Wednesday, March 22 2023

In a brutally low-scoring game, New England Patriots returner Marcus Jones ran a punt back 84 yards for a touchdown with five seconds left. And Bill Belichick’s squad eked out a 10-3 win over Robert Saleh’s New York Jets.

Perhaps knowing just how good Jones was returning in college, the Jets seemed content punting the ball out of bounds on the previous two punts. But for whatever reason, New York gave Jones an opportunity in the final minute. And he made the most of it.

Touchdown. Game over. New England only had to kick it off to kill the remaining seconds.

Somehow, the Patriots should be pleased with what they did in their win over the Jets in Week 11. Yes, tha game was as much of a snoozer as the score shows, with the exception of that last play. That doesn’t mean the Patriots didn’t accomplish a few things in the process. 

In fact, Belichick seems to be threatening to do what he always does: Make a second-half push for the playoffs. Even without a ton of talent on this roster, Belichick seems to be converting his team, now 6-4 and winners of five of its past six games, into a contender.

Quarterback Mac Jones looked the best he has looked all year despite rough playcalling from Matt Patricia. And the defense looked the best it has looked all year despite fairly in-control play from Jets quarterback Zach Wilson. Make no mistake, Wilson looked like he was watching a horror movie while he tried to read Belichick’s defense. But rather than force the ball downfield and give up the ball, Wilson consistently checked down.

It was the opposite of a quarterback duel. Rather than engaging in a shootout between passers, it was a game of chicken to see which QB would flinch first. Which QB would throw a game-crushing interception? Or cough up a brutal fumble? Wilson nearly had two or three turnovers, but only nearly. He didn’t record any on the stat sheet, which was why the Patriots needed points from their special teams to finish this one off.

Jones finished the game 23-of-26 for 246 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions with six sacks. Wilson was 9-of-22 for 77 yards with three carries for 26 yards. He took three sacks and had no touchdowns.

The game, at times, seemed farcical. The Jets, for example, managed to generate only six first downs. They had two years of total offense in the second half. They punted 10 times. And that’s ignoring all of the re-kicks. Because of penalties, the Jets had to attempt a punt on three consecutive plays. (And then later in the game, they had to attempt another punt twice.)

It was as thrilling as it sounded.

But let’s get back to the good stuff: New England’s search for its identity. The Patriots defense was as sensational as the scoreline showed. No, the Jets aren’t among the best offenses in the NFL, but they did average 21.8 points per game heading into this game. It was an accomplishment for New England to completely eliminate all semblance of offense for New York. Edge rusher Matthew Judon led the way with two sacks. He has already set a new career-record with 13.5 on the season and should be a front-runner for the Defensive Player of the Year award.

But that’s what we expected out of New England’s defense. They were bound to shut down Wilson — perhaps with even more turnovers thrown into the mix. What I didn’t expect was QB Jones’ clean performance against New York’s defense.

This is a defense that squeezed two interceptions out of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen in Week 9. And, before that, the Jets forced Jones into an interception.

It was clear that if Jones was going to win back the support of the Patriots organization, he was going to have to start playing smart, turnover-free football — even against the best defenses in the NFL. That’s what he did on Sunday. He also had the efficiency of his rookie season, with a completion percentage at 85%.

Of course, Jones was supposed to take a step forward in this offense. He was supposed to evolve as a downfield passer. But that hasn’t happened. And something worse transpired: He became turnover prone. He regressed, with only two touchdowns to his five interceptions through the first four weeks of the season. In order for Jones to move forward, he had to at least get back to his caliber of play from his rookie season. And that’s what he did against the Jets. And frankly, his playcaller Matt Patricia continued to struggle.

On one hand, he implemented a successful formation: the Full House. Patricia put his tight ends (Hunter Henry and Jonnu Smith) in the backfield with a running back. That helped open up the run game and the play-action game. Smith managed a 26-yard reception out of that formation. Damien Harris managed a 30-yard carry. Those two plays were the longest of the game from scrimmage. And that made life easier for Jones.

But on the other hand, on fourth-and-3 in the third quarter, Patricia ran a shotgun handoff on an outside-zone-style blocking scheme, which New England has struggled to implement since training camp. Why did he expect it to work on one of the most crucial downs of the season? Anyone’s guess. 

Then there was the problematic offensive sequence near the two-minute warning when the Patriots got an eight-yard pickup on first down. On second-and-2, they ran a QB sneak, typically reserved for situations when the offense needs one yard. And they got one yard. So on third-and-1, they surely ran another QB sneak, right? RIGHT?! WRONG! They suffered a two-yard loss on a run by Rhamondre Stevenson. And they had to punt.

Putting aside the warts, the Patriots might finally have something. In an NFL that’s struggling to score points league-wide, New England might have found a recipe for winning that works. There’s still uncertainty. But if the Patriots want a real test, they’ll get it: the Minnesota Vikings. Let’s see if Belichick’s identity works on Thanksgiving night against one of the NFL’s truly elite teams.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.

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