Here are my 10 takeaways from the game in Charlotte yesterday.
1. Patriots get bitten by the injury bug: New England got the win on Sunday, but lost some important players while doing so. Rhamondre Stevenson, Damien Harris, and Gunner Olsewski all left with injuries and did not return. Matthew Slater and Jonnu Smith were also shaken up, but neither of their injuries seemed to be serious.
The Patriots need to hope that these injuries end up not being too serious, especially at the running back position where they are already thin after losing James White for the year. You never like to see anyone get injured, but losing guys in a blowout is especially disappointing. Let’s all hope that all five guys are able to come back and play next week against Cleveland.
2. Sam Darnold is still seeing ghosts: Sam Darnold may have gotten out of the AFC East, but he can’t seem to get away from Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Darnold threw two red zone interceptions to J.C. Jackson — one of which was returned for a touchdown — and had another pass picked on an incredible play by Jamie Collins.
Darnold appears to have regressed back to his old self after a promising start to the season. In this game, he finished with a completion percentage below 50, with 172 passing yards, and that trio of interceptions. He was off on a bunch of his throws, and seemed to be rushing to get the ball out, especially on the picks by J.C. Jackson. At least Darnold will get a break from playing the Patriots for a few years, because it’s been a constant struggle for him against New England since he came into the NFL.
3. J.C. Jackson ties a Patriots record: With his second interception on Sunday, J.C. Jackson is now tied with Hall of Famer Mike Haynes for the most interceptions in his first four seasons, with 22. Jackson is obviously only nine games into his fourth season, which makes the record even more impressive. With Stephon Gilmore traded (more on him later), Jackson is making a case to become one of the highest paid corners in the NFL when he becomes a free agent next offseason.
The question is: Will the Patriots allow him to even get so far? The hope is that Jackson will remain in New England long-term, as he has been a solid corner since arriving as an undrafted rookie in 2018. However, he is going to command a ton of money, and that may scare the Patriots away. Being forced to let Jackson to walk, while also getting virtually nothing back for Gilmore, would be disastrous for the team.
4. Christian Barmore is a beast: As good as Matthew Judon has been, and he’s been great, Christian Barmore is almost a bigger story for New England. Most people thought the defensive tackle would be a great fit for the Patriots at No. 15 in this year’s draft, but he somehow fell all the way to the second round. The Patriots traded three picks to move up and end his slide at No. 38.
Barmore continues to improve every week, and is a real problem for opposing offenses. On Sunday, he batted down a pass when Sam Darnold had Christian McCaffrey wide open for a touchdown. That play may not show up as a huge one in the box score, but that has been the story of Barmore’s rookie season so far: he might only have one sack this year, but his presence has been consistently felt.
How often do you hear Bill Belichick gush about a rookie? He has done that a few times already this season with Barmore. The Patriots may have found a steal in the draft, at a huge position of need.
5. Mac Jones does enough: Speaking of rookies, Mac Jones got another win on Sunday. Was he great? No, he wasn’t, but he made enough plays to get the job done. He fumbled (not his fault), and threw a bad pick (definitely his fault), but didn’t make many costly mistakes. Only being asked to throw the ball 18 times certainly makes life easy for a QB, but he made plays when he needed to.
His second-quarter pass that Rhamondre Stevenson took 41 yards may have been his best read of the day, seeing that a defensive lineman was going to try to cover the back, and he took advantage of it. He had another great pass to Hunter Henry for a touchdown. It was a throw that could get overlooked, but Henry got position, and Jones put it in low and hard, to a spot where only Henry had a chance to make a play on it.
Those are the types of throws that Jones needs to make on a consistent basis. Sunday’s game is another one where he wasn’t dominant, but he did enough to get the win, which is good enough for me.
6. Rhamondre Stevenson gives the Patriots some flexibility: Before leaving the game due to a head injury, Stevenson was having a very good game. He had over 100 yards from scrimmage, with 62 yards rushing and 44 yards receiving. He got the Patriots all the way down close on their first scoring drive, only to see Damien Harris come in and punch it in to finish the drive.
Hopefully the rookie will come back soon, because he gives the Patriots a balanced threat in the running game and the passing game that they don’t seem to have with the other backs on the roster.
7. Stephon Gilmore gets some revenge: Stephon Gilmore has now been active for two games with Panthers and has already caught two interceptions. The one against the Patriots on Sunday was a classic Gilmore pick: he read the route and simply beat Jakobi Meyers to the spot and picked off Mac Jones. It was a bad decision by Mac, but Gilmore is one of the best corners in the league, and he has made a living off of making plays like that the last few years.
The Patriots would go on to win the game, of course, but Gilmore looked like The Gilly Lock of years past, and that’s great for the Panthers. That might be terrible for Patriots fans to see, but as Bill would say, “it is what it is.”
8. Jakobi Meyers struggles: It was partially because he was being locked down by Gilmore most of the game, but Meyers finished with only one 8-yard catch. The one reception that he had was costly itself, as he bobbled a throw right at the sticks, which wound up costing the Patriots a first down. It was a rare bad game from a guy who has been one of New England’s most consistent receivers for the past two seasons.
9. Myles Bryant continues to make a name for himself: I was shocked when the Patriots cut Bryant at the end of camp, but luckily he ended up making it onto the practice squad. The second-year defensive back has played the last three games in a row, and has really made an impact. He has been effective both blitzing and in coverage.
Bryant is a small guy, but he really hits hard, crushing D.J. Moore on a crossing route on Sunday. The Patriots have some real depth concerns in the secondary, but Bryant has been a good shot in the arm for them (sorry, you’re not getting an Aaron Rodgers joke here). There are probably a lot of teams out there kicking themselves for not scooping Bryant up off of waivers when he was cut by the Patriots, but the team is lucky he is still around and making an impact.
10. Playoffs? The Patriots were in a tough situation three weeks ago: 2-4 and coming off a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys. They have won three straight games, however, and are over .500 for the first time since September of 2020. With the Cincinnati Bengals suddenly remembering that they’re the Bengals, the Buffalo Bills losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars, and none of the teams in the AFC proving that they are truly that dominant, the Patriots have a real shot to make a run.
Only half a game back of the Bills, and in possession of seventh place in the AFC at the moment is a good place to be. There are some tough games coming up, including two against Buffalo, but if the Patriots can continue playing the way they have been the last few weeks, they’re going to be a tough team to play in January.