With four weeks to go in the NFL season, the New England Patriots certainly control their own destiny in terms of grabbing the AFC’s top seed as well as the division. Tonight’s game versus the Indianapolis Colts has major playoff implications for both teams, but let’s use this column to discuss some of the stories that have come out this week in regards to the Patriots.
It’s time for a Saturday edition of our Sunday Patriots Notes:
1. A big day ahead for Brandon Bolden? With Damien Harris ruled out for tonight’s contest, expect rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson to be slotted into the RB1 role again. In the lone game where Stevenson handled a bulk of the work — Harris missed Week 10 with a concussion — the fourth-round rookie carried the ball 20 times for a career-high 100 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-7 win over the Cleveland Browns.
However, facing a Colts defense capable of stopping the run and forcing a lot of fumbles, don’t be surprised if we see a lot more Brandon Bolden than we have in past weeks. Stevenson has shown he can handle the heavy workload, but Bolden provides versatility and leadership, primarily on third downs.
“He’s a good personality that blends that serious, competitive, business side with enjoying the process and enjoying what we do and giving us some of his best performances at the most critical times and biggest games when we need them most,” said head coach Bill Belichick about Bolden earlier this week. “And he’s always done that, whether it’s a couple plays a game, or catching five or six passes in a game, or taking over James [White]’s role this year.
“He’s always ready to go. He’s dependable, he’s consistent. Everybody knows we can count on him whether that’s in the kicking game or offensively catching a ball, blitz pick-up, running the ball. And I would say one of the most impressive things about Brandon this year with all that he’s done is his unwillingness to give up his role in the kicking game and to continue to excel in those four phases where he’s outstanding.”
2. Josh McDaniels’ future in New England. The Jacksonville Jaguars parting ways with Urban Meyer after just 13 games is the first head coaching domino to fall with for 2022. With number one draft pick Trevor Lawrence as the top priority, another top pick in April’s draft and boatloads of cap space, the Jacksonville opening does not sound as bad as it may look today.
After the job that Josh McDaniels has done this season implementing new faces into the Patriots offense and developing Patriots rookie quarterback Mac Jones — selected 14 picks after Lawrence — the team’s long-term offensive coordinator may be the first guy on a lot of teams’ lists looking for a new head coach in spring.
Given McDaniels’ comments to the media on Monday, saying “this is a great place to be” and that he would be “very fortunate” to be in the position he’s in, sitting and waiting until Bill Belichick retires may be his best bet. The relationship with both the Kraft family and now Mac Jones, his current role, while waiting for the New England job to open up down the road all appears could make staying put an attractive option for McDaniels going forward.
3. Carl Cheffers’ crew leading the NFL in flags thrown. Prepare for a whole lot of yellow on your screen tonight as referee Carl Cheffers’ crew currently leads the NFL in total flags (192) and penalties per game with an average of 14.6. Both teams are some of the most-disciplined in the league with the Colts ranking third in fewest penalties (62) and the Patriots eighth (73).
But — who knows? — maybe a few holding calls will be drawn by Matthew Judon.
4. Colts want to “put the game in Mac Jones hands.” Former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel said earlier this week that Bill Belichick often uses quotes coming from the opposing teams locker room or media to motivate his teams. This week, he will not have to look too far to find some extra motivation, as Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke told reporters this week that Indianapolis is looking to make the Patriots offense “one-dimensional and put the game in [Mac Jones’] hands.”
The Colts should be careful what they wish for, though. The Tennessee Titans had a similar plan a few weeks back. They limited the Patriots’ rushing attack to just 105 yards, but Mac Jones posted a career-high 310 yards and two touchdowns in a 36-13 win in Week 12.
5. Mac Jones is not phased. Jones was asked about Okereke’s comments during his weekly Wednesday press conference. The rookie, in classic Patriots fashion, did not take the bait and instead went on to praise this week’s opponent.
“I think they have a great defense, and they’ve done a lot of different things each game to stop what their opponent does well,” Jones said. “We’ve just gotta do what we can do to control what we can control, and that’s just playing well on our side of the ball. We already knew that they have a great defense.”
When asked if Okereke’s comments give him extra motivation for Saturday, Jones did not flinch either.
“No, I mean, everyone has their opinions and my job is to be the best quarterback I can be,” he said. “And I can do a better job of that every day at practice. So, that’s what I can control.”
6. Patriots vs. Colts features some of the best teams on third down. The Colts’ 7-6 record heading into Saturday’s primetime showdown does not reflect how good of a team they are, and how well-coached the Frank-Reich-led crew is. Winners of six of their last eight games, they have turned around their season due to their success on third down on both sides of the ball.
The Patriots rank seventh in the league on offense with a third-down success rate of 43 percent, and sixth in the league at getting off the field on third downs. The Colts, meanwhile, rank eighth on offense and 15th on defense.
However, the Colts are No. 1 in the league over the last three games converting at a 55-percent rate on third down. Bill Belichick praised the team for its two-back tandem of Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, and said that Hines in particular provides a lot of problems for opposing defenses — primarily due to his versatility on third down.
7. Jakob Johnson gets honored. One of the most under-appreciated players on the Patriots’ roster reached a career milestone in last week's win in Buffalo. Jakob Johnson reached 1,000 career snaps and was greeted with a game ball from owner Robert Kraft this week.
Johnson, who began his career with the Patriots three years ago behind fellow fullback James Develin, became just the third player to ever reach this milestone from the NFL’s International Pathway Program. Johnson has been a huge factor in New England’s dominant ground game this season despite regularly flying under the radar.
Robert Kraft makes a surprise appearance to present FB Jakob Johnson a game ball for being just the third player in the International Pathway Program to play 1,000 snaps.— Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) December 14, 2021
Kraft also promised a special announcement on Johnson’s birthday tomorrow (maybe a game in Germany?) pic.twitter.com/tPmo65gp8N
8. We talkin’ playoffs? With the Patriots entering Saturday’s game against the Colts as the AFC’s No. 2 seed behind the 10-4 Kansas City Chiefs, there is a path for them to clinch a playoff spot. There were 15 different scenarios where the Patriots can clinch a playoff spot this weekend, but only nine remain after the Chiefs’ overtime win over the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday. All of them, obviously, need New England to win.
The Patriots also would have had a more comfortable lead atop the AFC had L.A. pulled off a victory versus the Chiefs on Thursday. That said, the team currently holds tiebreakers over both the Titans and Chiefs.