Near the final act of the 1988 classic of American cinema Young Guns, Billy the Kid and his gang are on the run, surrounded on all sides by enemies including bounty hunters and the US Army with no clear path to escape. They disappear into the desert and get away, only to later emerge recommitted and ready for the climactic final showdown.
Now, many of them perish in the movie's grand finale, so maybe this isn't the best metaphor for the New England Patriots in 2022, but after Thursday night's loss at the hands of the Bills, this team is struggling to find their direction and will now face back-to-back games in the southwestern desert badly needing to recommit and get right.
Finding oneself in the desert is a common American trope and one the Patriots just might have to tap if they're to turn their season around coming off a biting loss to the Bills.
Two-straight defeats have capped off the last four months of football as New England is again floundering at the wrong time of year. Memories of collapses down the stretch over the last three seasons are flooding back, but as Bill Belichick told reporters on Monday morning, there's no magic wand to wave.
"Look the bottom line is, we need to just keep working to improve it every week," said Belichick. "This week will be different. Arizona's a different defense than Buffalo. Buffalo's a different defense than Minnesota. Minnesota's a different defense than the Jets. So it's not as simple as working against – improving your time in the mile run. I mean that's not what this is. This is about competing against another team. So we'll see what all that entails as we get into Arizona. But we need to continue to work to do things better on our end."
At 4-8, the Cardinals are struggling through a season that has been marred with injuries. Kyler Murray has thrown for 2,400 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while the return of receiver DeAndre Hopkins (49 catches in six games) has provided an offensive boost.
Overall, Arizona is 17th in points, 19th in yards and 28th overall in offensive DVOA, but they have two big pieces that have hurt the Patriots this season, a number one receiver and a mobile quarterback. The Cardinals offense isn't a juggernaut but they've got problem pieces that must be dealt with.
Defensively, the Cardinals are 31st in points allowed and 25th overall in defensive DVOA. Those numbers point to a potential opportunity for the Patriots offense if they can find a stride but right now that seems like a big if.
The team will remain in Arizona following their game against the Cardinals and then face a Raiders defense that is even lower-ranked than the Cardinals, coming in dead-last in DVOA. If the Patriots offense can't start consistently moving the ball and putting up points against these two defenses they may never.
After making a preseason trip to Vegas this trip will be another chance to bring the players together and in some ways bring the season full circle. During that first trip to the desert, the Patriots actually had some of their better practice performances of the entire summer. On the first day, the offense finished the two-minute 11-on-11 period with a touchdown while the Pats defense pitched a stop on a Raiders offense that appeared to be loaded with talent at the time. DeVante Parker, Kendrick Bourne and Jonnu Smith all chipped in with big plays as excitement was starting to build.
On the second day, it was a similar ending for the offense, this time with Hunter Henry grabbing a drive-ending touchdown, though the defense didn't finish as well and allowed a touchdown themselves. Things went downhill two days later in the preseason matchup but for a brief moment there was a feeling of some optimism that the Patriots offense was starting to figure it out after a mostly stagnant August.
Three months later and we're still waiting for them to take that next step. The Raiders could be making a late-season push of their own and their talent speaks for itself. The Patriots have already seen it up close. Maybe this trip could codify them, but with only five games to go and projected playoff odds lingering around 25 percent (via 538) following the Bills loss, is it too late?
"It's not over yet," said Matthew Judon after the game. "Right? We're 6-6. We have more games to play. That's what we're going to do. We're going to go out there and we're going to play. We have to put this one behind us. We see this team again. We have to play this team again. We have two more division games. As hard as this is we have some tough games ahead of us. We have a little west coast trip coming up. We have to focus. We have to come back. We have to be ready."
Billy the Kid's ambiguous ending was saved for the Young Guns sequel, where Billy is betrayed by former gang member Pat Garrett. The Patriots cannot turn on each other in similar fashion or things will go from bad to worse, but perhaps a long week followed by a week away will be what they need to get on board for the final push.
Once again, there's still a path.
With three tough AFC matchups waiting on the other side of the desert the team must find renewed life out west and then carry it back to Foxborough for the chance to end this year on a positive note.