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Why the Patriots are the NFL’s Most Unpredictable Contender

Bryan takes a look at the Patriots’ off-season moves, and whether they’ll be enough to compete in a stacked AFC.

Bryan takes a look at the Patriots' off-season moves, and whether they'll be enough to compete in a stacked AFC.

When thinking of the most bland, consistent monolith in sports, it’s hard to think of anyone else but the Patriots. Since the turn of the century, Bill Belichick has put out juggernaut after juggernaut, so much so that anything under 12 wins is disappointing. However, nothing about New England’s current decision making, roster construction or game plan is typical in today’s NFL. The Patriots have become an outlier, and it’s made them a pain for prognosticators.

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The Start of the Post-Tom Brady Era

Since Tom Brady left for Tampa Bay two years ago, the results have been mixed in Foxboro. A subpar 7-9 record in 2020 gave way to an improved 10-7 mark last year, leading the team back to the postseason. The fun stopped there, as the Pats were trampled 47-17 by division rival Buffalo in the Wild-card Round. The key to their success was the offense, which went from the game’s sixth-worst in terms of yards per game to its sixth-best in just one year. 

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The arrival of rookie quarterback Mac Jones, taken in the first round of the 2021 draft, was a needed move to solidify the franchise’s future. Jones’ first-year statistics (3,801 yards and 22 touchdowns) were good enough to earn him second in offensive rookie of the year voting, but do they make him a future Pro Bowler? It’s hard to say. Jones’ QBR of 50.9 is about average, and there were games where Belichick barely let him touch the football thanks to a high-caliber running game. Sophomore slumps, once teams have more film of a player in the NFL, are not uncommon for quarterbacks. New England should rely more on Jones this year to win games, but it’s no guarantee that he’s an elite option for 2021, even if his future looks promising. 

The Patriots, buoyed by their rushing attack, know better than anybody that such a style has its limits. In their postseason loss, the Bills neutralized Bellichick’s preference for the ground game (89 total rushing yards) and forced Jones to try and win the game with his arm. The results were disastrous, and New England’s season was over by halftime. The big question heading into the offseason was how the Pats would improve their passing attack. Five months later, it’s hard to say they’ve gotten much better. 

A Step Back in 2022?

New England made an effort to get more talent at wide receiver, trading for DeVante Parker from the Dolphins and drafting Tyquan Thornton in the second round of the draft. However, their offensive line got noticeably worse with the departures of center Ted Karras (signed with the Bengals) and guard Shaq Mason (traded to the Buccaneers). Rookie first-rounder Cole Strange should help, but he was widely considered to be a Day 2 talent, so expecting anything close to Mason or Karras, two Pro-Bowl caliber players, is wishful thinking. Tackles Isaiah Wynn and Trent Brown are quality options, so the line is still good enough to power the offense, but it’s hard to deny that it got worse.

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With so much personnel reshuffling, it doesn’t help that longtime offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is now the head coach of the Raiders. Instead of naming a new OC, Bellichick has opted for a committee approach, sharing the role between himself and former coordinators Matt Patricia and Joe Judge. The two had fairly disastrous tenures as head coaches in Detroit and New York, but the more concerning issue is that neither has served as an offensive coordinator in the NFL. Additionally, Daniels got New England’s offensive line coach, wide receivers coach and assistant quarterbacks coach to come with him to Las Vegas. With a young quarterback, consistency is crucial. Bellichick will forget more football than 99% of coaches will ever learn, but he is a defensive-minded coach at heart. It’s difficult to see the Pats’ coaching trio scheming up a modern, high-powered offense that can go toe-to-toe with the likes of Buffalo and Kansas City. 

The Patriots defense was, and should remain, a top ten unit, but they are facing some uncertainty. The most notable difference this year is the absence of star cornerback J.C. Jackson, who signed a five-year deal with the Chargers this offseason. The secondary is still good, but it’s mainly because of a talented safety group that added Jabrill Peppers in free agency. The situation at cornerback is less promising, with the journeyman duo of Terrance Mitchell and Jalen Mills projected to start, backed up by rookie Marcus Jones and Super Bowl 52 savior Malcolm Butler. Similarly to the offensive line, the secondary will once again be solid, but is it better? Doubtful.

The Bottom Line

It’s a foolish task to count out the Patriots. They’ve shown a knack for extracting talent from just about anyone, and we’re sure to see an unexpected role player blossom into a major contributor. Still, it’s only fair to raise an eyebrow to New England’s offseason, as the days of Tom Brady covering up holes across the roster are gone. To support Mac Jones, New England needs a more complete offensive attack and a game plan that elevates him as a passer, rather than another season of runs up the gut. Nothing Patricia or Judge have done as head coaches suggests an innovative offense is on its way, and losing two starting linemen hurts the offense’s talent level and chemistry. Defensively, there’s enough here to keep games close, but losing the player responsible for 35% of the team’s total interceptions reduces the Pats’ ability to force turnovers. Even special teams might take a hit without Pro Bowler Gunner Olszewski.

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However this season turns out, the Patriots will have plenty of attention. Opposing fans might fear the birth of a new dynasty due to Jones’ potential, but the AFC has only gotten stronger. Denver and Las Vegas boosted their offenses while divisional foes like the Jets and Dolphins made major upgrades. That doesn’t mean the Patriots are worse than other wildcard contenders on paper, but it does make obtaining double-digit wins a more difficult task. If anyone can navigate the treacherous road back to the playoffs, it’s Bill Belichick, but New England has plenty of work to do if it wants to reclaim its status as one of the NFL’s elite.