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TMF: When The League Let Mac Jones Land In New England, Everything Changed For The Patriots; Plus: Contenders, Pretenders, More From Week 12.
The Patriots are contenders again, and everything changed when the league allowed Mac Jones to fall to New England back in April's NFL Draft. Plus: Contenders, Pretenders, and more from Week 12.
The New England Patriots keep on winning with their sixth-straight victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday at Gillette Stadium. In a game that was actually much closer than the 36-13 score would indicate, Bill Belichick’s team ran away with the win in the second half by rattling off 20 unanswered points over the Titans.
The Patriots defense had its fair share of hiccups, to be fair. New England’s defense yielded 270 rushing yards to the Titans, who were without their MVP running back Derrick Henry. The Titans averaged 6.9 yards per carry and had not one, but two 100-yard rushers on Sunday. Yet, regardless of how well Tennessee ran the ball, New England’s defense managed to settle down as the game wore on – forcing four turnovers from Ryan Tannehill and the Titans offense.
Offensively, New England pieced together long drives down field consistently enough to see early success. Rookie quarterback Mac Jones impressed in his second career 300-yard passing game, which was key since Tennessee seemed dead set on shutting down New England’s ground game.
TMF HEADLINE: The Patriots are contenders again, and it all started when the league allowed Mac Jones to land in New England.
Back on October 17th, the Patriots were 2-3 entering an important game against Dak Prescott and the Dallas Cowboys. And in yet another hard-fought game, New England would fall to Dallas in overtime after Prescott connected with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb for a 35-yard game winning touchdown in overtime.
Now with a 2-4 record, Bill Belichick’s team faced a harsh reality: The Patriots were in a hole that only they could dig themselves out of.
Six games later, everything has changed. New England has not only dug themselves out of a 2-4 hole to save their season, but they’ve also rattled off six straight wins to place themselves in position to compete for an AFC East title – maybe even more.
While not all showings in their six-straight victories have been perfect, the Patriots have still found ways to dominate good teams more often than not. New England has outscored their opponent by 148 points (211-63) over the last six games. In Weeks 7 and 10, they outgained opponents by more than 200 yards, winning by 41, 38 points.
“Good all-around effort; left some plays out there, certainly some things we can do better, but we’ll take it,” Belichick said after a 36-13 win over the Titans.
Translation: We’re on to Buffalo.
All this leads us to one simple question: What changed with this Patriots team?
The popular theory is some type of switch got flipped, and Belichick’s brilliant coaching mind turned a 2-4 team fighting for a hopeful wildcard spot, into an 8-4 team in position to make some real noise in the AFC. We’ve all seen it over the past two decades – the Patriots often start slow and get better as the season progresses forward. That trend was frequently evident when Tom Brady was winning Super Bowls titles and MVP awards in New England. And in the 2021 season, the second without Brady, the ever-improving Patriots are still kicking the bags toward another deep playoff run.
But this season is a little different, right? Last season we witnessed an old, slow Patriots team miss the playoffs for the first time in over a decade with a 7-9 record. And in that same season, the world watched on as Tom Brady led his new team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to a Super Bowl victory over Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. Agonizing for Patriots fans everywhere.
But not for Bill Belichick.
In the offseason, Belichick essentially altered his general philosophy and approach towards free agency by spending more guaranteed money than he ever has. The signings of tight ends Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry, pass rusher Matt Judon, amongst others, earned vast exhilaration among New England fans. And the national media jumped back on the Belichick-led Patriots train.
The offseason to remember in New England didn’t end with free agency, however. It had only just begun.
We all remember the night of April 29th, 2021. For fans of all 32 NFL teams, the night of the NFL Draft is a night of pure excitement and intrigue as we watch on in great anticipation for your favorite team’s next franchise-altering player, or players. As the clock ticked, and ticked, and Mac Jones slid past one team, and another, the story became vibrant: Mac Jones is about to fall right in the lap of Belichick and the Patriots.
And he sure did.
How the league allowed it to happen is something we could find ourselves writing about for several years to come. Why the Carolina Panthers elected to pass on not just Mac Jones, but also Justin Fields, is a question already worthy of asking. Why the Atlanta Falcons were convinced that selecting a generational talent at the tight end position in Kyle Pitts, was the right move given the recent play and age of their current quarterback, Matt Ryan, is yet another one we may look back on very soon.
Oh, and let’s not forget the other notable players Belichick and the Patriots selected later in the draft. The disruptive defensive lineman Christian Barmore has played tremendously his rookie season – in fact, so well that he’s even earned praise from his coach and teammates. And running back Rhamondre Stevenson has provided New England’s ground game with a powerful one-two-punch alongside Damien Harris.
Today, twelve weeks into the season, Mac Jones, the rookie quarterback who’s positioned himself not far behind Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase in the Rookie of the Year race, has looked the part in New England. Maybe even better than advertised, too.
While you may not want to hear it, but there’s a calm feeling of Déjà vu brewing in New England.
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LEAD TAKEAWAYS FROM WEEK 12
How New England Changed Their Season
Even in a season in which Mac Jones has looked incredibly poised running the Patriots offense, the turnaround in New England isn’t solely on their rookie quarterback. It’s a cliché, but in this case it’s completely true.
Bill Belichick has constructed a harmonious team. A team suited to play complimentary football at all levels. A team made up of players willing to buy in to the ‘Do Your Job’ mantra.
More importantly, a team that believes in one another.
Throughout NFL history, we’ve witnessed a lot of great football teams go on a run. Some were superbly talented who finally managed to piece things together when it counted the most. While others were perhaps not as talented as other teams; but had the chemistry and competitive mindset to overcome the hurdles as one unit – and defy some of adversity thrown their way.
Sure, some of the offseason moves Belichick and the Patriots made this offseason haven’t looked fantastic through 12 weeks. Nelson Agholor is probably a bit overpaid given his production and role in the offense. Jonnu Smith has yet to produce at the level expected of him given his status as one of the top paid tight ends in the league.
Regardless of the good moves, and the bad ones, it’s becoming evident that each player in that locker room has bought into what their individual role on this team is. Of course, it changes each and every week, and we have yet to hear Smith or Agholor mention a word about targets or snaps. Not to mention playing in a complex Patriots offensive scheme that even had elite receivers like Chad Johnson perplexed, failing to match the same production. The Patriots are playing smart, sound football at all levels on the field.
On ESPN’s Get Up, Dan Orlovsky had an insightful breakdown on just how smart the Patriots have played as of late:
New England changed their season by simply being true to who they are, and what they do best. And the players, both new to the team as well as the veterans, have all bought into that mindset.
Monday night’s divisional matchup with the Buffalo Bills will be a big one.
Contender or Pretender?
Green Bay Packers (9-3): Contender
The Packers may be the most complete team in the NFC, especially given the fact that they’re still playing without two of their best players on the defensive side of the ball – Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander. If Aaron Rodgers and this offensive unit can stay hot and land the top seed in the NFC, I wouldn’t bet on them losing at Lambeau come January.
Arizona Cardinals (9-2): Contender
Kliff Kingsbury may end up winning Coach of the Year, and that’s certainly not all on the talent he’s coaching. The Cardinals have been without their star quarterback Kyler Murray for the past three games, and yet still managed to go 2-1 in that span with Colt McCoy lining up behind center. If Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins can return, and stay healthy, this team is more than capable of making a deep run. Playoff seeding is something to watch down the stretch, however.
Kansas City Chiefs (7-4): Contender
Things haven’t always been smooth for the Chiefs this season, but if we’re going to roll the dice on one team making a run and winning it all this season, it’ll certainly be the team with Patrick Mahomes leading the way. Kansas City’s defense has looked vastly improved over the past few weeks. So if Andy Reid can work his magic and continue elevating this offense, don’t count out Mahomes doing his thing when it matters most.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-3): Contender
Tom Brady. That’s all we need to know when discussing this Buccaneers team. Regardless of how the 2021 season ends for Tampa Bay, it’s quite literally impossible to bet against the greatest quarterback in the history of the sport.
Tennessee Titans (8-4): Pretender
No team has suffered more injury woes on the offensive side of the ball than the Titans have through 12 weeks. Without Derrick Henry, A.J. Brown and Julio Jones, the Titans have struggled mightily in games that have mattered. Tennessee is a tough team who will fight through the last whistle, but if they don’t start to see some of their best players return from injury, and soon, they’re in big trouble.
Baltimore Ravens (8-3): Pretender
Hear me out on this one for a brief second. The panic meter shouldn’t be at a 10 quite yet because Lamar Jackson can, and will, still win you football games you simply shouldn’t win. However, that hasn’t been the case as much this season. Baltimore has a lot to improve on if they want to contend in beating other AFC contenders like New England and Kansas City, come January.
Dallas Cowboys (7-4): Pretender
Dallas has lost three of the last four, and the concerning part here is that the defense looks to have regressed from the positive progression the unit displayed at the start of the season. Similar to Baltimore, and perhaps Buffalo, the quarterback leading the offense may be the key to unlocking the magic for the Cowboys. But the list of weaknesses that Dak Prescott has to overcome is growing larger in Dallas.
Los Angeles Rams (7-4): Pretender
Painful to write considering I picked the Rams to make the Super Bowl. While I’m not completely writing them off, the play on the field hasn’t looked like the play of a true Super Bowl threat type of team. Matt Stafford needs to play much better, and Sean McVay has to find new and creative ways to get this offense rolling, especially if the defense isn’t going to be the shut down unit we thought it could be. At the end of the day, this Rams unit is too talented to play this poorly. Yet, questions remain on how quickly they can improve down the stretch.
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TEN THINGS FROM THE WEEK
If the Ravens are banking on Lamar Jackson playing at an MVP level in order to make any noise this season, they may be sadly let down yet again. Jackson looked shaky in the Ravens squeaky 16-10 win over the Browns. And the questionable performances by Jackson and the Baltimore offense have begun adding up. Comparable to what we’ve seen in Buffalo, one quarterback, as great or elite as you may believe him to be, cannot single handedly win all seventeen games in a long season. Even in winning outcomes, the Ravens offense has looked stale and predictable the past few weeks. If a deep run is expected in Baltimore, things need to be much better on offense.
Baker Mayfield can’t seem to escape criticism from the public, or his teammates’ parents. Following the Browns putrid 16-10 loss that featured Cleveland’s defense intercepting Ravens’ quarterback Lamar Jackson a whopping four times, Kareem Hunt’s father takes a shot at Baker Mayfield.
"Now I'm getting people on my Facebook saying I'm being like OBJ's daddy, and I'm not," said Kareem Hunt Sr. on his Facebook page, via Brad Stainbrook of 247Sports. "I'm stating facts on football and what we see, he's limping, he's (Mayfield) scared to throw the ball and they know he's hurt. [They're] going to keep listening but, if people don't like what I'm saying, unfriend me. I'm not jeopardizing nothing. I got a right to speak. I ain't posting no videos. Have a good day. Go Browns, hopefully."
Whether he’s playing hurt or not, the clock is ticking for Baker Mayfield’s time in Cleveland. If the Browns can’t turn things around in the next few weeks, things could get a little muddy in Cleveland.
If you picked the Los Angeles Rams to come out of the NFC and make the Super Bowl, you’re probably a little nervous. And yes, if you’re a regular reader of my Tuesday Morning Football column then you know that I am one of those people. Sean McVay has a lot of work to do if the Rams want to turn things around.
The Denver Broncos’ decision to draft Patrick Surtain II over Justin Fields or Mac Jones will be questioned as long as Fields and Jones continue their positive development, and the Broncos don’t find an answer at the quarterback position. But one thing that won’t be argued, at least not any time soon, is that Surtain is pretty darn good. The rookie cornerback had two key interceptions, one in the end zone and another that bounced off Austin Ekeler’s hands that Surtain caught and returned for a touchdown to help seal a 28-13 Denver win over the Chargers.
Back when the Jaguars cut Leonard Fournette, he stated that one of the first calls he received was from Tom Brady. Fournette ended up in Tampa Bay with the help, and belief, of Brady. And it’s worked out rather nicely for both guys thus far. With a career-high four rushing touchdowns, Fournette helped the Buccaneers pick up an important win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.
Kirk Cousins had a chance to lead his team to a needed victory on Sunday. But something we’ve seen on far too many occasions in Minnesota, he simply couldn’t get it done. Cousins has received his fair share of criticism since signing with the Vikings, but the results are still not what the team, or fans, expected. The mistakes are building and it’ll be interesting to see how things play out in Minnesota if they fail to make the playoffs this season.
Cam Newton looked awful in Carolina’s 33-10 loss to the Miami Dolphins. To make matters worse, the Panthers announced on Monday that running back Christian McCaffrey will be placed back on IR and miss the remainder of the season. The present, and future, is now an unknown in Carolina. And until they find their guy at quarterback, the outlook may not change a whole lot.
If it’s truly ‘The Last Dance’ for Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, it’s shaping up to be a fun one. In a loaded yet questionable NFC, the Packers may just be the team best suited to make a deep run come playoff time. And given the history here, let’s not be surprised if we end up watching another Brady vs. Rodgers NFC Championship game.
If the Giants fire GM David Gettleman after the season, Joe Judge should either go with him or at the very least, be on supremely thin ice to begin the 2022 season. Judge may not have had his fair shot in New York, but the lack of progress ultimately falls on the head coach in that league.
Where will Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson play in 2022? The spotlight was almost solely on Aaron Rodgers this past offseason, but given the 2022 NFL draft quarterback class – Wilson and Watson could find new suiters after the season concludes.
ASK ME ANYTHING FROM THE WEEK
–Are you or Matt hearing anything on the Panthers potential interest in pursuing Russell Wilson this offseason?
I can’t speak for Matt, but I certainly haven’t. I do know that David Tepper is absolutely dead set on getting a star quarterback in Charlotte. If they’re unable to land Deshaun Watson, you could assume they’d be in on Russell Wilson too.
–Who would you hire as head coach if you’re the Bears GM?
Interesting question. I’d definitely interview Byron Leftwich, Josh McDaniels and Brian Daboll. I’d hire the guy I felt confident in developing Justin Fields and building a team suitied around his untapped potential.
–You tweeted out about a podcast a month back, any word or update?
CLOSING THOUGHTS: QUOTE OF THE WEEK
The Bengals moved to 7-4 on the season after dominating the Steelers in a 41-10 win on Sunday. After the game, Joe Burrow was asked if there was any significance for beating their division-rival Steelers twice in a season. His answer was fantastic on numerous levels:
“We have higher aspirations than beating the Steelers right now,"
That is precisely what you love to hear from your young franchise quarterback. Be pumped, Cincinnati fans.
Entering the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a 65-35 record over their division-rival Cincinnati Bengals – a solid 64.4 winning percentage. The Bengals-Steelers division rivalry has been second-most lopsided rivalry since 1970. Pittsburgh has swept the season series with Cincinnati 22 times – including a four-year stretch from 2016 to 2019 when Cincinnati didn’t win a single game in that span. In the past 30 seasons, Cincinnati has only swept the season series with Pittsburgh twice (1998 and 2009.)
Even with all of those numbers, and history behind the two teams – none of it matters to Burrow. And that’s precisely why he’s exceedingly easy to root for.
So again, Bengals fans, be pumped about your team.
Be encouraged for the future, because Joe Burrow is that dude.