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Five takeaways from the Patriots’ 50-10 destruction of the Jaguars, which — paired with the Dolphins’ loss to the Titans — puts Bill Belichick’s team back in the playoffs after a one-year absence …
Twelve months ago, the Patriots had just wrapped up their first losing season in two decades, and did so with fears that things could easily get worse before they got better.
Twelve weeks ago, the Patriots were 1-3 and trailing a terrible Texans team by 13 points in the middle of the third quarter, with fears that this season could be kaput before Columbus Day.
Twelve, and the guy who wore it so well for so long, still seemed to be casting a shadow over everything in Foxborough at both of those doubt-addled junctures.
But now the Patriots are poised to finally escape that shadow. They’re back in the playoffs after just a single year’s absence, and with that opportunity comes not just a chance to compete for a championship, but a chance to truly move the franchise into its next era of success.
Playoff berths had become so commonplace in these parts, it would be easy to shrug off such an achievement with a perfunctory “now prove it to me” attitude. Seven of the AFC’s 16 teams will earn such an honor. That’s not exactly exclusive company. However, after the difficulties of last year, and then the major investments in the roster made last spring, quickly getting back to the postseason signified a critical step in helping to ensure that while the team was clearly in transition, the transition would involve resetting the team’s personnel – not rebooting the culture Bill Belichick has spent 20 years establishing.
A division title would’ve been nice. Homefield advantage would’ve been, too. Those became the expectation in years gone by – but things are different now.
And by getting back to the playoffs, and back into contention, Patriots fans can now move forward with confidence that different isn’t a bad thing.
“We all believe we’ve got something special with this team,” running back Damien Harris said after scoring twice.
“One-hundred percent,” agreed safety Adrian Phillips. “Just seeing how far we grew with the guys we had even last year, just how tough it was for us. Coming back we wanted to get this thing turned around. Started off the season with a little hiccup, then really buckling down and going on a win streak, you can see the group of guys that we have. Everybody really cares about football and one another.
“You can just feel the difference.”
Several times during Sunday’s game, the cameras caught Mac Jones having some fun. He thoroughly enjoyed his three touchdown passes. He seemed to be in hysterics over an exchange he had with Belichick during the second half. And he was yukking it up with Kendrick Bourne along the sideline after the game had been blown way out of hand.
By all accounts, Jones never lacks belief in himself. But if there was ever a time in his rookie season that the Alabama product could’ve used a visit from a foe like the Jaguars, it was Sunday afternoon.
A week before, Jones had been brutal in a loss to the Bills. He wasn’t great the week before that, either, and before the bye he completed two passes at Buffalo. It had been at least a month since Jones had assembled a performance that could be deemed truly positive.
It wasn’t as though he was asked to make a series of spectacular throws on Sunday, or lead his team through troubled waters. But it’s a credit to Jones that from his first pass to his last, he looked to be in total command. He looked comfortable. He seemed to be confident in working his way through his progressions, and the balls he was flinging inaccurately against Buffalo were on the mark against Jacksonville.
The numbers reflected that, with Jones finishing 22 of 30 for 227 yards and three scores. But a 128.1 passer rating only tells part of the story. The more important part of Jones’s Sunday was reassurance – for the region, if not for himself – that the rookie wall he ran into wasn’t insurmountable.
Sunday’s game laid plain the vast differences between the situations Lawrence and Jones were drafted into for the starts of their NFL careers, with the size of the chasm appropriately reflected by the game’s final score. Jacksonville and New England exist in such different NFL stratospheres that comparing the rookie seasons of the two quarterbacks isn’t really fair.
What might be more interesting in looking back at April’s draft through the lens of Bill Belichick. Remember, there was a period of time when Jones was reportedly in consideration with Trey Lance and Justin Fields to be the third overall pick – but the consensus said the first two picks were set in stone. There was no question that Nos. 1 and 2 would be Lawrence and now-Jet Zach Wilson.
It’s interesting to look back at that from Belichick’s perspective because while he and Jones have compiled 10 wins together, three of those have come in games started by Lawrence and Wilson. When those three games are combined, Belichick’s team outscored Lawrence’s and Wilson’s by an even 100 points – the total aggregating to 129-29 in the Pats’ favor.
And while Jones could finish the season with a passer rating that pushes into the mid-90s, here’s what Wilson and Lawrence combined to do against Belichick’s defense: 42 for 70, 454 yards, one touchdown and seven interceptions. That’s a putrid passer rating of 44.3.
The lone touchdown in that set of stats came late in the fourth quarter Sunday, when Lawrence dumped off a screen pass with his team facing a 50-3 deficit. Meanwhile, Jones was already on the sidelines, laughing with Belichick and enjoying some well-earned early rest. And in the next couple weeks Jones should become just the sixth rookie in the last decade to take his team to the playoffs.
One of the most disappointing aspects of the Patriots’ back-to-back losses to the Colts and Bills was the blase fashion in which New England opened each game. Indianapolis was much sharper and faster. Buffalo was more physical and forceful. The Pats took a gut punch each week, staggered backward for a bit, and never really got a chance to establish their footing.
This week their early energy was much better. Highlighted by a Dont’a Hightower sack, the defense started with a three-and-out. The offense then followed with an 11-play march to the end zone. By the end of the first quarter the lead was only 7-3, but it was 28-3 by halftime because the Patriots took each of their first four possessions to pay dirt. The execution and opportunism on both sides of scrimmage suggested the Pats were ready to play.
Some of that dominance was undoubtedly due to the opponent – but don’t dismiss the Patriots’ early performance as merely a product of the Jaguars’ inferiority. Elsewhere Sunday, the Bills (who lost to the Jags earlier this season) were losing to the Falcons at halftime, and the Bucs were trailing the Jets deep into the fourth quarter. A week earlier, the lowly Texans tripped up the Chargers. And two weeks prior, the Lions lit up the Cardinals.
Focus and preparation aren’t automatic, as the Pats had learned the hard way in losing their previous two. To see them handle their business – as they did throughout the seven-game winning streak they put together earlier this season – was a positive correction.
Nelson Agholor, a first-round pick in 2015, missed his second consecutive week as he remains limited by the NFL’s concussion protocols. In a surprise move, joining him on the inactive list was N’Keal Harry, the 2019 first-round choice who hadn’t been listed on the injury report.
Without those two top choices, however, it’s interesting to note that it was a trio of undrafted receivers who carried the Patriots’ passing game on Sunday. Jakobi Meyers was excellent on third down in particular, making eight grabs, one of which was his second career touchdown. Kendrick Bourne added five grabs for a team-high 76 yards.
And then there was Kristian Wilkerson, who has spent the better part of the past two seasons on the Pats’ practice squad, and has earned the praise of Belichick for his work prepping the Patriots’ defense as part of the scout team. Sunday, with Agholor and Harry down, he got his first chance to contribute to the starting offense, and he didn’t miss it. He registered his first four NFL catches, as well as his first two touchdowns, selling a block before sneaking away for a wide-open pass on one, and dragging across the back of the end zone on the other.
It would’ve been three scores had he managed to hold on to a bomb from Jones later in the game – but it’s not like drops don’t happen from guys like Agholor and Bourne, too. And New England has a lot more invested in those two than the players who led the aerial attack on Sunday.
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