Patriots

Patriots taking on a familiar shape, and the only repeat in Thursday’s game against Falcons will be the score

Here's what to expect in Thursday night's Patriots-Falcons game.

Stew Milne
Rookie quarterback Mac Jones has a preternatural command of the Patriots’ offense and its expanding playbook.


Welcome to Season 10, Episode 11 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.

Optimism about the Patriots right now comes so easily in large part because the plot points in this four-game winning streak look so familiar — the repeated victories in the trenches, a relentlessly churning running game, the emergence of a swarming defense, one player after another up and down the roster doing their job and doing it well.

There’s something else too, and it seems so implausible the initial instinct is to resist acknowledging it. But our eyes are seeing it, and it’s true: Mac Jones, the rookie quarterback who already must be the catalyst for so much regret among general managers that passed him up in 2021 NFL Draft, is doing an absurdly passable imitation of an early Tom Brady.

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Jones has endured his ups and downs — much like Brady in the first half of the 2001 season, and much like any quarterback who has ever taken an NFL snap — but he has a preternatural command of the Patriots’ offense and its expanding playbook, and his most recent performance suggests any perceived ceilings on his ability had better be raised immediately.

Jones was nothing short of masterful against the Browns, completing 19 of 23 passes for 189 yards and three touchdowns. The performance was strikingly reminiscent of Brady’s 16-of-20, 202-yard, 3-TD breakthrough in Week 6 of the ‘01 season against the Colts. We’re not saying Jones is becoming Brady. There is no other Brady, and there won’t ever be in terms of longevity and achievement. But there is no denying anymore he’s doing the same things Brady did when his nonpareil NFL journey began.

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Jones’s statistics are actually very similar to the quarterback in the opposing huddle Thursday, Matt Ryan. Jones has completed 223 of 323 passes for 2,333 yards, 13 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Ryan, the 36-year-old former Boston College star and eighth-leading passer in NFL history (58,041 yards), has this stat line: 218 of 322, 2,274 yards, 15 TDs, 8 picks. But the veteran is stuck on a mediocre team, while Jones … well, right now, anything feels possible.

Kick it off, Bailey (or is it Folk?) and let’s get this thing started …

Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs

Kendrick Bourne: Matthew Judon and, to a lesser degree, Hunter Henry, have been the major early successes and immediate fits from Bill Belichick’s offseason shopping spree. Judon has been downright Tippettian, and Henry (touchdowns in six straight games) has developed a special rapport with Jones. But Bourne might be the most quintessential Patriot of the entire lot, an underestimated, versatile offensive player with an exceptional team-first attitude.

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Bourne is coming off the best game of his five-year career, with 98 receiving yards (his previous high was 96 in Week 3 against the Saints) and another 43 on the ground against the Browns (previous best: 16, on one carry in Week 2 against the Jets).

I’ll bet you when the season is over, his production Sunday doesn’t jump out as an outlier, but rather as confirmation that the Patriots had found a receiver who would have fit beautifully on their early championship teams. There’s some David Patten in his game, and more than a few hints of Deion Branch, too. Fun fact: Bourne already has more receiving yards (520) than Branch had as a Patriots rookie in 2002 (489).

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Grady Jarrett: Yup, I’m as surprised as you are that it took this long to get to a Super Bowl LI reference here, but here you go: Had the Falcons made the right play on any of a half-dozen to a dozen pivotal points in the second half and overtime of what became the greatest Super Bowl comeback (and collapse) we’ll probably ever witness, Jarrett would have had a heck of a case as the Most Valuable Player. In the first half in particular, he spent almost as much time in the Patriots backfield as Brady, finishing the game with three sacks, four quarterback hits, and three tackles for a loss.

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The Falcons’ pass rush is more of a pass wheeze this year (11 sacks, no player with more than two), but Jarrett remains effective (one sack and eight quarterback hits).

He’s also a rare remnant of better days for the Falcons. Among defensive starters in Super Bowl LI, only Jarrett and linebacker Deion Jones remain with the team.

Rhamondre Stevenson: In the last two games, the rookie running back has had 36 touches (30 carries, six receptions) totaling 220 yards (162 rushing, 58 receiving), or a gain of 6.1 yards every time he possessed the ball.

The production is beyond encouraging, especially since his 100-yard rushing performance against the Browns came when the Patriots were without Damien Harris (concussion).

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Stevenson is a blast to watch, with his quick cuts and Tasmanian Devil running style reminiscent of a certain running back Pete Carroll didn’t give the ball to when he should have.

But the most impressive thing about him might be his perseverance. After fumbling during his five-snap NFL debut against the Dolphins, stumbling into the cold, dark Belichick doghouse, and ending up inactive for Weeks 2-4, he diligently improved his ball security and blocking and now forms a terrific 1-2 punch with Harris. He should thrive against the Falcons’ 21st-ranked run defense.

Grievance of the week

In the decade I’ve been pecking out this weekly preview, I’m not sure I’ve lamented the possible absence of an opposing player in this spot. But then, Cordarrelle Patterson, who is expected to miss Thursday’s game with an ankle injury, is no ordinary player.

He entered the league as the No. 29 pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, the third receiver chosen after Tavon Austin (No. 8, Rams) and DeAndre Hopkins (No. 27, Texans). Patterson’s beep-beep speed, size (6 feet 2 inches, 220 pounds), and NFL destination (Vikings) led to ridiculous comparisons to Randy Moss, who is forever beyond compare. It wasn’t fair.

Patterson was a dynamo on kick returns but struggled as a conventional receiver in four years with the Vikings and one with the Raiders before the Patriots picked him up for the 2018 season. Belichick and Josh McDaniels put him in a position to succeed, playing to his skill set rather than forcing him to be something he was not, and in a limited but helpful role he became a dual rushing/receiving option for the eventual champs while also electrifying in the kicking game.

Still, he’s never had a season like this one, his first with the Falcons, and a legitimate breakout for the 30-year-old. Coach Arthur Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone have helped Patterson unlock his talent with creative and frequent usage. Patterson already has career highs in receiving yards (473) and rushing yards (303), with seven total touchdowns.

It’ll be a break for the Patriots if he is out. But it’ll be kind of a bummer that we won’t get to see how he would fare against the first team and coaches that had a clue how to properly utilize him.

Key matchup

Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts vs. Patriots defensive backs

Only 14 tight ends in NFL history have been selected in the top 10 picks of the NFL Draft. Two have Patriots ties: Kyle Brady, who played 14 games for the 2007 Patriots in his final NFL season, was the ninth overall pick by the Jets in 1995.

You’ll never guess the second.

No, not Russ Francis (16th in 1975), Ben Coates (124th in 1991), or Rob Gronkowski (42nd in 2010). Nope, not Lovett Purnell, either. It was Steve Zabel, who entered the league as a tight end when the Eagles chose him sixth in the 1970 draft. He moved to linebacker full time the next season, a position he’d play during a productive four-year stint with the Patriots (1975-78).

No tight end in history has been taken higher than Pitts, the fourth player (and first non-quarterback) chosen in the ‘21 draft. It’s easy to see why. He’s 6 feet 6 inches, weighs 246 pounds, ran a 4.4 40-yard dash at the combine, and his skill set drew comparisons with Hall of Fame receiver Calvin Johnson.

Pitts is a special talent who is already putting up impressive numbers (40 catches, 606 yards, 1 touchdown, including a 163-yard performance in Week 7 against the Dolphins). Belichick compared him with Tony Gonzalez (1,325 receptions, third all time) and Julio Jones (869 receptions, 25th all time), and all anyone could do is nod their head and say, “Yep, that makes sense.”

And yet … the Patriots shouldn’t have a particularly difficult time slowing him down. With Patterson banged up and star receiver Calvin Ridley away from the team while he focuses on his mental health, Pitts doesn’t have much help. Belichick has a long history of figuring out a way to thwart great solo acts, and his defense has the personnel to do it.

Emerging star Kyle Dugger, the Patriots’ top tackler this season, has the size to hang with Pitts, and J.C. Jackson (five interceptions, league-best 14 passes defensed) has the coverage skills. Pitts is a monster, but chances are he’s not scaring anyone Thursday.

Prediction, or the best broadcast of Joe Buck’s career was Super Bowl LI

In the intro to this screed, I emphasized how familiar the Patriots’ style of play has been during this resurgence. Something else is familiar, too: the attitude.

For a roster with so many new players, perhaps the most amazing development, save Jones’s how-did-we-let-Belichick-get-him? star turn, is the collective faith these players kept in each other, even after the 2-4 start.

We heard it over and over again, from Matthew Judon, Matthew Slater, and a bunch of others not named Matthew, when the Patriots were struggling. We’re going to figure this out. We like what we have in this locker room.

Four wins later, their faith in each other has been rewarded, with greater rewards ahead. We know what a disconnected Patriots team looks like. It looks like Belichick’s sideline confession to Brady that he just couldn’t get through to the team during NFL Films’ “A Football Life” documentary from the 2009 season.

And we know what a unified Patriots team looks like. We’ve been fortunate to witness many of them, but the standard was set in 2001. The roster-wide celebration of Jakobi Meyers’s long-awaited first career touchdown last Sunday felt new, and yet so much like the beginning of this 20 years ago. The rest of the NFL must hate this.

The Patriots are 4-0 on the road, 5-0 against the Falcons in the Belichick era, and have beaten them in the last six meetings. Those streaks aren’t ending Thursday. The Patriots aren’t losing this, and if history is the guide it is hinting it may be, they’re not losing anything for a while. You know the score. Like so much of what’s happening right now, you’ve seen it before. Patriots 28, Falcons 3

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