Patriots Put the League on Alert with Huge Win

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.

Outside of Mac Jones, Rookie QBs are Struggling

Heading into the draft this year there was a lot of attention on the top 5 QBs to come off the board. All 5 QBs came off the board in the top 15 picks, including the top 3 picks, and they were all considered to be potential franchise changers. Just 7 weeks into the season (6 games for the Jets and Jaguars), there have been some surprise performances from this group, mostly on the negative end of the spectrum. Of those 5 QBs, #1 Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), #2 Zach Wilson (BYU), #3 Trey Lance (North Dakota State), #11 Justin Fields (Ohio State), and #15 Mac Jones (Alabama), only Jones has over 1,500 yards passing and a completion percentage above 60%. It’s been a struggle for the other 4 higher-drafted QBs thus far in 2021.

Of the 5 QBs, 3 were handed the starting job in week 1 – Wilson, Lawrence and Jones. Fields has now been given the starting job in Chicago and has 5 starts, but appeared in all 7 games, while Lance has started just one game due to a Jimmy Garoppolo injury and appeared in 4 games. I’m putting Lance aside for this next bit because he hasn’t had enough time on the field to really be analyzed yet, although his 1 start and 3 other appearances left a lot to be desired.

Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are a combined 4-13 when starting with 1 win each for Wilson and Lawrence and 2 for Fields, while Jones has led the Patriots to a 3-4 record on the young season. On the QB performance side, Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have more interceptions than TDs (combined 13 TDs compared to 23 INTs) with just 4 TDs for Wilson and 9 INTs, which is tied for the worst in the NFL. On the flip side of that group, Jones has a positive TD to INT ratio with 9 TDs and 6 INTs. While 6 INTs is still high, mistakes are expected with younger QBs, ideally they are outweighed by the positives.

To me, the most glaring difference amongst the group is in completion percentage and what that says about the QBs, their teams, and their maturity. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields all have completion percentages between 57.3% and 59.7% which are well below the league average of 65.9% thus far, while Jones has the 4th highest completion percentage in the NFL this season at 70.4%, only behind Kyler Murray, Dak Prescott, and Russell Wilson. Jones has shown veteran maturity when making decisions about when and where to throw and that’s reflected in his percentage, while the others have struggled a bit more with consistent decision making.

Because Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are being asked to do more on the field than Jones, you would expect to see them throwing down field more often and completing fewer low-percentage passes than Jones, but the stats don’t bear that out. Wilson, Lawrence, and Fields are ranked #27, #29, and #31 in yards per attempt this season, while Jones is 8 spots ahead of the group at #19. Both Jones and Lawrence are averaging around 36 pass attempts per game, while the other 2 are at 30 or below. Jones is completing the shallow-to-mid passes at an incredibly high rate, while the others are not.

The other area I anticipated a bigger advantage for the other QBs over Jones is in the run game. Fields and Wilson especially showed off their athleticism in college and proved to be dual-threat QBs when needed. Thus far, no one in this group has earned a dual-threat crown despite being super athletic. Lawrence and Fields are averaging about 20 yards on the ground per game, while Jones has just over 6 yards per game and Wilson has just under 4 yards per game. None of them are exactly lighting it up on the ground just yet and I’d say it’s mostly a wash.

There are certainly other factors involved in the success of a young QB including offensive line protection, receivers to throw to, quality of the running game, etc, but it’s interesting to see that outside of Mac Jones, none of the rookie QBs are really matching expectations at this point. Jones came into the league the most polished and game ready, but the intangibles and athleticism of the other QBs in the class were expected to make them significantly better. Over time that may be the case, but through 7 weeks that narrative has failed to come to fruition.

To be fair to Wilson and Lawrence, their teams are terrible, which certainly doesn’t help them settle in and learn the NFL game, but most everyone expected more from them regardless. It is an extra long NFL season and it’ll be interesting to revisit the QB conversation when each of these players has had more experience under center. It will also be interesting to see if the 12-game college season vs a 17-game NFL season causes some deeper struggles in the last few games of the season.

Not All is Lost in 2-4 Start for the Patriots

On late Sunday afternoon the Dallas Cowboys came to town and the matchup was filled with big plays, interesting and quick momentun turns, and extra football. The Cowboys came into Foxborough at 4-1 with a high-powered offense that was averaging 34 pts per game and 40.3 in their past 3 contests, tied for the best in the NFL. The Pats defense had their hands full and they needed a lot from Mac Jones and the offense and they got a solid performance from the rookie. Ultimately, after overtime the Cowboys are flying home happy and the Patriots are sitting 2-games below .500, but it shouldn’t be all doom and gloom in New England.

One of my takeaways from Sunday was the Patriots run-defense and their ability to limit running backs Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. In his last 3 games, Zeke was averaging 116 yards per game on just over 19 carries per game. On Sunday, the Pats held Zeke to 69 yards on 17 carries, just 4.1 yards per carry which is nearly 2 yards per carry below his average the last 3 games. The more limited run game forced a much larger pass game which was absolutely electric, but it’s nice to see the big front line for the Patriots limiting the run game.

The other main takeaway: Dak Prescott is at the top of his game and the Pats secondary is, well, not. Dak was able to put the ball in tight windows and make some huge throws on big 3rd and 4th downs to keep the Cowboys driving. He was able to read the defense and make the right decisions throughout the game, especially in crunch time in the 4th quarter and overtime. He finished the game with an incredible 445 yards, 3 TDs and 1 INT, the most passing yards against a Bill Belichick coached team. It was his 2nd 400+ yard passing game this season and his 5th game with a passer rating above 101. In 6 games, he now has over 1,800 passing yards, 16 TDs and 4 INTs. His 74% completion percentage coming into the game was 2nd best in the NFL amongst regular starters and that will stay high after this 70.5% performance against the Patriots.

While Dak was impressive, it does raise a glaring flag in the Pats secondary which is now officially without Stephen Gilmore going forward after his trade to the Carolina Panthers. Jalen Mills was beat repeatedly throughout the game, including badly on the game-winning TD to CeeDee Lamb, who had 149 yards on 9 catches on the day. The secondary is coming off a terrible performance against rookie David Mills and the Houston Texans where they allowed 312 yards, 3 TDs and couldn’t grab an interception and they didn’t look much better against the elite QB. Beyond Mills, JC Jackson didn’t have his best game and committed a really costly pass interference penalty in the end zone that led to a Dallas TD in the 2nd half. It was a rough day all around.

On top of that, the Pats offensive line has more holes than swiss cheese. Between injuries and COVID-list stints, they were more intact than last week, but still thin. They got T Isaiah Wynn back this week, but he allowed a few really bad pressures/sacks and was benched at one point and moved around on the line. They did an OK job in the run game, but were incompetent at times in pass protection allowing a few awful hits on Mac Jones, which is not how you want to take care of the face of your franchise. Jones blamed himself for not getting the ball out quickly on those plays, but he can’t be expected to have 1 second of protection on every pass play. In spite of the line, Mac had a solid game.

The good news for the Pats is that they get the 1-4 New York Jets coming off a bye week at home next week, before taking a tough trip out west to play the Chargers on the road. Following the Chargers, they have a string of winnable games against the Panthers, Browns, Falcons, and Titans. They have a real chance to finish that 6-game stretch 4-2, which would return them to .500 heading into 2 games against the powerful division leading Buffalo Bills in 3 weeks.

For now, it’s time to get back to work and improve before next Sunday. I’m not sure how the Pats fix the secondary and offensive line, but if they can tweak and improve a little each week, then the team can get back to winning on the regular. It’s not great right now, but there is a long way to go in this season.

Will the Patriots Run-Game Get on Track Against the Dallas Cowboys?

One of the biggest frustrations of the 2021 season thus far for the New England Patriots has been the complete lack of a run game. In the pre-season, there was an embarrassment of riches at the RB position with 6 guys having a legitimate chance to make the roster and contribute. It was clear that Damien Harris was the lead back and James White would definitely have a roster spot as a receiving back, but after them there was rookie Rhamondre Stevenson, J.J. Taylor, Brandon Bolden, and Sony Michel who were all solid RBs. The once deep and exciting group, has turned into a thin and disappointing one really quickly.

Seeing that there was not room on the roster for 6 RBs, Bill Belichick sent Sony Michel out west to the Los Angeles Rams the day prior to their 3rd and final pre-season game. It became clear that Bill wanted to give an opportunity for the others in the group to take some snaps and Stevenson and Taylor had both had some nice runs in the pre-season, so he hedged and traded Michel which at the time made sense. The season started off solidly on the ground for the Patriots, with a 23-carry, 100-yard performance from Harris in the 1-pt loss to the Miami Dolphins (30 carries as a team – White 4, Jonnu Smith 1, Bolden 1, and Stevenson 1). There was an unfortunate late-game fumble from Harris that clouded his performance, but overall it was solid.

Facing the Jets in week 2, the Patriots had a decent game on the ground with Harris rushing 16 times for 62-yards and White picking up 20-yards on 5 carries. The workload was lighter, only 24 carries as a team, but the balance was still as expected with Harris leading the group. Week 3 against the New Orleans Saints is where things went bad and in a hurry. Against the 4th best run-defense in football, the Patriots weren’t able to get the much going on the ground, partially because they were trailing the entire game. The leading rusher in the game was Mac Jones, with 28-yards on 6 carries and Harris only had 14-yards on 6 carries (2.3 yards per carry). Bolden had 3 rushes for -1-yard and Taylor and White had 1 rush each. Unfortunately for the Pats, James White was carted off the field and his season was over with a hip injury.

Coming off the White injury, the Patriots had the most anticipated regular season game in history against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Bucs and the run game was absolutely atrocious. As a team, the Pats had -1-yard for the game, with the only positive rush coming from WR Nelson Agholor for 4-yards. They only attempted 8 rushes and were absolutely crushed on 7 of the 8. When your team has 6 rushes from 3 RBs that amount to -4-yards, you’ve had a miserable day. Good thing for the Pats, their opponent in week 5, the Houston Texans, would be easier to run on.

The Pats began to right the run-game ship this past Sunday against a mediocre Texans defense. J.J Taylor was inactive, but the Pats rushed 30 times for 136 yards, 25 attempts from Harris and Stevenson. While they still didn’t look great and Harris had another fumble, they took advantage of the Texans who have allowed the 7th most rushing yards to opponents on the season. In a bizarrely close and uncomfortable game, the Pats snuck out of Texas with a 3pt victory on a walk-off Nick Folk field goal, but no one felt good about the performance. During the game, Harris sustained a rib injury and has barely practiced (as of Thursday).

If Harris is inactive or limited, the Patriots enter the game against Dallas extremely thin at RB. Stevenson would presumably pick up the slack for Harris, but then it’s really only Brandon Bolden left on the depth chart. J.J. Taylor was played very little and it’s unclear why (besides his fumble), but could be an option just in case. The once 6-deep running back core is down to 3 or maybe 4 and isn’t going to have an easy time running on the Cowboys who have allowed the 5th fewest rushing yards against this year. Oh yeah, and the Patriots are still without 3 of their 5 offensive linemen due to injuries and COVID-related absences.

If I were a betting man, I’m not taking the Patriots run game to turn it around this week. They have struggled mightily against strong run-defenses and at best, their lead RB will not be 100% with a rib injury that I imagine will hurt every time he gets hit and at worst, he won’t play. Harris and Stevenson have 3 combined fumbles in 5 games, which is not what the Patriots, or any team, want to see. This game could be a big opportunity for Stevenson to show he can be a lead back going forward, but it will not be easy. I’m predicting fewer than 70 yards on the ground this week, so Mac Jones has to be ready to throw 40+ times if the Pats want to have a chance to topple the 4-1 Cowboys.

Biggest Winner on Sunday was Mac Jones

I don’t think there has ever been a regular season NFL game hyped as much as Sunday night’s matchup between the New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The storylines were abundant in Tom Brady’s return to Foxboro following 20 years in a Patriots uniforms and 6 Super Bowl titles. It seemed on paper that this could be a 1-sided match-up with Brady showing his former fanbase and team that he is still atop the mountain, but instead, it was one of the best football games of the year.

Lost somewhat in the Tom Brady hype this week was his “replacement” Mac Jones. One has to imagine that Tom Brady was feeling a ton of emotion returning to Gillette as a visitor and with the ovations and chants he heard as he came on the field for warmups and then for pregame, but what about Jones? A rookie in just his 4th NFL game who had been compared by some to a Brady and has been anointed the successor to lead this storied franchise. What were his emotions leading up to kickoff and into the first quarter on Sunday?

While there are certainly comparisons between Tom and Mac, I always find it unfair to compare players, especially when one is the GOAT. That being said, once Mac settled in after the first drive or two, he showed a massive national TV audience why he is being compared to Tom and just what he can do in a high-pressure environment (literally). He faced a lot of pressure from the Bucs defense, but was able to make smart decisions. When he sensed pressure coming, he was often able to step up in the pocket to gain an extra half-second to make a better throw (very Brady-esque).

Mac’s quick decision-making is what sets him apart from all other rookies, and many veterans. I’ve been talking about this ad nauseum, but it’s critically important and a big reason he won the starting job this year. He takes the 3-5 step drop, does a quick scan, and and lets the ball go. It keeps the ball moving and doesn’t allow the defense to adjust or get set in coverage. Will the quick decisions lead to mistakes at times? Absolutely, but it’s a recipe for success. When it isn’t a quick read, Mac is able to scan through his receiving options and make the smart, right choice, all while being aware of defensive pressure.

Other than the interception, Mac mostly made the right decisions around when to take a sack vs. risk a turnover with a bad throw. Taking a sack is a negative play and obviously should be avoided, but may also be the most unappreciated successful result of a play. There were at least 2 times on Sunday night that Mac took a sack, because pressure got to him quickly, he couldn’t get out of the pocket, and there was no passing lane to put the ball in. In that case, a sack is the smart decision because you live to play another down, you don’t risk intentional grounding, and you don’t risk a turnover that could shift the momentum of the game and lead to opponent points. Of the reasonable outcomes in that instance, a sack is the best result.

I’ve already said this a ton and I’m guessing it’s going to keep coming up, but Mac is poised and confident well beyond his years. He’s able to put the last play behind him, learn from it, and move forward very quickly and it appears that very little can phase him. It already seems like Mac has been in the league for a few years and has a high floor for performance, but the questions were around his ceiling coming out of college. If he continues to learn and grow, his ceiling is as high, or higher, than any other rookie QB in the league.

While Tom Brady and the Bucs won the football game on Sunday, the real winner for me is Mac Jones. I know they aren’t on the field at the same time and that’s not how wins and losses work, but in the first head-to-head match-up between the GOAT and the rookie, the rookie came out on top. If only the scoreboard reflected the W.

5 Things to Watch for in Tom Brady’s Return to Foxboro

If you don’t know that Tom Brady is returning to Gillette Stadium with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to face the Patriots this weekend then you must be living in a bunker somewhere. Since the moment the Patriots vs Saints game ended on Sunday (and frankly before), there have been flurries of articles and posts about one of, if not the most, anticipated regular season matchup in NFL history. Ticket prices are absolutely insane and there are as many opinions this homecoming as there are Dunkin Donuts in the greater Boston area. I’m taking simple approach and just looking at the top 5 things to watch for on Sunday night.

1. All-Time Passing Record

This is one of the biggest stories of the Tom Brady return to Foxboro. Brady is just 68 yards away from breaking Drew Brees‘ all-time passing yards record for a career with 80,258 and it will happen on Sunday night at the stadium where he threw the majority of those passes. Could you script a storyline any better than the reality? I don’t think so. The biggest question is how the Patriots and NFL will recognize this accomplishment that likely will never be broken again the way the game has evolved. When Peyton Manning broke the record in 2015 they game was halted to allow for players to congratulate him, there was a tribute played on the video board, and the ball was removed from play to head to the Hall of Fame in Canton. The biggest difference is that Manning was at home in Denver, but I’m still wondering what the moment will be like in front of fans who supported and loved Tom Brady for 2 decades.

Will everyone put aside the differences and give Brady the proper congratulations? Will the Pats allow for a video board tribute or some type of acknowledgment of the incredible accomplishment? If you are as interested as I am, it’s likely the record gets broken in the 1st half, probably the 1st quarter, so don’t grab a snack or take a bathroom break when the Bucs are on offense early in the game.

2. Defensive Struggles for Both Teams

For both teams, their defenses, and specifically their secondarys, have struggled at times early in the 2021 season. For the Bucs, they have allowed the 7th most 1st downs to opponents (71), the most passes completed to opponents by a lot (104), and the most yards (1,015). While part of that can be explained by their opponents, if they want to have a deep run in the postseason like last year and defend their title, the defense needs to improve. It was announced on Wednesday morning that CB Richard Sherman would sign with the Bucs which will help their weak secondary, but he won’t solve all of their problems. QB Mac Jones should be able to find some windows to throw into on Sunday and hopefully he can take advantage of the weaker secondary of the Bucs and show off in front of his predecessor.

The Pats on the other hand have to face the greatest QB of all-time in his homecoming on the night in which he will break the all-time passing yards record, which is a brutally difficult task for any defense. While the Pats stats on defense don’t look terrible on paper, that’s primarily because they have faced QBs Tua Tagovailoa, Zach Wilson, and Jameis Winston in their 3 match-ups thus far and sit at just 1-2 against them. Their opponents relied heavier on the run and the Pats weren’t always up for the task. Sunday night’s game will be an entirely different test for the secondary and there is a real risk of an absolute blowout with Brady throwing for 400+ yards. Can Bill Belichick disguise coverages and actually do anything to trick his former QB? He must in order to have a chance at winning this game.

3. Rob Gronkowski‘s Usage

One of the more interesting early-season NFL stories in 2021 is the return of Rob Gronkowski to an incredible form we haven’t seen in a long time. In just 3 games, he has 4 TDs, has caught 80% of passes thrown to him (16/20) and is averaging 9.2 yards per reception. He racked up a lot of those numbers in the first 2 games of the season (12/13) and is likely coming into Sunday night’s game looking to prove himself against his former employer. In 2020, his first year in Tampa, Gronk only caught 58.4% of balls thrown to him, which was a career low and while he played 16 games for the first time since 2011, his numbers were not particularly impressive. He clearly came into 2021 trying to prove he still has more to give the NFL.

When you pair Gronk’s early season success with a defense that occasionally has trouble covering TEs, especially when the WRs are as strong as the Bucs, and it could be tough to watch (unless you are a big Gronk fan). While Gronk is only 32, his track record makes me doubt he will be healthy for the entire season and will be able to sustain his blistering start, especially with a 17-game schedule, but you know he’s going to leave it all on the field this week and then probably take it easy through the middle of the schedule to be ready down the stretch and in the postseason. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 2 Gronk TD spikes this week at Gillette.

4. Post-Game Handshake

In no other area of the country does the post-game handshake get this much attention, but Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both infamous for ignoring the typical handshake protocol post-game. Depending on how this game unfolds could determine what the post-game interaction looks like between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if there is any. If Tom Brady absolutely smokes the Pats, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Belichick go straight to the locker room and the same might be true if Brady were to somehow lose. Belichick has been clear in his press conferences this week (as clear as BB ever is) about his desire to keep Brady with the Patriots before his departure, but according to his words “we weren’t as good an option as Tampa”.

With all the chirping from Tom Brady Sr. this week and the competitiveness of both player and coach, you just never know how they really feel about each other and if either will take the high-road and have a nice post-game interaction regardless of the game’s outcome. Despite it being a late Sunday night game, I’ll be glued to my TV for post-game.

5. Danger of a 1-3 Start

The Patriots come into Sunday’s match-up with a tough 1-2 record. Beyond all the Brady headlines and talk of the reunion, a 1-3 start for the Pats could put serious doubts in their ability to make the postseason. Since 1990, just 14.2% of teams beginning the season with a 1-3 record have made the postseason and the average finishing record for those teams is 6-10 with just 1 of the 218 teams winning the super bowl: the 2001 New England Patriots. This year will be a little different with the addition of a 17th game which could have an impact on those numbers, but it’s still not the place you want to be if you have aspirations of playing into mid-to-late January and early February.

A win would obviously be a tremendous accomplishment for this young QB, but I expect 1-3 is in their future. I don’t think this team is a super bowl contender regardless of a 1-3 or 2-2 start, but in the best of circumstances, a run into the postseason is always on the table in New England and the deeper the hole the team digs early on, the harder that will become.

Mac Jones With a Statement in Week 1

All eyes were on the 1st round QB on Sunday afternoon in New England. In his debut with the New England Patriots as QB1, the pressure of the entire northeast was on his shoulders and he put on a show. Although the Patriots lost 17-16, Mac Jones showed everyone that not only does he belong as a NFL starter, he has all the intangibles to stick around for a while. Perhaps the Patriots aren’t as far from being contenders as some believe.

Any time a QB goes 29/39 (74.4%) for 281 yards and a TD, its noteworthy. In New England the last nearly 2 decades it became commonplace and expected for the QB to have top performances week in and week out. Now for a rookie to put up those numbers in his debut in New England week 1 against a really tough Miami Dolphins team is beyond impressive.

The Pats were faced with a tight contest from start to finish and in order to have a chance at winning on Sunday, they needed to convert 3rd downs and keep the ball moving down the field. Mac did just that, completing 9 of 12 3rd down passes for 89 yards. He made smart, quick, confident decisions throughout the game with only one or two exceptions. When the team needed him the most in the 4th quarter down 1pt, Mac took the team down the field 41 yards on 9 plays to the 11-yard line before Damien Harris fumbled.

The 4th quarter drive will be remembered for the unfortunate Harris fumble, but my takeaway was the composure of Mac. He knew the situation and executed it perfectly. The Pats got the ball with 8:07 to play and after picking up a first down at the Miami 39 following a short run and 2 short passes to Jakobi Meyers, Jones went into clock-wasting mode without becoming stagnant. The Pats obviously still needed to score, but knowing that a field goal could potentially win the game, it was important to leave Miami with as little time left as possible. Over the next 6 plays, Jones took 3 minutes off the clock and still moved the team well inside the red zone.

I hate the comparison of young QBs to successful veterans in general, but that drive screamed classic Tom Brady. It never felt like Mac wasn’t in control or completely understanding and on top of the situation at hand. He calmly and confidently brought the Pats down the field and put them in a position to take the lead. It’s incredibly unfortunate, both for Harris and for the Pats, that we couldn’t see Mac finish that drive off in the end zone.


While you never want to lose, especially in such an anticipated divisional game week 1 at home, most of us, myself included, are feeling a lot more confident about the future of this team and franchise. It’s obviously SUPER early, but it says a lot about the character and composure of a player when you see them perform in their first ever professional game like Mac did on Sunday. The good news? The Patriots have an immediate opportunity for redemption when they play the Jets next week.

Top 5 Headlines for the New England Patriots as the Season Begins

It has definitely been an interesting offseason for the New England Patriots. Between a QB competition unlike anything we have seen in decades in Foxboro to the #1 defensive player in an odd holdout/injury situation, there has been plenty of storylines surrounding the New England Patriots. For those who aren’t following the daily comings and goings of the franchise like I do, let’s take a look at the major headlines and their potential impact in 2021 as the season kicks off this week.

1. Rookie QB Mac Jones Takes the Reins

Arguably the most talked about story this training camp and preseason was the QB competition. Incumbent Cam Newton appeared to have the edge right up until the 53-man roster was selected and he was released from the team. By all accounts, Mac Jones outperformed Cam both on and off the field this offseason, proving he was ready to lead the team despite being drafted just over 130 days ago in the 1st round of the 2021 draft. The University of Alabama QB has looked poised, calm, and confident in the limited preseason playing time we’ve seen from him and appears to have the support of the Patriots offense, which is incredibly important.

While Cam Newton provided the Pats with more offense on the ground, Mac Jones seems to have the stronger and more accurate arm. The largest difference between Mac and Cam based on my observation is decision-making. Mac has shown he can make a quick decision and get rid of the ball, unlike Cam who tends to hold on to it longer than maybe needed, leading to more scrambles and broken plays. Mac is just a rookie who will be starting his first game on Sunday, so expectations may be high, but should be tempered. He will make mistakes, but hopefully will continue to learn from them and should have a pretty high ceiling in this Pats system.

2. The Stephon Gilmore Saga

The Patriots top secondary talent, and maybe top overall defensive talent, Stephon Gilmore has had an eventful offseason off the field, but a silent one on the field. Here’s the high-level summary of the situation: Gilmore is unhappy with his $7 million per year contract because he is one of the best DBs in football, but isn’t being paid like it. He’s in the last year of his contract and started training camp in July by holding out, essentially just deciding not to show up until a deal was done. No deal was agreed to, so he appeared in Foxboro, but was immediately added to the PUP (physically unable to participate) list. A quad injury and surgery ended his 2020 season, but it’s unclear whether he is really still injured or just using it to continue to hold out.

Then, after not appearing with the team in any practices or games, Gilmore was placed on the PUP list to start the regular season, which means he will be out until at least week 7. Meanwhile, Gilmore is posting pictures on social media on vacation while the rest of the team is busting their butts in practice. The whole situation is a complete mess and was botched by the Patriots. Gilmore is an elite talent and I would guess the entire holdout situation could have been avoided with a small pay raise and perhaps a year or two extension, something that is definitely within the ability of the Patriots to complete.

The impact on the defense will be significant, because the absence of Gilmore pushes every other DB up on the depth chart and that chart gets thin rather quickly without him. This weird game of chicken could seriously hurt the Patriots this season. At this point, there is a real possibility that Gilmore will never wear the Patriots uniform in-game again, which would be a huge shame and massively disappointing.

3. The Four-Headed Running Back Depth

One of the few position groups that had a surprisingly huge spring and summer was the running back group. The 3rd year back out of, you guessed it, the University of Alabama Damien Harris came into camp as the clear #1 who should get the majority of the snaps. Entering training camp, there was a group of guys, Sony Michel, J.J. Taylor, James White, and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson all fighting for the other running back spots on the roster. After being the lead back in 2018 and 2019, Michel appeared to be on the outs with the coaching staff and in fact was traded to the Los Angeles Rams toward the end of the preseason to make room for the other guys.

While Harris maintained his grip on RB1, Taylor and Stevenson shined in the preseason and both showed the tremendous value they can bring to this team as both change-of-pace backs, but also as subs in case of injury. Taylor is tiny, by football standards, listed at 5’6″ and 185lbs. His small size makes him difficult to find behind the massive offensive linemen and his quickness is a huge asset as well as his special teams ability. He’ll probably see significant time in the return game throughout the season. Stevenson is in stark contrast to Taylor listed at 6′ and 227lbs, he has breakaway speed, but is also a tough, physical back. He did dislocate his thumb in practice this week, but could still play in week 1. They will likely not play Stevenson as much, giving him some opportunities, but barring injuries, I think they’ll take it easier with him to start the season.

White is an interesting back who has been around for awhile. He’s essentially more of a WR coming out of the back field, so will probably get some 3rd down touches and see more action in the passing game. Some weeks he’ll play like an RB2 and other weeks more like RB4 depending on the game plan for the week. They also have a Bill Belichick favorite in Brandon Bolden on the roster. He’s another guy who will likely have an impact on special teams, which is a huge plus in Belichick’s book. I imagine he will see the rare running back reps, but frankly hope they are limited given the other 4 talented players in that position.

4. The Pass-Rush Improvement

For anyone who has been an ardent supporter of the Patriots, there was a clear lack of pass-rush on last year’s team. There are several reasons, one of the biggest being the opt-out of Dont’a Hightower last season due to COVID, but also because the team lacked the overall personnel on the front 7 to get pressure on the QB. The Patriots addressed this issue in a big way this offseason, drafting DT Christian Barmore in the 2nd round this year out of, your guessed it, the University of Alabama. He has come in and looked really strong stuffing the run and getting pressure on the opposing QB. Alongside Barmore, Belichick signed 6’3″, 311lbs DT Davon Godchaux to stuff the middle and get pressure. As good as Barmore is, he’s likely 3rd best DT behind Lawrence Guy and Godchaux, which is a great place to be as a Pats fan.

On the outside, maybe the most important free agent signing this offseason was LB Matt Judon. The former Raven is a pass-rushing LB who can single-handedly disrupt the opponents offense. He’s big, athletic, and has already shown his ability get to the QB with regularity this preseason. Add back in Dont’a Hightower and the return of former Pats LB Kyle Van Noy, and that’s a pretty impressive rotation. On the end, the team returns LE Deatrich Wise Jr. and new addition RE Henry Anderson to complete the powerful front line. Opponents should have some trouble running against this front line and the opposing QB should taste some dirt, which is important given the secondary question marks.

5. Improved Receiving Options

One of the most glaring issues in 2020 was the lack of receiving options. WR N’Keal Harry didn’t step up the way the team had hoped and they were left with basically WR Jakobi Meyers as the main option for Cam Newton. The TE group was even more suspect, with no one being able to stay on the field or produce when healthy. This offseason, the Patriots clearly made that a priority and signed the 2 best TEs on the market, Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry. Both are legit #1 options if healthy, but both have has some injury issues in the past and in training camp/preseason. Smith has been on the field more regularly, but if they both can be healthy and play at the same time, it’s trouble for opposing defenses.

In the WR core, the Pats added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne, who are nice depth pieces. They are looking at Agholor to play a bigger role that perhaps I would, but if the TEs are healthy, there are solid options across the field. Add in the pass-catching ability of James White and hopefully Damien Harris and it leads to a ton of 5-10 yard passes for Mac Jones in his rookie season. N’Keal Harry went down with an injury late in the preseason that landed him on IR, which means he won’t be able to return until at least week 4, but he could be a contributor once he returns. Overall, this group has definitely improved, although many fans will argue Belichick didn’t do enough in this area this offseason.

The Mac Jones Era Begins in New England

There are usually some surprises on cut-down day when every NFL team needs to trim their rosters significantly down to a 53-man roster. Rarely are the significant surprises coming out of the New England Patriots camp, but today was a clear exception. After an entire preseason with QB Cam Newton being positioned as the starter and starting all 3 preseason games, Bill threw us all a curveball. Around 10am this morning the news came down that Cam Newton had been released by the New England Patriots, clearly paving the way for the Mac Jones era to begin. There is no better way for Bill Belichick to make a statement about his confidence in Mac Jones as QB1 than to cut his competition.

Its incredibly uncommon for Bill to trust a rookie at a major position, especially QB. On top of the fact that QB is one of the most pivotal positions on the field, it was also a shortened preseason this year with one less game to evaluate players. All the reports out of Patriots camp were that teammates liked Mac and were impressed by him on and off the field, but there is always a lot of fluff talk before the season starts and it’s hard to know what to really believe. As it turns out, Bill really did feel that way and was clearly impressed by the young QB in order to hand the reigns to him before his first NFL game.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, and as recently as yesterday, Mac Jones should be QB1. What no one expected was Bill making that decision. The most common word used this morning amongst those in the know in Foxboro was “shocked”. While some felt Bill would bench Cam and start Mac to start the season, most still believed, me included, that Bill would begin the season with Cam and depending on results move on to Mac later in the season. I don’t think there was a single person who could have predicted Cam Newton would be released this morning and not even make the 53-man roster.

Now that the shock is beginning to wear off, it’s time to focus our attention on the rookie QB and his debut September 12th. This is his team now and he should feel empowered to be smart and play his game. He doesn’t have to look over his shoulder and wonder if one mistake will see him on the bench. The coaching staff is not going to ask him to throw for 400 yards every week and score 6 TDs, but they need him to be a smart game manager, limit the mistakes, take advantage of opportunities for a big play, and play with confidence. The defense is weaker without CB Stephon Gilmore for the first 6 weeks, so they will likely need at least 3 scores each week to have a chance to win.

If he can complete short passes and move the chains through the air, it will open up the potent running game for the Pats and in turn, reduce the pressure on Mac. The offense is poised to be really solid as currently constituted without Mac throwing deep bombs and trying to force too many throws. If he continues his calm, cool confidence from the preseason, this could be a fun team to watch this season.

Mac Jones Should Be QB1

All of New England had curious eyes on this preseason. We were glued to practices and preseason games that don’t count more intently than any in recent memory. Everyone wanted to get a look at the potential QB of the future, Mac Jones. The hype was (is) significant with daily reports on practice reps and completion percentage and even detailed analysis on each incompletion and why it was, or was not, a good throw. For a fan base desperate for a QB who can return the franchise to championship caliber, this preseason was everything and Mac Jones delivered. He did everything he could, and should, to earn the QB1 roster spot.

I’m not shy with my criticism of QB Cam Newton and his clear flaws and issues. To me, he’s done nothing to earn the QB1 spot other than have some unexplainable loyalty from Bill Belichick. The talk all preseason was that it was Cam’s job to lose, and in my opinion, he lost the job. Mac Jones was clearly the better and more effective QB all preseason, and looked confident and effective with his decision making. On multiple occasions Mac drove the team down the field behind a backup offensive line and throwing to 4th, 5th, and 6th options at receiver and did so as if it were the first teamers. He made clear, quick, smart decisions, which was in dramatic contrast to Cam.

The thing that frustrates me the most about Cam and impressed me the most about Mac was the quick decision making. Last year, Cam ran the ball a lot. It was partially because his receiving core was weak and mostly because he took an eternity to make a decision on when and where to throw the ball. When you take a long time to make a decision, offensive lineman can’t hold their blocks and windows to hit receivers close. With Mac under center, the team looked quicker and more confident. Will that result in some mistakes and some quick throws in the ground? Absolutely, but it will also result in more 5-10 yard hits down the field and moving the chains more regularly.

My biggest argument for Mac as the starter week 1 is simple. Why not? If as an organization you believe he is the future and he’s shown you that he is more than capable to win games now, why hand the ball to Cam Newton who is on the back end of his career and has no long-term future in New England? What does it prove to have him sit on the bench behind Cam? To me it’s a no-brainer decision to hand him the reigns of the team and see what he is really capable of doing. It won’t be perfect and there will be mistakes, but do you really think he’ll make more mistakes than an aging Cam Newton?

Now is the time. Week 1 vs the Dolphins at Gillette Stadium should be Mac’s first career NFL start for the New England Patriots. Unfortunately, I think Bill Belichick has other ideas.