Patriots

How good are the Patriots now? Consider where they started.

If this Patriots season were summed up in a meme, how it’s going is a far prettier picture than how it began.

Mac Jones signals during September's Patriots-Dolphins.

COMMENTARY

Commanding the visitors’ locker room as he broke down a seventh straight victory late Monday, Patriots captain Matthew Slater made a point of noting the remarkable nature of a night when 14-10 seemed far too conventional a final to rightfully reflect how historically uncommon New England’s win really was.

“This is one of those nights, fellas, that you’ll remember 10, 15, 20 years from now,” the cameras caught Slater saying. “You won’t remember the cold; you’ll remember the way we responded.”

The captain’s comments were specific to the way the team grinded its way through 50 mph wind gusts, and found a way to overcome both the conditions and the Bills in spite of attempting only three passes. They were challenged — by a good team, by the weather, by a hostile environment — and, indeed, they responded.

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But Monday’s win at Buffalo wasn’t merely a testament to the way they responded to a tough test. It was telling of the way they’ve responded, and how they much they’ve grown, since the start of the season.

The gameplan might’ve looked like something from a century ago, back before the popularization of the forward pass — but the game itself was of a more modern vintage. Like, September.

Back on September 12, the weather was beautiful, actually. Even in the late afternoon, Foxborough’s thermometer read 81 degrees with winds of only 15 mph as the Patriots kicked off their season against the Dolphins. The weather didn’t change much over the course of play, either, although as the evening went on the Pats found themselves facing several of the same challenges as they encountered Monday night in Buffalo.
Three months ago, they faltered. They failed. They looked like a team wearing the scars of the 7-9 season and a franchise reset. That game stood, in particular, out as a red flag because that day the Patriots found ways to lose the very types of games they’d been finding ways to win for years. A busy, big-spending spring had replenished the talent base, and the late-summer decision to give the keys to Mac Jones after cutting Cam Newton had given the region hope that the dynasty had been rebooted.

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However, that opening loss to Miami rendered a harsh reminder that part of rebooting and resetting meant the Pats would need to learn how to win again. And that no longer was New England above the sorts of mistakes that sink the mediocre teams on a weekly basis. And that all the tropes we’d come to trust as being part of the Patriots mystique no longer applied.

Those reminders would come again (against Tampa Bay) and then again (against Dallas), and even as the team rattled off six straight wins there were still legitimate questions about how far it had come in reestablishing itself as a contender. Monday night, though, helped put some of their progress on display.

If this Patriots season were summed up in a meme, how it’s going is a far prettier picture than how it started.

The similarities between Week 1 and Week 13 begin with New England’s approach. Albeit for different reasons, in neither case did the Patriots’ coaches appear to fully trust their rookie quarterback to lead them through the air. As such, they tried to deflate the ball and put their offensive fate in the arms and bellies of their running game, erring on the side of caution at every juncture. They seemingly set out to keep the score down, counting on their defense to keep things close enough that they could swipe in and steal victory near the end.

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Essentially, they entered both games with a mindset suggesting they were comfortable taking their chances in a rock fight where managing possessions, controlling field position, and executing in the clutch would be especially crucial because neither team would score 20 points.

Even though Jones threw the ball 36 more times against Miami than he did against Buffalo, his passes were short, risk-averse, and particularly conservative in the red area and on third down as the Pats looked to reduce the opportunity for big mistakes — just as Josh McDaniels did in essentially taking the ball out of his hands on Monday night. Those decisions helped to ensure that in both games the Patriots got what they expected. Against both the Dolphins and Bills, neither team ever separated itself by more than a touchdown, and both games hung in the balance during the final drives.

Those final drives and those must-have moments are where the growth really stands out for New England when comparing the two contests. Versus Miami, the Patriots trailed 17-16 in the middle of the fourth quarter — but even at that they had the game where they wanted it. They’d just provoked Tua Tagovailoa into a bad interception, and were moving the ball effectively. The field goal they needed for the lead looked imminent, if they couldn’t get all the way to the end zone.
Then Damien Harris fumbled on Miami’s 11 yard line. The Pats never got the ball back, never got another chance to seize a game that looked there for the taking, and that turnover just further exacerbated the other opportunities they’d forfeited earlier in the game. It was the fourth time they reached the red zone that day, yet they’d scored only one touchdown. Another drive had been destroyed when Rhamondre Stevenson lost a fumble. That the Pats punted only twice, yet scored just 16 points, was telling of their struggles to finish and execute in critical spots.

Monday night was no offensive explosion, obviously. But even as the Patriots backs pounded through piles of bodies with most of the 11 Bills ripping at the ball, the crippling fumble never came. They only got in the end zone once, and that was Harris from 64 yards out, but twice they extended drives long enough to keep the ball through the end of the quarter.

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That allowed Nick Folk to twice kick field goals in far easier conditions, with the wind. On the latter of those possessions, they took over with 6:35 left in the third, and held the ball for more than eight and a half minutes, even though everyone at Highmark Stadium knew all 13 snaps would be rush attempts. Over the first dozen of those plays, they only faced one third down, and that was a third and four. The Bills knew what was coming, but the Patriots’ execution kept them from stopping it.

On the other side, Bill Belichick essentially entrusted the game to his defense against both the Dolphins and the Bills. However, the defense couldn’t handle that responsibility in the season opener. By and large, they weren’t bad. The Dolphins essentially had three good drives, and didn’t do much else.

But the breakdowns were backbreakers that day. The most destructive came after Harris’s fumble, when a penalty put the Dolphins at first and 14 from their own five. Force a punt there, and the Pats were a chunk play from the field goal they needed.

Instead, the Patriots let the Fish off the hook. They got out of that long-yardage predicament, and held the ball for the final 3:31. Again, like Harris’s fumble, that final sequence accentuated some of their earlier failures. The Dolphins got to the red zone only twice that day, but scored both times. They also generated a field goal with a drive that was way too easy in the final couple minutes of the first half.

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In Buffalo on Monday, the Pats flipped the script. Buffalo actually got inside New England’s 20 on four trips, but the only time they scored was the one-play possession after a punt glanced off N’Keal Harry’s helmet. The Patriots came away with a fumble on another promising Bills possession. And, on the final series, they came up with a game-saving stop.

Just like Dolphins did, the Bills committed a penalty that put them behind the line of scrimmage. But this time the Pats capitalized. On third and 14, they put heat on Josh Allen and Adrian Phillips broke up a lengthy sling to the end zone. On fourth down, Miles Bryant batted down another bid made far more difficult by the distance of the throw.

For that play, Phillips was off the field with an injury. Kyle Dugger was already out as part of the COVID protocols. That left Bryant and fellow former practice squadder Sean Davis to fill primary roles for the biggest play of the game. They made the play, sealing a giant, convincing, progress-verifying victory. They delivered.

Most memorably, they responded.

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