Will the real Patriots please stand up?
It’s Week 18 and the Patriots remain a Rubin’s vase picture as they conclude the regular season Sunday in Miami against the Dolphins.
Which image do you see when you look at them? One that depicts the face of a true AFC title contender with a run game and a defense built for the postseason? Or one that illustrates a more fragile entity that shows cracks when it falls behind and has earned six of its 10 wins against teams currently slated to pick in the top 10 in the NFL Draft?
Here’s what’s clear: The Patriots were right when they pronounced that they were better than their 2-4 start. They sport talent and genuine chemistry and camaraderie. They’re not a club that anyone is looking forward to seeing in the playoffs. The rest is open to interpretation.
Mine: The 2-4 start and the seven-game winning streak that led to brief possession of the AFC’s No. 1 seed are pigskin poles. The true north of the Patriots compass points somewhere in between. But the needle lies closer to the winning streak than back-to-back double-digit losses to fellow playoff contenders Indianapolis and Buffalo.
Still, these Patriots require certain atmospheric conditions to succeed. Bill Belichick touched on them following last week’s evisceration of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“Good job going out there and being the most physical team, staying in control of the game. That’s what we’ve got to do. That’s what we are. That’s what our commitment has got to be,” said the coach in locker room video posted on the team’s social media accounts.
The Patriots know what their blueprint is by now. It’s not falling behind by double digits and throwing their way back into the game, riding rookie quarterback Mac Jones, who is still a passing Padawan, not a Jedi knight. It’s not allowing teams to score 25 points-plus. New England hasn’t won a game all season in which the opposition topped 24 points.
It’s jumping out to a lead, piling on like credit card interest incarnate, and smothering opponents.
“I think it’s just getting down to the nitty-gritty of playing Patriot football,” said linebacker Kyle Van Noy. “We obviously had a couple of letdown games, obviously disappointing. But [last game] offensively, defensively, and special teams, we played complementary football and we fed off the juice of one another.
“We’ve got to sustain that. We’ve got to keep that each and every week. We’ve got to do it all the time, and we’ve just got to play a brand of football we know we’re capable of playing.”
The Patriots sustained that brand of football for seven straight games. The defense, which ranks first in points allowed per game this season (16.9), surrendered just 10.4 per game during the streak, tops in the NFL during that period.
That allowed the Patriots to dictate terms like a Russian autocrat.
As much as one hates to acknowledge it, Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke was prescient when he announced the best way to beat the Patriots was to force the game into Jones’s hands.
Teams often inherit the personalities of their quarterbacks, to a degree. Perhaps it’s the residue of his college career at Alabama, where his team was a buzz saw slicing through lesser teams, but Jones seems at his best when everything is going the Patriots’ way.
He never relents when the Patriots get down and hasn’t folded in a single game. Kudos. But his body language and frustration betray him in such situations. He turns sullen and aggravated.
Jones’s best games have been runaways.
His first 300-yard game came in a 54-13 thrashing of the New York Jets to kick off the win streak. His first three-touchdown pass performance came in a 45-7 pasting of the Cleveland Browns. He matched that TD total in last Sunday’s 50-10 laugher over the jesters from Jacksonville.
Mac’s career high in passing yards (310) was delivered in a 36-13 triumph over an injury-ravaged Tennessee Titans team in a competitive contest, but one in which the Patriots never trailed.
Sensing a Patriots pattern?
Patriots optimists can point to the fact they are a good enough team to build those types of commanding leads. Patriots pessimists can point out that it’s highly unlikely the road to a championship isn’t going to feature some switchbacks that require successful comebacks.
“You want to be able to respond as a team,” said safety Devin McCourty. “Adversity is going to hit, and it hit us a couple of different times this season.”
This iteration of the Patriots needs to stay on the straight and narrow path to reach the winner’s circle. That’s a fact, no matter your view of the team entering the playoffs.
New England averaged 34.9 rushes during its seven-game win streak, second in the NFL behind Philadelphia (40 per game). In the recent losses, the team only averaged 23 per game, 27th during that span.
The Patriots ranked third in the league in rushing yards per game during their win streak (155.1) while averaging 32.1 points per game, second best in the league. In the losses to the Colts and Bills, those numbers dipped to 115 yards and 19 points per game.
Conveniently, the Dolphins mirror the Patriots in some ways. They, too, reeled off a seven-game winning streak — after a 1-7 start — before getting a dose of reality in a road loss to an AFC South team, the Titans. They also have a young quarterback from Alabama who sports a high completion percentage and needs some management, Tua Tagovailoa.
The Dolphins also don’t play catch-up. They’re 6-0 when leading after three quarters and 0-8 when trailing entering the fourth.
However, Miami is always a stumbling block for the Belichick FC, especially since former Patriots assistant Brian Flores took his talents to South Florida. Coach Flo is 3-2 against his old boss with two straight wins.
The real Patriots have a real shot to make some noise in the postseason, but the formula isn’t as flexible as in the past.
If the ingredients aren’t mixed just right, then instead of blowouts the Patriots get blow-ups and their return to the playoffs will be a blown opportunity.