Mac Jones better come back in top form or ‘questionable’ might be his status for some time

Mac Jones (left) might be backing up Bailey Zappe if he doesn't play better when he returns. Jim Davis/The Boston Globe

Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .

The injury report deemed Mac Jones’s status as questionable for the Patriots’ game with the Browns before he was among the inactives Sunday.

If he doesn’t play well immediately whenever he returns from the high ankle sprain that has kept him out of the last three games, “questionable” might also describe his status as the starting quarterback.

Rookie fourth-round pick Bailey Zappe, third on the depth chart just three weeks ago, did his best to spark an official quarterback controversy Sunday. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 309 yards and a pair of touchdowns, winning his second straight start in the Patriots’ 38-15 victory over the Browns.


Zappe had plenty of help, particularly from a defense that had four sacks and four takeaways. But save for a briefly erratic stretch in the second quarter, he was excellent, distributing the ball with accuracy and patience, with four receivers gaining at least 60 yards. His arm is better than advertised, he throws without hesitation, and his feel for the pass rush has improved already.

Sometimes he reminds you that he’s a rookie, but he makes you forget that he was ever third string. Jones is more knowledgeable and probably has more talent, but if he’s not better when he comes back than he was before he got hurt, he may find out just how fleeting job security is in the NFL.

Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .

Three players who were worth watching

Players suggested in the Unconventional Preview: Jack Jones, Nick Chubb, Myles Garrett

Tyquan Thornton: The Patriots desperately needed a talent influx in their 2022 draft class. I’d say they got one, wouldn’t you? Zappe, Cole Strange, Jack Jones, and Marcus Jones have all made meaningful contributions, and now Thornton, the roadrunner-fast receiver taken in the second round out of Baylor, has joined them after missing the first four games with a broken collarbone. Thornton contributed a pair of touchdowns Sunday, a 2-yard TD catch on a third-and-2 slant pattern early in the third quarter to put the Patriots up 17-6. His second TD came on a jet sweep in the fourth quarter after Brenden Schooler’s recovery of a fumbled punt. That one was a 19-­yard burst in which he may have been heard to exclaim “beep-beep” as he blew past Browns defenders en route to the end zone and a 31-15 Patriots lead with just less than five minutes left. It’s impressive how quickly Thornton has been able to contribute since coming back from his injury. Just imagine what he might be doing for this offense by December.

Rhamondre Stevenson: Both defenses geared up to stop the run. One did. The Browns’ Nick Chubb entered the game as the NFL’s leading rusher with 564 yards, and the Browns came in averaging a league-best 192 yards. The Patriots limited Chubb to 56 yards on 12 carries, and the Browns had just 70 total on the ground. Meanwhile, the Browns did a decent job containing Stevenson early in the game, but his relentlessness won out. Late in the second quarter, the inevitable happened, and Stevenson, who ran for 161 yards last week, got loose for a 31-yard touchdown run, leaving Browns rookie cornerback Martin Emerson Jr. grasping at air along the way. Stevenson, who did not miss a snap until less than five minutes remained in the third quarter, put the exclamation point on the win with a 6-yard scoring run after Carl Davis Jr.’s fumble recovery in the fourth quarter. He finished with 19 carries for 76 yards, two touchdowns, and more evidence that he should be the focal point of the Patriots’ offense.


Kyle Dugger: The Patriots’ dynamic third-year safety announced his presence with authority, making a tackle on Browns tight end Harrison Bryant on the first play of the game, then picking off Jacoby Brissett’s deep throw on the second play. Dugger finished the first quarter with the interception, plus six of his team-leading total of eight tackles. He did not have a flawless day — Browns tight end David Njoku beat him for a 33-yard catch in the first quarter — but as is becoming his habit, he was all over the place all day, his speed and physicality popping off the screen. He’s going to be an All-Pro someday, maybe this season.

Grievance of the game

The Patriots were on a 20-penalty pace after the first quarter. Unless Bill Belichick ordered them to pay some sort of inexplicable bizarre homage to an infamous 1976 matchup between the expansion Seahawks and Buccaneers in which 35 penalties were committed — 20 by Seattle — this was not a good thing. Both Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn (who else?) committed false-start penalties on the Patriots’ first drive, which ended in a field goal. The Patriots had eight penalties by halftime, their most since their we’re-on-to-Cincinnati win over the Bengals in 2014. The Patriots did settle down a little bit in the second half, finishing with 12 penalties overall for 92 yards.

Three notes scribbled in the margins

(Predicted final score: Patriots 29, Browns 20)


(Final score: Patriots 38, Browns 15)

The Patriots’ well-compensated tight ends finally made significant contributions in the passing game. Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith entered the game with a combined 16 receptions for 153 yards and no touchdowns this season. But there were two separate touchdown drives in which both made important plays. On the second play of the second half, Zappe threw a dart to Smith, who took off for 53 yards. Two plays later, Zappe found Henry for 13 yards to the Browns 2, setting up Thornton’s touchdown. On a later series, Smith’s hard-fought catch-and-run gained 8 yards, setting up a manageable third and 1 in which Zappe found a wide-open Henry for a 31-yard touchdown . . . Deatrich Wise Jr. picked up his fifth sack of the season, tying his career high set in 2017. Matthew Judon did not collect a sack for the first time in six games this season, but like Wise he was buzzing around in Brissett’s vicinity all day . . . Did you notice Belichick looking around for someone for a few moments right after the game ended? I bet he was looking for Myles Garrett. He’d already shaken hands with Brissett and coach Kevin Stefanski at that point, and he had high praise for Garrett — who finished with 5 tackles, 2 sacks, and the forced fumble — after the game, saying, “Obviously, we had a hard time with Garrett. Man, he’s tough.”


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