The New England Patriots are much closer to a return to prominence than their 4-5 record indicates.
An unexpected 23-17 victory Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens provided a blueprint for success for the rest of this season and into future campaigns.
To be honest, the Patriots faithful were spoiled. Everyone indulged during the greatest dynasty in professional football's storied history. The 20-year Patriot reign was bound to come to an end eventually.
Once Tom Brady left in free agency, the previous era came to a close. However, New England doesn't need to take a back seat in the coming weeks and years simply because it doesn't have the same faces leading the way anymore.
The Patriots showed exactly how they can remain competitive and build upon a current young core of talent to reemerge on the other side of this transitory period and once again compete at a much higher level.
Some of the issues seen during their 2-5 start came about because they had done everything in their power to keep the championship window open.
"I mean, look, we paid Cam Newton $1 million. It's obvious that we didn't have any money," the coach told WEEI's Ordway, Merloni & Fauria during an early November interview (h/t CBS Boston). "It's nobody's fault. That's what we did in the last five years. We sold out. We won three Super Bowls, played in a fourth and played in an AFC Championship Game.
"This year we had less to work with. It's not an excuse, it's just a fact."
New England's cupboard isn't bare. Multiple young, talented players remain on the roster.
When directly questioned about the team's draft missteps, Belichick took a different approach with his answer, per NESN's Zack Cox:
"Well, I'd say—look, any time you bring a player onto your team, you put him into a role or a situation that you think fits him. Sometimes you have to modify that a little bit as you get to know the player, and then you work with him to try to develop that. He competes with other players at whatever position it is or whatever role it is, and ultimately, you choose—or we choose, I choose—the best player out of that competition.
"So that's really the process. I don't know how else to answer the question. Obviously, each player's different. Each player competes with different players. Positions are different. So I don't know there's a general answer to that."
Situation and adaptation are crucial components to a player's and coaching staff's success.
Newton's signing is the most obvious example. The Patriots were the only team still in search of a starting quarterback while also willing to take a chance on the former league MVP after he ended the previous two campaigns on injured reserve. Obviously, Newton isn't the same type of quarterback as Brady. But the Patriots have made offensive adjustments. They still use parts of their old playbook while simultaneously adding new elements.
The three-time Pro Bowler's integration became Step 1 of the process as the Patriots offense continues to evolve. Newton doesn't necessarily need to be the focal point of the scheme. Instead, New England should concentrate on its two biggest strengths: a talented running back stable and one of the league's better offensive fronts.
When the Patriots won Super Bowl LIII just two years ago, they didn't do so on the strength of Brady slinging the ball all over the yard. A strong downhill running attack paved the way for the offense. At the time, Sony Michel served as the team's bell cow.
Now, Damien Harris has earned the lead back status. The 2019 third-round pick gashed the Ravens for 122 yards on 21 carries.
"We wanted to stand up and show how tough and physical we were," Harris told reporters after his latest performance. "That was kind of the mentality of the whole team tonight."
Harris runs with a level of physicality not seen from most backs. He's posted three 100-yard games in six appearances this season. The 23-year-old should become the focal point of the offense as the Patriots establish an identity of controlling games with a ground-and-point attack.
In a world where spread offenses often dictate how defenses are built, the Patriots feature a 245-pound mobile quarterback and a young bull in the backfield to eat up carries. They can beat up undersized fronts and linebackers.
And this run-oriented offense can work, despite New England's overall lack of skill-position talent, because of an impressive offensive line.
As mentioned earlier, the Patriots won their last Super Bowl with a similar approach. At the time, they featured the game's best offensive interior in Joe Thuney, David Andrews and Shaq Mason. All three are still intact. Granted, Thuney and Andrews are free agents after this season, but New England has a projected $68 million in available salary-cap space next offseason, per Spotrac.
At tackle, the Patriots are young and talented with 2018 first-round pick Isaiah Wynn on the blind side and arguably the biggest draft surprise of the year, Michael Onwenu, playing outstanding football on the right side. According to Pro Football Focus, Onwenu held the third-best grade among guards entering this weekend's action. The sixth-round draft pick has bounced between positions this year, but he's been excellent wherever he's lined up.
By re-signing Newton, Thuney and Andrews, the Patriots can then concentrate on improving other positions, like wide receiver and tight end. The difference is they'll do so with a plan already in place with complementary pieces being less of a concern.
Currently, New England's offensive weapon options are limited, though Jakobi Meyers continues to work himself into a much bigger part of the scheme. Over the last four games, the 2019 undrafted free agent has compiled 27 catches for 346 yards. The former college quarterback also threw a touchdown pass against the Ravens.
Belichick's defense isn't what it once was, yet certain building blocks are already in place, starting with cornerback J.C. Jackson. Stephon Gilmore is the headliner as the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Unfortunately, he's dealing with a knee injury that's kept him out the lineup for New England's last three games. Jackson has been wonderful in Gilmore's absence.
The third-year cornerback leads the NFL with six interceptions. He has snagged one in five straight contests and has the most since he entered the league two years ago, per Cox.
"I'm a playmaker, man. I know how to play the ball better than—I know how to play the ball pretty well," Jackson told reporters after the game. "I become a receiver when I go up for the ball."
Up front, Chase Winovich is an emerging star. The 2019 third-round pick consistently brings pressure and energy to the lineup. According to The Athletic's Jeff Howe, Winovich finished with a quarterback hit and 10 pressures against the Ravens.
The Patriots have really attractive pieces already in place at premium positions. Those will serve as the building blocks.
A physical rushing attack coupled with an aggressive and opportunistic defense should be New England's calling card in the coming weeks, months and years. Eventually, the team will find another franchise quarterback, whether through improved play from Newton, who could be re-signed next offseason, or a draft pick in the near future. Until that's settled, they can rely on their running game.
"We're definitely headed in the right direction," Belichick told reporters.
Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.