One of the major narratives flying around the NFL as we roll into Week 11 surrounds the Patriots. They’re back, they’re legit, they’re genuine Super Bowl contenders.
In an era where reputations are made, or destroyed, at breakneck pace, this may seem like a surprise given that just a few weeks ago, at 2-4 after a defeat to the freewheeling Dallas Cowboys, many had written them off. Few considered them as playoff material, let alone anything more ambitious.
Listeners to my podcast will know how much I rally against the knee jerk, impulse overreaction rife in sports these days. This season, it feels that the NFL in particular is thumbing its nose at those who fly into an unequivocal position based on a tiny sample size, with such crazy variation in results seemingly interchanging previously held positions on an almost daily basis.
The Chiefs suck! *Smash cut* The Chiefs are back!
After three weeks of the season: Player X is looking like an MVP!
24 hours later: Player X sucks!
As such, the run that New England has put together — four straight wins to place them firmly in the divisional race with the Buffalo Bills and into the postseason frame — is not as unequivocally positive as some suggest, nor is it without merit. Like most who follow a game, whether fans or media, I get plenty wrong, but I’ve been suspecting for a while that the Patriots would come good this season (if you don’t believe, check out my earlier columns for Squawka, where you’ll pick up all my dud calls too!).
|Patriots to win the Super Bowl|
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|25/1 with Betfair (Desktop)|
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And whilst I was cautious not to write them off so early in the season, I’m not piling on the bandwagon that is anointing them possible champions either. Like many in the league this season — and this is something that has contributed to their much-improved position — the Patriots have an intriguing mix of great potential and fundamental flaws, and find themselves at a critical juncture, where it’s entirely conceivable that they could roll either way.
They haven’t faced a particularly tough schedule for starters. Those four successive wins included the struggling Jets and Panthers, the fading Chargers and the Browns, the strongest of the bunch, but missing some key pieces, most notably Nick Chubb. Although Pats apologists would argue ‘What’s new?’ — all teams have to contend with injury during a season.
The Browns game was hugely significant, not only because of the scoreline, but also the manner of victory, in particular the way the New England offense gelled, and specifically how expansive their rookie quarterback Mac Jones looked.
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During the four-game winning run, before the Cleveland game, Jones had been indifferent at best, leaning on his ground game and the Patriots’ impressive defensive to keep things attritional. It represented an unreconstructed, retro-leaning approach to life in the current NFL. Amidst all the wild, freewheeling offensive trickery, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels had built a team from 2004. Hard running, even tougher defense shaped the identity. In the 24-6 win over Carolina, Jones attempted just 18 passes (139 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), with his leading out and out receiver Kendrick Bourne taking just three carries for 34 yards. The win the previous week against the Chargers was more ambitious in terms of the passing game, but not much more effective, Jones completing just over half of his 35 attempts, 217 Yards, no TDs.
But in the Browns win, things were changed up, and this Patriots offense flashed brightly, flexing as if to say to the rest of these upstart ultra-dynamic rivals: Meh. We can roll this kind of stuff out if we want to.
The ground game was still pivotal — rookie Rhamondre Stevenson the star of the show, filling his boots with 100 yards on the ground (and 2 TDs) plus four catches out of the backfield. But Jones’s performance represented a marked step up, showing range and variety. With the game poised keenly at 14-7, Jones delivered a graceful, on-a-dime throw over Jakobi Meyers’ left shoulder, and followed up with a fastball to Kendrick Bourne for a TD. He was composed and confident, and the Patriots offense hummed.
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Interestingly, much like a parent or teacher who rarely raises their voice (so when they do, the effect is poignant) the Pats may well revert to type for a while, with McDaniels flexing these plays sparingly and bringing them out when he wants. They are the masters of situation ball, but what this performance enables is confidence that Jones can execute.
Even more impressive is the range of targets he has to work with. Hunter Henry is having a terrific season, but compare Kendrick Bourne, Nelson Agholor, and Meyers to other receiving corps in the league. This is not the Kupp/Woods/Beckham trifecta Matthew Stafford has or the riches that Tom Brady has in Tampa Bay with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Gronk (the latter two still out but expected back soon). This is the New England way of course. Rarely did Brady have a Randy Moss-level receiver during his two decades of dominance. But therein lies the point. Jones has got a fair way to go to get close to the GOAT, but his ability to work in the McDaniels system, with a solid if mainly unremarkable cast around him, suggests the Patriots may have found their guy to build around for years to come.
Cards — not the Arizona variety — have fallen the Patriots’ way, with Buffalo’s stumbling opening up the AFC East. What at first appeared to be a cakewalk for the best team in the conference, is now at least a fair fight that will likely go into the final rounds of the regular season. New England are just one game back now, the teams play each other twice.
Defensively, Belichick has rebooted a new iteration of a similar story. A top five defense once again (via Football Outsiders DVOA), old stagers Kyle Van Noy (returning from Miami) and Dont’a Hightower shape the direction on the field, with new signing Matthew Judon excelling. The decision to let star CB Stephon Gilmore walk was prototypically Belichikian — selling high, much as he did all those years ago with Lawyer Milloy — and, as usual with Patriots defenses under the great coach, there’s a sense that the unit is getting stronger and stronger as the season goes on.
Given the bottleneck of teams, particularly in the AFC, that are in the mix without clearly excelling, the Patriots have a viable chance of a deep run. Whilst the idea of another Patriots Super Bowl appearance may deflate those hardy souls who long for change, it may just represent the most impressive coaching season of all from Belichick. But as expressed earlier, there’s a long way to go, and I suspect he’s the coach least likely to be thinking of anything other than the Falcons on TNF. And such is the NFL this season, by the time you read this, the talking heads may be telling you it’s all over for them, if they lose to Matt Ryan and Co. Which won’t be true either of course, however loudly they shout!
Nat Coombs is a British writer, broadcaster and NFL expert who has been anchoring live sport across UK TV & radio for over ten years. Nat will be providing Squawka with predictions for the 2021 NFL season.