Titans in consecutive weeks in August. The team didn’t have any joint practices in 2018; could that be an explanation for the sluggish start?
“It’s always good going against another team, spending a week in another city,” Phillip Dorsett said. “I would say physically, no, but as a team, yeah, building that camaraderie in camp mode, practicing against another team rather than banging heads with each other.”
“I don’t know what it is,” said Stephon Gilmore, downplaying the benefit of joint practices this season. “It takes a lot each and every week to win. It’s a different challenge each and every week.”
No matter what it is, the Patriots can ostensibly clinch the AFC East this weekend with a win at 3-0 Buffalo. Neither the Bills nor Dolphins will win back at Gillette in December, and even with Sam Darnold likely back in time for New England’s trip to the Meadowlands to take on the Jets, that, too, feels like an automatic victory.
Finish 6-0 in the division and the rest will take care of itself. The Patriots are doing more than holding up their part of the bargain thus far, firing on all cylinders out of the gates.
The opponents may be of exhibition caliber, but New England hasn’t been treating the season’s first month as a continuation of the preseason in 2019.