The New England Patriots‘ 2021 season went through three different phases. There was the 2-4 start, causing Patriot fans to doubt Bill Belichick and his ability to build and coach an NFL team, their seven-game winning streak, featuring dominant victories over the Titans, Browns, and Chargers, followed by a lackluster finish to the season.
The Patriots reclaimed the AFC East throne with a first-round bye for a quick moment, until the team dropped three of their last four games. Since going 9-4, the Patriots’ only win over the past month was against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who currently hold the number one overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.
While New England has shown flashes of their old triumphs, their growing pains and inexperience has costed them in their biggest moments. What has caused New England to limp across the finish line?
Patriots Growing Pain #1: Mac Jones
The rookie has done everything the Patriots could have hoped for. He’s won 10 games and clinched a playoff spot, a rarity in today’s league. Only three other rookie Quarterback’s have won 10 games while throwing at least 20 passing touchdowns.
Jones lapped the competition in rookie performance, displaying the most poise, toughness, and efficiency at the position. There’s a lot to be excited about for the future, but it is fair to criticize Jones’ finish to the 2021 season.
Jones’ Last Month
In the Patriots last three losses, Jones averaged a completion percentage of 56%, throwing for 787 yards, six touchdowns, and five interceptions. The reason for these numbers? It could be a combination of factors.
For instance, it has been against the Patriots toughest opponents, they have trailed the entire game, and Jones has never played this amount of game before.
During Jones’ time at Alabama, he played a total of 19 games throwing at least 11 passes. 13 was the most amount of games Jones had started in a single season. Including this summer’s preseason, Mac Jones has already played in 20 games in the NFL. He’s about to play in his 21st game.
In those 20 games, Jones has been blitzed the third-most in the NFL (181) while being hit 47 times (T-13th in the league). Mac Jones was not hit often in college and he’s never played this much football before. Not to mention the level and expectation this Patriots team brings. The fact that the kid is still here, standing at 10 wins and a playoff spot is admirable. If the Patriots wish to move forward, Jones will have to take care of the football and stay poised.
Growing Pain #2: Matt Judon
Judon has been one of the best free-agent signings across the NFL. 12.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss, Judon has been a wrecking ball for the Patriots this season. However, in the last month, Judon has been almost non-existent. Zero sacks, one tackle for a loss, not even one Quarterback hit.
Career Highs in playing time
Reason’s to understand this drop-off in production could be similar to Mac Jones: Judon has never played this much football in a single season. Judon has tied his career-high in defensive snap percentage at 81%. In his career in Baltimore, Judon played an average of 63.4% defensive snaps.
This is the first time in his career that Mattew Judon has played over 800 defensive snaps. Not to mention the fact that Judon has been New England’s primary pass rusher. Rumors have been swirling that Judon has been battling a rib injury since coming off the COVID-19 list. Whatever it is, the Patriots will need Judon’s dominant presence to return.
Growing Pain #3: Penalties and Turnovers
According to Patriots writer, Zack Cox (NESN), the Patriots are 9-2 when committing less than two turnovers. When they turn the ball over more than once? 1-5. That is the story of this year’s Patriots, they have to take care of the football.
In the Patriots last three losses, here are their numbers in the penalty and turnover department…
- Week 15 @ IND: Eight penalties, two turnovers
- Week 16 vs BUF: Three penalties, two turnovers
- Week 18 @ MIA: Eight penalties, three turnovers
- Total: Three losses, 19 penalties, seven turnovers.
The protection of the football is everything for this Patriots team.
Growing Pain #4: The First Quarter
Like previously stated this week, the Patriots have been outscored 35-0 in the first quarter in their last three losses.
Against playoff-caliber teams, that can not happen. New England simply needs to come out sharper. While the Patriots have demonstrated an ability to climb back within one possession, they continue to come up short.
How can New England Patriots succeed in the postseason?
Protect the football, run the football, limit penalties, and start the game strong. New England has two running backs that have combined for 1,535 yards rushing, 31 broken tackles, and 816 yards after contact. What Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson do together make them incredibly difficult to tackle.
Find soft zones for Jakobi Meyers, put Kendrick Bourne, Brandon Bolden, and Jonnu Smith in positions to succeed after the catch, and get Hunter Henry going inside the 20.
Defensively, New England must generate pressure through guys like Judon, Van Noy, and Christian Barmore. It’s difficult to imagine the Patriots will be able to completely stop the run, being realistic to who the Patriots are this year.
At their best, the Patriots run the ball, protect the ball, get to the Quarterback, and force turnovers. If the Patriots want to make winter a nightmare for other teams, they must stay discipline, exhaust their opponent, and play smash-mouth football.