By Mason Sousa, NEFJ Correspondent
I predicted the Patriots to be a 9-8, 8-9 team at best before September came around. There were many red flags blowing in the breeze throughout the summer and preseason that pointed to this Patriots season being a regression from the year previous. Some of those flags included reports of a brand new schematic offense being worked on after Josh McDaniels’ departure and those plays not working out too well. Also the coaches filling in McDaniels footsteps were going to be Matt Patricia and Joe Judge, who both failed as head coaches in Detroit and New York respectively. Both coaches have had very limited offensive roles in their NFL coaching careers and they were going to be a big part of Mac Jones’ crucial 2nd year jump. It just felt like the preparation for the 2022 season was thrown together haphazardly with no real thought of the potential long term harm to the franchise.
Fast forward to Week 10, the Patriots are on their BYE and stand at 5-4 and I’m feeling really good about them.
Here’s 5 reasons why:
The AFC East is completely up for grabs. While almost no one expected the Patriots to be last in the division through nine weeks, they are currently only 1 win behind the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins. The Buffalo Bills were (and still are) Super Bowl favorites but they sit winless in divisional record (0-2) and MVP strong contender Josh Allen has a banged up throwing elbow. The way this is going, I would not be shocked if the division is decided in Week 18.
The AFC isn’t as good as I thought.
After I just finished putting the AFC East on a pedestal for being so good I’m hear to say the entire conference isn’t really great.
Now if taking the AFC East title is a little out of reach, the Pats have a great chance of taking one of the three Wild Card spots. The AFC West has performed well below expectations (Kansas City excluded) after all the massive acquisitions that entire division took on in the offseason. The Bengals are still getting Joe Burrow sacked at an alarming rate even after addressing the offensive line causing that offense to regress. I believed Matt Ryan could give the Colts competent QB play and they still haven’t got that since Andrew Luck abruptly retired. The Patriots sitting at 8th in the conference a half of a game outside of the playoff picture halfway through the season is an encouraging sign compared to where I thought they would be around 10th or 11th.
The defense is playing lights out.
Over the last 2 weeks, the Patriots defense has owned in the trenches and are in the backfield before the opposing QB can finish his 7-step drop. Matthew Judon is making a strong case for Defensive Player of the Year leading the league with 11.5 sacks. Deatrich Wise is showing he’s more than an analytical PFF grade. He’s showing up in the stat sheet with 5.5 sacks, 2 passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage and 2 forced fumbles. The secondary is performing better than expectation with Jonathan Jones returning into form, the emergence of rookie Jack Jones, the solid consistent play of Jalen Mills and a bit of resurgence from long time vet Devin McCourty. Not to mention Kyle Duggar is turning into one of the league’s best safeties. A defense who I thought the only playmaker was Judon is proving me wrong and everyone is deciding games.
Rhamondre Stevenson is becoming elite.
Stevenson might be the best 3-down running back Bill Belichick has ever had. We’ve seen him take on the early down role but in recent weeks he’s developing into a very good pass catching back. Will he ever be the asset James White was in the passing game? Who’s to say? But as far as complete package of power, shiftiness, and pass catching Stevenson might be the best the Patriots franchise has had to offer in a long time. He is currently 9th in rushing yards and 6th in receptions out of all running backs. You could make the argument that Stevenson is the most important piece to the Patriots offense right now.
The offense will face easier defenses.
And finally this is the reason I’m least sure about if I’m being completely honest but I believe it holds some merit. A lot has been made of the Patriots less than efficient offense the last few weeks and some of it is rightfully so. But it’s worth noting the Jets and Colts both have top 10 defenses. So it’s obvious the Patriots offense was going to face some adversity. While there are still two dates with the Bills remaining who allow the least number of points through 9 weeks, four of the eight remaining teams the Patriots face are the Dolphins, Vikings, Cardinals, and Raiders. Those four defenses are 24th, 26th, 27th, and 28th in allowed yards per game respectively. And three of those defenses are 26th, 28th, and 31st in points allowed per game, (Dolphins, Raiders, Cardinals). Mac Jones has to (and I believe he will) find success against those teams and if New England’s defense continues to shine then those are very winnable games to help ensure the Patriots a playoff spot.