I GARDENS, Fla. — A game as ugly as the one the Patriots played Sunday is hard to pin on a rookie quarterback. But a rookie quarterback whose bad plays hurt the Patriots as much as they did Sunday, and it’s easy to see why this team can’t put a playoff game solely in his hands.
At least not one they expect to win.
Mac Jones was far from the only culprit in New England’s 33-24 loss to Miami, a loss that closed out his first year as an NFL starter with a more than respectable 10-7 record and an even rarer spot in the postseason for a rookie QB. But as impressive as the franchise’s first-round pick has been — not missing a start, staying upright despite an offensive line that occasionally stripped him of any reasonable protection, mounting a few good late-game comebacks like the one he did again Sunday in Florida — a late-season swoon sends him off to the postseason having lost three of his last four starts.
What did the three losses have in common? In each of those games, the Patriots fell behind early and fell behind big — 17-0 Sunday against Miami, 17-0 two weeks ago in Indianapolis, 17-7 the week before that against Buffalo. And playing from behind in the NFL means you turn to your quarterback and ask him to air it out, hoping for a few quick strikes and a few big scores.
But as veteran captain Matthew Slater put it Sunday, “It doesn’t matter if you have a quarterback that’s been playing 30 years, you could have Dan Marino out there, it’s still going to be tough to come back from 17 points down.”
Think about how hard it’s been for Jones. He helped dig his own hole Sunday, a pick-6 in the first quarter that was bad enough, but made worse because it came on his first pass attempt of the game, immediately after his defense sleepwalked through a 77-yard, nearly 7½-minute touchdown drive.
It was the type of mistake that left the 23-year-old in as despondent a postgame mood as he’s been all season, mistakes that along with a fumbled snap and turnover he had in the second half, were bad enough that not even 14 fourth-quarter points could assuage his guilt.
“It’s super embarrassing honestly, just from my point [of view], how I played,” Jones said. “I wasn’t good enough, I can be better and it starts with me. I`m the quarterback, that’s my job, to make people around me have success and it starts with me. You got to watch the film, learn from it and realize how embarrassing it is to play that way.”
Jones, his voice thick and his eyes red, was clearly disappointed and likely exhausted. He was surely thinking of his teammate Christian Barmore, who limped off the field with an apparent ankle injury and was wheeled in for X-rays after the game. The two are close friends, teammates back to their Alabama days, fellow rookies so eager to do their part in bringing a storied franchise back to the postseason after a rare one-year layoff. But no matter the reason for his emotional state, Jones never had a problem with public accountability.
That willingness to shoulder blame has more than endeared him to teammates this season, impressing even the most veteran among them with a toughness and maturity that is evident both on and off the field. They are qualities teammates know are what allowed Jones to keep scoring in the fourth quarter Sunday much the same way he did in the last quarter in Indy, the way he fought to the end against Buffalo.
“He’s tough, he’s resilient. It shows a lot,” said tight end Hunter Henry, on the receiving end of a game-high 86 receiving yards Sunday. “He obviously didn’t play his best early, he had some crucial mistakes. But he’s going to learn from it and grow. He’s young. The resilience of him, the toughness of him. Taking some shots today, he’s a tough dude and I’m glad to have him as our quarterback.”
Or this from Brandon Bolden, who turned a short pass into an 18-yard fourth-quarter touchdown and added seven rushes for 46 yards and another score: “He’s a hell of a football player. He didn’t quit. He stayed in the game the entire time. Coming from a young quarterback, a rookie quarterback, that’s what you love to see. It’s easy to get up and play for him.”
Come the playoffs, they need to play even better for him, especially early in the game. Because to a man, they know they are not making his job any easier with penalties that erase what should have been a failed fake Miami punt, dropped interceptions that could have thwarted more than one Miami drive, or an end zone pass interference call that set up a Miami touchdown. Those are only a few of the mistakes that combined to dig too deep a hole for the Pats to climb out of.
“We lost and that’s all that matters. We put the other units in kind of a bad position with the way we played,” Jones said. “I can’t point any fingers at anybody besides me and the offense. We know we can play better.”
Thanks to what Jones has done this season, they get the chance to try again. The Dolphins, for all their heroics Sunday, for all their season sweep of the Patriots with a Week 18 win to match the Week 1 victory they earned in Foxborough, are headed home. The Patriots move on to the playoffs, where the Bills await. Jones will be there too.