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The Patriots Lost, but Are They on the Verge of Breaking Out?

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We’re still, as a collective football society, getting used to the fact that the Patriots are no longer The Patriots. The seeming effortlessness with which they dismembered opponents with a combination of pinpoint coaching and surgical, mistake-free quarterback play vanished the moment Bill Belichick and Tom Brady’s marriage reached its inevitable breaking point, with both men envisioning a far different future for the franchise.

They are going to fumble away games. They are going to play a boring, guard-railed, hyper-conservative brand of football. They are going to plod along for a bit. They are going to lose games, like they did Sunday to the 5–1 Cowboys, that they would have won a few years ago.

But after we saw Mac Jones toss a backbreaking pick-six late in the fourth quarter, only to come back on the next throw and hurl a game-changing, 75-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne on a double-move targeting the very player who picked Jones off on the play before, we were reminded that the hangover may be shorter than expected. We wondered, perhaps, if their postseason drought could be shorter than expected given both Jones’s development and the relatively dreary state of the AFC East.

The throw itself was what you’d hope a first-year player had the emotional clearance to make, not to mention that it dropped in between Trevon Diggs and a safety charging over the top. The ensuing two-point conversion that forced overtime came on a play without any sensible open read. Jones had to buy himself time and thread a ball into traffic.

The call to pick on Diggs, one of the league’s most dangerous—but also most vulnerable—cornerbacks was reminiscent of the kind of mental warfare the Patriots used to wage. The defensive lapses that allowed the Cowboys to walk back down the field for a game-tying field goal and a game-winning touchdown in overtime were reminders of the distance between what was and what could be again.

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While it’s difficult—and decidedly non-Belichickian—to derive anything positive from a loss, this is the second time in three weeks an undermanned Patriot team managed to take a far more talented opponent to the final plays of the game. This is the third week in a row Jones had a quarterback rating of 95 or above and the third week in a row that his average yards per attempt was on the rise.

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Jones was also perfect on his deep shots, and 5-of-6 on all passes beyond 10 yards in the air. While he is not Trevor Lawrence, he is approaching capability faster than expected.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches a play against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at Gillette Stadium.

New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick watches a play against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at Gillette Stadium.

It begs the question: How much longer will the Patriots float in this purgatory of irrelevance in our minds? We tend to look at it as a massive failure on the part of Belichick when comparing them to the team they once were. But what if we were to look at them objectively, as a franchise bad enough to be in position to draft a franchise quarterback, starting over after the loss of the greatest player in NFL history?

Put another way: If Belichick were coaching the Jaguars right now, or the Eagles or the Dolphins, wouldn’t we look at Sunday as the kind of game that makes us believe they’re on the ascent? Sure, Jones’s erratic throw technically lost them a game before he took the lead back. A delay of game penalty pushed them back to a second-and-15 their own 36, forcing them to throw in the first place. New England had the ball and the lead, full stop. But Jones also helped them claw back at the end of the game. He made plays. In overtime, he logged a first down while being shoulder slammed, two plays after Nelson Agholor dropped a sure first down.

When a team is perfect and methodical, we’ll always reflexively compare them to the Patriots, which means that this is not, by definition, a Patriots team. But it is something that seems like the foundation of a team that will begin to pick off wins after nearly doing so against two of the best teams in football.

That is worth noting, even if it is about the non-Patriot Patriots. 

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