Patriots

In losing, the Patriots just may have won confidence in Mac Jones

The rookie quarterback couldn't complete the comeback in Indy, but there were signs than he one day might.

Mac Jones calls out signals against the Colts. AP

COMMENTARY

On the one hand, we have the answer to one of this season’s looming questions: Can rookie quarterback Mac Jones bring the Patriots back to win a game they trailed against stiff competition? 

The answer is no. 

But it is, of course, a complicated “no.” While Jones failed to deliver victory Saturday night in Indianapolis, nor did the kid turtle under the pressure of a 20-0 deficit to the Colts. He wasn’t great, throwing a pair of interceptions in the process, but he showed something invaluable in the fourth quarter, when the Patriots mounted their incomplete comeback. 

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Jones tossed a pair of touchdown passes to tight end Hunter Henry during the final frame to help New England sneak back into the game. Under pressure, he completed a 43-yard pass to N’Keal Harry. More impressive, Jones’s presence behind center emerged into a calming force. Playing in a situation that would rattle most veterans, Jones provided the steely calm that helped his team chart its rebound. 

So, can rookie quarterback Mac Jones bring the Patriots back to win a game they trail against a potential playoff opponent? Nope. 

Not yet. 

But I’d feel pretty good about putting him back in a similar situation. 

While Jones contributed to the long list of mistakes that his team committed during the first three quarters, the resolve he pulled out in the fourth was telling. While this game doesn’t fit under the criteria of being a “moral victory” (multiple offsides penalties and a blocked punt aren’t credible offsets for that nod), the encouraging performance of the quarterback does serve as a silver lining worth mentioning. 

Was it worth the loss just to discover that trait in Jones? Of course not. But, again, it’s complicated. 

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If the Patriots again find themselves facing a hefty deficit, either down the stretch or into the postseason, and are able to pull themselves all the way back, we will point to Dec. 18 in Indianapolis as the turning point, a valuable lesson that taught them a little something. 

But it’s a little like currency set to expire, worthless unless you do something with it. And the Patriots, now the No. 2 seed in the AFC, may very well run the table, beating the Bills, Jaguars, and Dolphins, in easy fashion, to finish the season. Heck, maybe they’ll roll right through the playoffs and make everybody wonder why we ever doubted why they were the best team in the NFL. Another Lombardi for you, coach Belichick. 

In such a case, they won’t need what they learned about themselves from Lucas Oil. 

But in a much more realistic scenario, the Patriots will have to battle to win the No. 1 seed back. It isn’t as outlandish as it sounds. The Chiefs still have to play the Steelers (with a defense that can do to Patrick Mahomes what the Saints managed against Tom Brady on Sunday), Bengals, and Broncos (both of whom are fighting for their playoff lives. The Patriots get the broken Bills at home, the hapless Jags, and a potential trouble spot in Miami to close the regular season. Which schedule would you rather have? 

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If not for Jonathan Taylor’s late, 67-yard scamper into the end zone, we might have had the opportunity for Jones to truly complete the comeback effort Saturday night. For as many things as the Patriots did wrong, to be within striking distance late in the game says plenty about the defense the Patriots brought, even if for all the negatives on the stat sheet. But until the offense got things into gear, it looked like anything but a close game, a situation that Jones helped lead out of the doldrums. If Jones — the same guy who wasn’t allowed to throw the ball more than three times less than two weeks earlier — were given just one more opportunity, down three, could he have pulled it off? 

Maybe there’s a shed of optimism in not knowing. After all, we probably feel differently about Jones right now if he managed to toss a third touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to grab a late lead. We also probably feel differently about Jones if he managed to throw a pick-six to Kemoko Turay with the final seconds ticking away. 

The Patriots started the game the way many teams have seemingly this season following a bye. They were sluggish. The mental errors that plagued them earlier in the season came back to haunt them. Jones alluded to a week of bad practice during his curious postgame comments. If the Patriots, somehow, managed to pull out a victory Saturday night, I wonder just how valuable the lesson would have been. I mean, yes, you hang onto the No. 1 seed with a win, stupid so yeah, pretty darned valuable. 

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Then again, what the Patriots discovered in losing just may give them the hunger to finish the task next time. 

Mac Jones wasn’t the reason his team lost Saturday night. But he gave reason to believe the Patriots can win such a game. 

We’ll probably have the real answer within a few weeks. 

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