The start to the 2021 season for the New England Patriots was filled with optimism, but limited results. After falling to 2-4 following an OT loss to the Dallas Cowboys, it felt like Mac Jones and company were competing, but falling just short. Of their first 4 losses, only the Saints game was a 2 possession loss, the others were by 1pt, 2pts, and 6pts in OT. They were close, but couldn’t finish the job. Their only two wins were against far inferior opponents in the putrid New York Jets and Houston Texans, leading everyone to ask the question: Can the Patriots beat a decent, playoff-level team? Now, just 4 games later, the tides have turned and the Patriots look to be hitting their stride.
Of the Patriots 6 wins thus far in 2021, 4 were against far inferior opponents (Jets 2x, Texans, and the pre-Cam Newton Carolina Panthers). Those games make it difficult to judge a team, but 2 of the Patriots most recent wins were eye-openers. On Halloween, the Patriots went out to Los Angeles and pulled out a huge victory against the 4-3 (at the time) Chargers. At that point, it was the most complete game by the Pats, with a balance rush/pass attack and a defense that put pressure on the opponent and made just enough plays down the stretch. It was both a close win and a win over a high-quality opponent on the road. Then after their 3-score win over the Panthers, the Patriots had another chance to prove themselves against the Browns.
Both teams entered the game at 5-4 and were looking to make a statement. After 60 minutes of play, the Patriots made a massive statement of their strength with a 38pt victory and it didn’t even feel that close. The entire team played exceptionally well and made the Browns look like more like a 1-win team rather than a playoff contender. The Browns were without their star RB Nick Chubb due to testing positive for COVID, but even if they had a massive day from him in the lineup, the Browns would have still lost big. The Pats defense continued their trend of forcing turnovers with an INT (2nd in the NFL) and got plenty of pressure on the QB with 5 sacks on the day. As good as the defense was, the offense was the star of the game. Mac Jones had his best professional game throwing 19/23 for 198 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs. His 82.6% completion percentage and QB rating of 142.1 were by far the best of his young career against a team with the most sacks in football.
The upcoming schedule for the Pats is the continuation of a tough stretch. After a tricky mid-level game on the road in Atlanta against the 4-5 Falcons, the Pats have to play the very tough 8-2 Tennessee Titans, and then have two games against the division-leading Buffalo Bills with a game against the Indianapolis Colts sandwiched between. How the Pats perform over the next 5 games will determine whether they are playoff contenders this year or just an improving team that has future promise. The latter outcome is not a bad one given their youth at QB, but expectations in New England are always very high and a playoff game or two in Jones’ rookie season would be tremendous.
I anticipate a solid 3-2 record over the next 5 games for the Pats, putting themselves in solid playoff contention on the other side at 9-6 with games against the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins to close out the year. Anything better than 3-2 will escalate the conversation around whether this team can make a deep run this year. The games against the Bills will be critical for the Pats to potentially win the AFC East and avoid playing on wild card weekend. The fact that I can even write about the playoffs after their 2-4 start with a rookie QB is a credit to the entire organization and their continued improvement.
Buckle your seat belt, because the remainder of the season should be wild.