For two decades, turning the calendar from November to December in New England meant the cold was coming and the Patriots were starting to play their best football to gear up for a postseason run. At least, it was like that until 2020.
It was a strange, uncharacteristically bad season that saw them win just seven games, lose the face of their franchise, and witness a new “king” of the AFC East seemingly emerging as yearly Super Bowl favorites. One year later, however, the Patriots have rose from the dead. Now, they look like the team we’ve seen the last 20 years — improving each week and playing their best football down the stretch.
It seemed as if the Patriots were still a year or two away from being contenders in a loaded AFC that is oozing with quarterback talent. Eight weeks ago, they trailed the lowly Houston Texans deep into the fourth quarter and snuck away with a win.
A week later the same problems continued to haunt the Patriots in a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys that sure felt like it would be symbolic of the team’s identity in 2021: not quite there. They were 2-4 and looked as if they would be competing for a top pick in April’s draft.
Now, six wins later, they are emerging as a favorite to meet the NFC’s best on the first Sunday in February. The Patriots have seemingly rejuvenated the magic of year’s past, jumpstarting another run of excellence on the back of their rookie quarterback parlayed with $163 million in guarantees to fill much-needed holes on their roster.
New England has not lost since October 17. The team has outscored its opponents 211-65 during its six-game win streak and 63-0 in the second half in its last four games. Mac Jones is the betting favorite to be named Offensive Rookie of the Year, and the Patriots are playing their best football on both sides of the ball in nearly three years.
With a big Monday Night Football game against the Buffalo Bills on the horizon for sole possession of the AFC East and potentially the AFC’s top playoff seed as well, the Patriots’ dynastic run seems destined to be started all over again.
These Patriots, after all, are passing new tests each week. Beating the AFC-leading Tennessee Titans on Sunday in a street-fight type of win, Mac Jones threw for 300 yards and two touchdowns in his first game in freezing temperatures. Sure, there are still some questions that have yet to be answered, but each week provides another challenge this group of players seems to be willing to tackle head-first. After starting 1-3, this mentality has made New England are a team that no one wants to face down the stretch.
“I don’t think there is a ceiling at all,” said wide receiver Kendrick Bourne following Sunday’s game. “We try to emphasize that. [Matthew] Slater just talked to us after about not getting overzealous about ourselves. Nothing like that. Just being in the moment and playing each game, each week, and thinking about that game. We’re on to Buffalo now and that’s the focus. That’ll be good for us to just certify ourselves.”
Let’s face it, the Patriots are a well-oiled machine that can win in a variety of ways. They have won on defense generating timely turnovers. The offense has proven that it can beat you both on the ground and by spreading the ball around through the air despite lacking a bonafide superstar in their skill position group.
They also have Bill Belichick. Despite his six Super Bowl wins as head coach of the Patriots, 2021 has arguably been Belichick’s best coaching job to date. Shaking early defensive struggles and taking the training wheels off his rookie quarterback as the weeks pile up, his team seemingly always has the right personnel on the field.
As Belichick said in his postgame press conference after the win on Sunday, “eight games isn’t enough to clinch anything or to win anything.” Sure, but it takes you one step closer. and when you look at how far this team has come in the last month and a half, it is an accomplishment in itself.
With the team's biggest game in nearly three years set for next Monday night, the Patriots are forming into the team we grew watching over the last twenty years: the one that keeps getting hotter as temperatures are dropping.
Sorry, America — the Patriots are back and there’s nothing you can do about it.