1-3 is 1-3 is 1-3. No way to slice it how you like it. It’s a losing record that places the New England Patriots in the bottom tier of NFL teams this season and puts them on track for a top ten pick next spring. So why is there a resounding amount of optimism surrounding the team after back-to-back losses?
Perhaps it’s because we’ve seen it before. November 18, 2001. The reigning world champions, the visiting St. Louis Rams, beat the Patriots 24-17 in Foxboro Stadium in a game that New England was outgained by their opponents 482 yards to 230. Newly minted starter Tom Brady threw for 185 yards, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions. The Patriot’s leading rusher was Antowain Smith with 36 yards. Troy Brown was the leading receiver.
The Rams probably would’ve walked away with the game if Terrell Buckley didn’t have a 52-yard pick-six in the waning moments of the opening quarter. Despite the domination on the stat sheet, the 7-point loss was credited by many members of that Super Bowl-winning Patriots team as the springboard for the franchise’s first title.
Is the narrow defeat at the hands of the reigning world champion Buccaneers going to be the springboard that launches the 2021 version of the Patriots to Super Bowl glory? Probably not, but that story isn’t completely written yet. If the 2001 Patriots could find confidence in a game they really had no business being in, then surely the 2021 Patriots can find confidence in a game that they most certainly should have won.
The difference? The 2001 New England Patriots made the plays when it counted, in large due to a certain player in a number 12 jersey. That same number 12 was at it again on Sunday, only this time doing it for the opposing team. Football is a game of inches, often only a handful of plays dictating the outcome of the game. Against the Buccaneers that difference was apparent. The Bucs got it done when they had to, the Pats, always an inch or two off.
This team is headed in the right direction. It has not been more apparent than going toe to toe with the cream of the crop on Sunday night. Progress is good. Results are better. Hopefully, they’re just around the corner.
Observations from Sunday night’s homecoming game
- Mac Jones enjoyed perhaps the best game of his career Sunday. Showing his prowess operating in a spread formation and making short-to-intermediate on-schedule throws. There continues to be lamenting and criticism for this kind of passing attack. The constant “short and safe” throws are being used as a means of criticism for the young gun. In a world where fantasy football and Madden rule supreme, the actual football job of a quarterback is often forgotten. While Mahomes may be able to sling the ball all over the yard with jaw-dropping arm angles and ridiculous extension of plays, the rest of the QB’s on planet earth have a few simple rules to being successful: take care of the football and get it into the hands of your playmakers. There was a streak of 19 consecutive passing attempts where Mac Jones did just that. He kept the team out of harm’s way with smart decisions and allowed his skill guys to make plays after the catch. And for all that average depth of target nonsense, Mac Jones has a deeper average depth of target than Dak Prescott and Justin Herbert and is right on the heels of Kyler Murray and Joe Burrow. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of criticism about their “safe” style of play.
- Jones’ passing chart shows his ability to attack the short-to-intermediate portion of the field. Doing this consistently will open up deep shots with more success.
- With that said, the Patriots’ offensive line has to help the rookie out. Mac was pressured on 38% of his dropbacks Sunday night. This follows a troubling trend as in all of the Patriots’ losses this year Mac has been pressured on greater than 35% of his dropbacks in those games (against Dolphins 35%, against Saints 35.7%, and Sunday 37.8%). Regardless, Mac completed 10 of 13 attempts while under pressure for 86 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
- After having 17 pressures in the first 3 games, the Bucs had 12 against the Patriots.
- The Patriots might be employing two turnstiles at their tackles spots. Hard to tell the difference. While Trent Brown’s return should solidify one spot, Isaiah Wynn on the opposite side has been just as porous in pass protection. To this point in the season, RT Justin Herron and Wynn are tied for the team lead with 12 pressures allowed. Wynn also allowed 2 sacks Sunday night. Legendary coach Dante Scarnecchia isn’t walking through that door and after picking up Wynn’s fifth-year option, his inconsistent play is even more concerning.
- Wynn and LG Mike Onwenu were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list Tuesday. The vaccination status of either player is unknown so any prognostication on their return is short-sighted. Regardless, possibly being down 3 of 5 starting O linemen for a team allowing a lot of pressure is reason for concern heading into Sunday’s matchup with the Texans.
- Onwenu had an uncharacteristic night Sunday being called for two holding penalties and having multiple errors before being replaced by Ted Karras in the second half.
- Mac continues to be tough in the face of pressure but against the Saints and Bucs tried to force a throw while being hit that led to interceptions. Brady was king of “live to play another down.” Mac could take a few notes and understand sometimes punting is actually helping the team.
- After a few weeks of sloppy special teams play the Pats were back to winning the third phase of the game. Jake Bailey was back to blasting punts and the coverage units again looked like the best in the business. The only negative play was Matthew Slater’s unsportsmanlike penalty that negated a forced fumble on a return. The broadcast did a good job of explaining the rule, but Slater took exception after the game explaining that there is little consistency to how the refs call it in games. Welcome to the club Matt.
- By the way, that was Slater’s fourth penalty of his entire career. Drafted in 2008, his first penalty occurred in 2019. Just uncharacteristic for him and a big point in the game.
- Speaking of refs-I’m not sure what more Matt Judon needs to do to get some calls. The guy was routinely in a chokehold throughout the night. His red sleeves should draw attention to the absolute manhandling occurring on the edges and a penalty could’ve been called on whatever poor soul was trying to block him on nearly every pass-rush snap.
- Through this point in the season, Judon has 4.5 sacks, 17 pressures, and 8 quarterback hits. Insane numbers. Judon very well should be the best player on the field for the Patriots for the rest of the season.
- Belichick was at his best Sunday, mixing pre-snap alignments, personnel groupings, post-snap coverage rolls, and coverages. However, the Pats went with “cat” coverage for most of the night with their top three corners. Interesting note: Ty Law came up with the term “cat coverage” — meaning “I got this cat, you got that cat.” Jackson vs. Evans: 6 receptions on 10 targets for 64 yards, Jon Jones vs. Antonio Brown: 5 receptions on 9 targets for 52 yards, and Jalen Mills vs. Chris Godwin: 3 receptions on 4 targets for 55 yards. 0 touchdowns. Against the GOAT and an amazingly stacked receiving corps.
- Josh Uche has been great (3 sacks in 3 games). However, rookie DT Christian Barmore is actually second on the team with 8 QB pressures. Those will start turning into sacks soon enough.
- The Pats have quite a bit of young talent on the defensive side of the ball. Kyle Dugger, again, was all over the field. While his game hasn’t completely rounded out at the pro level, his willingness to make violent contact with humans twice his size is noticeable.
- Dugger has been an asset in the run game since his rookie year. But his coverage skills are noticeably improving, as well. It won’t be long before he starts getting noticed more on broadcasts.
- Dont’a Hightower hasn’t quite looked like himself. Rumors of a knee injury have been swirling and he has missed at least one defensive series in every game. With Ja’Wuan Bentley sidelined with a shoulder injury and Kyle Van Noy suddenly playing every snap, the Pats are adding old friend Jamie Collins. Sam Darnold is on the schedule just in time for the boogeymen to get back together.
- Bentley’s absence was felt in the running game against the Buccaneers but it wasn’t the first time the run defense has been a problem for the Patriots. The Pats have allowed 34 rushing first downs, 5th most in the NFL. After averaging four rushing attempts a quarter, the Buccaneers rushed 9 times in the third quarter, including for their only touchdown. With such a dominant passing defense, the Pats must shore up the run defense to become an elite unit.
- While the final field goal will be remembered more, J.J. Taylor’s fumble in the third quarter was more costly. Taking over at the Tampa Bay 38-yard line, 3 points is a MUST for any offense in this situation. A touchdown is obviously better, but any competent NFL offense gets points here. Another uncharacteristically sloppy play for the Pats in a season, thus far, full of them.
- The stuff of nightmares-the play before the Pats’ final field goal attempt. Game of inches.