Heading into the season, the Buffalo Bills were a favorite to head to their first Super Bowl in almost 30 years. The Miami Dolphins were supposed to make a big push in the division coming off a 10-win season behind second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.
As for the New England Patriots? No one knew.
Even after a record-setting free agency splash and finding their quarterback of the future in Mac Jones, they looked like a team that could make some noise but would ultimately be deemed a year or two away from being true contenders due to the inexperience on both sides of the ball. But if we’ve learned anything in the last 20 years, it’s to never count out a Bill Belichick-led football team.
Just a month ago, it looked like the Patriots would be contending — not for a playoff spot, but for a top-10 draft pick.
Clinging to a three-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Cowboys, the Patriots defense couldn't get the stop it needed on a 3rd-and-25 late. Dak Prescott hit CeeDee Lamb right over the middle of the field to set up a game-tying field goal with seconds left. After electing to punt in overtime on a questionable fourth-and-short, Prescott hit Lamb for a game-winning touchdown to drop New England to 2-4.
“There’s nothing to say tonight, it’s disappointing. We played our heart out there, guys fought. To fall on the other side, to lose the game is just tough,” said long-time team captain Devin McCourty after the game.
It was the most defeated and frustrated we’ve heard McCourty during his 12-year tenure in New England.
Who could blame him though; it felt like a back-breaker for the Patriots — they stood at 2-4 and despite being able to show they could compete with the league’s best on a weekly basis, they continued to show they weren’t able to close out games when they needed to.
But, as we’ve said: never count out Bill Belichick.
Often using the first month of the season as an extended preseason, the Patriots’ rocky start is now a thing of the past. In the blink of an eye, they have emerged as a dark-horse candidate in the AFC and a team that no one wants to see down the stretch.
Now, coming off four straight wins wins and outscoring their opponents 150 to 50 along the way, the Patriots have seemingly found their identity as a group. The defense has been as good as it’s been in years while the offense is starting to execute when it need to and not turning the ball over.
Devin McCourty stated Sunday prior to the game that the biggest frustration with the team’s 2-4 start was that you could see the time and effort the Patriots were putting in, but the results weren't showing. He also noted that after the Patriots’ crushing loss to the Cowboys in Week 6, Belichick hit the reset button by giving the team Monday and Tuesday off.
The players all came in on Wednesday with new energy and a belief that they could turn the ship around. No one had to say a thing, the Patriots and their players knew they had the right answers in the room, it came down to execution and believing in what they were preaching.
While the Bills looked like they were set to take off with the division and the AFC after a win in Kansas City, they have now lost two of their last four while the Patriots have rolled to four straight wins — the latest a dominant 45-7 beatdown of the Cleveland Browns.
If you scoffed or laughed at the Patriots being contenders, that win should put you in your place. The offense had its best day in nearly two and a half years, while the defense continued its dominating streak.
Mac Jones has been a steady game manager that has shown his ability to keep the Patriots in any game they play while also showing off great poise and leadership at just 23 years old. He has continued to show that he can thrive under pressure and be able to manage the chaos while leaning on his power run game, veteran offensive line and getting the ball out quickly to his playmakers.
Sounds like something that happened 22 years ago.
Now, at the halfway point of the season, just a single loss separates Buffalo and New England from the top spot in the AFC East, and it’s time for the league to respect the Patriots as a threat down the stretch. They can beat you in a variety of ways, play with anyone and, most importantly, they are a pain in the neck to play against due to their physicality and power run game.
At 6-4 and with the Atlanta Falcons up next before 10 days of rest to prepare for the AFC-leading Tennessee Titans, the Week 13 contest in Buffalo is now set to be one of the biggest games across the entire league. Entering a favorable matchup in Atlanta on Thursday night, the Patriots could very well be playing for the division lead on December 6th.
With just over two months to go in the 2021 season and the AFC wide open, the Patriots currently sit right in the mix for either the division or at least a wild card spot
Now, we’re not saying to book your flights to Los Angeles for the Super Bowl, but this Patriots team is going to be a tough out down the stretch and should make some noise in January.