If the playoffs started now, the New England Patriots would be the sixth seed in the AFC. They would face the Tennessee Titans in the opening round, followed by a likely road show against the Kansas City Chiefs. It’s a tough road in the already scary American Football Conference. That being said, if any team comes out of the AFC that isn’t the Chiefs, Bills, or Dolphins, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Patriots might be that team.
Let me make one thing clear. Mac Jones is not a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback. Not the elite in any measure. As it stands now, he will never be the guy to help the Patriots win the AFC East. Still, they don’t seem to need it. All New England needs is a strong defense, a good offensive line and a defensive unit that can methodically move the ball down the field. Guess? The Pats have all of the above.
All New England needs is for their defense to play, and it has been that way all season. The only games where this didn’t happen were against the Bears and Ravens. We’ll get to those in a moment. New England has arguably the strongest defense in the league and has been able to hold teams like the Jets to 20 total points in two games, the same amount they scored in their lone game against Buffalo, widely regarded as one of the best defenses. the NFL. The Patriots did all of this without taking the Jets offense seriously. Even head coach Bill Belichick admitted to look at the Vikings in addition to the Jets ahead of their Week 11 matchup, and remember that the Jets edged the Patriots prior to the contest.
Now, where the Pats seem to struggle is against mobile quarterbacks. They only had two games this year where opponents scored more than 25 in regulation, the aforementioned Ravens and Bears. In both games, opposing quarterbacks gained 107 and 82 yards, respectively. New England has an incredible ability to shut down a passing game. In fact, the Pats allow the fourth-fewest passing yards per game and the second-lowest passing percentage in the league, but they struggle to contain the quarterback once he’s outside the pocket. I also want to stress, it’s not like these quarterbacks are going to beat them in the air when they get out of the pocket. Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson is No. 14 passer rating outside the pocket. Justin Fields is ranked 31st. Neither was incredibly effective in this scenario. It’s their legs.
The combination of the Patriots’ high fumble rate (28 percent, 12th-highest in the NFL) and elite coverage (36, second-most in the NFL) makes them very happy. They also have the highest QB rush rate in the NFL (14.8 percent) and the second highest pressure rate (29.8 percent). However, these trends leave a lot of space open up the line of scrimmage, and any elusive quarterback who can evade pressure will have plenty of room to maneuver. That makes guys like Lamar Jackson, Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen and maybe Patrick Mahomes even more dangerous against New England. However, at the same time, guys who throw under pressure like Kirk Cousins (lowest passer pressure number in the NFL among qualified QBs) look like seeing ghosts. That’s why I’m taking the Patriots in a landslide this Thanksgiving.
Because of that, the Patriots have a very good matchup against some of the top contenders in the AFC: Cincinnati, Tennessee, Miami (though they lost to them in Week 1, I feel like New England has improved since then), and Los Angeles. These are the teams the Patriots have seen in the playoffs. It’s just as likely that New England will meet Buffalo, Kansas City or Baltimore and bounce back in the Wild Card Round, but if the cards fall right, they could do some serious damage.
The remainder of the Patriots’ schedule isn’t easy, with two games remaining against Buffalo and games against Cincinnati, Minnesota and Miami still on the horizon. These will be benchmark games that will determine the Pats’ viability in the postseason. Clearly, if the Patriots want to do any damage in mid-January, the offense needs to show some signs of life. Still, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. If they look solid now with Mac Jones playing some of the worst football of his life, they could be an absolute contender if Jones gains some confidence in the latter part of the regular season.