Analysis

How much credit does Mac Jones deserve for Patriots’ streak? A lot, actually.

Jones has quietly been among the NFL's best quarterbacks during the Patriots' six-game win streak even as he keeps the game simple.

Mac Jones Patriots
New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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The New England Patriots might be just the second seed in the AFC after the Baltimore Ravens held onto the top spot with a victory Sunday night, but make no mistake: the best team in football right now plays in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

The Patriots’ 36-13 whupping of the Tennessee Titans on Sunday was yet another masterclass of complementary football, from the four turnovers forced by the defense to the resilient rushing attack that closed out the game after a slow start.

But New England’s Week 12 win also signified something we haven’t seen much of during this stretch of dominance: an opposing team forced the Patriots to play through rookie quarterback Mac Jones.

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The opinions about Jones’s response to that pressure are interestingly mixed. On one hand, his raw numbers (310 yards, 2 TDs, 123.2 rating) saw him put up arguably the second-best game he’s played all season.

But Pro Football Focus, which looks at player’s processes as well as results, gave Jones his worst overall grade of 2021 (51.9). A couple of missed connections, including a would-be touchdown to Hunter Henry, a near-interception, and lack of impressive throws likely had something to do with that.

Still, the Patriots won the game, and Jones’s captaincy of the offense led to six scoring drives against a very good defense.

Games like that raise an interesting question: how responsible is Jones for the Patriots’ impressive winning streak?

The obvious answer: he’s clearly not the reason New England has won six straight. That honor belongs to a defense that has been undeniably brilliant over the last month-plus and is tied for second in the league with Buffalo Bills in takeaways (25).

Plus, the Titans game notwithstanding, the Patriots have dominated teams on the ground, topping 130 yards as a team five times in this six-game span.

However, let’s not pretend Jones has been a mere passenger.

Since the Patriots kicked off their winning streak in Week 7 by hanging a 50-spot on the New York Jets, Jones has actually been the best quarterback in the NFL based on RBSDM.com’s composite score of estimated points added per play and completion percentage over expected.

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Though the rookie passer ranks just 24th in air yards per attempt (7.6), he makes up for that by simply making sure his receivers come down with the ball. He boasts the NFL’s sixth-best mark in completion percentage over expected this season (4.6), and his “pillow-like” throws might even be helping his receivers drop fewer passes than normal.

As for knocking Jones for not pushing the ball down the field enough, there’s some merit to that. He ranks just 27th among NFL quarterbacks in adjusted completion percentage (36.6 percent) on throws deeper than 20 yards. For perspective, his adjusted completion percentages on intermediate (64.4; 10th), short (84.9; 13th) and behind-the-line throws (95; 15th) all sit among the top 15 in the league.

But simply throwing the ball deeper down the field doesn’t guarantee success. For example, fellow rookie Justin Fields throws the ball deeper on average than any quarterback in the NFL. Yet, for as many “wow” throws as that has produced, you wouldn’t say Fields has played anywhere near as well as Jones.

What’s more, the Patriots still rank seventh in the NFL in yards per pass attempt and are third behind only the Los Vegas Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in pass plays of 20-plus yards. That’s because getting the ball into the hands of playmakers has its benefits: New England is 10th in yards after the catch.

Basically, Jones’s quiet and steady operation of the Patriots’ offense is exactly what is needed right now for a team playing its best football.

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The young quarterback is being efficient and careful with the football — he’s tied for 21st in the league with just 11 turnover-worthy plays all year. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels has also repeatedly put him in positions to succeed when throwing the football, whether it means dialing up play-action throws at which Jones excels or simply drawing up routes that promote yards after the catch.

It’s boring, but it’s getting the Patriots in position to score points with regularity. Now, it’s just a matter of making sure New England cashes in at a higher clip; the team’s 55.6 percent conversion rate in the red zone is just 24th in the NFL.

Unfortunate missed opportunities like the one to Henry against the Titans highlight the need for Jones to be more crisp in that area of the field.

Still, for a rookie to be playing this level of football so early in his career is nothing short of rare, even if he’s not the most exciting player at the position and has his limits.

The Patriots might not be winning simply because they have Jones at quarterback (which would’ve been unfair to ask, anyway). But they probably wouldn’t be looking nearly as good without him.

Good quarterback play is hard to find in the NFL. The Foxborough faithful should be thankful they’re getting it once more in the form of a young Mac Jones.

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