1. Taking all sentiment out of it, the Patriots may have been better off losing their finale of this lost season Sunday. Depending on the outcome of a couple of other games, a loss could have moved them up a couple of slots in the pecking order of the 2021 NFL Draft, the most important one for the franchise this century as they seek their cornerstone quarterback. Yet I’m glad they did not lose. This win, as ultimately meaningless and perhaps even slightly detrimental as it may be, was strangely fun. Cam Newton, so often ineffective and yet so likable, candid and sympathetic, got to end what is almost certain to be his lone Patriots season on an up note, throwing a pair of touchdown passes and catching another. Sony Michel (136 total yards, his first career receiving touchdown) and Jakobi Meyers (68 receiving yards, one touchdown pass) showed again that they should be part of things going forward.
2. What else? Much of the second half was played with the snow falling, always a welcome sight that spurs delightful memories for Patriots fans. Getting that seventh win is something of an achievement given the attrition and talent issues on Bill Belichick’s roster – make no mistake, he remains the league’s preeminent coach, and no faith has been shaken here despite some curious roster decisions in recent years. And losing to the Jets – especially these hapless Jets, led by the humorless Adam Gase – is never an acceptable outcome. Yes, this was a tough season for the Patriots, the toughest we’ve seen in more than a generation. It was unfamiliar and uncomfortable. Ending it on a win is a reminder that all is not lost.
3. It ended well Sunday, and it also started well. The Patriots’ first-possession, a seven-play, 84-yard march that included a 49-yard Newton run, was practically a taunt about what could have been had everything been normal and gone right this season. Michel, who has been as effective the last couple of weeks as he has been since the 2018 postseason, had a 17-yard catch and a 13-yard run on the first drive, running as aggressively as he has since he was a rookie. Newton completed two of three passes on the first possession, including a 7-yard strike to James White for the touchdown.
4. Newton’s 49-yard run was the longest ever by a Patriots quarterback – if you’re judging strictly north-to-south, anyway. Pretty sure Doug Flutie scrambled around behind the line of scrimmage for at least 50 yards on a couple of occasions during the 1988 season. The previous longest runs were a pair of 41-yarders by Steve Grogan, against the Jets in October 1976 and versus the Seahawks in October ’77. Newton finished the game with 79 yards on 11 carries. Overall, he carried 137 for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns, with the yardage total breaking Grogan’s Patriots quarterback rushing record set in ’76 (539). The Patriots’ ability to run this ball this season without much threat of a passing game is one element of the offense that bodes well for the future.
5. While he made some of the now-familiar mistakes – holding the ball too long, not seeing open receivers — Newton (21 of 30, 242, 3 TDs) did throw the ball better than he has in weeks, especially during the first half. His dart on third-and-18 to Jakobi Meyers in the second quarter looked like a flashback to his MVP season in 2015. He even found both rookie tight ends – Dalton Keene and Devin Asiasi – for receptions, with Asiasi’s catch, a nice diving grab on the second possession, being his first of the season. Asiasi later scored a touchdown from 26 yards out on a well-placed Newton throw, the first TD by a Patriots’ tight end this season, which tells you all you need to know about how that position has fared this season.
6. It remains to be seen whether Chase Winovich ends up a three-down player, but he has to be considered a core part of the defense going forward based on his pass-rush skill alone. Winovich was all over the place Sunday, especially in the first half, batting down a pass to end the Jets’ first possession, then adding a sack on each of the next two series. He also crushed Jets receiver Jameson Crowder early in the fourth quarter. He finished with 6 tackles, 3 QB hits, and a pair of sacks. Despite uneven playing time, he finished the season with a team-high 5.5 sacks.
7. Adrian Phillips’s season ended in the first quarter when he got knocked out with a hip injury. Not the final scene he was looking for, but it should be noted that he had an excellent first season as a Patriot after coming over as a free agent from the Chargers. He thrived in that important, thankless safety/undersized linebacker role similar to what Patrick Chung did so well for so long, ultimately leading the Patriots in tackles (109). If Chung comes back next season, it will be interesting to see how he is deployed alongside Phillips.
8. For much of this season, as we’ve wondered who the next Patriots quarterback could be, I’ve had Darnold near the top of my list of options. I’d like to distance myself from that now, thanks. His talent is still obvious at times – his tying touchdown throw to Chris Herndon in the final 2 minutes of the first half was a beauty, and he made another especially pretty throw to Breshad Perriman early in third quarter – but he still seems befuddled by what the defense is showing him way too often, and throws too many mallards when receivers are open. The former No. 3 overall pick might be salvageable once he gets away from the Jets, but the Patriots shouldn’t be the team that tries to do the salvaging.
9. Darnold hit J.C. Jackson right between the 2 and the 7 on his jersey on an interception in the final seconds of the third quarter. The interception was Jackson’s ninth of the season, tying him with Ty Law (1998) for third-most in franchise history, and the most since Asante Samuel picked off 10 passes in 2006. Jackson’s pick was no surprise – he really is a ballhawk in that Samuel mold – but it was somewhat surprising that the Patriots almost immediately converted it into points. They needed just four plays to cover 45 yards, with Newton finding Asiasi for the 26-yard TD and a 21-14 lead.
10. I don’t know why it was so jarring Sunday since it was nothing out of the ordinary at this point, but looking at the starting offense Sunday – with surnames like Herron, Eluemenor, Asiasi, Harry, and Byrd, and no single player other than maybe Joe Thuney that would be considered a star – it’s just staggering difference from the lineup that won a Super Bowl 23 months ago. Thuney and Michel were the only Patriots’ offensive starters who also started Super Bowl LIII. It changes fast in the NFL, which makes what they achieved for 20 years even more remarkable.
11. Byrd got knocked out of the game on a scary hit in the third quarter after his only reception of the day, a 7-yard gain. He finishes the season with 47 catches for 604 yards and a touchdown, decent production given Newton’s struggles throwing the ball and the lack of a No. 1 option to take attention away from the secondary receivers like Byrd and Meyers. He’s eligible for free agency, but the Patriots could do worse than to bring him back as the No. 3 or 4 option next season.
12. The roster is going to look even more different next season, and it should. They need an influx of young talent even at positions where they still have capable veterans. But before fully turning attention to next season, let’s part with a quick salute to so many great Patriots who may have played their final game with the franchise Sunday. Matthew Slater, who should make the Hall of Fame for his special teams exploits, isn’t sure if he’ll play next year. James White, the Super Bowl hero, is a free agent. Older core Patriots such as Devin McCourty are no certainty to survive Belichick’s unsentimental roster reconstruction. And then there are those like Julian Edelman and Stephon Gilmore whose individual seasons ended before the team’s did. It’s been a privilege to watch these guys. Even if some of them end up playing elsewhere, they’re forever Patriots.
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