Brynn Anderson / Associated Press
After watching the New England Patriots dominate the NFL for two decades, more than a few fans outside of the greater Boston area smiled quietly when the 2020 Pats got 7-9 and missed the playoffs.
Others smiled when the question of who was most responsible for all this success was settled for some when Tom Brady led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a resounding Super Bowl LV victory.
It turns out that any dirt thrown at Bill Belichick was somehow premature. Where some NFL teams are apparently in a constant state of rebuilding (looking at you, Detroit), it took a year for the Patriots to get back into the AFC mix. The pats free agency attacked with revenge, had a phenomenal draft that included Brady’s heir under center, and after dealing with an outclassed Atlanta Falcons team on Thursday night, the Patriots are 7-4, winners of five straight games and just behind the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East.
Brynn Anderson / Associated Press
The Patriots fly away. The Patriots are back. And Belichick is having one of the best years of his Hall of Fame career.
Thursday’s 25-0 win over the Falcons was a bit of a throwback, in that there was an air of inevitability surrounding the procedure before the game started. Venn’s diagram of the people who gave the Falcons a chance in this game and the people who thought Tom and Jerry was a good movie is a circle. After blowing up the doors of the Cleveland Browns last week at Gillette Stadium, the Patriots had to sail.
And while it was at times a Thursday effort, the Patriots lived up to that expectation. And then some.
For the third time in as many weeks, the New England defense was absolutely dominant. The Patriots allowed just 165 total yards and held a third straight opponent to less than 10 points. According to the Fox TV show, this was the first time the Falcons had been left out at home since 1988.
The centerpiece of Belichick’s $ 160 million free agency spending spree (in guarantees) in 2021 was New England’s sixth-ranked defense MVP.
(Yes, Dave Ziegler is the team’s de facto GM. But the Patriots don’t order towels for the equipment staff rest room without Dark Hoodie’s approval.)
The Patriots have handed tip pitcher Matthew Judon a four-year, $ 54.5 million free agency contract to anchor a pass rush that recorded the NFL’s sixth-fewest sacks last year. After registering a sack from Matt Ryan on Thursday night, Judon isn’t just the top dog for a defense that came in Week 11 in the top 10 sacks.
He’s on track to enjoying the best sacking season by a top forward of any player in the Belichick era.
Judon may be the Patriots’ biggest free agent in 2021, but he’s not the only one to have made an impact.
Wide receiver Kendrick Bourne entered the Atlanta game second to the Patriots in catches and led the team with 520 receiving yards. Tight Wings Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith had combined over 50 receptions and over 500 receiving yards. Nelson Agholor scored the only offensive touchdown of the game on Thursday and provided the Pats with a vertical threat. Linebacker Kyle Van Noy is back after a year Miami and had two sacks and a pick-six against Atlanta. Cornerback Jalen Mills was a capable high school veteran. The list is lengthened increasingly.
In an offseason when the salary cap came down and many teams were reluctant to spend big bucks, the Patriots were by far the most aggressive franchise in the NFL.
These movements paid off massively.
Of course, even after all of those signings, the Patriots still had a glaring void to fill. The quarterback position.
Yeah, it’s handled too.
You can tell Alabama’s Mac Jones was a giveaway to the Patriots at No. 15 overall. And you would be 100% right. But there were 14 chances to take Jones before Belichick and the Patriots pulled the trigger. Jones was the fifth quarterback selected.
To be fair, half a season isn’t enough time to accurately assess the quarterback class of 2021. Trevor Lawrence could still have a fantastic professional career. Trey Lance too.
But Jones wasn’t just the best rookie quarterback in 2021 by a country mile. At the start of Week 11, he was in the top 15 for passing yards and topfive as a completion percentage (69.0) among each quarterback in the league. Guess what? His completion percentage improved after Thursday night’s rout. Jones had 22 of 26 successful attempts (84.6%) and his week-to-week progress is hard to ignore.
Brynn Anderson / Associated Press
Jones was an exceptional fit in Josh McDaniels’ offense. His precision and decision making were superb. And you can tell the rest of the New England offensive accepted him as the leader.
He’s not the only rookie to make a huge impact, either. Defensive tackle Christian Barmore leads all recruits in total pressures. Running back Rhamondre Stevenson scored the first 100-yard game of his career against Cleveland.
Bringing in all of these new parts is only part of the equation. A coach has to put these pieces together as well, and this is perhaps the most impressive thing Belichick has done this season. When Brady left last year there was speculation that his relationship with Belichick had deteriorated. There have been players who have been publicly critical of the “Patriot Way” and how Belichick treats his players.
If there are any issues between Belichick and his players now, they certainly don’t show up. In fact, Judon said earlier this week that the new and old faces have bonded as family.
“I don’t think there is a selfish person in this locker room,” said Judon, by Chris Mason from the mass live. “If there is, they haven’t exposed themselves yet. So I think everyone out there is family and wants to win.”
We’re about to find out just how good these new-looking Patriots really are. The next time the Pats enter the field, it will be Gillette against the AFC’s number one seed, the Tennessee Titans. Next, headed west to New York for the first of two meetings in three weeks with the Bills leading the division.
Winning those two games and extending the winning streak to seven is a tough task. But the Titans have struggled to generate offense lately after losing All-Pro running back Derrick Henry, and the Bills lost to the Jaguars in Week 9.
It is not impossible. Not by far.
With the Thanksgiving holiday approaching, the Patriots appear to be on their way back to the playoffs. Winning the division is not out of the question. And in a season where there is no dominant leader in either conference, the words “Super Bowl” and “Patriots” can be said in the same sentence with a straight face the way the team is playing.
Few Patriots fans, even the die-hard ones, would have predicted this a few months ago. But it seems like we’ve all forgotten something.
Bill Belichick is really, really well at his job.