Welcome to Season 10, Episode 7 of the Unconventional Preview, a serious-yet-lighthearted, nostalgia-tinted look at the Patriots’ weekly matchup.
Gone, at least for now, are the days when the Patriots could pull out a win against a quality opponent despite not playing their best. With near-misses against Tom Brady and the Buccaneers (a 19-17 loss in Week 4) and last Sunday against the Cowboys (a 35-29 loss in overtime), Bill Belichick’s work-in-progress team ranks among the league leaders in near-misses, what-ifs, and we-almost-had-its.
Or, as those desperately grasping for a positive in a frustrating situation like to call them, moral victories.
As so many defeated Patriots opponents discovered during the dynasty decades — and as the current Patriots, 2-4 but somehow just two games out of first place in the AFC East, are learning — there’s no sustained satisfaction in a moral victory. In the NFL, only real victories, officially recorded in that win column, count for anything.
The Patriots, 0-4 at home for the first time since Drew Bledsoe’s rookie season in 1993, are in major need of one of those real victories this week. They remain capable of making a run toward the postseason, especially if they improve the way Belichick’s teams typically do. But they need to start stringing together some wins — real wins, not the inconsequential moral kind. And that needs to begin Sunday against the Jets.
On paper, this looks like a case of facing the right opponent at the right time. The Patriots beat the Jets in Week 2, 25-6, intercepting overwhelmed rookie quarterback Zach Wilson four times. They have beaten the Jets in their last 11 meetings, and a win Sunday would complete their sixth straight season sweep of their fellow AFC East participant. (Given the Jets’ recent haplessness, “rival” seems too strong a word.)
The conversation before any NFL game usually focuses on the quarterbacks, understandable given that the position is the most glamorous and probably the most important in major professional sports. The angle is especially irresistible when a game involves a pair of rookies taken in the first round of the draft.
The Patriots’ Mac Jones, taken 15th overall, is coming off arguably the best individual performance of his encouraging debut season. In the loss to the Cowboys, he completed 15 of 21 passes (71.4 percent) for 229 yards and a pair of touchdowns, with an interception (returned for a TD by ballhawk Trevon Diggs), and he had a season-best 118.9 passer rating.
Jones also continued to demonstrate admirable toughness, enduring a vicious hit from Randy Gregory that may or may not have temporarily inverted his torso. Jones leads rookie quarterbacks in passing yards (1,472), completion percentage (71.1), and rating (89.6), and is tied with the Jaguars’ Trevor Lawrence in touchdown passes (7).
Wilson, taken 13 picks before Jones at No. 2, has a bigger arm than his draft compadre but far less grasp on the calculus of playing quarterback in the NFL. To be fair, Wilson also has a far less-established support system, with coach Robert Saleh in his first season. Just imagine how he’d be struggling if Adam Gase were still the Jets coach.
Kick it off, Bailey, and let’s get this one started …
Three players I’ll be watching other than the QBs
Jonnu Smith: It’s not entirely his fault, but the super-athletic tight end, who was signed away from the Titans on a four-year, $50 million deal in free agency, probably has been the Patriots’ biggest disappointment. Through six games, he has accounted for just 16 catches, 124 yards, and a touchdown.
In the Week 3 loss to the Saints, he had perhaps the worst game a Patriots receiver has ever had, dropping at least three passes, including one that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. In the three games since, he has just six catches for 50 yards.
What has happened to one of the league’s most versatile weapons at the position, a master of gaining yards after the catch? Part of it is that the Patriots, with their offensive line in disarray, have kept him in as a blocker well over half the time in recent games. (The Titans did something similar last year after tackle Tyler Lewan got hurt; Smith’s production dipped after he scored five touchdowns in the first five games).
It’s selfless of Smith to accept the blocking role, but he’s not here to be the second coming of Daniel Graham. Remember James White’s nifty 28-yard catch-and-run off a screen pass in Week 2 against the Jets, after Jones set it up by faking in the opposite direction? That is exactly the kind of call Josh McDaniels should be making to put Smith’s open-field skills to use.
Damien Harris: The most productive performance of Harris’s three-year career occurred in Week 10 last season, when he ran for 121 yards in a 23-17 win over the Ravens. But the best overall performance might have come last Sunday.
Despite dealing with a rib injury during the week, Harris ran for 101 yards — the third-most of his career — on just 18 carries. Those carries included a 4-yard TD on a direct snap in the first quarter, and a couple of explosive, tough runs late in the game, including a 21-yard burst with 10 minutes left in regulation in which he made Diggs look like he was riding a mechanical bull.
Harris finished with decent numbers in the Week 2 meeting with the Jets (16 carries, 62 yards, 1 touchdown), but 26 of his yards came on one carry. He should be able to build on last Sunday’s strong performance against a Jets’ run defense that allows 123.4 yards per game, 21st in the league.
Kendrick Bourne: The receiver’s playing time last week was modest (a season-low 25 snaps), but he made the kind of play Nelson Agholor is supposed to be making, taking a Jones pass 75 yards to the house after beating Diggs and a particularly hapless safety (name redacted to spare his family the embarrassment) on the next play from scrimmage after Diggs’s pick-6 (which Bourne acknowledged fault on).
Here’s to seeing more of him. He’s beginning to strike me as someone who would be a trusted third or fourth receiver on a Tom Brady team.
Grievance of the week
What we have here is a lingering grievance. Belichick’s decision to punt on fourth and 3 from his own 46-yard line in overtime against the Cowboys wasn’t just overly conservative. It was detrimental.
I was as certain that the Cowboys were going to score a touchdown in that situation as I was when the Patriots won the coin flip to begin OT in Super Bowl LI. In that situation, taking a chance was the only way to give his team a chance.
Jets quarterback Zach Wilson vs. the Patriots pass defense
How bad was Wilson’s performance against the Patriots in Week 2? When halftime mercifully arrived, he had thrown three completions to Jets receivers and three to Patriots defensive backs. He finished with four interceptions, including two by J.C. Jackson, who played the lead role in holding the Jets’ top weapon, Corey Davis, to two catches for 8 yards on five targets.
It will be interesting to see how much the Jets’ circumstances have changed, if at all. Not surprisingly, Wilson leads the NFL in interceptions with nine and has thrown just four touchdown passes. He has thrown an interception in every game so far, but just one each against the Titans and Falcons in his last two games.
That’s hardly major progress, but it counts as some progress, and Belichick noted that Wilson is beginning to develop chemistry with Davis and slot receiver Jamison Crowder, who missed the Week 2 matchup because of a groin injury.
The Jets’ passing offense, which is ranked 30th (193 yards per game), would seem to be the perfect elixir for the Patriots pass defense after it had 445 passing yards dropped on its head by Dak Prescott last Sunday. Even after getting lit up by Dallas — that was one heck of a Randy Moss imitation by CeeDee Lamb, wasn’t it? — the Patriots still rank in the middle of the pack in pass defense (16th, 246.3 yards per game).
The Patriots do have injuries to sort through in the defensive backfield; Jonathan Jones, Adrian Phillips, Kyle Dugger, and Jalen Mills all missed time or were limited during practice this past week. Jones went on injured reserve Saturday night, but if the rest are in reasonable health come 1 p.m. Sunday, the pass defense should come away with a welcome confidence-builder.
Prediction, or Curtis Martin will always be a Patriot first
Want a troubling stat? Well, too bad, you’re getting one, and here it is: Since Week 4 of the 2020 season, when the Patriots fell to the Chiefs to drop to 2-2, Belichick’s squad has gone 7-11 … and three of those wins have come against the Jets.
In other words, the Patriots have a 4-11 record since Week 4 last year against the assortment of teams they’ve played that are not the Jets.
Please, do not take that as an indictment of Belichick’s current capabilities as a coach, or a clue that the Patriots are doomed going forward. Their post-Brady transition has been bumpier than expected. They’re a team with a rookie quarterback — a bright and talented one, yes, but still a rookie — and a depth chart full of new players trying to figure out how they fit together.
They’re in transition, but if they can maintain reasonable health and piece together some semblance of a competent offensive line, they will begin trending rapidly in the right direction before this season is close to complete.
No one is going to want to play them in December. But right now? They’re grateful to have the Jets again in October. The Jets have so many markers of a bad team. Their defensive backs don’t have a single interception this season. Their ball carriers are averaging 74 yards per game. Their leading rusher, rookie Michael Carter, has fewer total yards (165) than the Browns were averaging per game entering Thursday night (168.5).
The Jets, who are coming off their bye, do seem to be improving incrementally. But right now, they’re just the team the Patriots want to see. Patriots 27, Jets 10