Rookie Mac Jones’ consistent form at quarterback and a terrifying defence bang in form has Patriots fans believing once again, for the first time since Tom Brady left
Just six weeks ago, there seemed to be very little hope when it came to the New England Patriots ‘ playoff chances.
CeeDee Lamb’s overtime touchdown saw the Dallas Cowboys condemn them to defeat on their own turf and give Bill Belichick the feeling that his worst fears were coming true.
That was his side’s third defeat in four, having also fallen to the New Orleans Saints – whose performances and results have gone off a cliff in recent times – and a Tampa Bay Buccaneers team led by the Pats’ favourite son Tom Brady.
That their only victory in that spell was a worryingly narrow one over the Houston Texans, who have been nigh-on hopeless this season, is possibly the biggest indictment of their performances at that time.
But something has clicked since then. All of a sudden, the Patriots are on a six-game winning streak – the longest in the NFL – and are looking more and more like Superbowl contenders with each passing week.
After smashing the New York Jets, it was Belichick’s defence which set the tone for their next three victories. Just 13 points were conceded across wins over the Carolina Panthers, the Cleveland Browns and the Atlanta Falcons.
But it was when they made relatively light work of a decent Tennessee Titans team on Thanksgiving weekend that Pats fans were really daring to dream. Perhaps this incredible dynasty is not over just yet.
It was another monstrous defensive performance, which laid the groundwork for that win last time out in Foxborough. Four turnovers, three in the second half, sucked the confidence out of the Titans’ offence and boosted their differential to +14 turnovers in the last six games.
“See ball, get ball,” cornerback and man of the moment J.C. Jackson explained after the win. Touché.
Of course, when it comes to the Patriots, the main spotlight is always going to be on the man throwing the ball. You can’t come in after Tom Brady and expect to have an easy ride.
Belichick learned that the hard way with Cam Newton. Signing an experienced quarterback like the former Panthers man was a good move in theory. It wasn’t just Brady’s ability which needed replacing, it was also his experience.
But injuries had taken their toll and it fairly quickly became evident that he was no longer the all-round star he used to be. Rushing remained no problem, but his passing stats were nowhere near good enough for a team with aspirations to challenge at the top every single year.
So Belichick went with a rookie this season, in the form of first round Draft pick from Alabama Mac Jones. He was named starter after pre-season and Newton was cut, opening the door for a return to the Panthers.
The 23-year-old could be forgiven for buckling under the weight of expectation but, while it remains far too early to tell if he will be the long-term replacement for Brady, he has acquitted himself well so far.
A total of 16 touchdowns in 12 games is a solid, if unspectacular, return so far, as is his completed passing yards total of 2,850. Last time out he passed for a season-best 310 yards, and will hope to continue that strong form as the Patriots head towards the business end of the regular season.
It is their Monday Night Football outing against the Buffalo Bills which will be perhaps the biggest test of how far this team has progressed, however.
The all-AFC East clash between two of the NFL’s strongest teams this season promises to be a mouth-watering affair. And it is the first of two meetings between the sides this month which look set to decide the outcome of each team’s respective seasons.
With the 7-4 Bills almost matching the 8-4 Pats things are looking incredibly tight in the East. It might not look that way any more after these two sides have had a good go at each other home and away between now and Boxing Day.
The games are packed full of individual battles as well as the overall team scrap. Jones vs the Bills’ own impressive QB Josh Allen. JC Jackson vs wide receiver Stefon Diggs. Not to mention the Bills have to adjust to life without star CB Tre’Davious White, who is out for the rest of the season with a torn ACL.
It should be a cracker, and one in which Belichick will be hoping to cement his team’s status as genuine Superbowl contenders.