Welcome to the Unconventional Review, an instant reaction to standouts, stats, and story lines from the Patriots’ most recent game . . .
Question: When are 17 total punts in an NFL game tolerable?
Answer: When the last of the 17 ends with one of the most spectacular and important returns you’ll ever see.
The Patriots are 6-4 and in the thick of the AFC playoff race after Sunday’s 10-3 win over the Jets thanks to a few things: A stellar defensive performance, in which the Patriots held the Jets to 103 total yards and just 2 in the second half, the ineptitude of Jets quarterback Zach Wilson, and most of all, rookie punt returner Marcus Jones’s perfect timing in unveiling his electric moves.
With the score tied at 3, Jones fielded Jets punter Braden Mann’s 10th boot of the day and returned it 84 yards, scoring the afternoon’s lone touchdown with five seconds remaining. It was a spectacular, almost stunning, ending to a slog of a game, vaulting the Patriots to their 14th straight win over the Jets.
The Patriots have won three in a row and five of six. While their flaws weren’t totally repaired during the bye week, they picked up another win and a little more time to fix them.
Some further thoughts, upon immediate review . . .
Three players who were worth watching
Players suggested in the Unconventional Preview: David Andrews, Matthew Judon, Sauce Gardner
Matthew Judon: Another Sunday, another typically spectacular performance from the defensive player of the year candidate . . . and maybe even front-runner? Judon finished with five tackles, 1½ sacks, and a tackle for a loss, sacking Wilson to thwart Jets’ series at the start of the third and fourth quarters. He has 13 sacks, good for third-most in a season in franchise history, behind only Andre Tippett’s two best seasons. (The Hall of Famer collected 18½ sacks in 1984 and 16½ the following season.) Judon’s only negative mark came when he committed an offsides penalty on third and 4 in the second quarter, giving the Jets a first down on a drive that ended with a Greg Zuerlein field goal for their only points of the game. That’s pretty easily forgiven considering how spectacular he was yet again.
Kyle Dugger: It didn’t seem to get much notice immediately after the game, but I thought this was one of the third-year safeties best games as a Patriot. He finished with six tackles, three solo, with a sack and two tackles for a loss, and he was dominant in the fourth quarter. With a little under 11 minutes left, he clobbered Wilson for a sack that for a moment looked as if it might lead to a Davon Godchaux scoop-and-score before the hapless Jets quarterback was ruled down. With 4:15 remaining, Dugger contorted himself to bust up a deep shot down the left sideline to Ty Johnson, even catching the ball out of bounds. And in an indirect way, he set up Jones’s winning punt return by sniffing out a third-and-1 throw to Michael Carter in the flat and drilling him for a 2-yard loss, forcing the fateful punt.
Marcus Jones: Off the top of my head, Jones’s winning play rates as the second-most impactful punt return in Patriots’ history, behind Troy Brown’s 55-yarder for the first touchdown in the 2001 AFC Championship game win over the Steelers. What else might be in that conversation? Jones actually got injured on the first play of the fourth quarter when Judon sacked Wilson on third down, and the Patriots had to burn a timeout to get Myles Bryant on the field to handle the return. (The circumstances of Jones’s absence flummoxed CBS’s broadcast team.) Jones looked rather healthy blazing past assorted Jets on his winning return, no?
Grievance of the game
Mac Jones said after the game he felt like the Patriots’ offense made meaningful progress, and he should feel that way after completing 23 of 27 passes for 246 yards. But the Patriots have to shake their terrible habit of going backward just when it looks like they might put points on the board. It happened a minimum three times Sunday:
1. Facing third and 16 with just over six minutes left in the first half, Rhamondre Stevenson made the play of the day up until Jones’s instantly legendary punt return.
Catching a pass near the line of scrimmage at the Jets 30, he eluded Quincy Williams, snowplowed through LaMarcus Joyner and C.J. Mosley at the 24, and finally got taken down by Michael Carter after a spectacular 18-yard gain. But the drive fell apart, with a Yodny Cajuste holding penalty and a Carl Lawson sack costing the Patriots 19 yards of field position. It ended with Nick Folk missing a 44-yard field goal attempt.
2. On the Patriots’ first possession of the third quarter, Damien Harris broke loose for a 30-yard run, then followed up with a 15-yard catch to take the Patriots to the Jets 22. But Micheal Clemons sacked Jones, Stevenson lost a yard, and James Ferentz was called for holding. This once-promising drive ended with Folk missing a 43-yard field goal attempt.
3. After a Jets three and out midway through the third quarter, Jones found Jakobi Meyers and Hunter Henry for back-to-back 20-yard gains. But after two Stevenson runs gained nothing, Jones was sacked by Bryce Huff for a 6-yard loss. Palardy time.
There’s no doubt the offense made some progress. But then again, when your starting quarterback has a total of four touchdown passes in his seven starts, there’s a long way to go.
Three thoughts scribbled in the margins
The Jets had six sacks from six different players, and had a dozen in the two games against the Patriots. We probably should have taken it as a sign of things to come when Quincy Williams and John Franklin-Myers buried Jones for a 7-yard loss on the Patriots’ first play from scrimmage. It’s hard to imagine the line is capable of much improvement if David Andrews’s thigh injury, suffered in the first quarter while blocking on a screen pass to Stevenson, is as serious as feared . . . Didn’t it seem as if Harris actually had more touches than Stevenson? He didn’t — Harris had 10, and Stevenson had 21. But Harris was particularly effective, with eight carries for 65 yards and two receptions for another 28. Stevenson ran 15 times for just 26 yards against the Jets’ stout run defense, but was the Patriots’ top receiver with six catches for 56 yards . . . Might as well end this with a reference to the theme of the day, punting. Michael Palardy did good work in his Patriots debut, punting seven times for a 45.3-yard average, placing two inside the 20 with one touchback that nearly trickled out of bounds inside the 5.