The Patriots sat with their feet up during their bye week, knowing they’d hold the top seed in the AFC; the question was how far ahead in the standings would they be after Week 14?
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady wasn’t finished helping his old team by outlasting the Bills in overtime to give New England a two-game lead in the division with one in hand over Buffalo.
The Pats also got some help from Cleveland with an upset win over the Ravens following an ankle injury that forced Lamar Jackson out of the game.
The Bucs and Browns did the Patriots solids, and they now find themselves in a three-way tie with the red-hot Chiefs and pesky Titans at 9-4.
New England currently has the edge in the tiebreaker due to their 7-1 conference record, and they’d edge out Tennessee in the head-to-head tiebreaker if KC drops a game.
However, there’s no room for error moving forward despite the Pats having great odds to win the AFC East and even the Super Bowl based on projections from Football Outsiders.
According to Football Outsiders, the Patriots have the hardest remaining schedule (15th) among the three teams tied at the top of the conference. In fact, with three of their last four games at home, Tennessee has the easiest future schedule in the NFL.
Due to their strong positioning in playoff tiebreakers, the Pats can earn a first-round bye and home-field advantage in the postseason by holding serve with the Chiefs and Titans down the stretch.
But it’s important to keep in perspective as we head into the last month of the season that things can change in a hurry, and the AFC currently has five teams in the hunt at 7-6; losses to the Colts and Bills in the next two weeks could flip the Patriots’ progress upside down.
Although it’s exciting that the Pats are leading the conference right now, there’s still a long way to go.
Let’s empty the notebook with some leftover thoughts on the Pats coming out of the bye week:
1. Is Pats CB J.C. Jackson Playing His Best Football Yet?
The targets-based metrics have always loved Jackson, but from this vantage point, he’s having his best season yet in the NFL, and consistency is the main reason why.
Although Jackson finished second with nine interceptions a year ago, he also surrendered five touchdowns in coverage and allowed 7.9 yards per target. In plays without Stephon Gilmore, Jackson’s yards per target ballooned to 9.9 in 2020.
As the Pats’ number one corner this season, Jackson has cut down on the explosive plays into his coverage while his interception rate is still among the league leaders. In other words, he’s less volatile, which is a real indicator that he’s taking the next step as a shutdown corner.
On film, Jackson’s biggest improvements are in route anticipations based on the situation, likely stemming from a more concerted effort this season to study tape of his opponents.
Here, Bills quarterback Josh Allen targets Jackson on Stefon Diggs on a third-and-five play. Jackson may have fallen into the trap on Diggs’ vertical stem of protecting against a go ball in years past. Instead, he plays the sticks effectively to smother Diggs’ curl route by anticipating the break at the top of the route based on the down and distance.
Jackson is becoming a more consistent coverage player who won’t give up the occasional big plays in exchange for hunting turnovers, and he’s also improving against shorter routes.
The Patriots have an enormous decision to make with Jackson as he heads into unrestricted free agency this season. He’s making a very strong case to get paid by New England.
2. Pats OC Josh McDaniels: “Could we have thrown it more? 100 percent.”
In his weekly press conference with reporters on Monday, Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels gave an insightful answer into the teams’ strategy to run the ball 46 times compared to just three pass attempts in last Monday night’s win over Buffalo. For those concerned about the Pats’ trust level with rookie quarterback Mac Jones in inclement weather conditions, McDaniels said:
“Certainly, the most important thing was that we were able to win the game. Circumstances and the situation during the course of each game really dictates how the game flows and then how, in turn, you call the game…Could we have thrown it more? 100 percent. No question about it. And that’s on me, and any blame that would be assessed would have been to me. But just in terms of trying to manage the situation, the game, also being to be really present in the moment of following what’s happening when we’re running the ball. What are we doing? Are we having enough success to stay in second-and-short? Are we not? What’s the risk/reward of doing something into the wind versus handing it off another time? There’s all those things you’re weighing, and I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong. Could we have thrown it 15 times? Yeah, probably. Would it have incurred some risk? Most definitely, depending on the way you were going.”
McDaniels also pointed to New England’s loss to the Bucs in Week 4 as an example of a game where the Patriots went in the opposite direction, attempting 42 passes to just eight rush attempts.
3. Pats Third-Down Defense Climbing to the Top
Along with a slew of other ridiculous stats during their seven-game winning streak, the Patriots’ third-down defense is another area where they’ve completely turned things around.
In their last seven games, the Pats lead in third-down efficiency (30.7%), are second in EPA per third down (-0.40), and rank third in third-down rate over expected (-5.1%). For comparison, the Pats’ third-down rate in their first six games ranked 14th in the NFL.
Belichick is always a wizard with his third-down “exotic” calls, but now the Pats are marrying rush and coverage to shut down opponents on third down. In their win over Buffalo, New England held the Bills to 4-for-13 on third down.
The Pats use a cone bracket on Emanuel Sanders out of the right slot on this third-down stop. With Jalen Mills and Devin McCourty inside-out of Sanders, New England made it challenging for Allen to get the ball to his first read in the progression. The Pats ran an LB/T stunt on the defensive line with Dont’a Hightower (wrap) and Christian Barmore (penetrator). Barmore beats center Mitch Morse and registers the QB hit to force a throw into coverage by Allen.
The Patriots defense is executing everything at a high level, but their improvements on third down are a huge reason why they’re now the number one scoring defense in the NFL.
4. Pats RG Shaq Mason Needs More National Recognition
Patriots fans have grown to appreciate guard play due to the likes of Logan Mankins and now Shaq Mason. However, it feels like Mason is still underrated in the national scope.
Mason is PFF’s third-highest-rated guard in football this season with an 86.0 overall grade. The Pats’ right guard is grading out well as a run-blocker (83.5, 8th) and a pass-blocker (77.3, 7th) as an all-around gem for New England.
Mason’s power and movement skills at over 300 pounds are truly rare. Above, he is engaged in a double-team with Trent Brown on a duo scheme when he sees Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds coming down to fit the A-Gap. Mason peels off the double and tosses Edmunds out of the gap to open a hole for Rhamondre Stevenson.
Although we appreciate Mason’s talents around here, he should be in the elite category of players at his position with Martin, Nelson, Teller, etc.
5. Pats DT Davon Godchaux Needs to Carry Momentum to Indy
The Patriots got a breakout performance from defensive tackle Davon Godchaux against the Bills, and his rise is coming at a great time. Godchaux’s stat-line was absurd in Buffalo: ten tackles, five run stops, one QB hurry, and an elite 90.4 run-defense grade.
Godchaux took advantage of several single blocks on the nose with center Mitch Morse. Buffalo tried to double team the play-side defensive ends (usually Lawrence Guy) and have Morse turn out Godchaux on the nose to run into the B or C-Gaps away from the Pats’ run-stuffing linebackers. However, Guy absorbed those double-teams, and Godchaux feasted on Morse, flashing impressive press-and-shed technique to mirror ball carriers as a two-gapper.
The Patriots will need another stout performance from Godchaux against Indianaplois’ top-ranked rushing attack on Saturday night.
6. Early Thoughts on the Matchup With the Colts
The Colts are difficult to match up against due to their impressive balance offensively. The temptation is to key on Jonathan Taylor and Indy’s rushing attack. But the Colts can effectively pass out of run personnel groupings to keep the defense at a disadvantage.
In their last game against the Bucs, Tampa successfully stopped the Colts’ run game from their base defense in the first half. However, Colts head coach Frank Reich adjusted by spreading out Tampa’s base defense to throw the ball out of empty sets. Indy then got Taylor going with shotgun runs when the Bucs adjusted to the adjustment with more nickel.
In theory, Taylor and the ground game scare you more than Wentz and the passing game, so you should defend run-first and force Wentz to beat you, right?
Well, it’s not that simple because Reich is perfectly content with putting the game in Wentz’s hands and hunting matchups with run defenders in coverage if that’s Belichick’s strategy.
We’ll expand on the chess match between Reich and Belichick and preview the offensive side of the ball in this week’s game plan. But the short version is it’ll be interesting to see what Belichick tries to take away and how the in-game adjustments play out.