Patriots

Taking stock of the Patriots at the bye week: Five players who have impressed, and where this might be headed

The best-case scenario has come true so far for the AFC-leading Patriots, and it’s been a blast to watch.

Damien Harris has rushed for nine touchdowns this season.

Sometimes the best-case scenarios do become reality.

Bill Belichick reloaded the Patriots in one offseason. Three of his draft picks – rookie quarterback Mac Jones, defensive tackle Christian Barmore, and running back Rhamondre Stevenson – have performed like instant stars.

He spent $163 million in guarantees in free agency, and almost all of it was spent well. Defensive end Matthew Judon, that red-sleeved menace, emerged as a defensive player of the year candidate. Tight end Hunter Henry (7 receiving touchdowns) built a quick rapport with Jones. Defensive tackle Davon Godchaux has been a boulder in the middle of the defense. Versatile linebacker Kyle Van Noy has returned to his playmaking ways. Receiver Kendrick Bourne is reminiscent of so many Patriots pass catchers from the first part of the dynasty, the ones – David Patten, David Givens, Deion Branch – with an uncanny knack for making their biggest plays at the biggest moments. Retaining center David Andrews was essential.

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The newcomers have meshed with the holdovers, veterans like Devin McCourty and Adrian Phillips and emerging young players Kyle Dugger and Damien Harris. Given that this group has played just 13 games together, the chemistry is remarkable, as best evidenced by the collective joy for receiver Jakobi Meyers when he finally caught the first touchdown pass of his career in the win over the Browns.

Jones’s emergence is the biggest news, of course. He’s had some dazzling moments (completing 19 straight passes in the narrow loss to the Buccaneers) and some amusing ones (passing for a total of 19 yards on three attempts in the Buffalo wind tunnel last Monday). But mostly he’s been … well, steady. Reliable. Poised. In command. He’s played 13 games. He usually looks like he’s been doing this for 13 years. That preseason joint practice with the Giants, which in retrospect looks like the moment he seized the job, is on its way to becoming part of Patriots lore.

The Patriots have overcome a key injury here or there (trustworthy James White was lost for the season against the Saints), and Stephon Gilmore, two years removed from winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was dealt to Carolina for the pittance of a sixth-round pick in ‘23. There was one debacle (the 28-13 loss to the Saints), a close call here or there (winning in the final minute against the lowly Texans), and a couple of early defeats painted as moral victories (Bucs, Cowboys).

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But now? Now they’re rolling, taking a seven-game winning streak, a 9-4 record, and the top seed in the AFC into their bye week. The best-case scenario has come true so far, and it’s been a blast.

Some further thoughts on the season far, upon review . . .

FIVE PLAYERS WHO HAVE BEEN WORTH WATCHING NOT INCLUDING THE QUARTERBACK

Matthew Judon: The former Raven joined the Patriots on a four-year, $56 million contract ($32 million guaranteed) at the advent of the free-agent frenzy in March. It’s already one of the best signings of Belichick’s 22 seasons here. Judon has hoarded 12.5 sacks, tied with 2015 Chandler Jones for the third-most in a season in Patriots history, and within striking distance of Hall of Famer Andre Tippett’s single-season record (18.5, 1984). With 49 tackles and 25 quarterback hits, he’s the relentless leader of the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense.

J.C. Jackson: The fourth-year cornerback has emerged as one of the NFL’s premier ballhawks and a legitimate No. 1 cornerback, a more reliable version of what Asante Samuel Sr. was as a Patriot. Jackson’s best game this season probably came against the Titans, when he forced a crucial fumble in the open field and picked off a deflected pass in the end zone. He has seven interceptions this season, 16 in his last 29 games, and in just 58 career games now ranks ninth in Patriots history with 24 picks.

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Kendrick Bourne: After the Patriots’ second win over the Jets, I wrote of the versatile, upbeat receiver: He’s going to be a popular player on the Patriots’ next truly excellent team. Turns out that day is already here. Bourne, who has 42 catches for 623 yards and five touchdowns, probably has contributed more electrifying plays than anyone else on the offense. Among them: A 75-yard catch-and-run against the Cowboys; a 25-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor in the last matchup with the Jets; a 48-yard reception on a Brian Hoyer pass in the rout of the Browns; and a pair of touchdowns against the Titans, including a 41-yard tip-toe special down the sideline.

Kyle Dugger: Can you imagine how terrifying it must have been to play against him in Division 2 college football? The Lenoir-Rhyne product has emerged in his second season as a do-it-all safety who can lock down a talented tight end (he held the Falcons’ Kyle Pitts to 29 receiving yards), make a play on the ball (his 37-yard interception return got the Patriots rolling against the Browns), or deliver a hit that pops off the screen (the Patriots’ leading tackler, he reminds me quite a bit of former Seahawk Kam Chancellor). The Patriots feature a superb safety trio in Adrian Phillips, Devin McCourty, and Dugger, but the latter is the most electrifying athlete of the three.

Damien Harris: Really, this is a salute to the ground game as a whole. The hard-running Harris is the Patriots’ leading rusher, with career-highs in yardage (764) and touchdowns (9). He has delivered four 100-yard rushing games, including 111 on just 10 carries against the Bills. But he has pretty close to an equal partner in the backfield in Stevenson, who after falling into the Belichick doghouse early in the season has flashed some Marshawn Lynch-like skills during the winning streak, which included a 100-yard performance against the Browns. We can’t forget Brandon Bolden, either. Despite some odd usage, he is averaging 5.6 yards per carry while also catching 32 passes as White’s effective replacement.

GRIEVANCE OF THE SEASON

It’s simple: The grievance is with anyone who dared, when the Patriots started 2-4, to suggest that Belichick “had lost it” or was never an equal partner with Tom Brady in the two decades of extraordinary success. Unoriginal sports radio hosts have to do this stuff. You don’t.

PREDICTION FOR THE REST OF THE SEASON

I can’t tell you how long this unbeaten run will last, or when their first loss since Week 6 versus the Cowboys will come. But I do know this: Super Bowl LVI will be played Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles. I expect the best-case scenario. I expect the Patriots to be there.

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