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First and Goal: Patriots’ next four weeks will foreshadow their fate

It’s no secret that the New England Patriots played a cupcake schedule through the first eight weeks of the season. The Patriots’ first eight opponents had a combined record of 21-43, and as expected, New England steamrolled these teams. Week nine sent the Patriots to Baltimore to play the Ravens on Sunday Night Football for New England’s first test of the season.

They failed.

The Ravens laid a beatdown on the Patriots, 37-20, in a game that was even less competitive than the score shows. Baltimore showed up in front of an electric home crowd and dismantled the Patriots. It was a full-blown meltdown for New England; the coaching staff was ill-prepared for Lamar Jackson’s pistol-formation offense and the performance on the field was sub-par.

The Patriots now sit at 8-1 with only one meaningful victory under their belt (at Buffalo) and are entering one of the tougher four-game stretches in the league this season, as they come off the bye week at Philadelphia, home against the Dallas Cowboys, on the road at Houston and home against Kansas City Chiefs.

These next four games will tell us if New England is still the top dog in the NFL or if the Patriots’ dominance was only a symptom of a horrific opening schedule.

The bye has provided a much needed rest for a severely injured offensive unit. The release of wide receiver Josh Gordon was shocking and Bill Belichick always has his reasons for these decisions, but the loss of Gordon left an already thin wide-receiving corps even thinner. The addition of Mohamed Sanu has proven to be helpful so far, but it’s a rookie WR coming off injured reserve that could be the difference-maker.

N’Keal Harry was drafted by the Patriots in April and showed flashes of his ability this offseason and into training camp before being placed on IR after the first preseason game. Harry brings his physical game to the table, much like Gordon or Gronk. The addition of another big-body receiver gives Tom Brady another target on third down and in the red zone, where the Patriots have struggled all season.

He was available for the Baltimore game but did not play ─ probably because of the high-tempo offensive game plan ─ but I’d expect him to get some snaps in Philadelphia this weekend against an Eagles secondary that couldn’t stop a nosebleed.

The WR corps being thin is a problem for the Patriots, but New England’s fatal flaw lies in the offensive line. The loss of captain and rock-solid center David Andrews to blood clots in his lungs is a brutal loss and the departure of Trent Brown left Brady’s blindside open. It looked like second-year tackle Isaiah Wynn was up to the task of protecting New England’s quarterback until he suffered a toe injury against the Miami Dolphins.

Wynn was placed on injured reserve and it’s been a nightmare for Brady ever since. Marshall Newhouse was signed to fill the gap, but he hasn’t been able to protect the pocket as well as Wynn did. A couple other tackles were signed too, but Newhouse was still able to retain the starting spot.

Wynn was activated off IR at the end of October, but he is not eligible to return until week 12 against the Cowboys. The return of Wynn does two things for New England: it creates more protection for the 42-year-old Brady who could turn to dust on any hit and it can jumpstart a running game that looks like a shell of the three-headed rushing attack of last season.

Sony Michel seems to have regressed from his rookie season where he exploded for six touchdowns, including the Super Bowl-winning touchdown, over the three games in the postseason. I don’t think Michel has regressed physically, instead I believe he is a victim of the offensive line’s performance and questionable play calling.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is one of the best coordinators in the league, but for every dynamite gameplan he draws up, he comes up with some strange calls. It could be seen in the game against Baltimore, where the offense could not get anything going in the first or fourth quarters, dooming the Patriots when the game mattered most. Perhaps McDaniels is also a victim of the offense being hurt, but he is capable of more than he always shows.

The Patriots usually turn it up to eleven in the second half of the season and I expect them to bounce back from an embarrassing loss in Baltimore.

The next four weeks will set up the playoff picture and not just for New England, but for the NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas are in a battle for the National Football Center North, while the Houston Texans and Kansas City are trying to catch New England and Baltimore for the coveted playoff bye.

I would expect the Patriots to defeat the Eagles in the Super Bowl LII rematch and to exploit the Cowboys’ weaknesses giving New England at least two wins in this stretch.

The two American Football Conference matchups are a toss-up, though. Belichick owns Texans coach Bill O’Brien with a perfect 5-0 record against his former assistant coach, but Deshaun Watson has improved significantly from previous seasons and will prove to be a challenge for the Patriots.

The final game of the stretch, at home against Kansas City, does not need an introduction. The AFC championship rematch is the most anticipated matchup in the AFC this year and should be an entertaining bout, as the reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, returns to Foxboro to avenge the heart-breaking loss in Kansas City.

This is a tough stretch for the Patriots, so predicting their record over this next month is hard, but it is New England. Betting against Brady and Belichick is never a good option, so I’m predicting a 3-1 record over this stretch, with the loss coming in a shootout versus Kansas City.

Despite a slow start, the NFL is starting to heat up as the days get colder, and looking at history, it’s never a bad option to pick the Patriots in these cold months.

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