What if I told you the entire Patriots season hinged on this Sundays tilt with the New Orleans Saints? There have been plenty of must win games in the Brady-Belichick era and this coming Sunday against the Saints is no different. Bill Belichick teams have been superb following a loss and their weaknesses from the previous week magically become strengths. No it’s not magic, it’s just the Patriot Way.

While every sports team wants to follow up a loss with a bounce back win this weekend feels different for the Patriots. There was a decent amount of hype for an undefeated season with the amount of pieces the Pats added to a Super Bowl champion roster. Expectations have never felt higher for a team that’s fan base demands perfection. All Patriots fans were brought back to earth after the Kansas City Chiefs whooped them on national TV. Cue the hot takes from every media outlet about how Tom Brady is old and the Pats aren’t a good team anymore. But maybe those takes aren’t as scorching hot as one may think. There is something about this Pats-Saints game that feels bigger than any “must win” game in the last 16 years.

Every season after week one, the stats are continually brought up about how teams that fall to 0-2 are far less likely to make the playoffs.

It’s what often makes week 2 games feel so much bigger than others. The Patriots had dug themselves out of a 0-2 record before to make the playoffs way back in 2001, Brady’s first year as a starter. Drew Bledsoe had just been injured and almost died in a Week 2 dud of a performance against the New York Jets. Coming off a pitiful 5-11 season in Belichick’s first year in New England, with a second year quarterback starting his first game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, that game was the ultimate must win.

Brady and the Patriots dominated Manning and the Colts that day which would start the trend of murdering Peyton every chance they got. The Pats won the game 44-13 but this game only looks like a must win when viewing the game from today’s perspective. There were little to no expectations of making the playoffs let alone winning the Super Bowl against the Rams while a double-digit underdog. This Pats-Colts week 3 game in 2001 only turned out to be a must win because it spurred a win streak and the team rallied behind Brady.

Brady has been a part of quite a few teams since that special 2001 squad and he has seen it all, on and off the field. From undefeated teams, to teams with the number one defense, to teams with the number one offense, to teams that overcame insurmountable odds. The comments Brady gave the media following the Thursday night blowout loss to the Chiefs was something entirely new.

He talked extensively about an attitude and competiveness problem and how the team didn’t dig deep when it got tough against the Chiefs. Having a poor performance on the field is one issue, but not bringing the effort on the practice field, in the meeting rooms and having it translate to poor play is frightening for Patriots fans.

All those new skilled players, Brandin Cooks, Stephon Gilmore, Rex Burkhead, Lawrence Guy, Mike Gilislee and David Harris all are still not up to speed on the Patriot Way and could be why the mental mindset was not adequate. Seeing that banner being unveiled on the field before the game made these guys feel like they’ve earned something already but Belichick has said it far too many times that last years’ accomplishments carry no weight in the following season. That is what makes the Chiefs loss so concerning and why the Patriots backed themselves into a must win corner.

The perfect part of traveling to New Orleans for this ultimate must win game is not because of Bourbon Street but because of the history in the Superdome. In 2009, the Patriots were crushed by the Saints 38-17 on Monday Night Football. Belichick was mic’d up in that game and spoke some blunt words to Brady as the game was winding down.

Belichick mentioned to Brady how they have no mental toughness to win on the road, he couldn’t get the team to play as well as he needed and there was no consistency. These comments are eerily similar to the ones Brady gave at his presser less than a week ago. This 2017 version of Patriots-Saints will be an opportunity to change that narrative and show the football world that the Patriots are mentally tough and still one of the best teams in the league. A win on the road in a hostile environment is the only way. A loss would be devastating and remind fans of how the 2009 season ended; getting crushed by the Ravens at home in the Wild Card round. A lack of mental toughness could spell a similar ending to the 2017 season.

The Chiefs have been a fascinating opponent for the Patriots. They have blown out the Patriots twice on national TV in the last three years and have caused enormous amounts of stress for fans believing the pundits saying that the Brady-Belichick era is coming to an end. That 2014 Monday Night Football blowout in Kansas City led to the famous “on to Cincinnati” phrase that is so well known in Patriots nation.

That game against the Bengals the week after the KC debacle was considered a must win at the time but has some differences which make this coming Sundays game all the more important. The offensive line was the main issue in 2014 and Brady had little to no time to throw the football. In the game last week, Brady had plenty of time to throw but his receivers weren’t getting open or he was missing open guys. Brady currently has the lowest completion percentage out of any QB in the NFL. The Patriots were only 2-2 at the time but had some victories under their belt, so while the Bengals game was hugely important for their record, the percentages weren’t completely against them as much as an 0-2 record is. That 2014 Bengals game was a rout and the Patriots notably went on to win the Super Bowl that season. That is still the goal for the 2017 version of the Patriots but changes need to be seen on both sides of the ball and a victory needs to be secured on the road. The biggest difference in 2014 was that the Patriots competitive spirit wasn’t being questioned by their quarterback and leader.

Every player is outplayed at some point and every coach is outcoached, that’s just sports. Alex Smith outplayed Brady and Andy Reid outcoached Belichick. That’s not the end of the world. What would be the end of the world is if they lost to an inferior Saints team. These two first ballot Hall of Famers have proved themselves many times over and Sunday is a time where they MUST prove themselves to keep the mystique surrounding the Patriot Way.

Belichick needs to prove that he can win with this defense that might be without Dont’a Hightower and is incredibly thin on the defensive front against a talented Saints offense. Brady needs to prove that he can play at a consistently high level without his buddy Julian Edelman. The entire offense needs to prove its consistency along with the quarterback. Most importantly, the whole team needs to show they are one of the best teams in the NFL and rout the Saints on their own turf.

This game could send the Patriots in two completely different directions; one would send them on a winning streak asserting themselves as the best team in the AFC. The other would raise questions about Brady’s ability to play quarterback and whether this talented team might not have the mental toughness to be great like past Pats teams. It’s all on the line, this Sunday at 1 PM. Be there to see the direction of the 2017 Patriots; one who is mentally strong and talented or one mentally weak and doomed for a playoff flame out.

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