Patriots point-counterpoint: Will the Pats make the playoffs in 2021?

The Patriots will be sitting on the sidelines when the NFL playoffs kick off next week.
It’s stunning to consider, especially since they’ve been to the dance 17 times since 2000.
The few times the Bill Belichick-coached Patriots have missed the postseason the past two decades happened in 2000 (5-11), 2002 (9-7), 2008 (11-5), and now, 2020.
Looking at the roster, their needs are plenty.
Offensively, it starts with finding a quarterback. Then it moves to the cast around that quarterback, with wide receiver and tight end atop the list.
Defensively, there are also plenty of holes to fill starting with the line and linebacker.
How quickly they patch the holes will determine how soon they turn it around and get back to the postseason.
It’s anyone’s guess if this is a quick fix, or more of a drawn-out rebuild. That leads to a question to ponder — will the Patriots make the playoffs in 2021?
The Herald’s Patriots beat writers debate.
Guregian: No, not happening. The rebuild isn’t a quick fix. There are just too many holes to fill, starting with quarterback. Even this year, there was no guarantee the Patriots would have reached the postseason with a better quarterback. They lacked legitimate weapons at both receiver and tight end. Even Tom Brady had a tough time with most of that cast in 2019. Plus, the Bills and Dolphins are still going to be in the way in the AFC East. They’ve hopped over the Patriots and are in position to stay that way. It’s no longer a pushover division. It’s no longer going to be a cakewalk for the Patriots, and getting to the dance via a first-place finish. So even with a better quarterback plan, I just don’t see it happening.
Callahan: Making the playoffs again and completing a full rebuild are two different goals here. Almost 50% of the league earns a postseason bid now. That’s absolutely attainable. The Pats will play three third-place teams from other divisions, per the NFL’s scheduling formula, setting up a cakewalk that also features the Jets twice, Jaguars, Falcons, Panthers and Texans. That’s nine winnable games, not even accounting for a usual AFC East split with the Bills and/or Dolphins. The Pats’ quarterback play literally cannot get worse, so improvement there alone will give them a significant boost. Not to mention their $62 million in projected cap space, per Over the Cap, fourth-highest in the league, to fill the other roster holes.
Guregian: How did all of those so-called winnable games (Denver, Houston, San Francisco) go for the Patriots this year? At this stage, it’s hard to just chalk up ‘Ws’ next season. The Patriots are now in the club with the lesser teams they’re going to face in 2021. And usual AFC East split? Let’s not forget the Bills swept them, and the Fins shouldn’t be considered an automatic split, either. Yes, a better quarterback will help. But he still needs weapons. And the defense still needs big-time help to avoid the disasters of 2020. Bill Belichick does have a ton of money to spend, but I wouldn’t count on him making a huge splash, paying top-dollar for big-name acquisitions. That hasn’t been his style. Maybe he’ll splurge on one, but there’s more than one hole to fill.
Callahan: Right, the Pats will instead sign several solid veterans as opposed to one or two high-priced free agents to better address the holes at wide receiver, tight end and the defensive line. That’s the beauty of having more money than basically the rest of the league. Hunter Henry and Marvin Jones, come on down. As for those losses, two (Denver and San Francisco) were in the immediate aftermath of a COVID-19 outbreak and Houston, like the Denver loss, came down to the final drive. Coin-flip games despite the fact the Patriots couldn’t pass against the Broncos, which is remarkable by itself. But in 2021, the Pats will be far different, as Belichick has said. They’ll no longer be fielding waiver-wire castoffs and practice-squad players. They’ll be deeper, more balanced and younger, after using that cap space and the highest collection of draft picks they’ve had in two decades. Assuming they win Sunday as home favorites and finish 7-9, a two- or three-win leap next year should be the expectation.
Guregian: Whether they win or lose Sunday, jumping from 6 wins, to 8 or 9, or going from 7, to 9 or 10, won’t necessarily get them to the postseason. All of the current wild card teams from the AFC have 10 wins with one game to play. Sorry, nine wins definitely won’t cut it, and 10 is borderline. Of course, in theory, they’re going to improve. It’s hard to be much worse than they were as a passing team in 2020. But making all the improvements that are needed is going to take a bit of time. The Patriots are not one or two players away from being contenders, and making it back to the postseason. We’re talking at least five positions, including quarterback. And, how long did it take the Dolphins to find a quarterback after Dan Marino? What about the Broncos after John Elway? Did those teams just jump right back as contenders? I think not.
Callahan: What do teams and quarterbacks from 20 years ago have to do with anything? More pertinently, those same Dolphins went 5-11 last season, then restocked their roster with several mid-level veterans in free agency, built an impressive draft class and now should make the playoffs. If Miami can make that leap in one year, obviously the Patriots can under Belichick from a better starting point. This is an unusual year for 10-win teams, but historically — when there were fewer playoff spots than exist now and will again in 2021 — those teams make the playoffs more often than not. Heck, if the Pats simply had a decent tight end and starting-caliber wideout this year, they would’ve won at least nine games. They will find those players in free agency soon and still have money to spend.
Guregian: If the Pats simply had a decent tight end, and starting caliber wideout, would Cam Newton have stopped bouncing passes all season? The quarterback position is the most important on the field. Don’t diminish that element, or the fact it’s not easy landing a franchise-type whether it was 20 years ago, or now. If the Pats significantly upgrade at quarterback, sure, that’s the place to start. But there are no guarantees they’ll land that player. If they grab a quarterback in the draft, theoretically, he’s not going to be ready right away. Granted, other top picks have stepped in and done well, but the Pats aren’t in position to land Trevor Lawrence, or even the top three guys. If they use assets to move up the board, they won’t have those assets to improve in other needed areas. It’s just going to be a tall order to plug all the holes, and get back to the dance in one season.
Callahan: The bottom line is no quarterback performance will sink below what the Pats endured this year from Newton and Jarrett Stidham, featuring eight touchdown passes, 14 interceptions and only three games that surpassed 200 passing yards. Even a rookie can top that. And whether it’s a rookie or a free agent like Jacoby Brissett or trade target like Matthew Stafford playing quarterback next year, the position is getting upgraded, much like the rest of the roster. Making the NFL postseason isn’t the accomplishment it once was, but that’s the right bar for the 2021 Patriots; to be one of the 14 playoff teams. They have loads of cap space, high draft picks and the soft schedule to get it done. See you next January.

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