The Patriots have navigated the first quarter of their season, getting a heavy dose of what playing professional football in 2020 entails. It hasn't gone exactly as planned, but the team is 2-2 and has shown plenty of promise during a challenging start to the year.
With the team returning to the facility on Wednesday, there's optimism that they can turn the corner on their Covid cluster and get back into a routine that hasn't been normal since the Friday before they played Kansas City.
What can we take away from the first four games and where do they point toward the season heading? Here are five takeaways.
1. The defense is still very good
Despite significant departures and opt-outs the Patriots defense still looks like one of the best-coached and versatile units in the league. Their performance in Kansas City, under challenging circumstances, remains a high point of the first quarter, and it was a significant improvement from a poor performance against the Seahawks two weeks earlier.
The stalwarts have continued to deliver, led by Lawrence Guy and the talented secondary who set an early tone against the Chiefs, while the young players and new faces have fit in well. Stepping up the most are Chase Winovich, Shilique Calhoun and Byron Cowart, while Ja'Whaun Bentley is rounding into an every-down linebacker. New additions Kyle Dugger and Adrian Phillips have restocked a safety position with two more versatile players who can play a variety of roles.
The front of the defense looks a lot different than last season, but they've pushed expectations with their recent performances. There are questions about how they'll manage losing Cowart to the Covid-19/Reserve list, but if there's one strength to feel good about after four games, it's that the Patriots have put together another very good matchup defense that will help them win their fair share of games over the next 12 weeks.
2. The ground attack foundation is there
The Patriots rushing attack has bounced back in 2020. After falling from 9th to 16th in rushing DVOA last season, New England is up to the second-most efficient ground game in the NFL this season. All of their running backs and quarterback Cam Newton have played a big part in that resurgence, with everyone taking turns chipping in some big gains and games.
With an experienced offensive line that has also been newly reinforced with some promising youngsters, the holes should continue to be there for the Patriots on the ground, but the real question is can they use that as a base to launch an improved aerial attack? Their passing efficiency is down to 24th, by far the lowest level of the last 20 years. A big part of that was the performance in Kansas City with two backup quarterbacks, but even with Newton under center questions about the passing offense were there.
If the Patriots offense is to knock off some of the best teams in the league they'll have to keep their ground game humming but also start challenging defenses more through the air.
3. Pats vs Bills for the AFC East
After taking on Denver and San Francisco, the Patriots will enter a critical stretch that sees them face the Bills and Jets, then Ravens and Texans. At the end of that stretch we'll have a good sense of where the Patriots stand in the AFC, but for this team it's really all about winning the division, with Week 8's game in Buffalo lining up to be the biggest game of the season.
The Bills were finally handed their first loss by the Titans on Tuesday night, putting the Patriots just a game behind them, with Josh Allen reverting to the inconsistency he showed in his first seasons but had largely avoided in early 2020. Through four weeks it was clear the Bills are a legit threat and even a sloppy performance against Tennessee doesn't change that. Buffalo will cause plenty of problems for New England.
After losing to the Chiefs there's a feeling the Patriots can still compete with any team in the league, but they're going to have prove it with wins that won't come easy over the next six weeks. This year the division games have outsized importance.
4. Impact rookies still waiting in the wings?
The Patriots have a lot to be excited about with rookies Kyle Dugger and Michael Onwenu, both have immediately stepped in and looked like they'll have long and productive NFL careers. But the Patriots could still use some help from some other rookies that have yet to make an impact or appearance.
Bill Belichick has mentioned how challenging this season is for young players, but that shouldn't be reason to give up on any first-year contributions from Josh Uche and Devin Asiasi, who both play positions where the team could use a boost. Anfernee Jennings and Dalton Keene also fall into the group to a lesser extent, while Justin Rohrwasser remains a practice squad mystery behind Nick Folk.
The Pats could still go out and get some help via trade, but the best option would be to get some production out of the young players who are already here. Uche and Asiasi remain x-factors in 2020 with hope that they can start to blossom as the season continues.
5. Flexibility remains key
Few teams have ever had to juggle things like the Patriots have over the last two weeks, but now it appears they could be getting back on track. That doesn't mean that the challenges of 2020 are behind them, it's just the opposite, those challenges will continue through the end of the season and everyone is well aware of it.
The team will have to stay on their toes, and we now know that means things like limited in-person practices, day-of-game travel and a remaining schedule that is far from set in stone and could change at any moment for a variety of reasons.
The experiences of the last two weeks are also a good reminder of how quickly a season can go sideways and the team should be refocused on their efforts to mitigate the spread of the virus.
If they can do that they'll give their talented roster the chance to develop and find their football stride to see just how good the 2020 Patriots can be.