The New England Patriots didn’t even have to lift a finger to climb back into the AFC playoff rankings. That Week 10 loss for the Los Angeles Chargers means that if the season ended today, the Patriots would be the No. 7 seed in the postseason.
Take a step back for a moment and just think about where the team was before the season started. The offense was a complete catastrophe, and the defense had more question marks than an Edward Nygma holiday postcard.
And yet, we are heading into the second half of the season, and the Patriots are still very much in the thick of things in the AFC. Make no mistake, a playoff berth is still a long-shot possibility for the team, especially with the brutal stretch of games left on their regular season slate. But there’s a clear path to the postseason if they can pick up some key wins.
If the Patriots somehow get into the playoffs, it’s suddenly a new season, and they’d have an opportunity to follow in the Cincinnati Bengals’ footsteps as the second consecutive miracle team to win the AFC.
Here’s a three-point plan for the Patriots to punch their ticket to Super Bowl LVII.
Stick with Mac Jones and make the offense work for him
The Bailey Zappe ride was a lot of fun earlier in the season, but it’s time to put the game of musical chairs at the quarterback position in the rearview. That might mean the team has to suffer through another awful Mac Jones game down the stretch.
But this is all about continuity, along with building a foundation of confidence and trust for a former first-round draft pick only playing in his second season.
Jones constantly looking over his shoulder isn’t putting him in the best position to succeed.
More importantly, the offense needs to be designed in a way to take advantage of some of the things he does best. Where are the spread formations? Where are the run-pass options? Where are the no-huddle drives?
The Patriots need to implement those aspects more often in their offense and attempt to mix things up a bit. Anyone, from a defensive coordinator to the random armchair expert watching the games at home on Sundays, can tell that the Patriots are running the football on the early downs.
It’s no surprise that Colts linebacker Shaq Leonard allegedly called out the plays of the Patriots offense before they happened. Things are too vanilla right now in New England.
Matt Patricia needs to evolve as a play-caller, and the offense needs to help him
This point goes hand-in-hand with the first one, particularly when it comes to the predictability of the offensive play-calling. Watching the Patriots offense up close feels like listening to a broken record at times. And when things aren’t working, they struggle to make the necessary adjustments to counter what the defense is doing to them.
It all starts with offensive play-caller Matt Patricia. The early struggles we’ve seen from him is indicative of a defensive coach calling the offensive plays. But I’ll refrain from going down the road of criticizing an orange for trying to be an apple. Belichick made the decision to put Patricia in this position, and Josh McDaniels isn’t getting fired soon enough from the Las Vegas Raiders to come back and save the Patriots.
We are where we are.
So Patricia must evolve by mixing up his play-calling, and the Patriots offense has to help him by making plays and cutting down on the boneheaded penalties that have cost them in games.
The old championship Patriots teams leaned heavily on great defensive play, while also riding the coattails of the running game, short passes and limited mistakes on the offensive side of the ball. Jones doesn’t need to be Tom Brady for New England to win meaningful football games.
Defense needs to solve its mobile quarterback problem
The Patriots defense looks like a championship caliber unit until it runs into mobile quarterbacks.
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson ran circles around them, while Chicago’s Justin Fields turned Gillette Stadium into his personal stomping grounds. A lack of speed at the inside linebacker position is a legitimate concern for the Patriots moving forward, particularly with two meetings with Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills still on the regular season slate.
Is that something they can improve on the fly through a more disciplined effort to shore up running lanes?
The answer to that question might mean the difference between a winning and losing season for the Patriots. Even with more versatile play-calling on the offensive side of the ball, the Patriots are not built to consistently put a bunch of points on the board.
If this is a playoff team, much less a Super Bowl contender, the defense must do all of the heavy lifting. That means figuring out a way to contain and confuse quarterbacks always looking to roll out of the pocket and make plays.
If the natural talent isn’t there, the discipline must be ten-fold for the defensive unit.