Time is running out for 2-7 Patriots to salvage worst start to season since Tom Brady's departure

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) — This season was supposed to be a course correction for the New England Patriots.

A year removed from an 8-9 finish that featured a regression for second-year quarterback Mac Jones and the offense under the direction of Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, the 2023 season was supposed to be a step toward contending again in an AFC East they had once dominated with Tom Brady.

Instead, at 2-7 at the halfway point following a loss to Washington, the Patriots appear the furthest they’ve been from relevancy since Brady left following the 2019 season.

They are at the bottom of the AFC and are the only team yet to win a game outside of its division, the return of coordinator Bill O’Brien hasn’t reinvigorated the offense, and they are dealing with a mounting number of injuries that make a resurgence in the second half of the schedule seem unlikely.

And as coach Bill Belichick slogs through his worst start to a season in New England since his first one in 2000, chatter surrounding his job security suddenly seems much more than message board fodder.

Asked a day after the loss to the Commanders why their efforts haven’t produced more wins this season, Belichick boiled it down to not seizing opportunities.

“Like yesterday (against Washington), we had our chances. We just need to make more plays at the critical times of the game,” he said. “That’s in the past here. We’re moving ahead to Indianapolis and get ready for the Colts.”

Making weekly tweaks at this point may not be enough.

Of the Patriots’ eight remaining opponents, half currently have winning records.

Still, as bleak as things seem, veteran center and captain David Andrews is adamant that the belief in the locker room is that they can turn things around.

“You have to look in the mirror and go back to work,” Andrews said. “It’s not going to break my spirit. it’s not going to break our spirit,” he said.

WHAT’S WORKING

It’s not much, but Belichick did find a winner in rookie punter Bryce Baringer. The 2023 sixth-round draft pick leads the NFL with 22 punts inside the 20-yard line.

The downside? It means the Patriots are punting a lot.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

The offense has in many ways taken steps backward this season. Last season, the Patriots averaged 314.6 yards and 27.8 points per game, ranking 26th and 16th in the league.

This season with O’Brien in charge, both numbers have slipped to 289.4 yards (27th in the NFL) and 15 points per game (31st).

Jones acknowledged it’s been “tough” to remain confident in a system that hasn’t produced the results they expected.

“The biggest thing is remaining confident in yourself,” he said. “When you do everything you can every day, you should have no regrets. I have no regrets. I do need to do things better."

STOCK UP

Receiver Kendrick Bourne. Prior to sustaining a season-ending knee injury late in their Week 8 loss at Miami, Bourne was the most consistent player on offense. His 37 catches, 406 yards and four touchdowns are all team highs just a year after he struggled to get playing time.

The injury comes at the worst moment for him as he wraps up the final year of the three-year, $15 million deal he signed in 2021.

STOCK DOWN

Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. When the 2018 Pro Bowler signed a three-year, $33 million free-agent deal this offseason he said he felt as if he was growing daily. That development hasn’t continued into the regular season.

He has just 21 catches for 140 yards and didn’t get his first touchdown until Week 8 against Miami.

INJURIES

The list of Patriots added to injured reserve has certainly contributed to the slow start and it seems to grow weekly. In addition to Bourne, rookie cornerback Christian Gonzalez hasn’t played since suffering his injury in Week 4 against Dallas. Cornerback and kick returner Marcus Jones (shoulder) and offensive tackles Calvin Anderson (illness) and Riley Reiff are also currently sidelined.

KEY NUMBER

17 — The number of wins that Belichick (331) needs to pass Hall of Famer Don Shula (347) for the most coaching wins (including playoffs) in NFL history. With the Patriots’ Week 7 win over Buffalo, Belichick became just the third coach in league history with 300 regular-season wins, joining Shula (328) and George Halas (318).

He obviously won’t get there this season, but whether he eventually does so in New England is to be determined.

NEXT STEPS

The Patriots head to Frankfurt, Germany, on Sunday where they will be the designated home team for their matchup with the Colts.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL