NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers

Patriots running back Damien Harris has gained 691 yards on 137 carries this season.

The Patriots have reached a stage in the regular season that hasn’t been a part of the equation the past two decades — playing irrelevant games in December and January.

After so much success, that’s where they currently stand with two games remaining on the slate, including Monday night’s game at Gillette Stadium against the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. They’ve devolved into a third-place team in their division that’s essentially playing out the string on a disappointing 2020.

Whether it’s poor quarterback play, getting little production from the tight ends, a wide receiver group that doesn’t measure up, a run defense that’s been abysmal or a pass rush that’s little threat, there are so many areas that need work.

That being said, it hasn’t been all bad this season. There have been a few positives along the way, and areas for the Patriots to build on.

So in the spirit of the holiday, here are some of the gifts wrapped under the Patriots’ Christmas tree heading into the new year.

Special teams

Two of the Pats’ three Pro Bowlers this year are special-teamers. That about says it all.

But if that’s not enough, there’s this: The Patriots rank No. 1 in the league in special teams, per Football Outsiders’ opponent-and-situation-adjusted metric, DVOA. How do they do it?

Well, punter Jake Bailey earned his first Pro Bowl nod in just his second season after dropping a higher percentage of his punts inside the 20 than anyone who’s started at least 12 games. Bailey ranks second in the league with a 46.1 net yards average per punt. He’s also on track to set Patriots records for net and gross punt averages.

Speaking of all-time achievements, Matthew Slater was named to his ninth Pro Bowl as a special-teamer, the most in NFL history. Slater’s led a unit that has returned one punt for a touchdown this season and blocked a field goal for a score. He’s helped down several of Bailey’s punts inside the 20 and, with fellow core special-teamer Justin Bethel, allowed just 46 punt return yards all season, well below the franchise single-season record of 75 set in 2007.

The Pats’ special teams have truly been special in 2020, a major, unexpected boost, given their struggles in the other two phases.

Damien Harris

The 2019 third-round pick from Alabama appeared in only two games as a rookie. Finally getting a chance in 2020, Harris has flourished, giving the Patriots another lead back option to complement Sony Michel, and the rest of the fine stable of backs.

With Michel spending some time on IR and Rex Burkhead suffering a season-ending injury, the Patriots have not only needed Harris to be the next man up, but take it a step beyond.

He did just that, as he currently leads the Patriots in rushing this season, and has been one of the most productive backs in the NFL.

He’s gained 691 yards on 137 carries, scoring a pair of touchdowns. Those totals come from starting just 10 games, as he began the season on IR.

Harris, who runs hard and makes the tough yards, figures to be a fixture in the Patriots’ backfield for many years to come.

Michael Onwenu

Ed Warinner, Onwenu’s position coach at Michigan, had absolutely no doubt Big Mike would make it in the NFL.

Speaking to him shortly after the draft, Warinner, who has placed more than a dozen offensive linemen in the NFL, said he’d have moments watching Onwenu in practice, where he’d have to pause and just marvel because no player he had ever coached could do the things Big Mike could.

“Physically, he has freaky talents. People get distracted by, ‘Oh he’s so big, he just gets in people’s way.’ He doesn’t,” said Warinner. “He can do some things ... and if teams got to work him out, he might have climbed the board a little bit. So I think he’s a great value pick for the Patriots ... which is one of their fortes.

Onwenu, who was taken in the sixth round by the Patriots, has filled in at several positions across the line. While he primarily played right guard in college, he’s taken over as the starter at right tackle, and is one of the highest-rated linemen in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

So he’s already well on his way to being that 10-year-guy, and a standout on the line for years to come.

Newton’s leadership

Say what you want about Cam Newton’s performance — and there is plenty to say — but from an intangibles standpoint, he’s been an All-Pro.

Newton is beloved in the Pats’ locker room. He acclimated instantly, becoming in September the rare first-year Patriot to be named a team captain. The question of how anyone could follow Tom Brady wasn’t raised after that. Newton has embraced the team’s standard and set it himself daily, logging longer hours than just about anyone.

“He works hard. Very professional. Puts in as much time and effort as anybody I’ve ever worked with, any player I’ve ever coached,” Bill Belichick said last week. “He’s dedicated and conscientious about his job.”