Patriots hit key checkpoint with hopes of a 2001-type surge in homestretch

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Quick-hit thoughts and notes around the New England Patriots and the NFL:

1. Major checkpoint: In the midst of their four-game losing streak, center David Andrews struck an optimistic note and insisted better days were ahead by saying, “I've been here and we've had successful seasons where we've lost more than four or five games, so you can't let the first six weeks determine your season.”

To their credit, they didn’t.

Now Sunday's road game against the Houston Texans (1 p.m. ET, CBS) represents a chance to hit a significant checkpoint in what Andrews referenced -- reaching the .500 mark to essentially make it a six-game season.

Their margin for error is already thin, so it's a game they must have.

"We think it's big. We know what we have to do in order to put ourselves in the opportunity to win games, and we just have to continue to do so, take advantage of opportunities and play this situational football. That will continue to allow us to roll on that train," receiver Damiere Byrd said.

If the Patriots take care of the Texans, longtime Patriots fans can look to the 2001 season as a possible comparison point. The Patriots were 5-5 that year but steadily improving, and they went on a tear to capture their first (and most unexpected) Super Bowl championship.

They might not have had the most talented roster, but at year's end they were playing the best as a team.

Could the 2020 Patriots -- with a remaining schedule of the Arizona Cardinals (6-3), Los Angeles Chargers (2-7), Los Angeles Rams (6-3), Miami Dolphins (6-3), Buffalo Bills (7-3) and New York Jets (0-9) after the Texans -- pull off something similar?

It seems like a long shot, but no one was thinking Super Bowl title at that point in 2001, either.

2. Belichick and loyalty: When coach Bill Belichick took a sharp turn from the norm and delved into politics on Wednesday -- urging the United States to take action against Turkey and Azerbaijan for their "unprovoked and deadly attacks on Armenians" -- some wondered why. To me, it is an example of how Belichick values decades-long loyalty. This is an issue that has heartfelt and deep meaning to one of his most trusted aides, director of football operations Berj Najarian, and Belichick took the opportunity to publicly shine a spotlight on it -- using Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller's reference to him as a springboard. A kind gesture by Belichick, and something he seldom does. It speaks to how strongly he feels about the behind-the-scenes work, trust and friendship of his longtime aide.

3a. Sony's return: Belichick foreshadowed running back Sony Michel's return from injured reserve this past week, which provides another option alongside Damien Harris, Rex Burkhead and James White, with rookie J.J. Taylor now looking more like a developmental option with 2021 in mind. Michel won't overtake Harris for the No. 1 spot, but all it takes is one injury to alter the outlook, which the Patriots have plenty of history with in recent years at the position. And given how the Patriots have turned themselves into a power-running team, Michel remains a nice option (as he showed in 2018) to lighten Harris' burden at times. Between a quad injury and testing positive for COVID-19, Michel had some ground to make up. "We've got to get him back in shape and get him going again," running backs coach Ivan Fears said on Nov. 13. "He's doing a great job. He's really looking good in practice."

3b. White's limited role: Few players have proved more valuable to the Patriots in recent years than White, but his impact has been lessened in recent weeks. In last Sunday's win against the Baltimore Ravens, for example, he played 10 snaps. My thought on why: As the 2020 Patriots have transitioned to a power-running team, there are fewer options for the "passing back" to be on the field.

4. Davis as Alan Branch 2.0: Once the Patriots knew free agent Beau Allen was going to be out for the season due to injury, they moved quickly to sign veteran Carl Davis off the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice squad to fill Allen's projected role as a big, powerful nose tackle. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound Davis has played 31 snaps over his first two games, with Belichick highlighting his work as part of his weekly "plays of the week" segment on Patriots.com. Davis has always had talent (third round, 2015, Iowa) but hasn't always played to his projected level, which led to the Ravens letting him go in 2018. Now, after bouncing between the Cleveland Browns, Indianapolis Colts and Jaguars, he seems ultra-motivated in New England. "Coming here, it surprised me how much it actually fits my style of play and what I like to do just as a player," he said. I like a comparison made by Twitter follower @__steve_g: Davis in 2020 could be what big-bodied defensive tackle Alan Branch was as a midseason pickup for the Patriots in 2014.

5. New tight end starts revenge tour: Patriots fans might be asking the question "Who is Jordan Thomas?" on Sunday, as the burly tight end is projected to make his debut for the team. The Patriots claimed Thomas on waivers from the Cardinals on Nov. 9 to address a depleted depth chart, with Belichick noting: "He's a big kid [6-foot-5, 277], has a wide body, but pretty athletic, so he may be able to do some other things well." Thomas was a 2018 sixth-round pick of the Texans out of Mississippi State, with Belichick pointing out that experience under Bill O'Brien in a familiar offensive system (20 receptions as a rookie) could ease his transition to New England. The Texans waived Thomas in September, and Thomas hooked on with the Cardinals' practice squad before being promoted to their active roster, which sets up an unusual scenario: Thomas' first two games as a Patriot will come against his two former teams.

6. O-line coaches meld styles: With the offensive line of left tackle Isaiah Wynn, left guard Joe Thuney, center David Andrews, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Mike Onwenu emerging as one of the biggest strengths of the Patriots' offense, a spotlight has been shined on the work of offensive line coaches Cole Popovich and Carmen Bricillo. They have stepped in for retired Dante Scarnecchia, who is widely viewed as one of the all-time greats, and Belichick shared some insight as to how they've approached their tag-team effort, noting, "Carmen spends probably a little more time with the younger players and Cole a little bit more with the guys that have more playing time. But they [also] overlap and work with each other. Both have a lot of good ideas in terms of game-planning and strategy, so it's a good situation."

7. Thuney's value: When the Rams visit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday night, the matchup of Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald vs. Bucs quarterback Tom Brady will be hard to miss. That, of course, has a direct tie-in to the Patriots to highlight how valuable left guard Joe Thuney has been to New England. Thuney's ability to hold a one-on-one block against Donald in Super Bowl LIII gave Brady enough time to find Rob Gronkowski on a seam route to set up the lone touchdown of the game. Also consider this: Over the past three seasons, Donald leads the NFL in sacks (42) and pressures (154), but in two games against Brady and his often-quick release, he's totaled no sacks and three pressures.

8. Raiders matching '07 Patriots: This one surprised me -- Las Vegas Raiders quarterback Derek Carr and the offense have scored either a touchdown or field goal on 52.7% of their drives this season, which is the exact same rate as the high-powered 2007 Patriots attack featuring Brady, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Co. ESPN's Stats & Information notes that only two teams have scored on a higher percentage of drives over the past 20 seasons -- the 2018 Chiefs (52.9%) and 2020 Chiefs (52.8%). It makes the Patriots' defensive performance in a 36-20 win against Las Vegas on Sept. 27 that much more impressive (11 drives, two TDs, two field goals).

9. Meyers seized chance: There weren't many positives to take away from the Patriots' 33-6 loss to the 49ers on Oct. 25, but if Jakobi Meyers becomes a permanent fixture as a top-three receiver for the Patriots, that will be remembered as the day everything changed for him. Patriots receivers coach Mick Lombardi cited Meyers' preparation leading into that game, and the way he seized his opportunity after N'Keal Harry was knocked out with a concussion late in the first quarter, as an example of what it means to a professional and of meeting the high standard expected of all Patriots receivers. "Jakobi's a kid that was thrown into the fire in the San Francisco game and did a good job. He's stepped up in a big way," Lombardi said.

10. Did You Know: Harris has three games in which he's rushed for 100 yards or more, and he's appeared in eight career games. If he rushes for 100 or more yards against the Texans on Sunday, or against the Cardinals in Week 12, he will tie Curtis Martin (1995) for most by a Patriots player in his first 10 games since the 1970 merger.