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The Patriot Way: Smoke, Mirrors and ... Playoffs?

New England's improbable resurgence is one of the NFL's most remarkable stories in 2022.

While we were busy grousing about this or that - and there's been plenty fodder for frustration - the New England Patriots have quietly transformed into one of the most remarkable stories in the NFL this season.

The Pats may not wind up in the playoffs come January. But they just might. And that, in and of itself, is as unlikely of a resurgence as any in the league.

As 6-4 New England prepares for a Thanksgiving night visit to the 8-2 Minnesota Vikings, it is one of the NFL's hottest teams. It's won three consecutive games and five of the last six, including last Sunday's thrilling punt-return touchdown by rookie Marcus Jones that energized a 10-3 win over the New York Jets.

Not long ago 1-3 and knee-deep in a quarterback controversy involving struggling starter Mac Jones and plucky rookie Bailey Zappe, the Patriots would be the AFC's second Wild Card if the season ended today. Only nine teams have more wins. They have the seventh-best point differential.

Recipe for the rally? Smoke, mirrors and defense.

The Patriots lead the AFC in scoring defense, allowing only 16.9 points per game. Among teams that have played 10 games, only the Dallas Cowboys (16.7) give up fewer. In their last two wins - over the Indianapolis Colts and Jets - they haven't surrendered a single touchdown.

We still can't comprehend - much less explain - what happened on that foggy Monday night at Gillette Stadium in October against the one-dimensional Chicago Bears (frustration fodder, remember?). But other than that dismal 33-14 loss in which Jones was benched and the defense was booed, the Pats have held their last five opponents under 17 points. 

There are numerous negative narratives about an ugly Patriots season:

*Jones missed three games with an injured ankle and - entering Thanksgiving - has almost twice as many interceptions (7) as touchdowns (4). (If we had told you in August that in late November Jones would have only four touchdown passes you would have thought New England would be closer to 2-8 than 6-4.)

*The offense hasn't scored a first-quarter touchdown.

*Third-down specialist James White retired; replacement Ty Montgomery played one game before suffering a season-ending injury.

*The offensive line has been consistently inconsistent, from a serious injury to veteran center David Andrews, to the awful play of Isaiah Wynn to the recent drop-off of first-round draft pick Cole Strange.

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*Tight end Hunter Henry is on pace for only 34 catches, which would be a career-low.

*High-profile acquisition DeVante Parker has just one touchdown; speedy rookie Tyquan Thornton a mere 10 catches.

*Punter Jake Bailey has struggled, and missed last week's game with an injury.

*Trusty kicker Nick Folk missed two field goals against the Jets.

But while fans and media alike bemoan what's wrong with the offense and prepare to lambaste offensive play-caller Matt Patricia for his lack of creativity, coach Bill Belichick and his top defensive lieutenants - Steve Belichick and Jerod Mayo - are camouflaging the paltry offense into one good enough to play on a team with a winning record.

Deatrich Wise is a monster run-stuffer. Kyle Dugger is an elite play-maker on the back end. Jonathan Jones is a No. 1 cornerback. Ja'Whaun Bentley makes tackles sideline to sideline. But it's Matthew Judon who has pushed the defense to being one of the stingiest in football.

His 1.5 sacks of Jets' quarterback Zach Wilson increased his league-leading total to 13. His next stops will be passing Pats' legend Andre Tippet, and then the Pro Bowl.

Outside of Judon, the Pats lack star power. They're void of pizzazz. But, don't look now, they're sneaking toward the playoffs.

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