Thursday Night Football: Bill Belichick might be too great for the Patriots' own good

Maybe the New England Patriots' coach is too special for his own good.

Nobody is complaining about having Bill Belichick, who by just about any measure is the greatest coach in NFL history. Sorry, Patriots haters, but that's the truth.

But in the post-Tom Brady era, the Patriots are stuck. Belichick is carrying a good-not-great roster — which, to be fair, Belichick put together — beyond where it should go. But they're nowhere near a Super Bowl and not to the point in which a rebuild would make much sense.

The Patriots take on the Buffalo Bills on Thursday night in a game that will be streamed by Amazon Prime Video. The Bills or Miami Dolphins are the class of the division. The New York Jets are coming on strong. But the Patriots are 6-5, in the playoff hunt and because of Belichick's mastery, capable of a season-changing upset.

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Maybe this middle class is where the Patriots will reside until Belichick retires.

Patriots are stuck in the middle

The Patriots aren't devoid of talented players.

Rhamondre Stevenson looks like a top-10 running back at times. David Andrews is a very good center and Michael Onwenu has been a standout at right guard. They are getting career years out of just about everyone in the secondary and Matthew Judon has 13 sacks. But other than Judon (who is 30 years old), and maybe Stevenson (who plays a devalued position), the Patriots don't have many players who you'd consider obvious franchise cornerstones. Quarterback Mac Jones hasn't taken a second-year step toward that either.

But Belichick keeps the Patriots competitive. He had a bad roster in 2020 with a severely declining Cam Newton and somehow went 7-9. The Patriots went 10-7 last season and made the playoffs. This season the Patriots are currently in the No. 8 spot in the AFC, one place from a playoff berth. You can count on the Patriots to usually have a very good defense and often get more out of the offense than you'd expect.

The Patriots aren't bad. They're probably not good either. After ruling the NFL for 20 years with Brady, it's a weird spot for them to be in.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has his team in the playoff hunt again. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)
New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has his team in the playoff hunt again. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

Patriots have a shot at the playoffs

Belichick isn't going to tear it down and do a full rebuild. First off, he'll be 71 years old next season. Very few coaches last past age 70, and Belichick isn't going to want to start a five-year rebuild.

The Patriots probably also think they're not far away. With six weeks left to go in the regular season, the Patriots have a 46.8 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders' odds. If they hit that coin flip and make the postseason, they're more likely to add a few pieces in an attempt to really contend rather than tear anything down.

Usually when teams lose a great quarterback, they either get insanely lucky with a Steve Young, Aaron Rodgers or Andrew Luck to replace them, or they go through a few really tough years before bouncing back. Jones doesn't look like the next Young, Rodgers or Luck, so the Patriots should be further down in the AFC, hoping for better days in the near future. Because they have a stellar head coach, they haven't bottomed out. A 7-9 season and no playoff berth has been the bottom. Plenty of franchises can tell you, that's not all that bad.

So as the Patriots face Buffalo on Thursday night as underdogs at home, it's hard to know what to make of them. They don't have bad talent but they also don't have many blue-chip players. They have a shot at the playoffs but it's about 50-50 right now. Even if they do make the playoffs, it's hard to see them making a deep run. They aren't better than the third-best team in their division and the Jets probably have a more exciting roster for the future.

The Patriots have an all-time great coach though. Right now that's only taking them so far.